Sam Harris’s “Freewill” – initial thoughts

So I recently started reading Sam Harris’s more recent book, Freewill. This is his major, definitive masterpiece meant to once and for all put to rest this “illusion” of free will. “There’s no other rational way to see it,” is basically the whole of his introduction.

Sam Harris played a big part in my becoming an Atheist but since that time I’ve become more and more convinced that he’s really just an arrogant boob. Well spoken mind you, but still. It is really hard to take anyone seriously when they start out with, “There’s no other rational way to see it.” But I’ve been trying to continue reading…

Although he brings up some interesting points, he seems, like many of those who are on his side of the discussion, to be rather insistent that Free Will has to be defined as something magical and impossible or it just isn’t Free Will that we’re talking about. He charges those of us who are compatibilists with changing the meaning of things in order to continue deluding ourselves. Daniel Dennett of course is one of his primary, explicit targets in this. I don’t believe he does well in supporting this assertion so far though.

One particular example comes to mind. He quotes a current philosopher discussing what Free Will must mean and how that operates in the brain. What the philosopher explained seemed to make a lot of sense to me and although I will admit that the average person’s view of Free Will could not be satisfied by the explanation, that it would scare the fuck out of them and make them run to the nearest Bible for help, I could not accept Harris’s basic assumption that we all have to talk about it at that level or we’re playing word games or whatever. After quoting this rather reasonable explanation and distinction from what he called “contra-causal free will” (free will outside the chain of causes) from the only possible kind, Harris just says, “See, he’s talking about stuff you would NEVER accept as Free Will.”

That simply doesn’t work for me. There at least seems to be something about the decision making process that takes part in my brain that remains independent and essentially “me”. I do NOT think that I have to accept a magical explanation of that in order to continue believing it. I may need to alter my understanding of something and forego some assumptions I have about it, but I see this as a path of growth…a sophistication of understanding what seems quite clearly an existent phenomenon. Consciousness itself is such a thing and I think it absurd to claim it doesn’t exist just because we have to accept the fact that its foundation lies in the unconscious, that everything we’re conscious of we were first “unconscious” of, and that much of what we think we see or feel we in fact do not.

Yes, the naive, commonly held view of these things are inherently flawed and impossible, but there is a rational view of them that can be understood within the real world and not depend upon magic. Asserting that we can only talk about magic as the base thesis in your argument may be interesting to you, and it may convince you that you’ve taken the only rational approach and abandoned your “illusions”, but you’ve still got a lot of explaining to do no matter what you chose to call it.

His main contention seems to be that because the source of our conscious thoughts are themselves unconscious that it is impossible that consciousness plays a part in Free Will and therefore, “where’s the freedom in that?” I think this is a reasonable challenge but I don’t accept it as definitive. Although he can cite various studies in which some rather trivial decisions appear to be completely made before the person making them is conscious of them, I think it may be an invalid assumption to say that ALL decisions are made before we are conscious of them. For one thing, we have to then figure out why consciousness exists at all if it apparently serves no purpose. It seems to me that the subjective POV and self-simulation that seems to play a big part in how we are conscious probably provides some amount of input into the decision making process even if that decision bubbles up out of the deep and into the conscious. So I’m not convinced that his assertion that the consciousness plays no part in decision making is true and thus remain so far unconvinced that any feeling I might have that my consciousness is involved is entirely illusory.

His second contention seems to be that we should only accept a definition of free will that allows the patently absurd. For example, I can’t decide what I’ll think next. This is obviously tautological for anyone who gives it the remotest amount of thought (lol). To decide what to think next you would need a variety of possibilities and this is simply astronomically huge if not infinite. The brain simply has to calculate thoughts and perculate them up into consciousness. It’s basically obvious that this HAS TO HAPPEN. It is not clear though if what we are conscious of can have influence upon what happens in those levels and it would seem to me that it would have to have some. If Dennett is correct about what consciousness is, a popularity shouting match of thoughts, then it would seem that the more popular, more conscious thought would continue to have weight and thus be VERY involved in the process. Perhaps the idea that my conscious thinking can create the decision to focus on some area of reasoning is not entirely flawed.

Another example he gives is that we can’t decide to think of things we did not think of. It’s hard for me to take this line of reasoning seriously at all actually. It’s simply absurd to expect it. This kind of absolutist view of free will is patently insane and obviously naive and childish to anyone that considers it but for a moment. It’s hard to even reason what he expects in this case but it is very much in line with the example I previously mentioned. In order for what he thinks must be possible for free will to be truly “free” it would have to be possible for us to have in our minds at all times an infinite variety of possible next things. Nothing could be omitted or out of view. We would then select our preferred next thought and have it. But what, pray tell you, would THAT decision be based upon?

It’s an infinite regress that isn’t even possible in any view of non-material, non-calculative views of thought and consciousness let alone anything that can exist in this world. That seems to be the basis for his entire argument and yes, if that’s the only thing you can accept as free will then hey, you win…it’s fucking ridiculous. On the other hand, I think it patently absurd and arrogant to insist that we all HAVE to share your view of this phenomenon, accept your ridiculous definition, or stop talking about it entirely and accept that what we’re actually interested in, the phenomenon of agency and the degree to which it is free, is untenable and deluded.

He follows this up with a major straw man that he seems to think is a reductio ad absurdum: that compatibilists because they recognize that these things, consciousness and will, are essentially built from thing that are neither that what we are saying is that we decide every moment to make new red blood cells. Anything that happens in the body must then be an exercise of free will. This is the kind of black and white, fundamentalist thinking though that gets in the way of ALL progress in ideas and understanding. Consider the abortion issue and the question, “When does life begin?” Well, we can see that when a baby is born that it’s pretty much a human being and accept this as true. We can see also that birth doesn’t seem like a reasonable distinction here as little about the baby has changed. We can do this all the way back until it’s nothing but a combination of two half-cells…and we can go back further. In all of this very little has changed and so the fundamentalist thinker has to come up with something and so they say, “Conception! Life begins THERE!” I think that we can all accept that there are some things we clearly have no choice in, and maybe there are things we DO have choice in. Simply claiming that everything is the former or we have to be talking about ridiculous shit like I decided to make my blood…that is very far from rational discourse and thinking.

So it’s hard for me to continue reading his great thesis on free will. From what I can tell, he’s not talking about anything I care about, he’s not conversing about agency, he’s not talking about any kind of free will I’d even want…but he expects me to give up the subject entirely because his fucked up definition is ridiculous at a level worthy of mockery toward anyone that would believe in it. Sorry Mr. Harris…you’re not convincing me.



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The art of giving a fuck

I think that something major gets lost in the whole “determinism vs. free will” debate and that is that there really is a very clear difference between animals, which don’t have any, and people who obviously have something that animals lack and can certainly be called “free will”.

For example, trying to get my dog to decide if he wants to be outside or inside. After messing about with it for a while, acting like I’m going to close the door and then not…I realized/remembered that he’s just reacting to stimulus and simply has no opinion on the matter whatsoever.

It’s true that humans are also simply reacting to stimulus, but we actually have preferences regarding that stimulus. I might want to be outside, or I might want to be inside. Right now it is raining, I feel lazy…I want to be inside. The dog doesn’t have any preference. He may as well be out as in. It’s all on me, do I want him inside, where he knows how to behave and stay in his corner…or outside where he has to be watched. Inside it is!

I think it is hard for us to imagine what that is like, if anything. The best we might come up with I think is being “on the fence” about an issue….or maybe not really giving a fuck. But the difference is that the dog CAN’T give a fuck…he doesn’t have the ability to give a fuck. His brain simply doesn’t have a give a fuck center like ours does. The ability to give a fuck, and to act on that giving of a fuck, I think is reasonably worded as having “free will” though admittedly could be as easily worded as an ability to plan, forsee and prefer (is there a difference?).


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I hope your asshole bleeds until you puke!

Right wing politicians, libertarians, and the ultra-religious would have us believe that someone’s use of birth control pills is something that a person can have moral issues with and that it is an individual’s right to tell other people what they can and cannot do with their bodies by imposing this “morality” through what medical insurance will cover. This is just plain obscene and I’ll tell you why.

Imagine you are a man and there is a pill that you could take which would reduce your chances of getting prostate cancer by 50%. Prostate cancer is one of the foremost dangers for men today. It kills us by the millions. Would you take it? Should your medical insurance cover it?

Imagine that your a guy and you have this disorder that causes you to bleed out of your asshole every month. It’s so bad that it makes you utterly incapable of working, makes you sick, weak, and it hurts like a mother fucker. In fact, on occasion it’s so bad that you have to go to the hospital and your life is actually in danger. Imagine that there’s a pill that you can take which will control this problem. Would you take it? Should your medical insurance cover it?

Now let’s assume that this pill, along with doing ALL of the above, also served as a chemical vasectomy. In other words, it rendered you very unlikely to produce offspring while you were on it. Imagine now that there’s some stupid bitch that’s decided she doesn’t want you to take this pill because of this fact. She claims that it is immoral, that she shouldn’t have to support it, and has taken it upon herself to remove it from your list of approved items in the medical insurance that you are in fact paying for (I don’t know ANYONE who’s employer completely pays for their medical insurance). What would you have to say to this uppity cunt?

This is the state that women find themselves in today. Twisted, deranged people with completely confused and absurd views on morality are dictating to women what the medical insurance that they are ALREADY PAYING FOR can and cannot do for them. What kind of world do we live in when an insurance provider is ALLOWED to refuse something that is so obviously beneficial to your overall health, let alone the general health of society, when that insurance is something you are paying for? What kind of world are we creating when someone can claim moral superiority and dictate to others what they’re doing with their own bodies by inappropriately increasing the costs of “unapproved” medicines like this? It’s not like the benefits of oral contraceptives are not well known, researched, and established.

One might be inclined now to try and fold some sense into this absurdity by saying, “Well, so long as they are taking it for a real medical reason and not just to avoid pregnancy, I’m OK with it.” To that I say, WHAT FUCKING BUSINESS IS IT OF YOURS? I mean really!!!! Even an employer, even one paying 100% of the insurance costs for their employees (and nobody does) has absolutely no right to know the medical needs of their employees. If I don’t want my employer to know I’ve got hemoroids, it’s not their business to demand to know this. It’s not their business to tell me that I have to pass my reasons for sticking prepH up my ass through their divine moral meter. This is simply OBSCENE and it has no place in a free society!

Besides, for some women pregnancy is a death sentence and clearly you have no business demanding they explain this to you.

So, to all those whackos out there supporting this bullshit: I hope your asshole starts to bleed so much that you pass out and that your medical provider refuses to pay for your recovery because some arrogant nitwit has decided the procedure is immoral. This is the kind of crap you’re imposing upon others and no, it isn’t your right to do this.

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How I know that there is no God.

As an Atheist I’m quite often asked, “Well how do you know?” or of course the, “What if you’re wrong?” that’s meant to imply I should start believing out of fear of hell, which I find just disgusting. Many atheist respond by using what’s sometimes seen as “soft atheism” for the definition of atheism; they don’t know, they just don’t believe. I don’t take this side however; I know there’s no such thing. How do I know? Because I’ve found one…several actually.

On the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, a group of natives underwent a traditionalist movement to abandon all western and European ideas and go back to their cultural roots. Interestingly enough, one of the events that solidified this movement was the dropping of cargo by Western forces during WWII. The people began worshiping these forces, creating mock runways and radio towers out of bamboo. Within this group is a subgroup who have decided that Prince Philip of Edinburgh is a god.

The thing that is pertinent here is that this is a god that I cannot deny exists. There he is. There’s pictures of him, videos of him, etc… He’s there. He’s not the only one either. Pantheists believe that The Universe is a god and as I’m here in and part of that universe how can I possibly deny its existence? I cannot. How then can I be an atheist if I know that at least two gods quite obviously exist?

The answer to that question is exactly what most Christians, Islamists, Jews, Pagans, etc might say about a description of a god they do not believe in, “That’s not God.” To me, Prince Philip is just a man, like any other and The Universe is just The Universe (although “just” does not give it justice). What is a god though? If I am to justify my assertion that their god is not god, then there must be something I can point to that is lacking in these ideas or entities that precludes godness. What might that be?

One might be tempted to look at the first three religions I mentioned above, conclude that they all talk about the same god, YHWH, and say that YHWH is the only God and let it be at that. This is certainly how those people see it, but is that a legitimate point or just cultural/religious arrogance? There’s at least as many Hindus in the world and they have an entire pantheon of gods, some worshiped more than others.

If we take a more widely accepting, a more objective approach to looking at what gods are in order to figure out what makes one a god or just whatever, then we run into a very serious problem: they have absolutely nothing in common. For every feature of godhood you could come up with, there is a counter-example. Some are all powerful; others lack much power at all. Some are all knowing; some are ignorant and can be tricked. Some are loving; others are complete bastards (and in fact opinions vary on where to put some gods, like YHWH, in that continuum). The only real thing that can be narrowed down is that they are called gods by some people, exactly by those people who accept them as such. Worship is the only shared feature of gods, and even this is a problematic area as different gods are worshiped differently.

Worship is very often seen as a duty owed to the god. In many cases the very existence of existence is to serve that duty; mankind was created by the gods to worship them. In other cases the gods simply demand it because they can and because we can’t deny them without pissing them off. It’s hard to say really though what worship itself is as reading the various definitions gives a seemingly incoherent and/or incomplete view of it. For example, Christians sometimes object to my view of worship by saying it’s just an act of loving. This doesn’t seem enough though, for though I love my family I do not worship them and a Christian would very likely claim that doing so is sinful anyway. So it means something more than just love.

From what I can tell, the act and emotion of worship is something more akin to what one might pay to a king or other monarch. It’s a pledge of allegiance. It says, “You are more than I am; you have more rights.” More often than not it implies a rather slavish relationship recognizing the god’s right to do whatever it wants with the worshiper; to order them to death if so desired. It quite dangerously implies that the worshiper will follow the orders of the god even to the point of committing acts of what can only be described as evil such as flying airplanes into buildings full of people. Most often such a promise is possible because the worshiper believes that the God knows more than they, is wiser than they, and can see beyond the facade of basic, human existence. In the end, worship is the abdication of moral autonomy and responsibility. It hands someone else or something else that responsibility and calls it “God” either out of some extreme form of love and trust or out of fear; often times both.

Many Christians (and I’m sure other groups as well, but its mostly Christians I know so…) strongly object to this line of reasoning. They say that they’re allowed to question God all they want. Some think its a responsibility to question him. I believe they are kidding themselves because it is assumed that in the end, God is always right and they’ll just figure out why. At no point do they really believe that God is wrong and still hold their faith. Christians that begin to think that way are in what is known as a crisis of faith that they’ll eventually either get out of, or they become lost souls destined for the frying pan. In the end, you’re not really allowed to question God, you’re only allowed to ask why, to have doubts, etc…truly questioning a deity is generally a bad idea; especially to its face. Being against God is not a position that any “good” person can hold in such religions; it means damnation and most would say justifiably.

Believe it or not, there is actually a worse aspect to worship than abdicating moral responsibility, which I believe is not a right anyone has. Because we are not allowed to truly question God (again, see the last paragraph if you’re disagreeing right now) we begin to make him more like us. Gods begin to take the shape of our beliefs rather than the other way around. This is quite obvious when you look at all the various sects within any given religion. The differences between the sects are differences of moral quality. Fundamentalist Christians for example believe that acts of homosexuality are abominations perhaps even greater than pedophilia or murder. They believe that God sees it this way. More liberal Christians though claim that God is loving and isn’t that homophobic. Groups like the Westborough Church believe that God sends plagues, floods, and war to our country because of its support for secularism and homosexuality, and so does Pat Robertson (a more mainstream accepted asshole). Other Christians believe that these people are probably going to hell. Neither of these groups knows who God is, they make him up to look like them. They CAN’T know God; they worship him.

Those who worship Prince Philip likewise are removed from the real man. They give him all these special powers and make up prophesy about him, prophesy he could never fulfill. They assign him rights and powers that are not his to have. Religious believers call this “Idol Worshiping” and distance themselves from the act because of course the idol they worship is actually a god, right? My assertion though is that ALL forms of worship are over idols, even when performed for actually existing entities and even when those entities are super-agents like YHWH or Zeus.

Consider what happens when people begin to worship their nation or their flag. When the acts of ritual over these things become more important than what they are supposed to represent. For example, try sitting down at a baseball game during the anthem and note how many glares you get…or worse. If you try to find out why they are angry they’ll probably give you some line about troops fighting for your rights and you should go live in Iran or whatever. They’ve lost the meaning behind actually believing in something. Their idol has become more important than the idea because they began to worship the idea instead of just believing in it…and they assigned that worship a symbol. America to them is a God, not a country founded on reasonable and important ideas.

The same thing happens to Jesus, who’s purported teachings are in fact worthy of consideration. People began to worship him as a God. They make up weird myths about him being somehow also his dad or rising from the dead and being born a virgin. These things then become more important than the instruction, which may not even have been from one individual (and in fact can be proven not to be). Without falling into worship one is free to consider the instruction itself and accept it into their system of morals. Once they fall into worship though, Jesus the teacher is lost to be replaced by Jesus the God.

In the end, gods are projections of our fears, desires, and hopes that we turn into stone. We build them up and then create rigid, unquestionable constructs out of them which we then worship, abdicating everything we are to this abomination. If it was originally based on something good, it can no longer be. Even if mostly benign in nature, or founded on reasonable beliefs and moral values…the act of building something like that is inherently immoral and forces us into a position of rigid adherence to things we can no longer justify in any other way. One can tell a lot about a person by looking at their God.

Put these two things together, unquestioned obedience to whatever I think I’m being told because I want to be, and you have a recipe for a great many of the tragedies in human history. The development of a category of people that are inherently bad and can be legitimately destroyed is where we inevitably end up. When people don’t agree with our moral codes that we’ve assigned divine status, it becomes impossible to negotiate or find common ground because they become the enemy. How can we possibly work with those who are different when we refuse to understand them, and have called that refusal “God’s Will”? We can’t.

That being the case, I know there are no Gods because there is nothing that I could ever accept as one. The minute I start building a God around some idea, entity or whatever…I loose it. I get lost in myself and abandon truth for arrogance. Even if I believed in heaven and hell, Jesus and angels, YHWH and Satan…or whoever, I would remain an atheist. I would refuse to recognize them as Gods for the same reason I refuse to recognize kings, or the “right” of a president to imprison the people he’s responsible for as long as he wants. We grew out of kings many years ago, it’s time we also grew out of Gods.

So that’s it. I know there is no God because I reject the very idea. I reject the right of any entity, invented or real, to demand or even accept that role. Some super-agent in the sky may smite me down, I cannot disprove their existence, but I will never recognize them as a god.


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Why Corporations as “people” is total crap.

The Supreme Court decided in the “Citizens United” that corporations are “people” and have First Amendment rights. A somewhat reasonable sounding argument is that corporations are just another way for individuals, who clearly are people, to gather and form relations for a common goal. To curtail the “rights” of the bunch is to curtail the rights of each individual. But this simply doesn’t apply here and I’ll explain why.

Nobody in their right mind, and this includes Romney, could actually say that corporations are in fact people in the strict sense. They have none of the features of a person. They have no will, no power to vote (and lets not go down THAT road please), no limbs, not even a concrete location. A person is a thinking, living entity with its own will and desires. A corporation is a legal construct only. Using the word “person” to describe a corporation is an obvious horrendous misuse of language even if we wish to include non-human entities under that label (perhaps one day AI robots for example could be said to be “persons”).

So lets immediately disregard the use of the word “person” to describe corporations or any gathering of people. We could say that yes, a corporation is a gathering of people to further a goal though and still be in rational, honest territory. The question is, does this gathering deserve the same legal status as a human being, a person?

A corporation is a legal construct built by individuals and granted by our laws, laws we created to benefit people, set up for a very specific goal, that of profit. If we are to say that the rights of the individuals within that gathering should be protected, and I believe we should say so, does that mean we need to give the gathering itself a legal status? Well, if the gathering is specifically set up for profit then that’s what it’s about, and it has no impact on rights beyond that. A gathering of people to play Soccer, a Soccer team, need not be recognized as a “person” with free speech rights in order to provide the individuals in it those rights nor the right to further the goal the team was built for. The same can be said of the corporation. A corporation need not be given personhood status in the eyes of the law to allow the individuals within it the ability to exercise their rights outside of the goal of making profit. The corporation can be limited to that, and only that scope and the rights of the individuals are protected.

Are the rights of individuals “within” the corporation protected if we recognize the corporation itself as a person though? I would conclude that they are not. When I work for a corporation I am providing it profit in addition to receiving compensation for my work. Should I not have some say over how that profit is used, or at least some knowledge? As part of the corporation, as an employee of it, it seems that I should be included somehow in the decision. But I’m not since I’m not on the board of directors.

But perhaps we should not lean in such a way. Perhaps the corporation can be said to be a gathering not of employees, but of shareholders. The board is ethically obliged by law to work for the profit of the shareholders above all else, so this seems like a reasonable direction to go. Well, all publicly traded corporations are owned by a great many people, only a few of which have any say at all in what that corporation does. For the most part we do not need or want to. But now, as a shareholder my investments in the market are making political statements that I do not know about, had no part in making, and I can’t even know about since corporations are allowed to make political speech anonymously! Where are my rights in that? Keep in mind that anyone who has invested in a 401K, IRA, etc… has their money invested in corporations in the form of shares being manipulated on our behalf. If anyone can be said to be “in” the corporation surely it is those that have their money invested in it and yet since a corporation can now make political speech on its own, without our consent or knowledge, we have no say in the political statements and manipulations being made with our own money.

In this respect I have to say that it’s completely ridiculous to consider corporations “people”. My rights as a real, honest and actual person and as an investor are better protected when the directors of corporations are not free to make speech on my behalf and with my money. Perhaps if I had knowledge of the political leanings of various corporations I could make an informed decision about where to put my money and if I don’t…well fuck me and all other people who expect to go through life ignorant. But the fact is that I don’t know and cannot know due to the fact that they can make this speech anonymously; they don’t have to tell me that they’re using my money to fund the takeover by the Anti-Christ for example.

It’s really too bad that so much of the American public has been blinded by the smokescreen blown up our asses by the richest among us. Now they get to use our very money, not just the money we give them due to our buying their garbage, but OUR OWN MONEY to meddle with our laws and leaders in way we may not support and have no knowledge of. When did that become a “right” that needed protection?

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In defense of scientism

The word “scientism” has been used to describe many things, but primarily the idea that science offers us the only way of knowing. It’s use is primarily critical or antagonistic, a term of derision. In this article I will defend the stances attributed to scientism, or at least as many as I think are reasonable to apply and that I can think of, and offer reasons why they are indeed valid positions and assumptions.

Wikipedia, in its introduction of the topic, sites philosophers like Popper as using “scientism”, “to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.” They also describe it as, “the improper use of science,” to apply to things outside the sphere of scientific inquiry or in appeals to scientific authority. As a secondary definition they describe it as the belief that science gives us all we can know while disregarding perspective and, “psychological dimensions of experience.” With some caveats and clarification I can say that I agree with all of this and still intend to show why it is a defensible and reasonable position to hold.

Logical defensibility

The first thing that must be discarded in the conversation is the idea that knowledge can be proven logically. Even the laws of logic cannot be proven; logic exists upon a framework of 5 fundamental assumptions that are not themselves logically provable. For example, the law of mutual exclusion states that a statement cannot both be true and false at the same time. You cannot prove this. It makes some amount of sense, but then again we can come up with statements that seem to challenge the assumption, such as, “This statement is false.” Skepticism of this assumption has lead some into creating different forms of logic from the standard, Aristotelian forms that have actually become useful in some branches of Artificial Intelligence research. To expect all statements to be provable, at a fundamental level before they can be accepted as knowledge is not just impossible, it is absurd.

To bring this absurdity to light I often like to discuss a little fact that everyone takes for granted, that gravity happens. We hold up a penny and let it go, will it fall? Most people, except possibly the most absurdly pedantic logician, will say, “Why yes, it will.” When we then try we find that indeed, the penny falls to the ground. Logically speaking it is indefensible to say that a penny dropped will fall toward the Earth. But as we know above, logic itself cannot defend itself. This does not mean it is not useful as we can clearly see that it is, but this is an empirical statement, not a logical one. We know that things fall by experience, and anyone who doubts this is free to jump off the nearest cliff to prove us wrong.

Unfortunately, not all things that can be empirically verified fall into everyday experience like gravity does, which is why we can have so many people doubting things like global warming and evolution that aren’t in an insane asylum. We may get back to this issue in another article.

Popper describes the dogmatic adherence to this principle as “uncritical rationalism”. Many philosophers run into this problem and decide that rationalism is invalid because it can’t defend itself. The problem is that neither can irrationalism and worse, irrationalism always ends in violence as Popper argues quite well. We accept that this is true and move on because to do otherwise is to tread into the realm of unreason in which no statement can be said to have any value whatsoever. Empiricism or scientism has the same problem, being initially rooted in rationalism, but we accept this as true and move on because to do otherwise is to live in la-la land…the land of woo.

Philip K. Dick, not a philosopher or scientist per-se, explains the problem quite succinctly: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Things happen or they do not. Those things that do not happen are not worth talking about. Those things that do are worth examining in detail. Science is how we do this. So, while I would not agree that scientism reduces reality to that which is measurable, it does say that we can only know about things that have measurable effects in the world. Unmeasurable effects are things that do not happen as no effect is intrinsically unmeasurable.

“Beyond the scope of scientific inquiry”

One thing that woo peddlers and meta-physicists try to assert is that one thing or another is outside the scope of scientific inquiry. They assert that “scientism” is a flawed view because it incorrectly applies science to such things to which science does not apply. This can range from such philosophical blunders as “zombies” and “qualia” to the methods by which stellar phenomena can effect the personality of people on this planet or the events that occur in their lives. These people are talking in nonsenses.

Consider for example the case of acupuncture. As of this moment, all scientific investigation of this practice has concluded that it is no different from placebo. What this effectively means is that acupuncture is bullshit. Yet some people will claim that it is outside the scope of science because it works in some mysterious “sprit” plane or something. Further, the claim that acupuncture is bullshit is not “scientifically defensible” because they only proved it doesn’t work any better than placebo, not that it doesn’t work.

There are two things wrong with this direction of thinking. First, if you really think about it, saying that something is no more successful than nothing (placebo) is the same as saying it doesn’t work. Second, our interest in acupuncture is in its supposed biological effects. We expect that it will make us better in some way. It is supposed to cure illnesses of various kinds…a sort of cure-all for anything and everything from muscular stiffness to the common cold. We can indeed observe whether it does cure these things and if so, we can conclude that it works without knowing how. We can even assume that the how is impossible to discover but yet that it does would still be something we could measure. Even the “spirit dimension” can be verified if it has any effect whatsoever. If it does not, then we’re not interested.

This is where the woo peddlers really begin to expose themselves. In order to save their practice in the eyes of rational people they have to immunize it in some way from science, because science shows what they’re saying to be essentially false. Thus they begin to make statements about the immeasurably of this or that and come up with ways that they’re spirit stuff or whatever can exist without having measurable effect, even though the effects they are talking about are VERY measurable. But eventually they try to sell us some stuff that exists without having any effect; something that both exists and is *intrinsically* (as opposed to currently) unmeasurable in anything it does. What is the difference between such a thing though and a non-thing? If something has no more qualities of existence than nothing…that’s what it is.

Thus one must conclude that anything that is anything exposes itself in some way to science. It may be that science currently can’t measure it due to some technological or imaginational lack, but there is nothing that exists that cannot be seen to exist either directly or through its effects. There are many things that science says exists that cannot be directly observed, such as “Dark Matter”. The reason we know that it exists without knowing anything about it is that we can see that its having an effect on reality. So while we can certainly say things like, “There’s a troll in my living room that you can’t see, can’t smell, can’t hear, can’t touch and doesn’t do anything but sit there doing nothing,” and we cannot prove that statement false, we can say that this troll is no different from a non-existent troll and we’re effectively saying it’s not there.

Why should we find things that are no different from non-things in any way interesting? They cannot, by definition, effect our lives in any way whatsoever. If they could, we could observe that effect and then, suddenly, science has something to say on the matter. Ergo, anything that can effect our lives, anything that exists, has qualities of existence that can be observed in some way, and anything that can be observed in some manner, directly or indirectly, can be scientifically observed.

Appeals to scientific authority

If you went to any college-level writing class, perhaps earlier, you almost certainly learned that appeals to authority are not valid arguments. You learned that no authority can be believed simply on the basis of their authority. You’ve come to know that scientists are not gods. They make mistakes, some defraud themselves, the become biased due to their curiosity being curbed by their preconceptions, monetary needs, or emotional investments. Because a scientist says a thing is not alone reason to believe it. All of this is true and yet I will claim that appeals to scientific authority are indeed reasonable in that they are the best we can possibly do.

Consider what happens when you get really sick. There are indeed many people who believe they can know more than doctors, but generally when you get sick you go see someone that has made it their life’s work to make people well. When your car stops working you go to someone that has made it their life’s work to make our cars work. When you need a new software product you go to someone, like me, that’s made it their life’s work to write software products. When you need an opinion about an aspect of reality you go to the person who’s made it their life’s work to study that aspect; you go to a scientist.

The idea that any average individual can make equally valid statements as people who have studied, worked, and learned about a thing their entire lives has grown a great deal in our society. People who propose that an individual needs to have an education and experience in matters of science and social policy before being allowed to run the country, for example, are called “elitists”. This is an insane position though. Ignorance can NEVER speak from as much validity as knowledge.

Being ignorant is ok, we all are quite ignorant of a lot of things. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It cannot be helped. There is no way to fit the knowledge of the world into one human brain or all the learning that must occur into one human lifetime. We’re not big enough. We have to trust the experts over the laymen and as laymen we’d be well beyond ignorant, we’d be arrogant and stupid to consider our own views as more informed, logical, and in line with the data than the very people who have studied that data all their lives. Would you be the kind of person to seek out a layman for plastic surgery?

The great thing about science when it comes to trusting it as an authority is that it has done so well at it. The scientific method was devised to account for errors introduced into human knowledge through the effects of human bias on part of individual scientists or even groups of them. The adherence to data, repeatability, and competitiveness among the scientific community weeds out the woo. An idea that is false cannot survive true scientific scrutiny. The idea may not be the complete truth, and very often is not, but a false idea is destroyed by scientists across the globe attempting to show it such. This is how cold fusion died; it wasn’t repeatable and the studies that supposedly proved the idea were shown to be flawed. This was science weeding out bad knowledge.

In America today we have lawyers, priests, politicians, and bloggers competing with scientists for our beliefs. They expect us to hold their ideas up with the exact same validity as people who’ve spent their lives studying the subject. They even expect their ideas to be taught as science to our children. Nobody is saying that these people are stupid. I might go to one such lawyer with help in legal issues for example. But to accept their views on the same level as a scientist’s on scientific questions is insane.

The belief that any one of us can go look at the data, come to our own conclusions, with the same understanding of a scientist has been crazy for decades. When science was in its infancy, when it was practiced by the likes of Jefferson with as much dedication as any other person of the age, then a person could indeed look at the data, perform the experiments, and come to the same conclusions. Today such an act requires years of college, access to expensive equipment that not a one of us will have in his/her garage, and even more years of experience studying the phenomena. It’s simply not possible.

No other field of study has shown itself to be as trustworthy as science. Philosophy results in numerous directions with no clear indication of what’s right or wrong. Economics can be as complicated as any science but has no clear method of repeatability and thus no clear way to tell who’s right or wrong…and we can see that the study is nowhere near as effective as real sciences. The study of economics is clearly outside the layman’s full understanding and so we have to trust those people in some manner to, but you’ll never find all economists agreeing upon anything. We can never trust them to the same degree because there’s no consensus.

So while rhetorically speaking, rationally speaking, an appeal to authority is a fallacy and isn’t reason enough to believe an argument, when comparing expert sources to layman sources we most certainly must weigh the expert more heavily. This very much is rhetorically and rationally valid. An appeal to scientific knowledge is a valid appeal because we have nothing better; there may not BE anything better. It is currently our only way of knowing reality and it has earned our trust through the advancements it has given us and the leisure way we currently live our lives compared to those of any previous century. “I personally studied the data and came to a different conclusion,” is absurd on its face and cannot be seen as valid in today’s circle of knowledge unless you are a scientist yourself in the same field you are speaking about.

Excessive Reductionism

Many people who fear science fear that it will reduce their beloved experiences away. People are so attached to their experiences that they fear reality will get in the way of them, that science will so describe things as to make their experiences meaningless or non-existent. As Dennet so well explains in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea this is impossible.

Reductionism is another term used against science and rationalism as a pejorative critique that has no substance. It is true that when you start to analyze a thing you can dig down so deep that it might seem that the thing you were analyzing isn’t real. But this is simply not possible as what you are digging into clearly IS real or you wouldn’t be digging into it. For example, matter itself once you dig down to its fundamental elements begins to look less and less like matter. As a layman I find the descriptions of subatomic particles and how they interact mostly beyond my reach. I can get a vague understanding of it and see how someone might be inclined to state that matter doesn’t exist. But science itself does not say this thing. Matter clearly exists and is composed of atoms, which are themselves composed of smaller and smaller things.

Another thing people often think is too reduced is the “human experience”. People don’t feel that their emotional awareness of events is described with enough emotion by science. The awe one feels when looking at an image taken by the Hubble Telescope for example, many seem to think that science and scientists reduce this awe away. Of course, the fact that science created the telescope in the first place, that without science they’d still think they lived in a snow globe, may be lost upon them. They fear that because they themselves are “nothing but” atoms and sub-atomic particles that they’ve somehow become robots, “zombies” or non-existent when science say no such thing at all.

The truth is that most scientists appreciate quite well the awe that is inspired by beautiful or large things. They understand quite well, more than most probably, that the step from atom to human being is a very large one with many stages in between. One cannot fathom the complexity of even a cell in terms of atoms, which is why its discussed in terms of Chemistry and Biology rather than Physics. Physics does not reduce these things away, it digs deeper into them. The same is true of studying human consciousness by looking at the brain and having a Neuroscience distinct from the Biology that underpins it.

Eventually scientists will likely be able to describe how the feeling of awe works and why it is there. Is that a reduction of that awe to understand it? When has ignorance ever been better than knowledge? Dawkins discusses this issue fairly well in his book Unweaving the Rainbow by explaining why knowing how light is refracted by water molecules only adds to the experience of seeing a rainbow.

When my niece asked me as a toddler, “Why do clouds move,” I was not one inclined to tell her, “Don’t ask because it will remove the awe you feel when you see clouds.” Only a person that values ignorance could do such a thing and I see nothing but tragedy there. I explained as best I could how energy from the sun causes pressure differentials in the fluid we all breath and that this fluid was constantly moving from areas of abundance to areas of lack. I would hope she found that as fascinating as I did, though much was probably lost on her at that age.

When I asked my father at a young age why the moon eclipsed he didn’t give me bullshit stories about moon gods or shadow spirits to make it more awe inspiring. We went into a dark room and he showed me how it works with two globes and a flashlight. The true story was much better I think, how about you?

When scientists can describe what we really are, how we think, why we think, it can only make us better. It may shatter some ideas we have emotional investment in. We may have to become a little less arrogant and view ourselves more as a part of a continuum of intellect rather than the only beings with it, but in the end we’ll understand ourselves better and we’ll be the better for it. We will not disappear. We will not be reduced in anything but our ego.

What can be known.

One part of the “scientism” definition I find I have trouble understanding, let alone agreeing with, is that science is the only path to knowing. I would agree that it is the only path to interpreting, but the only path to knowing is another matter. Measuring in itself is not an act of science but an act of experience. It provides a modicum of knowing without there being a scientific statement. Data and facts are not science, the study of them is. The conclusions we draw from that study give us the best and only way of understanding the world that we currently have.

Furthermore, there are statements that can clearly be known to be true or false without science and that are indeed at least currently outside of scientific scrutiny. For example, “I believe there is no God,” is a statement of fact. It’s true or false regardless of anything outside of myself. Science is not primarily interested in such statements though through advances in technology even this statement is measurable in at least some way.

Another example is what I believe places the question of “God” outside of the scope of science. I’ve concluded that the word “God” is not an objective criteria that can be measured in a repeatable manner. It is a title that one bestows upon an object, entity, or imagined thing that says more about ourselves and our moral judgments (or lack thereof) than upon reality itself. Although we are a part of reality, such decisions aren’t really something that science studies for a large part. How and why we make such decisions, yes…but that I conclude I have no gods is not a scientific statement even though I can say that it’s something I know.

Perhaps in this small way I’m not an adherent to scientism as many people would see it. On the other hand, in every other way I would say that I am. In any way that says anything about reality other than perhaps the content of my own belief is within the scope of science to explain and show. Reality itself is just reality, and facts are facts. Science is here to help us understand both.

On the other hand, facts without context are useless. One can look at facts in scientific or magical views. Without the context of the paradigm, without interpreting facts into statements about reality, can we call them “knowledge”? At this point I’m willing to say that it’s not really important to the immediate issue since what I’m arguing for is that the scientific view is the only valid view to approach facts and that everything else is less accurate at its best.

Yet further, I do not propose that my own experiences trump reality. In many ways it can be shown that our experience of reality is flawed and false. We don’t just hallucinate on LSD. Our very capacity for hallucination is built in because it’s how we experience most of reality. We hallucinate most of what we see because we don’t see fast enough and so project our interpretation of what should occur into our observations. This, among other phenomena and truths of human perception should lead all of us to trust science over our own senses even though this may be difficult.


In conclusion, science is the only thing we have for investigating reality. Reality always trumps anything a human being, or even all human beings might say but scientists are the best placed to tell us what that reality is. Everyone else is just guessing, hallucinating, and even in some cases lying. To consider anything other than science for truth about our existence is absurd as everything else is, at best, guesswork. In the contest between laymen, which can include scientists of different fields, and an expert who has spent their lives learning about our world…put your trust in the latter.

It has become an unfortunate reality of our culture that the media gets more of our attention than the scientists themselves. One sad effect that has is that popular understanding of science is often completely false. For example, the idea that scientists used to believe that our world was going to cool rather than warm is entirely the concoction of the media reporting scientific statements poorly. This has lead many in our culture to believe that scientists are just stumbling around making guesses, saying things that are up for grabs as if they were inherent truths. It is true that we all are stumbling in the dark trying to enlighten our world, but when science says something about our world you can fairly well bet, more than anyone else saying anything, that it is true.

It’s time we stopped seeing scientism as a bad thing. We view science as the one and only way to witness reality not because we are dogmatic, but because it’s the best we have and all other alternatives are severely broken. We trust science because it has yanked us, kicking and screaming, out of an age of darkness, filled with disease, starvation, and death into a world still filled with disease, starvation, and death but where many of us actually get to live long, happy lives not entirely devoted to simple, short term survival. We live in warm houses with computers and TV and books and music…we can see a billion galaxies in the sky. Thank science and the curiosity that drives it for these things…not religion, not politics, not meta-physics and certainly not the average jerkoff that is too irresponsible or emotionally invested to accept reality.

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I never signed no contract!!

A video, or several actually about one event, making its rounds on the Internet has CEO Peter Schiff, a self-described member of the “1%” arguing with protesters on Wall Street. In it are many remarkable statements he makes but probably the most profound of which is when he denies all ties and responsibility to society by claiming he never signed the so called “social contract”. This degree of unrelenting individualism, this extreme form of libertarianism, is common place in today’s society and there are a great many Americans who believe that this is a reasonable, fair, and tenable position to take; it is not.

The social contract theory is a model for understanding how and why people form societies. At a fundamental level, between individuals, it is the implicit agreement that we won’t immediately kill each other on sight. Without such an agreement being made one would have to walk around at all times, armed to the teeth, ready to instantly assassinate anyone in visual or audible range. The reason for this is quite simple, if you can’t know they won’t kill you the best strategic move for survival is to do it first. This is obviously a quite uncivilized state to live in.

At a wider level we are subject to this contract in our every day lives when we agree to abide by the rules of the road, to pay our taxes, and to share the many resources we all depend upon by giving some members of our society the responsibility to govern those resources and make sure they are used to the best and/or fairest means possible. We pay taxes, we get roads. We drive on the right side of the road rather than the left. We flip off the assholes or ignore them…we do not shoot them. How this governance occurs, who gets what, what is fair vs. what is not, and how do we balance competing freedoms are all questions that remain debated and unanswered, but that we live in this state of agreement cannot be unless we want to live in The Congo rather than a civilized, governed society that even has the option of freedom.

Mr. Schiff seems to believe that his individual right to freedom trumps all other considerations, including his implicit agreement to abide by the social contract. He wants us to accept that he is not required to “sign” this contract and can do what he wants without regard to any agreement society wishes to make with itself and impose on its members, but this flies in the face of all reason.

When someone provides you a service that you did not want, you do not have to pay for it. If, however, you watch and wait for them to finish giving it to you and then say, “I never agreed to pay for this,” you can and should be held liable to pay for the service. If you say, “No, please stop, I do not want this,” then you are under no obligation, but if you know the person is providing a service, know they expect to be paid, and let it continue then you are. This is not only reasonable and fair, its how our laws work.

This is the state that Mr. Schiff finds himself in. He made use of society’s service the minute he stepped out onto a public road and exercised his right to speak to protesters without fear of being murdered on the spot. The “99%” did not kill him, did not force him back into his castle. In fact, our society continues to provide Mr. Schiff with a great many services that he has been able to use to quite a lot of advantage. Every time he makes use of government services to protect his assets and allow him to do business under the protection of corporate shield he is taking advantage of the social contract he is a part of.

Many people counter this line of reasoning, that by existing as a member of society you are implicitly required to abide by its contract, by claiming that contracts cannot be imposed after the fact on people. We’re not allowed to say, “Hey, don’t use our roads then,” because this is an unreasonable imposition upon their freedoms. I can’t say I disagree with that assessment, but it also doesn’t matter. Anarchy is the perfect free-market and free-market rules apply. This means that those who have are at a distinct advantage over those who don’t. New members to society are forced to agree with the contracts simply to survive just as slaves and serfs are in a market without regulatory forces that keep people from gaining such power over others. The lucky thing here, with those fortunate enough to be born Americans or become them, is that we have a fairly functional contract. Not all are.

The contract is constantly under negotiation. Non-functional contracts result in negotiation through violence. When enough people have to resort to uncivilized means in order to survive, the system breaks down. Although the real danger is a long way off, this is the state we begin to find ourselves in right now. While one small group of people in our society seem to have all the cards, get to make all the decisions, and can commit rampant fraud at the expense of investors and tax payers without penalty, a great deal of the rest are struggling to have the basic luxuries our society should be able to provide them…and some don’t even have that and are struggling just to live. This represents a flawed and unbalanced contract, even if it is currently functional enough that our leaders and people like Schiff are not being dragged out into the street and shot.

Into what form we need to negotiate the contract in order to fix it remains unclear. His question, “How much should I be expected to pay,” is a reasonable one. It is quite clear though that disowning this very important contract under the guise of individual freedoms is not a fair response. Freedom does not trump responsibility and it never has for honorable people.

I didn’t choose to be born in this world. If I had my pick I might choose a world that didn’t have resources that can be hoarded. I would pick a world where food was like information and the giving of it in no way diminished the resources of the giver. This isn’t the world I was born into though, and lamenting this fact would be about as useful as screaming at the wind that it offends me. Mr. Schiff may not like the world he’s been born into either, or being born into a contract that he did not “sign”. But he was, he’s taken advantage of that contract when convenient, has long had the power provided by massive wealth to negotiate that contract in his favor…he can’t disown it. He’s accepted the service, he must accept the price.


Filed under Philosophy, Social Contract