Free Will

Every once in a while* I’ll get in a fun sparring debate about Free Will. I no longer believe in such a phenomenon but I’m curious if I can articulate why. As usual, I am not qualified to comment on anything beyond rudimentary physics so I mostly have to rely on skepticism regarding the subtle religious elements of Free Will. The only real comments I can make about the science of determinism are that nothing magical (i.e. outside of the natural laws of the Universe) has ever been demonstrated.

Anyway, my first problem with Free Will is that I can’t think of or find a working definition that makes any kind of sense. Each word is ambiguous and loaded. For instance, what is meant by “Free?” It seems outrageous and arrogant to think that in a Universe where everything is governed by laws that we can somehow break that chain of casualty somewhere within the process (presumably at the origin) of performing an action or having a thought. On a broader scale, it also seems unlikely that humans can avoid social training. For instance, I am not acutely aware of being subjected to any Pavlov-like regime but I do know that the time on my computer screen tells me that it’s been a while since I ate breakfast and so I am suddenly pretty fucking ready for lunch.

The next word, “Will,” is even stranger. It seems like a stinky synonym to Soul. Where is one’s Will? How did it get there? If it’s a natural by-product of complex brains then it should be governed by laws, thus making the “Free” element an illusion (my position exactly). If, as religion tends to claim, it was instilled in us by God, then as far as I’m concerned the conversation is over. If it can’t be shown that a God exists in the first place, then I don’t want to go on talking, as a matter of Faith, about the repercussions of a Universe with a God. Real quick, as far as I understand the Abrahamic religions call for Free Will to justify the Fall of Man story and add credence to the concept of Sin. If God already knew Adam and Eve would turn to Sin then why did he bother setting up the Universe in that way? That would seem like a slip on the all powerful Creator. Furthermore, how can anyone be condemned for sinning or rewarded for piousness in a deterministic Universe? In order for religion to survive, Free Will is a necessary feature.

The final reason why I have to be super skeptical of the notion of Free Will is because I want to believe it. The notion that I am the commander of my own ship is very pleasing. However, I cannot express enough that what I would like to be true has absolutely no effect on what is actually true. Therefor, the reasonable course of action is to adjust my beliefs in accordance with the current evidence. I am not aware of any substantial evidence in favour of Free Will (and again, what does that term even mean?) but rather I have seen a fair amount of evidence that disproves Free Will (read Free Will by Sam Harris for a nice run down).

I’d rather not get too deep into the moral and practical reprecussions of a Universe with no Free Will. I think for the most part I just go on pretending like we have it. Either that, or I don’t think about it too much. This isn’t very hard because I don’t have an understanding of how my life would be any different if I actually had it. The appearance of Free Will is undeniable because I can’t comprehend the electro-chemical events that underlie everything I do. I can recognize some elements of social training, but those don’t bother me because I either think that the triggers are coincidentally in accordance with what I want to do or I tell myself that I could override them if I wanted (which is true, but only because another trigger wins out).

 

* NOT “Once AND a while”

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Boyhood

Watched a fabulous movie on the flight from New York to Bogota called Boyhood. I really enjoy everything that Richard Linklater does and this one cleared the bar previously set. The filming took place over 12 years and hence it beautifully captured how people/relationships change over time. I’m astonished that the cast was able to commit to such a long term project. But it isn’t just the adherence rate that is impressive: the plot and insight are very powerful. One of the most important points that I took away from it is that no one really knows the right way to live. Linklater does a great job at highlighting the confusion and discontentment of all the roles (parent, child, elder, teacher, boss, etc). It’s troubling to watch unhappy people give life advice (or demands). I think most of us have been on the receiving end of this but we also have probably all dished out criticism that partially stems from good-intentions but more so comes from anxiety about out own lives.

The most profound scene for me was at the end of the movie when the mother has a breakdown. The scene captures one of my greatest fears – reaching the later stages of my life only to realize that I’m terribly unsatisfied with the milestones that I’ve reached. Although I’m often conscious of avoiding such a path it is difficult to know if I am doing so successfully. Unfortunately the only accurate viewpoint for this is hindsight.

Anyway, great flick. It’s been prodding my brain all day so check it out if you need a good cage rattle.

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Unbearable

I recently happened upon a Christian based obituary that made me very upset. It was written for a young man (early 20s) who died of Cancer. After a description of his life the piece goes on to say that the man was chosen by God to be a “‘ring bearer,’ a servant to bear a heavy load, and fight a decisive battle against evil and death.” It goes on to say that having fought and died he is now home, “victorious with his very dear friend Jesus: in heaven where he has always belonged.”

Although my head has exploded numerous times from reading this statement, I still feel nothing but sympathy for the family. I can’t imagine anything harder than dealing with the untimely death of a son or brother or friend. I don’t view the person who wrote this obituary to be in the wrong but rather the underlying ideology that is Christianity. A statement like this breaks my heart for 2 important reasons. Firstly, this family has to try and reconcile the horrendous death of their son with a belief system that warrants a God who would let this happen. Cancer is a natural product of a flawed system that an apparent omnipotent God created. This is negligence in it’s highest (or lowest) form. Secondly, this family then has to accept that “for reasons none of us understand” this man was chosen by God to suffer unspeakable torments for some kind of divine purpose.

The second point of contention can be further subdivided into 3 atrocities. It is morally despicable, intellectually ludicrous and incredibly offensive to the millions of people battling Cancer. Is it really possible that anyone could look upon a person in the latter stages of chemotherapy and think “This is the work of a loving being”? The answer must be no, otherwise what would be the purpose of chemo for Christians in the first place? If one truly believes that Jesus chose him or her to be a “ring-bearer” then surely no medicine could or should interfere with that divine plan.

Theists are commonly thought to have an easier time dealing with death. Though I graduated beyond belief at a fairly early age, using my past reflections in conjunction with incidents like this makes me glad that I am now an atheist. Theists have to do mental cartwheels to justify the behaviour of their God. Furthermore, they can never truly accept lose by death because ultimately they do not even believe in death. The passing from this world only signifies the ascension to an eternity of bliss and only a temporary separation from loved ones. As an atheist I am certain to still pass through a phase of denial when confronted with death but so far as I have experienced it is only temporary. And as for things like Cancer, I find some solace knowing that it is random. I yield some control over preventative measures but given a long enough life span, it is sure to track me down eventually. The thought of unlucky circumstances I can digest. The thought of that pain being bestowed by God is unfathomable.

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If You’re Gonna Be Lazy, At Least Be Skeptical (or OMG MSG!)

Facebook is the land of pseudoscience. Even more disheartening is that pseudoscience seems to always pair with fear mongering. If I was less masochistic I would simply avoid the new feeds, be quicker to unfriend people or at least unfollow those who are the source of great frustration for me. Pro-religion posts are probably the fastest route to being unfriended by me but other than that I simply grind my teeth or sometimes even strike back. While I am about to go to bat for science please do not for a second think that it is appropriate to gather scientific information from my blog. I am not qualified to speak authoritatively on any matter. Blogs, bullshit websites and documentaries are the source of so much pseudoscience and I do not wish to be lumped in with those things. What I’d like to do is point out a most recent case of a Facebook debate I was involved with. The entire exchange can be found here but I’ll also break down my chain of thought. It would be worth while to at least click the link and view the original post.

It all started when I came across the 3 combined images in the link. First there was the list of the 10 worst food ingredients, followed by a quote stating how often the #1 ingredient (MSG) is used and then finally a fat mouse with the letters MSG painted on it. People who post this irrational, fear generating bullshit are way too trigger happy with the share button. They see something that confirms an existing bias and then hope for lots of supportive and equally unjustified comments when they proudly post it.

Upon seeing this post I asked myself the following questions. Why are these ingredients considered to be bad? If an ingredient isn’t harmful then why does it matter if it’s used commonly? Is the other mouse fat because it ate a lot of MSG? If so, how much was it fed? I think these are perfectly fair questions. This is what being skeptical is all about. Is it necessary for me to add 10 more things to worry about in my daily life or can I simply ignore this? All of these thoughts I summed up by postulating that perhaps “undergroundhealthreporter.com” isn’t a very reputable source.

I foolishly thought that since the original poster and commenters were making a bold claim that they should be the ones to bear the burden of proof. I quickly found out that because I was the controversy hungry, science loving skeptic that I was going to have to dig around. While I still consider this action to be completely backwards I am quite glad that I did so. To be honest, I was under the impression that MSG actually was harmful. I didn’t know why, I just assumed it to be true. Here is what I did to find out more.

1. I googled “MSG”

2. I clicked on the first link that came up (Wikipedia)

3. I scanned to the section entitled “Safety”

4. I read the first sentence. It said “MSG has been used for more than 100 years to season food, with a number of studies conducted on its safety. International and national bodies governing food additives currently consider MSG safe for human consumption as a flavor enhancer.”

5. I clicked the source for this sentence which took me to this site

6. I read more sentences explaining what MSG is and why it is safe. Note, these sentences had sources that I could check.

7. I posted some of my findings in the discussion to see if there were some valid counter arguments or flaws in my reasearch.

All of this took in the area of 30 seconds to do. My research certainly was not thorough. I merely scratched the surface. However, 30 seconds of research into only the first item on the list of 10 ingredients resulted in polar opposite findings. Instead of learning more on MSG being the most harmful food additive I found nothing but information on how rigorously tested and safe it is.

This post is getting a bit lengthy so I will skip the depressing follow up comments I received. As you might guess it was nothing but unsupported red herrings. I’m not sure if my efforts had any positive effect on those that viewed the forum. It benefited me, which I suppose is enough of a win. I do hope that at least a couple of people felt less afraid and more trusting of the food industry. Perhaps those people can implement my 7-step bullshit detector when they see future shitty Facebook news. AND MAYBE….just maybe, a couple of people won’t post so much negative, fear generating bullshit in the future. Any level of vetting will do. So the next time you see a miracle cure for the common cold, or see a gross picture with a bold claim attached to it, or are told something is bad for you just remember if you’re gonna be lazy, at least be sceptical. It might save you some distress.

 

 

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Housekeeping

I can’t help but wonder why hotel housekeepers knock so softy. It is easy to mimic. Simply take the knuckle on your index finger and tap it softly on a wooden surface. This is the sound I heard at 8am this morning. I had been drifting in and out of an attempted sleep in when it happened. Part of me knew it was housekeeping but another part of me couldn’t register that they would come around so early when this was only the first night of my 2 night booking. I wasn’t able to eek out a protest until a woman was already in my room.

So gives with the weak knock? Are you treading softly as to not wake me? If so, you are assuming I’m in the room and so why knock at all? If it’s quiet I won’t wake up and you’ll barge in on me. If it’s loud, you’ll wake me up in which case I will be angry but potentially less embarrassed as well. Maybe an error in the system indicated an early checkout for the wrong room but in that case you’re assuming I’m not in the room and so why not just bang on the door? What if I wasn’t sleeping? What if I was pre or post shower? What if I was just doing some naked musing or naked anything as I am sometimes wont to do?

The point of all of this is that one cannot alert and avoid disturbance with the same knock. When selecting a future knocking style there is only the binary system of Effective (loud) or Ineffective (knuckle tap).

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The Fuck It List

Recently, I made myself a bucket list. I don’t think any of the things on it will take me anything close to a lifetime to complete (assuming all goes well…) and so with any luck I will make several revisions as I go. I’ll just list the travel related ones for now because they are appropriate and pertinent.

1. Visit all 7 Continents

2. Climb a multi-day mountain (I’ve done dozens of day hikes upwards of 11,000 ft.)

3. Bungee Jump (done)

4. Sky Dive

5. Scuba Dive

6. Hike the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail

7. Hike the major Canadian Trails (Done Bruce, West Coast and part of East Coast)

8. Drive, hitch or bike across Canada

9. Busk around Europe

10. CN Tower Edge Walk

 

The last one will hopefully be checked off first. I’ll be coming to Toronto in August and would like to bang that one out then. Then by this time next year I will have been to 5 of the 7 Continents (NA,SA, Asia, Australia and Europe), leaving only the really hot and really cold deserts left to see. I’ll also hopefully have checked off #9 from my list. I love this one because it might help minimize the financial load and it gives me something to do while travelling (which I’ve come to realize is very important).

My recent stint of travelling taught me that I’m not much o a beach bum. I can read quite a lot (14 novels in 10 weeks) but otherwise I cannot just sit around and do nothing. This slow realization resulted in what I now consider to be several wasted days in Thailand – but there are worse problems to have. I’ve realized that it isn’t enough to simply see a place, I must also do something memorable. I prefer saying I did “X” in “Y” rather than simply, “Oh, I’ve been to “Y.”

These are my bragging points so far:

Nicaragua: volcano boarding, volcano climb (different volcano)

Panama: Jungle Zip-Line, Jungle Hike, Volcano climb, New Year’s street party

Thailand: Rock Climbing, Kayaking, Naked Fire Limbo, Half Moon Party, Snorkeling w/ Sharks, Cliff Jumping, overnight trip to “The Beach”

Australia: Great Ocean Road, Melbourne night market, Sydney party and I was here when THIS happened, Blue Mountains hiking

New Zealand: Hiking, Bungee Jump, Hitch Hiking, Mordor/Mount Doom

 

Last night I booked my xmas flights to Colombia. This time I plan to do a 4-5 day Jungle hike to Ciudad Perdida (i.e. “Lost City”). It looks sort of like Colombia’s Machu Picchu only not nearly as expensive or as touristic. Following that trip I would then like to drive the Ring Road in Iceland followed by busking around Europe, all in the summer of 2015.

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Warm Fuzzy Skepticism

Skeptics can often be thought of as the buzz kills of the world. After all, we debunk all the fun stuff like a purposeful Universe, the afterlife and alternative medicines, etc. People like believing in these things because it makes them feel good. But I cannot stress enough that wishing something were true has absolutely no effect on whether or not it is actually true. However, I admit that debunking cherished beliefs can make people feel bad at first.

What some people may not understand is how calming and encouraging skepticism can actually can be. While the wishful, grand ideas are trashed, the day to day stresses brought on by fear mongers are also trashed. I constantly get caught up in Facebook posts about the pink goo used by McDonald’s or how Subway uses an ingredient in their bread that is also used in yoga mats or how vaccines cause Autism. These one-off articles can be very alarming but thinking critically about them can instantly do away with this distress. Is “ProOrganicandMonsantoSucksBalls.org” really a reliable source of information? Isn’t it possible that this secondary (or tertiary or quaternary) source of information is pushing some not-so-hidden agenda? A great exercise consists of scanning the scary article for the original source of information and then checking out the proper context of the misrepresented quotes. It’s interesting that this often yields different conclusions about the topic at hand.

Sometimes my own quick Google search isn’t enough to dismiss my fears. In these cases I find that I often learn amazing and comforting truths from podcasts or literature. There is nothing more satisfying than listening to people smarter than myself rant about pseudoscience.

I didn’t expect skepticism to come with pleasant by-products. But excitement and comfort are readily available to fill the void left by abandoning faith and false information.

Podcast Suggestions:

Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe

Penn’s Sunday School

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