Archive for May, 2012


Getting free will wrong

Free Will book cover pictureHave I really never weblogified about this? I see I have written about it briefly in the ancient Problems of Consciousness tree, and that pretty much lays out my (i.e. the correct :) ) view, but I will write about it again here Just Because.

I have just had delivered to my ‘Pad Sam Harris’s recent book “Free Will”, because I heard Harris talking on the Brian Lehrer Show (also on my ‘Pad; see last month’s post on how odd the world is these days).

I haven’t read the book yet, just skimmed around a bit, but it looks as though he is going to get free will wrong in the way that so many others have gotten it wrong: by assuming that free will is possible only under certain conditions, showing that those conditions don’t hold, and concluding that there is no free will.

When in fact, of course, they just got the definition wrong.

Free will exists. I got that Girl Scout Thin Mint cookie just now, on the way here from the other side of the house, of my own free will. If someone had been holding a gun to my head and required that I got a Samoa instead, that would not have been of my own free will.

Those things are facts. The job of the philosopher is to explicate just what “free will” means, given facts like that. The philosopher who concludes that there is in fact no free will bears a very heavy responsibility, that includes convincing me that in fact I didn’t get that Thin Mint of my own free will. No philosopher has ever done that, and I think none is likely to (although I’ve been wrong before!).

From listening to Sam Harris on NPR, and looking through some of this here book, it looks like he will be getting free will wrong in a pretty typical way. Here are some excerpts from the beginning of the book:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are not simply of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

These statements reveal a whole swarm of background assumptions that I think are pretty flatly wrong. These include:

  • To have free will, our wills must be simply of our own making.
  • To have free will, we must be aware of, and exert conscious control over, the causes of our thoughts and intentions.
  • We can be responsible for our decisions only if those decisions are neither determined by prior causes, nor random.

I don’t think any of these background assumptions are true. It will be interesting to see, as I actually read the book, whether Harris makes them explicit and analyzes and defends them, or if he just takes them for granted and repeatedly points out that they are not satisfied by the facts.

So if I don’t think those kinds of things are true about free will, what do I think is true about free will?

I think free will is a useful concept that we humans have come up with to determine when to ascribe moral responsibility to a moral actor, and when not to. It is a concept that we learn mostly by ostention (i.e. by reading and hearing and talking about examples and stories) rather than by definition, and so (like “knowledge” and “virtue” and really most other interesting words) it tends to have fuzzy edges, and people can have honest disagreements about when it applies. But that doesn’t mean it never applies at all.

Roughly, we say that someone does something of their own free will if their doing it reflects primarily their own nature, their own desires, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses. If, that is, it provides useful evidence about what kind of person they are in morally-relevant ways. Which is just what you want as a criterion when you’re deciding which acts to include when doing moral judgement and assigning moral responsibility.

If I unknowingly step on a weak board and the board breaks, all that tells anyone about me is that I weigh more than the holding capacity of the board; my having broken the board tells you nothing about my morally-relevant properties, and I didn’t intentionally break it, didn’t break it “of my own free will”. I broke it by accident.

If on the other hand I saw the board making up part of the wall of an abandoned building, and kicked it so it broke just ’cause I like hearing things break and didn’t really care that it wasn’t officially mine to break, that was a freely-willed action, and it tells you something morally relevant about me. You might not want to include me in certain activities; you might even want society to fine me for wanton destruction.

All that seems pretty easy. So why does Harris (and why do the many other philosophers who’ve made similar arguments) think that free will is an illusion?

Well, they argue, science can (at least in principle) explain why I broke the board in both cases. In both cases there is a story about my birth and upbringing, about purely physical processes occurring in my brain and body, that show how the board ended up being broken. In the second case this involves my enjoyment of things breaking and my disregard for the concept of ownership, but those things can themselves be explained.

And if, the argument goes, science can explain why I have certain tendencies and values, then surely I can’t be held responsible for them.

To which the reply is “whyever not”? The assumption is that people can’t be held responsible for their preferences and desires and values because we can explain how they ended up with those preferences and desires and values, and/or because the person didn’t choose to have those preferences and desires and values (or at least didn’t choose to have the initial genes and early-life experiences that led to having them).

But why should we accept that assumption?

The usual argument by analogy is that if it turned out that I have a small brain tumor that is pressing on a certain part of my cerebrum that is causing me to enjoy breaking things and to ignore property rights, then surely I wouldn’t be held morally responsible. And having genes and life-experiences that cause me to do those things is just like having a small brain tumor.

This strikes me as unconvincing. Having certain genes and life-experiences really isn’t all that much like having a small brain tumor. When we exercise moral judgement, we are trying to determine (basically) what sort of person this person’s genes and life-experiences have brought into being.

We may or may not be willing to factor out small and identifiable and perhaps reparable things like brain tumors (I think this is an edge-case of free will where different people may have different intuitions), but we are not willing to factor out every single fact that makes this person different from every other person.

This form of the denial of free will hinges, I would say, on a false dichotomy, related to the dichotomy in the second Harris quote above: either, the dichotomy says, our actions are determined by causes (in which case those causes are responsible, we are not, and we don’t have free will), or our actions are random (in which case, again, we are not responsible for them, and we don’t have free will).

The actual fact of the matter, I believe, is that our actions are determined by various causes, and to the extent that those causes are part of what kind of person we are, we are responsible for the action and we exercise free will. To the extent that those causes are outside of the morally-relevant parts of us (including random die-rolls, although perhaps not the weighting of the dice), the actions are not morally relevant, and don’t count as free(ly) will(ed).

The fact that I didn’t cause myself to have the nature that I do isn’t relevant to the fact that when my actions are expressions of that nature, they are expressions of my free will, and I bear the responsibility for them.

Which seems pretty simple, really. :)

When I actually read the book, I will see if any of it applies to the sort of objection that I put forth here, and report back with any interesting findings, on that issue or any other.


Cat pictures!

I don’t usually post family and cat pictures much, but I can’t resist these two from M’s weblog:

<3 :)


Tumbling, Pinning

In my general effort to Keep Up With Interesting Social Technologies, I’ve been looking at tumblr a bit, and since pinterest was also on my to-examine list, I was pleased when following a link from a tumblr posting led me to a pinterest posting.

And my first thought was “hey, this is just tumblr again”.

On slightly closer examination, that’s not quite right. Both of them are places that make it easy to gather and share images and text and stuff, with somewhat similar user interfaces, but there are two big differences:

A) tumblr is dominated by angsty 15-year-olds, whereas pinterest is dominated by their Aunts, and

B) while pinterest does not allow nudity, tumblr basically requires it.

Which isn’t to overgeneralize and say that every tumblr account is an angsty 15-year-old posting airbrushed bondage models alternating with poems about being true to themselves, while every pinterest account is a grown-up suburban Aunt posting cupcake recipes and Sylvia Plath; but it is at least much truer than the reverse would be, which says something.

There’s alot to say about the subtle differences in user interface emphasis and affordances that make pinterest and tumblr slightly different from each other, and even more different from say wordpress’s or blogspot’s or typepad’s weblogifying software.

But instead I thought I would delve into the nudity. :)

Kind of an interesting situation in the pinterest realm. The pin etiquette says:

We do not allow nudity, hateful content, or content that encourages people to hurt themselves. If you find content that violates our Terms of Service or Acceptable Use Policy you can submit the content for review by pushing the ”Report Content“ link.

which certainly suggested to me that either the terms of service or acceptable use policy would say that they don’t allow nudity.

But neither one says that! Or anything else that I can read as saying that, unless it’s implicit in the extremely broad:

contains any information or content we deem to be hateful, violent, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable;

(Maybe they “deem” nudity to be “profane” or “otherwise objectionable”? Who knows!) or possibly in:

seeks to harm or exploit children by exposing them to inappropriate content

in case posting a nude to pinterest would be ipso facto seeking to harm the various child readers by exposing them to inappropriate nipples.

(pinterest is very clear that if you’re under 13 you aren’t allowed to use the service (ref COPA), but it’s not clear how relevant that is.)

So nudeness is forbidden explicitly (haha see what I did there?) in the Etiquette guide, but hinted at only vaguely in the more official documents that it refers to (to which it refers).

(There’s also the whole subject of fully clothed sex, which is a link you may not want to click on.)

On tumblr, on the other hand, there is a whole mechanism around posting nudeness and sex and general debauchery:

Tumblr is home to millions of readers and bloggers from a variety of locations, cultures, and backgrounds with different points of view concerning adult-oriented content. If you regularly post sexual or adult-oriented content, respect the choices of people in our community who would rather not see such content by flagging your blog (which you can do from the Settings page of each blog) as Not Suitable for Work (“NSFW”). This action does not prevent you and your readers from using any of Tumblr’s social features, but rather allows Tumblr users who don’t want to see NSFW content to avoid seeing it.

The unstated assumption there being that you and your readers love teh sexytimes, but some hypothetical Tumblr users (perhaps those who have wandered over from pinterest by accident) might be more delicate.

And just below that, the Tumblr Community Standards very amusingly use The Eff Word (“fucking”) when discussing why they don’t let you store feelthy videos on their servers:

You can embed anything as long as it follows the other guidelines on this page. But please don’t use Tumblr’s Upload Video feature to host any sexually explicit videos. We’re not in the business of profiting from adult-oriented videos and hosting this stuff is fucking expensive. You can use services like xHamster to host those instead.

which is also very helpful and friendly of them.

So there are two very interestingly-different communities, built on two very similar pieces of technology. (tumblr has “tags”, of which you can attach multiple to each posting, and people can search by them; whereas pinterest has “topics” to which I think each posting must be posted to maybe just one of, and you can search on them, and easily view any poster’s postings organized by them. Again subtly and perhaps significantly different. tumblr has “reblogging” of other people’s postings, which is probably the most common thing done on the site; pinterest has “re-pinning” which is also common but perhaps not quite as fundamental.)

And to go out on a high note, here is a not-NSFW picture from tumblr:

and one from pinterest:

Can’t explain that!


there is a tide

“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”

President Barak Obama


Ane Brun

Okay so I have found a new person to get some of the music of!

(Note; hearing the track with and without the video are rather different experiences. Also, everyone else in the world is listening to this today too, because it was on NPR during morning drivetime. Well. Some morning recently!)


Dear null,

Dear null,

You were recently selected as a candidate for publication in the prestigious Top 100 Leaders of 2012 Magazine. It is my distinct pleasure to inform you that your candidacy has been reviewed and approved by a special committee and that your biography may soon be featured in this extraordinary, professional magazine.

Amusing Spam o’ the Day. :)

Tags: , ,

<3 xkcd

This is apparently a really ancient xkcd, but it should be read daily, and reposted everywhere.

xkcd 137


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

So I was down at the Drug Store getting more of the pills to inhibit my neurotransmitter reuptake, and there on the bottom shelf of the cabinet near where you drop off prescriptions there were some Home Pregnancy Tests, and some Home Cholesterol Tests, and next to those there were some Home Drug Tests (Marijuana).

And while I realize there are all sorts of Important Social and Cultural and Moral Things to say about these, what I’m really thinking is what a great routine George Carlin could have done on these.

Just imagine, someone sees one of these in the store when he’s a little wasted, and he’s like “whoa, cool, I’ll take some o’ those, man”, and he takes them home and opens one up and figures out how to use it, and then he yells “SHIT!” and his roommate says “what’s wrong, man?”, and he says “Man, I’ve got WEED!!”.

Something like that, anyway.

I was going to write down other things, too, but I can’t remember what…

Oh yeah! So we forgive Jen Rhee for whatever role she is playing in the mystery infographic spam thing, because one of the things that she links to on her Digg page is 5 Questions We Desperately Need a Buckaroo Banzai Sequel to Answer, and Buckaroo Banzai references are worth alot.

(Although we also dimly suspect that the things on her Digg page are carefully selected to contain at least one thing that is worth alot to each of seventeen carefully-selected Internet Demographic Groups, about which she also has infographics. But probably we are just paranoid.)

Passive media invades the Internet!

In the sense that I heard something on NPR or somewhere about how all various people with lots of money, like Google and I guess Yahoo and all various other people are apparently spending lots of money to put together “channels” which would carry “programs” that people would then be expected to “watch” like they do (or used to do) with “television programs”.

Which strikes me as bizarre!

I personally have very little patience with non-interactive media these days, and the only things I really consume that you can’t click on, so to speak, are (a) background music, (b) WNYC while doing other things, and (c) occasional old Buffy episodes on Netflix. My impression of YouTube “channels” is that they are, like, places where you can go to find some mildly amusing “JibJab” thing with animated talking pictures of politicians or something, except now they have advertisements which if you have to watch more than like six seconds of invariably causes me to go do something else instead.

But apparently I may not be entirely typical (shocking thought), or at least some people with lots of money are willing to bet that I’m not. So there are whole “channels” on YouTube and YahooTube or whatever and maybe like Hulu and things, where people make “episodes” of “programs” with High Production Values, and advertisers, and all like that there, so you can have the whole stultifyingly dull and ad-saturated television experience right there on your computer, oh joy oh rapture.

Here is one they talked about on whatever NPR story or whatever it was that I heard: Barely Political. If you click on that you will go to a YouTube page where some video will probably play even without you asking it to. The one it showed me was incredibly stupid, but maybe you will be luckier.

(It occurs to me that when I watched several in a row “episodes” of (what was that? oh, yeah) Dragon Age: Redemption, I was probably consuming one of these very “web program” things, but it was just to moon over Felicia Day, and obviously that doesn’t count, right?)

This interests me somewhat, in that I like to think of the Internet as extremely liberating and empowering and tending to inspire and facilitate creativity and collaboration and participation and all, which is pretty much the opposite of the “sitting on the couch staring at ads interspersed with brief stretches of plot” paradigm that TV and this stuff represent.

Passive consumption has, I tell myself at some level, been so successful on TV just because the technology doesn’t offer the superior alternatives, and now that the ‘net so definitely does offer those alternatives, we’re basically done with that whole TV thing.

But maybe not!

Time will tell…

oh P.S.: This is probably the NPR story that I heard.