Monday, November 10, 2008

The Ball Is In Our Court

I can't stress enough that if progressives, secularists, and freethinkers want political respect and clout, the ball is in our courts. 

President Elect Obama is not going to take it upon himself to restore the church-state separation intended by the founding fathers.  He is a religious man himself, and will not turn his back on the Christians without being able to justify it in a way that makes everyone happy.

The ball is in our court.

Atheists, progressives, freethinkers, and secularists represent somewhere between fifteen and twenty percent of the population in America.  For comparison, that's about the same as the number of Fundamentalist Evangelicals.  Yet, who has all the political power?

The Secular Coalition for America has approximately fifty thousand members, of which only a small percentage contribute anything at all.  There are churches in the DC area that could drum up a million dollars for a cause, and not bat an eye.  Lori Lippman Brown, the nation's only atheist lobbyist, works on a shoestring budget because you and I, gentle progressives, have not stood up for ourselves and demanded attention from the White House.

The mechanism is in place.  It lacks support.

Learn from the past.  Eight years of religiostupidification, fights over stem cell research, abortion, gay marriage, and evolution is long enough.  Let's let the religious have their religion, but for the government, no thank you.

Friday, November 7, 2008

What Can We Do?

It occured to me this morning that maybe my last blog, while an effective call to action, was less than effective at telling people what they can do.

First, you should know that we do have a lobbyist in Washington.  Lori Lippman Brown is the director of the Secular Coalition for America, which is the national lobby representing the interests of atheists, humanists, agnostics, freethinkers and other nontheistic Americans.  Their website has updates on the political efforts on behalf of freethinkers as well as the all too common attempts by various government entities to blur or tear down the wall of separation.

Get involved, people.  Now.  Today.  Be loud.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Hardest Job In The World

I generally try to avoid politics, but this is too big.  For the sixteen to eighteen percent of Americans who don't subscribe to the belief that God has chosen America to do whatever it is we're supposed to do, this is a momentous time in history.

At no other time in the foreseeable future will those of us who call ourselves freethinking progressives have more power than we do now.  President Elect Obama needs to know that we expect more than we have gotten from the Democrats in recent memory.  We expect decisive leadership away from the failed policies of the Reagan to Bush era.

Personally, I will not consider this presidency a success unless at least the following things happen:

1) The Patriot Act must be repealed. Period. It's an abomination and an affront to everything America is supposed to stand for.

2) Gitmo must be shut down. Period. It's an abomination and an affront to everything America is supposed to stand for.

3) Nothing less than the Geneva Conventions must apply to all enemy combatant prisoners held by the U.S. for any reason.

4) No Child Left Behind must be scrapped.

5) There must be an end to the senseless waste of resources, life, and American credibility in Iraq.

6) Global Warming must be rationally addressed.

This is no time for inaction. We don't have the luxury of gloating.  So far, we have done nothing.  Already, there are hateful messages pouring out over the internet urging Christians to fight against the new godless government.

God removes His hand from the United States, it is now time to act! With the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the next President of the United States, yesterday marked a watershed day spiritually for this nation. For decades now, this country has been operating in rebellion to God and His Truth. We legally slaughter 4,000 babies every day. We have made a mockery of God's Holy Institution of Marriage. God's plan for the family has been decimated. We have totally given ourselves over to the lusts of the flesh and the pleasures of this temporal world. We have bowed down to and worshipped every false god and idol created in rebellion to the God of the Bible.

Out of our rebellion to God, the people have now elected a man to lead this nation who is a staunch supporter of legalized infanticide. Speaking to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund on July 17, 2007, Senator Obama said, "The first thing I'd do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That's the first thing that I'd do." President Obama will repay the support of those in the baby killing industry by insuring abortion on demand at any stage of the pregnancy, and through executive orders, he will wipe out any progress individual states have made in trying to ban abortions in their state. As President, he will elect judges to the US Supreme Court who will insure Roe vs. Wade is never overturned, as well as activist judges to the Federal Courts who will rule on the side of death in any abortion cases.

President Obama is also a great friend to the homosexual community and will be a champion of their radical agenda. President Obama will make it easy for gay couples to adopt children. I remember years ago warning people in my Daily Devotional that the homosexual community was targeting your children. People said I was over reacting. Today, an entire generation of children has grown up being brainwashed that being gay is normal and acceptable. They are being indoctrinated as young as kindergarten that there is nothing wrong with this choice of deviant sex. Again, through executive orders he will wipe out any gains made by various states to insure gay marriage will quickly spread across the nation, and the judges he appoints will help the radical gay agenda to move forward
This is what we're fighting against.  Rush and Laura and FOX News and a hundred other conservative pundits are going to attack President Elect Obama from day one.  We're already seeing it happen.

Bill Clinton was a Republican's Democrat.  Even so, he was crucified by the neocon right.  Forgive my southern roots showing, but how much more will Obama be attacked when a good ol' fashioned lynching would thrill the hearts of so many good Christians south of the Mason Dixon?

The new administration is going to face terrible opposition, but we must not pity them for this.  It has been nothing less than the systematic failure of the Democratic Party for the last eight years that has put us where we are today.  We can blame it on the neocons all we want, but the reality is that the Democrats haven't had a goal.  They have simply wimpered quiet opposition to the very well formed Republican plan.

Obama is an organizer and a negotiator.  We need to make sure, as progressives, that he understands just how many of us are out here, and just how insistent we are that we have a voice in what will hopefully be the beginning of the end for Neo-Conservative rule in America.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Logic-Resistant Belief and Three Steps to Freedom

    I am an atheist. I used to be a Christian, and then I read the Bible, thought about it, and left Christianity. Soon after that, I examined the concept of “the supernatural” and became an atheist. Hearing my story would probably be interesting to some people, but apart from some minor variances, it’s no different from the stories of thousands of other “de-converts.” Most atheists are well versed in the logic necessary to rid the mind of religious delusions. What I want to discuss in this essay is the number of theists who fully comprehend the same logic, and yet remain theists. Clearly, this phenomenon should be of great concern to the freethinker who would like to see friends, family, and society in general rid themselves of the poison that religious thought injects into culture.

To begin with, let us briefly examine the reasons that people follow religion. Some people are afraid of death, and gain comfort from the belief that they will not really die. Others want some truth to help explain the pain and suffering they or their loved ones experience. Many people attend church for social reasons – Christianity is, after all, the biggest social group in the country. Many people accept Jesus into their hearts because they’re afraid of hell. Obviously, there are also many people who firmly believe that they have spoken to God, witnessed a miracle that only God could have performed, or felt a “presence” they believe to be the Holy Spirit within them. All of these reasons, and many more, would be listed if you took a poll of believers.

I submit that close examination will reveal that virtually all of these reasons can be reduced to fear. Some are easy. Fear of death, hell, pain and suffering, and the unknown are easy to understand, but what about the other reasons? Do people who have spoken to God also believe because of fear? I believe so.  The real question is, why would a person either try to hear God’s voice, or upon hearing a perceived spiritual voice, be inclined to believe it? The answer is still fear – most likely one of the ones I’ve already listed. Why would a person be inclined to believe that there is a supernatural force that performs miracles? Again, fear -- the fear of being in the position of needing a miracle would certainly make one more likely to believe in miracles.

I’ve left out one big fear, and it’s the primary focus of this essay. I noted earlier that many people attend church for social reasons. This fact is, I believe, the key to understanding why theists who understand the logical reasons for disbelief continue to profess belief. For a moment, think about as many of your friends as you can. If you are a Republican, are most of your friends also Republican? If you are a Christian, do you spend most of your free time with other Christians? Here’s a nasty one. If you are white, are most of your friends white? Unless you are one of a few very rare personality types, or are forced into living in a culture that is not your own, you must admit that the majority of the people you surround yourself with are very similar to you.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It is built into the survival instinct, and is an intrinsic part of human nature. Also part of this survival instinct is the fear of being ostracized by the group. In the earlier days of the human species, exclusion from the group meant death in most circumstances. Even in more recent recorded history, there are many examples of places and times when banishment from a group would cause real mortal danger. In America, this is no longer true, but the instinct remains. Most people, given the choice between conforming to the group and leaving the group, will choose conforming. This isn’t speculation. It’s scientific fact.

Here, then, is the answer to the question I posed at the beginning. Why do theists who understand the logic of atheism remain theists? I suggest that it is fear of being ostracized. If you are a Christian, think of everyone you know who is also a Christian. How would it feel to be hated and distrusted by all of them? Am I being overly dramatic? Sadly, no. A recent survey showed that a very large portion of U.S. citizens would rather see a homosexual president than an atheist one. Furthermore, they rated atheists as the least trustworthy group of people – lower than lawyers and politicians who profess faith in Jesus Christ. If you are an atheist, you know these facts from personal experience. It is fair to say that a rational person, given the choice between believing in a deity or joining the most distrusted and disliked minority in the country, will choose to believe in a deity and be part of the largest and most well-regarded social group in the country.

Am I suggesting that there are “believers” who don’t really believe and use Christianity for social status only? Absolutely. But I’m also suggesting that there are many people who clearly understand the reasons for not believing, and perhaps even grasp the inherent danger posed by modern Christianity, and subconsciously create layers of apologist theory to shield themselves from having to face the seemingly awful truth that would force them to abandon the comfort of the group. Any atheist who has debated a Christian has seen the layers of circular logic necessary to answer even the simplest question of faith. For example, examine the question of an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful deity. Did this deity know before he created the universe that he would create literally billions of people who would not profess Jesus as their savior and would therefore be tormented for eternity for not believing a book riddled with inconsistencies and improbabilities? The correct answer is “yes,” but try to get a Christian to say it.Once we establish this, can we describe this being as “good?” Obviously, the answer is “no.” This being would be so atrociously evil that we would have to put Hitler on the list of “pretty ok people.” At least Hitler’s torments only lasted minutes for the lucky ones who got the gas chambers, and years for those forced to endure medical experiments and grotesque abuse in the concentration camps. Again, many Christians have a ready-made answer – “We cannot understand the ways of God. Good doesn’t have the same meaning for him because he is love.” This is obviously circular logic, and is nonsense even if we accept it. If God is truly beyond human comprehension, how do you know that he is good, or bad, or anything, for that matter? The answer to this – “Because he told me.” If you respond by asking if that doesn’t mean that God has given us the means to understand him, you’ll just get more circular logic.

Eventually, most Christians, when backed into a corner, will resort to saying something like, “Well, you just have to have faith, and I can’t make you believe, but I do.” In other words, “You’re right. I don’t have any reason to believe this, but I do, despite the logic that has defeated my arguments.” Faith, by definition, then, is believing something despite all evidence to the contrary. Many Christians will balk at that definition, but it’s true. Not only is there no evidence that the Christian god exists, there’s no evidence that any god exists. None! Even so, they will believe this book of myths that tells them that God made the earth, populated it with people who were predestined to sin, sent himself down to the earth to be sacrificed to himself so that people who believed that he had done this bizarre thing would be saved from a place of eternal torment designed by God for the people who were predestined not to believe such rubbish.

If this seems ludicrous and possibly even insane, it’s not exactly. Believing that all Christians are insane would be, well, insane, but we must be careful of how we're using the word.  Many people with mental disorders are not called insane.  Think of how many people you know who take a mild antidepressant.  Many people with mild bipolar disorder function very well in society, and we don't call them insane. This is where the issue of social pressure becomes paramount. It is much easier to postulate that many people will accept the circular logic if they can convince themselves that A) Christianity makes them feel good, so it’s ok if it doesn’t make sense, or B) Everybody believes it, and it doesn’t do any harm, or C) It’s too scary to think about leaving Christianity, or D) It isn’t worth bucking the system because it wouldn’t change anything for them to leave.

All of these reasons are hedges for the real reason – they are afraid to be ostracized. This fear is so pervasive that their subconscious will not even allow them to consider the possibility that not only are they wrong personally, but that our entire culture is wrong for basing so much of its morality on an ancient fairy tale. The question for atheists who would like to see change is this: “How do we, as atheists, help to create an environment conducive to de-conversion?” I don’t have all the answers to this, and I hope that this essay will spark discussion. I do have some suggestions, though.

First and foremost, it is important for the potential de-convert to see that there is a large group of freethinkers who will happily welcome her to “the group.” She needs to see that not only will her social life not end by leaving religion, but that she will have a strong support group that will be loving and fun and permanent. The best first step in this direction is for atheists to “come out of the closet.” We as a group should be proud of ourselves, and should display our disbelief to anyone who cares to look.

Second, it is important for the potential de-convert to be drawn away from religious influences as much as possible. Think of it this way. It’s a lot easier for a man to think about religion in a critical way if everyone around him has already done it, and seems no worse for wear. The more a theist can retreat to the religion that enslaves him, the more he will want to remain a slave.

Third, and possibly most controversial, I believe theists need to be exposed to embarrassment for their beliefs. Factually, their beliefs are ridiculous, and this needs to be pointed out clearly and often. Logically, their beliefs are nearly insane. This needs to be drilled home at every opportunity. This is difficult, because it’s hard to separate the person from the belief. Remember, we’re talking about people who can understand the logic, but are resisting because of social pressure, so we’re not talking about idiots. I think it’s crucial to remember that the beliefs are stupid. The people are just victims of a mass movement to believe in stupidity. Educate them in the same way you would someone who had never been taught history. (Because many of them are people who heave never been taught history!) Remember the mantra: Build up the person, tear down the belief. {edit: I've already received criticism on this one on my livejournal, but I stand by it. First, let me emphasize that these steps are in chronological order. If you start making fun of their beliefs before they're attached to your group, yes, they will run away as fast as they can. Second, if you think I said we should make fun of Christians, go back and read it again, and again if necessary until you see that I didn't say that. Nowhere in the paragraph did I say we should belittle the people. We should belittle the beliefs and do our best to point out that it's a shame that a person with enough intelligence to be an atheist would believe such silly things! Tear down the belief, build up the person!! I don't know how I can say it any more clearly.}

I think one of the biggest mistakes made by atheists when debating Christians is that they overlook the simple fact that all the logic in the world will not overcome the fear that pulls Christians back into the fold. It takes a two-pronged approach to successfully pull a sheep out of the flock. They need to be exposed to the illogic of their belief, but more importantly, they need to be shown that there is another side of the fence, and that it’s greener – not just from an intellectual standpoint, but from the all-important social standpoint. They need to know that they will not be alone if they choose to leave. They need to know that even if they lose many, or even all of their friends and family, they are not alone, and they will be accepted and loved. In fact, they will be loved based on the intrinsic value of their life, not on their acceptance of someone else’s system of beliefs and morality. There is freedom in atheism, and theists need to be shown how amazing it is to be free.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Thoughts on Jesus' Historicity

I've recently stepped a little out of my comfort zone and entered into a couple of discussions about whether or not there was a historical Jesus.  You can find those discussions here:

I'd like you to look at both of these after you've read a few of my thoughts here.  First, I'd like to state my position very clearly.  I don't know if there was a historical Jesus.  There simply isn't much evidence that there was, but that doesn't mean there wasn't.

My main problem with Jesus historians like James McGrath is one of methodology.  If you read through my comments on his blog, you'll see that for each point he tries to make about one of his proofs of Jesus, I can make one using the same information yet pointing to ahistoricity.

To put it plainly, here are my primary objections to the arguments for Jesus:
1. They invent their own criteria.  
That is, you see things like the "Argument from crucifixion" or "Argument from somebody who claimed to be related 20 years later."  When historians examine other historical figures, they have a fairly straightforward way of determining whether it's a myth or a real person.  Jesus historians bypass this route and make up their own rules.  That bothers me a lot.  Sounds like special pleading.

2. Each argument can be flipped around.
Jesus historians will say that the sheer number of references twenty to fifty years after Jesus supposedly lived point to him being historical.  I can flip that around and say that the complete absence of any contemporary evidence during his life, and for twenty years after, point to the story being a myth.
The same is true for pretty much every argument I've encountered.  Jesus historians seem content to examine only one side of an argument, and when I've pressed them, as I did Dr. McGrath, they accuse me of not understanding history.  Particularly when dealing with people who are supposed to be educators, it seems odd that they don't wish to educate me if that is indeed the case.  
I also notice that when I've asked similar questions of Jesus A-historians, they've been eloquent and informative in explaining why they feel their position is epistemologically more plausible.  So, that leads me to the next point:

3. Jesus A-historians seem to be much calmer about their position, and actually answer my questions.

Typically, people who seem calm and have good answers, even when pressed by the opposition, tend to have better positions.  And like I said, I am not in either camp.  I don't have enough background to make an informed authoritative statement.  All I can say is that the A-historians seem to have their shit together and their arguments seem more coherent.  (And I can make authoritative statements about the coherency of arguments.)

Finally, I'd like to make a really important point by way of analogy.  Wonder Woman is based on a real person.  Elizabeth Marston was the wife of Wonder Woman's creator, William Marston.  He admired her sense of loyalty and honor, and was amazed by her ability to tell when other people were lying.  He created Wonder Woman with a magic lasso and an island of magical Amazon Goddesses.

Here, we must ask a very important question:  Is it fair to say that Wonder Woman was a historical figure?  She's clearly not, even though she is based on someone who actually lived.

Ok, so to everybody who comes down hard on either the side of the Jesus debate, ask yourself what you're really asserting?  Is it possible that there was a homeless guy who preached rebellion and got himself killed by Romans two thousand years ago?  Sure!  There was lots of that kind of thing going on in those days.  

Would that two thousand year old homeless guy resemble the Jesus in the Gospels or Epistles?  Of course not.  Jesus, regardless of the origins of the myth, is just as historical as Wonder Woman.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Free Will, Determinism, and Choice

Matter moves from instability to stability.  This is a basic physical truth.  Sodium is highly unstable, and when it encounters moisture, it changes states rapidly to form more stable compounds.  Rocks last a long time because their atoms have reached a level of high stability.  Eggs fry because the added heat causes their atoms to be in an unstable state, and they naturally move to a more stable state.  Because of the incredible complexity of matter, there are lots of ways that it can be arranged, and because of the incredibly complex systems of movement in the universe and the incredible amount of energy it contains, it's going to take a really damn long time before the eventual state of "complete stability" is reached.  (Assuming, of course, that the universe isn't going to contract again.)

What has this got to do with free will?  Everything.  The first replicator on earth, whatever it was, came to exist because it was following this principle.  The configuration of the first replicator was stable enough that atoms "wanted" to move into it, the same way that salt wants to form cubic crystals.  At each step of evolution, the next level of complexity was reached by the same process.  You can think of it as two laws working together.  The physical law of "survival of the stable" interacted with the mathematical law of "survival of the fittest" which actually ought to be renamed "survival of the best equipped to survive."  It is so simple as to be perfectly obvious when we say it that way.

Anyway, at some point, replicators developed rudimentary walls to insulate themselves from the environment.  Eventually, cells developed.  Eventually after that, some cells developed the ability to work together with other cells, and the inevitable math of Game Theory was set in motion.  What is crucially important to bear in mind is that all of this happened completely without consciousness.  It was the inevitable result of the interaction of survival of the stable with survival of the best able to survive.

Jump ahead in evolutionary history, and you get to a huge moment, where eukaryotes and prokaryotes split from each other.  After that, plants and animals split.  Here's where things started to get really interesting.  Plants, for whatever reason, never got around to moving very fast, or being able to perform what we can call "free movement."  They pretty much just grow.  Animals, on the other hand, discovered the benefit of much faster movement.  The earliest animals (which would have been a lot more like a paramecium than a rat), "learned" how to eat other animals and plants.  Remember, all of this happened without consciousness because matter always moves from instability to stability.  It's really, really important that you keep this in mind.

Soon, through natural selection, some individuals developed very rudimentary senses.  Perhaps it was the ability to detect a chemical in the water which indicated that potential prey was nearby.  Perhaps it was the ability to react to the intensity of light.  It doesn't matter.  What matters is that this was a HUGE advantage.  Through nothing but blind matter interacting with other blind matter, the senses came to exist.  Soon, complexity added to complexity and early versions of what would become nerves developed.  Once animals had muscles and nerves, they were able to perform astounding feats of independent movement.  Their eyes developed into the complex organs they are today.  Their hearts, lungs, and livers all developed in complexity, and one other extremely important organ developed as well -- their brain.

At first, brains were very rudimentary, but the engineering advantage of having a central "control station" are undeniable.  Through millions of years, brains grew in size and complexity.  At each step, the animals became better and better adapted to their environment, still following the principles of survival of the stable and survival of the best able to survive.  The way brains work is really astonishing.  Specialized cells called neurons link with other neurons into long chains, through which unbroken chains of reactions can take place.  You can think of it like a row of dominoes.  An outside stimuli (your finger) knocks over the first domino, and without any further influence, the entire row topples, one at a time. This happens because of the laws of physics. So it is in brains. When light enters an eye, the cells in the eye have no option but to do what they naturally do. Light triggers a change in one cell, which triggers a change in another cell, and so on. The matter which makes up an eye must move from instability to instability, and the only way to do this is to react in the way it has been arranged to react.

The earliest brains didn't produce anything approaching what we call consciousness. They were just control centers made of matter that couldn't help how it had been arranged. However, through the inevitable laws of matter, increasingly complex brains were bound to develop. If it is beneficial to be able to see prey and chase it, it is more beneficial to be able to see prey, chase it, and make rudimentary predictions about its future actions. Such a leap in brain development may seem huge, and perhaps in terms of time, it was. It isn't that hard to conceive, though.

Memory is something that happens in very simple animals. Even simple worms can be “trained” to react to certain stimuli. All we need to do to imagine the birth of memory is to imagine an arrangement of matter in an early animal in which repeated occurrences of the same stimulus would create a permanent change in the animal itself, thus altering the way it behaved. No consciousness is necessary, and the exact mechanism is extraneous to this discussion. All we need to be concerned with is the fact that it's not hard to imagine rudimentary memory coming into existence.

Once memory existed, it is not hard to imagine it becoming more and more complex as brains became larger and more complex. The first predictive behavior, then, is easy to imagine. After chasing several prey animals in exactly the same pattern, a permanent change happened in the hunter such that the next time it chased a similar prey, it “anticipated” the movement, quite automatically.

With memory and prediction came great evolutionary advantage, so it's not hard to imagine these kinds of creatures proliferating. We can imagine two kinds of creatures, however. The first kind of creature could see its prey, chase it, and predict its movements, and would pursue relentlessly, even to the point of exhaustion or death. The second kind of creature, with the same abilities, also had the tendency to stop chasing its pray when its own energy began running low, but before exhaustion set in. This simple modification to behavior patterns needs no grand explanation. Again, all it takes is imagining a small mutation which produced the behavior once. It requires no consciousness, but it is the beginning of something amazing. From this simple change in behavior, the ability to weigh options developed.

Suppose that a creature encountered two potential meals at the same time. It could only chase one of them. Any creature which had a rudimentary ability to judge the chances of success for each of two chases would have a stunning advantage over those which just randomly chased one or the other. This is a big leap in brain development, but again, it does not bring us to the point of consciousness in the modern philosophical sense. These animals were still what Richard Dawkins has called “survival machines.” They were doing what they did because the matter in their bodies (now arranged in staggeringly complex ways) did what it had to do.

Hopefully, you can see where I'm going with this. Each step of brain development happened through the same process of survival of the stable combining with survival of the best able to survive. The discussion of what exactly constitutes consciousness may seem like a huge concern, but it is not. In the same way that there is no such thing as the single ancestor of humans that was the “first human,” there is also no exact divide between consciousness and unconsciousness, at least from a biological point of view. This may seem controversial, but please make sure you understand precisely what I'm saying, and more importantly, what I'm not saying.

Goldfish have memories, and can recognize individuals of their own species, as well as other species. Their brains transmit impulses through nerves in such a way that they can perform feats of apparent purpose like traversing a maze to get to food. I doubt many people would suggest that they are fully sentient beings. One of the main reasons for this is that even though they show apparent purpose, they do so predictably and mechanically. If they're hungry, and food is placed at the end of the maze, they will move towards it and eat. Higher animals, however, show a lot more autonomy – that is, ability to take one option over another based on analysis of sensory data. An ape, by all appearances, spends time “deciding” whether or not to attack another ape, and we can only assume that his brain is processing data from the ape's memory, and is weighing the potential for victory against the potential for defeat, and perhaps even the possibility of personal injury in either case.

While this may be an incredible dilemma for philosophers, it's not that big of a deal to biologists. Goldfish have less complex brains than cats, which have less complex brains than monkeys, which have less complex brains than dolphins, which have less complex brains than humans. The measure of an animal's ability to perform predictive analysis is a measure of their brain's size and complexity. Period. There's no such thing as a really smart earthworm because earthworms don't have complex big brains.

Before we can finally address free will, we must perform a couple of mental exercises. First, think about an ant. Do you have any problem thinking of an ant as a creature that simply reacts to its environment based on its genetic programming? I would hope not. Ants simply don't do things like quit their job or decide to move to another anthill. Ants do what ants do, and nothing else. They do it predictably, and when we do experiments on their genes, we can reprogram them to do other things just as predictably.

Ants have brains that were “designed” just like every other part of their body, as a natural result of the survival of the stable combined with survival of the best able to survive. They are alive, but not sentient, according to every philosopher I can think of. Yet, even these simple creatures show remarkable behaviors that seem “intelligent.” Some varieties of ants engage in “tandem running,” a process by which one ant leads another ant to a food source. It requires many adjustments, and happens methodically, as if each ant “intends” to find food. Still, we can imagine that the ant genes have programmed their carriers to perform this way, and they do so because they have no choice in the matter. They are ants, and their genes, like everything else in their bodies, must obey the law of survival of the stable.

Bees, as most people are now aware, have a system of communication that is virtually unrivaled in the animal world. They do an incredibly complex dance to indicate to their hivemates the distance to food, quantity of food, and exact direction. Still, it is clearly a genetic behavior, for all bees do it the same way, and they do it predictably, without the ability to “decide” to do otherwise. They have genes that dictate their behavior by causing proteins to be built in a particular way, and those proteins, acting entirely according to the law of survival of the stable, react with other proteins in exactly the “correct” way, on up the line of complexity, until the amalgam of all those chemicals, a bee, behaves precisely as it must behave.

At some point, though, we're going to have to address the philosophical leap that comes with the existence of what we call “sentience.” For our purposes, it won't matter precisely what sentience is, but it is important to note something of critical importance. Whatever sentience is, it is that way because there are genes within the sentient animal which, according to the law survival of the stable, caused chemicals to interact in completely predictable ways to “build” a being capable of sentient thought.

The last paragraph is staggeringly important. We must realize that whatever a brain allows us to do, it does so because it was built to do so by genes. Every stimulus that a creature encounters causes a series of unavoidable events to occur. When an eye opens, chemicals react with other chemicals to create nerve impulses that must go to the brain, where the brain must render them as images, and the creature must perceive the external world in whatever fashion it has been built. Once that image has been perceived, the same kinds of neural impulses unavoidably travel through the brain in complex patterns, triggering still more reactions, and still more, until the entire organism can be said to have reacted (in whatever way) to the stimulus.

Finally, now, we can address free will. The first thing we must do to address it properly is to define it. This might prove to be much harder than we first imagine. We can say that free will is the ability to make choices, but this is unsatisfactory. When a spider walking across the forest floor encounters a log, it can either turn left, turn right, turn back, or climb up. Alternatively, it could just stay right where it is. It has quite a few “choices” and will make one of them. It cannot avoid making one of them unless it suddenly dies. Because time moves forward, and there are many potential actions for any creature at any given time, we can say that all creatures make choices.

Clearly, we need to work on our definition of choice if free will is to have any meaning. Perhaps it means taking one option over another based on rational choice, rational meaning “conforming to the laws of logic.” This is also unsatisfactory because many animals who are not aware of the laws of logic do precisely that. Apes, when sizing up a potential opponent, very often make the “correct” decision based on the size and strength of the potential opponent and the “chooser's” memory of previous battles. Yet, most people are unhappy with the conclusion that apes have free will.

Perhaps for free will to exist, the creature must be able to think in the abstract. That is, it must be able to run “simulations” in its brain, and must be able to think of concepts, not just objects or actions. This easily eliminates most creatures from the discussion of free will, although not necessarily all. Dolphins, apes, and even parrots have shown the ability to understand the concept of rational numbers. Dolphins and apes have both demonstrated rudimentary ability to predict the outcome of an action based on abstract thinking, and both have demonstrated the ability to imitate with modification.

In any case, I said that the philosophy behind sentience was irrelevant, and it is. By illustrating the problems with these definitions, I hope to show you that the definitions aren't really flawed. The concept itself is flawed. If you've followed my somewhat tedious tour through evolutionary history, you've realized that at every step of brain development, new abilities were added naturally through immutable physical forces. This is in direct opposition to thespirit of any argument for free will, regardless of the exact definition.

When I speak of the spirit of the free will argument, I mean this: humans possess consciousness and sentience, which allow us to control ourselves in any way we desire, and to enforce our “will” upon the universe. What I want you to see is that this kind of thinking is backwards, for it assumes something existing independently of the law of survival of the stable. For us to be conscious, impulses must move through neurons in our brain. These impulses exist before consciousness. They must. The inescapable conclusion is that our brains cause us to be conscious.

Let's think now about what happens when we humans make a choice. Suppose I am at a restaurant, and am offered the choice of chicken or fish. The waiter asks me which one I want. My ears receive the vibrations caused by the waiter's mouth and vocal cords. Without any external “will” causing it to happen, the vibrations are translated into nerve impulses which travel, completely on their own – because they are obeying the law of survival of the stable – to the part of my brain which, through no conscious will of its own, processes sound. I cannot help but comprehend the waiter, for my brain is doing what it must do. It is sending neural impulses to and from various parts of my brain, all of them unavoidably doing what they must do because they are matter and they are seeking stability.

Once my brain has translated the vibrations into a concept, I cannot help the reality that follows. My brain is now in a state. Either I desire chicken, or I desire fish, or I desire neither. I cannot change this state, for I am matter, and my brain has done what it had to do, and my preference is now a reality in time. I cannot help but move forward in time, and I must act in one the thousands of ways potentially available to me. If you think about it, there are probably hundreds of thousands of things I could do in the next second after entering the state of being aware of my preference.

I will do something in response to the question. Most likely, I will speak, expressing my desire for one or the other. The important question is this: Did I decide to speak, or did I speak because my brain caused me to do so? Here is where the survival of the stable plays its trump card. We really have two choices here. Either my brain caused me to have a preference, and then caused me to speak, or something else caused me to have a preference and then speak.

To suggest that something else caused me to have a preference is to defy time, for we have already recognized the simple truth that uncontrollable interactions of matter happen in the brain and then a state is reached. To put it another way, a “choice” in the religious or philosophical sense of the word would really involve moving backwards in time! First, a state would have to exist, and then act upon the brain in some way so as to put the brain in the chosen state. However, as we've seen, perceptions cause neural impulses which cause brain activity which causes a state.

Perhaps an even bigger problem with the idea of an independent choice is that it violates the law of survival of the stable. If matter is unstable, it must move to stability if that move is available. If several possible stable states are available in the environment, we can predict which one a particular piece of matter will “choose” based on its atomic structure. (For illustration, notice that even though there's plenty of carbon available from the operation of an internal combustion engine, there has never been an exhaust pipe that randomly spewed diamonds instead of carbon dioxide.)

Some might object that I am being overly reductionist. To this accusation, I would make two responses. First, the accusation of reductionism is not an argument. It's an objection. There's no reason that a reductionist viewpoint is inherently wrong. Second, I would say that reductionism need not eliminate broader interpretations of the same phenomena. For example, I can say that a computer program is nothing but ones and zeros, and that is true. This does not mean that I cannot use a computer program to write a book.

The broad point that I'm attempting to make is not that humans do not make choices, or that we are not highly autonomous creatures. I am trying to establish the unavoidable reality that humans do not control brains. Brains control humans. Before I can decide on a course of action, my brain must perceive the situation, and having perceived it, go through the unconscious and uncontrollable series of chemical events that will put me in a state of awareness of the options. Any decision I make is the result of brain activity, not the cause of it.

It might be helpful at this point to think of the brain as a computer. Just as a computer has a series of ones and zeros that “make it work,” so do our brains, only the brain is built on four letters instead of two numbers. The code for our brain is DNA. Also analogous to a computer, our code is set up in such a way that it causes a series of events in the material universe.

Think of a chess playing computer. The binary code for such a program doesn't include instructions for every possible chess scenario. This would take an astronomically large code, and it would be so slow that a single game of chess would take as long as the time our solar system has been in existence, even if we imagine a stupendously fast processor. Instead, the program includes general instructions – rules for piece movement and strategic advice, for instance. It might say something like, “In general, pawns are expendable before queens, but if the payoff is high enough, sacrificing the queen is advisable.”

Of course, all of this is rendered in ones and zeros, and it's not important to explain the exact mechanism by which they translate into a computer program. We all know that this is the way it works, even if we don't know exactly how. Our brains are very much the same way. We are built with simple sets of instructions: Avoid that which causes pain. Seek that which causes pleasure; Attempt to mate. Seek companionship; When your stomach rumbles, eat food; When your mouth is dry, drink water. Of course, in a human, there are far more complex sets of instructions, and many of the instructions clash from time to time. For instance, if one has to reach into a thornbush to get fruit, the instruction to avoid physical discomfort is in conflict with the instruction to obtain food.

If you've ever seen a computer play chess, you know that it can predict its opponent's moves. In fact, if you could bring someone back to life from a time before computers existed, and show them a screen with a game in progress, they would likely swear on their life that humans were controlling the moves. Chess programs give every outward appearance of being sentient because their programming is sufficiently complex to create those appearances. Here, we can ask a very pointed question: Is there a difference between a game of chess played by two humans and one played by two computers? The answer is that there is not. The mechanics of the game are exactly the same, as is the strategy and the outcome. In fact, we could easily build robots to move physical pieces on an actual chess board, and for the purposes of winning a chess game, there would be absolutely no difference whatsoever. A game of chess is being played. There is either a winner and a loser, or the game is a draw.

Humans are chess playing computers. Our circuitry is much more complex, and we are able to do far more than play chess, but that is the reality of it. Our genes carry instructions for building a human being with a brain that causes consciousness to exist. Our brains operate from a set of instructions given to us by the same genes. A brief examination of all the humans we've ever seen will bear out the reality of this. All1 humans do many things in exactly the same way. All humans feel roughly the same set of emotions, and they feel them as a result of roughly the same kinds of events. All humans come with a complete set of plans for understanding and utilizing language.

To put it succinctly, we are sentient, conscious, highly adaptive animals because our genes made us that way. We cannot be anything else. To extend the computer analogy even further, at any given moment, our brains contain an unalterable set of data. When we make a choice, just as when a computer makes a choice, our brain is processing all the relevant data it can access through an algorithm that has been set by the program (genes and binary, respectively). Once the computation is finished, the brain and CPU put their machine into a state that once again, has been set by the program.

Where humans have a distinct advantage over computers is our immense capacity for learning and adapting to our environment. What we must realize, however, is that our adaptability is not limitless. We are still bound by the limits of our programming, and some things cannot be undone. Two sobering examples are sexual abuse and drug use. To put it bluntly, show me a woman who was sexually abused as a child, and I'll show you a woman who isn't over it. Just like the simple animals whose bodies physically change because of external stimuli, so to do our complex human bodies. Particularly during the formative years, when new neural connections are still being formed, our environment has a huge impact on us. Some environmental factors, like drugs, exert their effects regardless of the age of the person. Methamphetamine is a perfect example. Regardless of when a person takes it, there will be permanent, irreversible changes to the brain, which will result in permanent changes in the way the person perceives and thinks.

With everything we have learned about human behavior, we must realize that we are at a milestone of human history. The knowledge of evolution has taken us leaps and bounds ahead of where we were two hundred years ago, but we have been violently opposed to accepting the natural and obvious conclusion evolution gives us about human nature. We are not conscious beings who happen to have a body to go with our mind. We are incredibly complex programs that have the ability to perform remarkable feats of mental computation. We are animals that have evolved so much brain power that we can think of ourselves as having “free will.”

In closing this essay, I feel that it is necessary to refute some of the most common objections to this line of reasoning. The one that comes to mind immediately is this: If we really have no free will, than what justification do we have for laws, or punishment, or rewards, or anything like that? The answer ought to be obvious, but I will explain it for the sake of being thorough. Our programs include self interest and the ability to conceive of strategies that will harm others for our own benefit. Like all animals, we tend to do those things that we can get away with when they benefit us. We are also programmed to be intensely social animals. We are smart enough to realize that without disincentives, some people will take advantage of other people. Laws and jails and social stigma are all disincentives, and they often have exactly the desired effect. People avoid doing things that would benefit them and harm others when they know that they are very likely to be punished. The question of free will is irrelevant.

Knowledge of punishment changes behavior, whether that behavior is motivated by free will or programming. Think again of the computer analogy. It would be easy to invent a computer game in which both players have chances to cheat. It would also be easy to invent periodic “referee checks” in which a third player would check the field for evidence of cheating and penalize the cheater accordingly. Even a modestly good programmer could design code to instruct the computer players in the best way to avoid being punished. As the frequency of referee checks increased, cheating would decrease accordingly. Consciousness is not necessary for this simple set of principles to work.

Another common objection I hear is that scientists cannot prove that humans are not different than the animals. Perhaps we do actually have something that has risen above the level of animal consciousness. Maybe we really are different in kind. Of course, this argument commits the same fallacy as the argument that atheists can't disprove the existence of God. In all cases, the burden of proof is on the claimant, and anyone who claims that human consciousness is different in kind from any other animal has a brobdingnagian task set for himself. Certainly we can do mental tasks that other animals can't, and our powers of abstraction and conceptualization are unrivaled, but this is no justification for the statement that we are not completely under the control of our genes, just like every other animal. We must remember that any mental ability we have is the direct result of our genes building us this way. If we have the choice to act in illogical ways, or contrary to the dictates of our nature, it is because it is in our nature to be able to do so!

When the previous objections fail, people often say that lack of free will makes life meaningless, since we're just mindless robots running around doing exactly what our programming tells us to do. This is a good example of finding the nearest pool and taking a belly flop into the deep end. Our programming gives us consciousness, and our consciousness gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. We get up in the morning because we're programmed to have sleep cycles, but we also get up in the morning because we want to make money at our jobs. We want to make money because we want to have a house and attract a mate and be able to buy status symbols and gadgets to make our lives easier. Purpose comes from living, regardless of what causes us to live.

Finally, I want to address a question rather than an objection. Many people may ask why I am so intent on going through all the trouble of explaining this if in the end, the question of free will is ultimately meaningless. If it doesn't matter that we are programs, and that our programs give us the sense that we are free willed, why bother refuting the concept of free will?

To answer this, I must first say that the distinction is not meaningless. From religion to politics to economics, people make broad sweeping decisions based on the notion that people really can decide anything they want. Personally, I think the flaws in this thinking are most obvious in politics. Lawmakers often assume (falsely) that humans will change their behavior if only the right law is enacted. Even though history demonstrates repeatedly that this is a false assumption, we continue to see bad policies enacted. The reality is that people do not and will not behave outside of their programming. Laws demanding that people not act like humans are doomed to cause suffering.

At the time of this writing, there is a very good example of this kind of thinking in my own city. Over the past several years, the city council has passed several draconian policies regarding the consumption of alcohol by minors and the selling of alcohol to minors. The feeling is that it's an awful thing for college students to drink, and that by punishing drinking severely, they can stop the behavior. Unfortunately, the laws are ill-conceived and doomed to failure. Rather than curb the amount of drinking done by college students, they have forced students to drink in private. Unlike in bars, where bartenders can refuse service to anyone who appears too drunk, there is no supervision at all in private homes, and young drinkers are actually drinking more than they did before. Drinks at a bar are more expensive than bottles of liquor from the store, so for the same amount of money, students are drinking more, without any outside influences to try to slow them down if they're drinking too much.

College students will drink because drinking is fun for humans, and is generally harmless if they don't drive afterward. Trying to stop them is generally futile, unless extremely drastic measures are taken. Rather than enforce a police state on campus and in the bars, a better solution would be to enact policies that encourage college students to drink responsibly. Perhaps an even better solution would be to look at the rest of the world and see that eighteen year olds are allowed to drink in many places, and civilization has not collapsed because of it.

In religion we see another clear example of this faulty concept in action. Abstinence only education, as I've mentioned before, is a monument to the stupidity of trying to get humans to act far outside of their nature. We are designed to have sex, and we're designed to want it most fervently in the years before most people are getting married these days. Still, Christians insist that premarital sex is wrong and that nobody should ever do it. They insist that if only we teach children how to behave, they will behave that way.

The evidence could not be more clear. Abstinence only education doesn't stop people from having sex. It only stops them from using condoms. Humans are literally alive to have sex, from a gene's point of view. That is why humans are obsessed with sex. It's not because we're evil, or that society is corrupt, or that we've gone “away from our nature.” Of course, this is not to say that humans ought to go out and have orgies with complete strangers every night. That's not in our nature either. The fact is, regardless of the laws or teaching policies, people do what people are going to do. I've addressed this at length in the chapters on human sexuality, so I will not belabor the point here.

This brings up a counter-objection. If we can't stop humans from being humans, how can we ever expect to make society better? After all, some things that are perfectly natural for humans are also very, very wrong. Humans are capable of committing rape and murder, and these behaviors are just as natural as giving money to the poor and sending baby pictures to the proud grandparents. To answer this question, I will again point out that recognizing that we are programs does not lead to the conclusion that we can only act in one way, or that we don't have purpose. We do have purpose, and one of the most noble of those purposes is the betterment of society for the good of all citizens. If we decide (because of our programming) that we ought to build a society where everyone has healthcare, then we can do that. The fact that our genes programmed us with the ability to reach such a decision doesn't make the decision any less valid.

Furthermore, the prohibitions on sex and drinking are not based on empirical reality. They are based on a very old religion. Humans have been drinking and having sex before marriage since the invention of alcohol and marriage. Society has not collapsed, and there's never been any evidence that either activity damages either individuals or society as a whole in any significant way. In fact, both sex and alcohol have been important parts of rituals that have cemented various societies for thousands of years. Murder and rape are empirically bad. Murder ends a life and rape causes extreme mental trauma and possibly passes on STDs or causes serious physical injury. As I've explained in another essay, morality is subjective, but it is not arbitrary. With more scientific understanding of what human nature is, we can use our critical thinking to decide what is right and what is wrong based on the results of the actions, and try to mold society in such a way as to reduce the bad and increase the good as much as possible.

Humans have the capacity for good and for evil. They decide which to do because of genetic programming. The environment is the main factor that determines how the programming will manifest itself, just as a chess machine's next move is dictated by the current state of the board. Now that we are aware of these facts, we have, for the first time in human history, the chance to use science to help us predict the best ways to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. Rather than taking something away from humanity, the knowledge that we are gene survival machines has given us the chance to mold society in exciting new ways. Instead of trying to metaphorically fit a cube into a round hole, we can now think of how to change the shape of the hole so that the cube will fit. We can flip our thinking around and work towards building an environment that triggers our programming in ways that will improve things for everyone. Science can teach us how to improve society. We only have to embrace the previously discomforting thought that we aren't as free willed as we would like to believe.



1For the remainder of this paragraph, the word all means “virtually all, excluding those humans with genetic disorders that exclude them from this group.”


Rationality through Fluffy Fur and Pointy Claws

Is there such a thing as a God or Gods?