Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Rambling Bullshit That I Could not Have Not Written

So there I am, sitting at my laptop, clicking the Stumble! button for my StumbleUpon app, happily neglecting to provide anyone anything of value, when I came across this article. It's about free will in the face of determinism, or rather it's about us being a part of the universe, following the rules of the universe, and therefore leaving no room for free will.

Up to this point, I am mostly in agreement. The idea of free will as "could I have done differently than I did," seems to be debunked by our knowledge of determinism and the fact that we too are a part of the chain of cause and effect.

The article seems to be using the fact that the body can be made to act in certain ways by stimulating certain parts of the brain, to highlight the fact that we are just machines. By "machines," he seems to mean that we are organisms that respond in deterministic ways to stimuli. He argues that the illusion of free will arises from the fact that we deal with a large number of competing stimuli and have a large number of possible output (all determined, though, of course), all this variety gives us the illusion that we have free will.

However, I think the article fails to play up the fact that we are still making choices. We are faced with options, and we are only actually capable of choosing the option that we do in fact choose (due to determinism), however it is still the result of the values, preferences, internal chemistry, psychology, environmental factors, and any other relevant factors competing internally to make up our character.

Our will is by no means undetermined, but it is still no less ours. Our decisions may not be capable of being anything other than they are, but there is something that can be called "me" that is a part of that chain of causation. My will is the cause of my actions, even though my will is itself the effect of earlier causes.

Perhaps I just resent the idea that we are merely machines, but I think what I truly take issue with is the often unstated, but seemingly presumed, idea that determinism removes will. It does not, my will is still very much existent, it simply is not free, my will is itself the result of a multitude of competing influences.

And besides, what would free will be anyway? Would you call randomness freedom? No, you think of free will as being the freedom to want what you want. It's classically thought of as "the ability to do otherwise," but I don't think that's really what most people think about when they conceive of free will. They conceive of it as the ability to have desires. Determinism doesn't take that away, it merely explains that the desires are themselves the result of causes.

This is nothing shocking, we've always known that people raised one way will will differently from people raised another. And this is just a simplistic example of determinism.

The article has the professor being interviewed saying, "I still seem to decide what films I go to see, I don't feel it's predestined, though it must be determined somewhere in my brain." To which I respond, that he did decide what films he went to see, and it was determined in his brain somewhere, because he is his brain.

Alternately, maybe I've completely misrepresented the current view of determinism in modern neuroscience and have therefore attacked a strawman that only exists in my head. It doesn't matter, I couldn't have done otherwise.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Life Has an Expiration Date

Original Posting

If there is no afterlife, then there is a termination to your life. There is a point at which you will no longer exist. You will see nothing, you will feel nothing, you will know nothing. Positivity and negativity give way to absolute neutrality. All these facts about death are meaningless to dead men, because they can't know them or be moved to feeling by them. The fact of death can only affect those still alive.

The fact of death creates an opportunity cost for everything we do; because the fact that life will one day end means that we don't have infinity moments. Every moment we spend on an activity (or inactivity) is a moment that can't be spent doing anything else. The time you spend reading this blog is gone forever, there might be a million better things you could do, but you didn't do them, you did this instead. For a few moments, reading this blog was your greatest priority, because for a few moments that's where your focus was.

The only way we stay sane is by taking life one day at a time, maybe with long term goals, but mostly with our focus on the things we have in front of us. That's why we don't feel the loss when we spend thirty minutes watching an old rerun, or the loss of waiting on someone else, or the loss you feel after spending sixteen hours on the internet with nothing to show for it. Because we know that we've got another day coming, and it feels like we'll never run out of those days.

But you will.

Does this change anything? Maybe, maybe not. After all, once you're dead, you can't feel regret. You'll only regret wasting your life while you're still alive, once you're dead it can't matter to you anymore.

But everyone spends a little time wondering what the entirety of their life will look like. What kind of a man will you be, what will you spend your life doing, what will you value in life? And the potentially horrifying thing is that you have limited moments to put into defining yourself. Do you want to be a fiction writer? Are you prepared to give up the moments that you could otherwise use to become a historian? Or give up the moments needed to be a programmer? Did you know that there are people who have dedicated their life to being the best at Street Fighter 2? Really consider that: they have a life, and they have chosen to live their life for Street Fighter 2.

And why shouldn't they?

How we spend our time defines us as a person. You won't regret it at the end, because you'll be dead, it's all a question of what you want to be while you're actively defining yourself. Because there aren't infinite do-overs, and you can't be everything, you have only so many moments with which to create your character.

And you never feel this, because you take everything one day at a time. And wasting your life doesn't hurt so long as you piss it away one day at a time.

This is your life. Every moment defines you as a person. So make every moment count... or don't. Like I said, it doesn't matter, it's all the same once you're dead. It's all a question of what you want to be while you're still alive.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Facts, Preference, and Intellectuals

Original Posting

We all have our given talent in life; for some people it's charisma, for some people it's physical strength, and for some it's intelligence. These talents tend to color our approach to the world, and can become pretty powerful biases. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Similarly, if all you have is charisma, every problem is about persuasion. If all you have is strength, every problem needs to be punched. And if all you have is intelligence, every problem is about facts and education.

What I'm driving at, is that we tend to see all the problems of the world through the lens of our dominate trait. That's why feminists blame men for war and potheads think weed will bring about world peace; those are the traits they define themselves by. People who identify as intellectuals tend to fall into the same bias, they think that all (or at least most) of the world's problems can be solved through education. They think that problems only occur because people don't have all the facts, if they really understood reality, then there would be no need for disagreement or conflict.

This is bullshit.

For the simple fact that we don't live life according to facts, we live life according to preference. People don't get degrees and then get jobs because it's a fact that they must, they do it because they prefer employment to non-employment. They are guided by the facts, but the facts are there to show the means to their ends, which are determined by their preferences.

Even if the intellectual understands this, there is a tendency to resist it. Because this undermines the value of knowledge. So some among them continue to believe that the answer to society's ills is more facts, more knowledge. That's why you'll hear people suggest that racism can be defeated by education; as though racists only exist because they don't have all the facts. Or why you'll hear that the tobacco industry can be defeated by educating people about the dangers of smoking, as though smokers are not already bombarded with information about the dangers of smoking.

What makes preference so dangerous is that the only way one man can obtain power over another man's preferences is through charisma or force, not logic. If a man prefers vanilla to chocolate, you can try to make chocolate seem more appealing with smooth talk, or you can beat his face in until he agrees to act as though chocolate is better, but you can't prove to him that chocolate is more desirable since desire is based upon his preferences to begin with*.

If our values aren't backed up by the facts, how can we say that people who disagree with us are wrong? And if we can't do that, what good is the intellectual? We can't have a Philosopher King without an objective, factual good for him to grasp.

*you can prove that more people prefer chocolate to vanilla (this is an example, I don't know if it is true), but not that chocolate is inherently better to vanilla.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Creating Meaning in the Search

Original Posting

I just finished watching a film I like a few hours ago, and throughout the film I remember constantly asking myself: "what does this mean? How does this reveal the character's worldview. How does this reflect how he sees the world?" And after asking the question, I would try to provide an answer, "this reflects his inherent egotism, and this shows how he feels his masculinity is threatened, and this is a result of his class consciousness." My explanation always felt like it was a bit of a stretch, like it was something you would not think of if you were not watching a movie.

Because when you are consuming fiction, you expect everything to be significant. The idea that something was just inserted arbitrarily seems like lazy viewing (or lazy reading), so we want to find out the significance of every line and every scene.

It then occurred to me, that since we're expecting to find all kinds of significance and meaning in the work we're viewing/reading, we begin creating significance for the events. You feel like an idiot if you can't find the significance in a scene, because that means that the scene was lost on you. If you've got an ego to protect (as I do), then the idea that there is no deeper meaning in what you're watching becomes hard to swallow. So you have to make something. You have to fit the scenes together and find the pattern that was placed there by the director or the author.

And most of the time, this seems appropriate. The human mind derives pleasure from finding patterns, and movies are made by human minds and with the goal of pleasuring other human minds being a goal. But then, I have to wonder, how difficult would it be to write something with no greater significance in mind? If you made it sound as though there were important insights to uncover in the text, then people would go searching for subtext, symbolism, meaning, and philosophy where there is none.

And they won't be content, so they'll make some up. They'll create all the depth for you.

And as I write this, I realize, that books and movies that take advantage of this would be the most effective books. It allows the reader/viewer to take whatever they care about and project it onto the art. That way a single story can be about gender studies to a feminist, economic imbalance to a communist, the importance of faith to a theist, and so on. It does not comment, it just provides a vessel for people to dump their own preoccupations.

Is this desirable? Well, it provides wonderful opportunities for mental masturbation. It would make it difficult for an artist to effect social change, but if the work is successful enough, then the critics will provide the interpretations necessary to turn it into social commentary. Besides, coming to a conclusion is always more fun than having a conclusion thrust upon you; needless vagueness and obscurity ensures that people can interpret you a way that tickles their confirmation bias. That leads to more popularity and more money.

Next time you're talking about the significance and depth of a work, perhaps you should stop and wonder if you're discovering the significance, or creating it. Then, just keep right on ahead, because there is no reason that should get in the way of the fun.

P.S. The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs from South Park says this same thing in a funnier way. Or maybe I just created that interpretation because I didn't want to believe I was just watching a cartoon about Sarah Jessica Parker's appearance.