Friday, December 16, 2016


Interesting musings on free will from "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang - the novella upon which the film "Arrival" was based.

 Was it actually possible to know the future? Not simply to guess at it; was it possible to know what was going to happen, with absolute certainty and in specific detail? Gary once told me that the fundamental laws of physics were time-symmetric, that there was no physical difference between past and future. Given that, some might say, “yes, theoretically.” But speaking more concretely, most would answer “no,” because of free will.
I liked to imagine the objection as a Borgesian fabulation: consider a person standing before the Book of Ages, the chronicle that records every event, past and future. Even though the text has been photoreduced from the full-sized edition, the volume is enormous. With magnifier in hand, she flips through the tissue-thin leaves until she locates the story of her life. She finds the passage that describes her flipping through the Book of Ages, and she skips to the next column, where it details what she'll be doing later in the day: acting on information she's read in the Book, she'll bet one hundred dollars on the racehorse Devil May Care and win twenty times that much.
The thought of doing just that had crossed her mind, but being a contrary sort, she now resolves to refrain from betting on the ponies altogether.
There's the rub. The Book of Ages cannot be wrong; this scenario is based on the premise that a person is given knowledge of the actual future, not of some possible future. If this were Greek myth, circumstances would conspire to make her enact her fate despite her best efforts, but prophecies in myth are notoriously vague; the Book of Ages, is quite specific, and there's no way she can be forced to bet on a racehorse in the manner specified. The result is a contradiction: the Book of Ages must be right, by definition; yet no matter what the Book says she'll do, she can choose to do otherwise. How can these two facts be reconciled?
They can't be, was the common answer. A volume like the Book of Ages is a logical impossibility, for the precise reason that its existence would result in the above contradiction. Or, to be generous, some might say that the Book of Ages could exist, as long as it wasn't accessible to readers: that volume is housed in a special collection, and no one has viewing privileges.
The existence of free will meant that we couldn't know the future. And we knew free will existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness.
Or was it? What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?

...perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently; the world-views that ultimately across were the end result of that divergence. Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose.

...The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don't act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods' mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history's events; it is also that their motives coincide with history's purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.
Freedom isn't an illusion; it's perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness. Within the context of simultaneous consciousness, freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it's simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other. It's like that famous optical illusion, the drawing of either an elegant young woman, face turned away from the viewer, or a wart-nosed crone, chin tucked down on her chest. There's no “correct” interpretation; both are equally valid. But you can't see both at the same time.
Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future. Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don't talk about it. Those who've read the Book of Ages never admit to it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sunday Assembly

I'll be preaching in secular church this coming Sunday at 10 am, at Nashville's Sunday Assembly. They meet now at the lovely Scarritt-Bennett Center. Their website's events page falsely credentials me in psychology, as a "super ace" - ? - but I'll be happy to join them under any label. 
This month, don't worry, be happy. Or, at least, let's consider the ups and downs of "Happiness". The super ace Phil Oliver, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Middle Tennessee State University will tell us what researchers have found out about happiness.
My subject: Happiness: A Free Person's Worship, alluding both to Bertrand Russell's 1903 "A Free Man's Worship" and his 1930 Conquest of Happiness. The former reflects Russell's early Platonic phase, but both are concerned with how to achieve godless happiness in a finite and indifferent cosmos.

One of the students in my Atheism & Philosophy course reported on his SA visit in 2014, a "great experience" with "incredibly friendly" people.

Julian Baggini did a similar thing when he spoke to an Anglican Church in England, beginning by "repeating that tired cliché of our times: 'I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.'"
I told the congregation what I thought people meant by this. They mean that they reject the creeds and institutions of traditional religions, organised or not. They can’t accept that any religion has a claim to divine truth when history suggests that every religion is the product of the particular time and place in which it emerged. Religions are too obviously human institutions to own universal truth, and sacred texts too obviously the product of the human hand to claim divine authorship.
Nor do the best-known teachings of the main religions make sense to them. They don’t believe in the stories of ancient miracles, of angels dictating God’s word, of a saviour rising from the dead. Even more unbelievable is the need to perform certain rituals in order to attain salvation, or at least to have a relationship with God.
But rejecting all this does not mean they are willing to embrace the full-blown naturalism of atheism. They cannot believe there is nothing more than the physical realm. They believe that there is more to life than the material, and that something they give the label “spiritual”.
The Sunday Assembly people seem a bit further down the secular road than that, judging by their stated affirmation that "we are born from nothing and go to nothing. Let’s enjoy it together." They claim no doctrine and no sacred texts, but endeavor to "make use of wisdom from all sources." They worship no deity, having found something "bigger than Phil" - nature, and the humanity nature has spawned.
"...the need for God never vanishes. Mel Brooks’s 2000 Year Old Man, asked to explain the origin of God, admits that early humans first adored “a guy in our village named Phil, and for a time we worshipped him.” Phil “was big, and mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands!” One day, a thunderstorm came up, and a lightning bolt hit Phil. “We gathered around and saw that he was dead. Then we said to one another, ‘There’s something bigger than Phil!’ ” The basic urge to recognize something bigger than Phil still gives theistic theories an audience, even as their explanations of the lightning-maker turn ever gappier and gassier..." Adam Gopnik: When Did Faith Start to Fade? : The New Yorker

"We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do." They "won’t tell you how to live, but will try to help you do it as well as you can."

Sounds like my tribe.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

"I Am a Dangerous Professor"

I am jealous, George.
Those familiar with George Orwell’s “1984” will recall that “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.” I recently felt the weight of this Orwellian ethos when many of my students sent emails to inform me, and perhaps warn me, that my name appears on the Professor Watchlist, a new website created by a conservative youth group known as Turning Point USA.
I could sense the gravity in those email messages, a sense of relaying what is to come. The Professor Watchlist’s mission, among other things, is to sound an alarm about those of us within academia who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” It names and includes photographs of some 200 professors...
-George Yancy (continues) Accelerating Intelligence News