Free Will: Good Riddance

This baby violet-green swallow faces the first big decision of her life: should I stay or should I go, now.

I never cared much for arguments about free will, one way or the other. I put free will into a similar category to other wastes of time in philosophy, like the Great Deceiver concept or the trolley problem. Angels on the head of a pin, anyone? It seemed like one of those unresolvable debates that has persisted for centuries: a tar baby that one would be foolish to punch.

If an opinion was demanded of me, I would say without particular conviction that I leaned toward a position that free will was an illusion, but that I was happy to behave as if I had free will, and then get on with life. My leaning toward illusory free will stemmed from a sense that our decision center is no more than a bolus of interconnected neurons, shaped by many influences in the physical universe.

After listening to a podcast featuring Robert Sapolsky based on his new book Determined (which I have not read yet), I found my position coming into focus. A large majority of people in our society—over 80%—believe in free will. Indeed, it is often pointed out that our criminal justice system is predicated on the concept. Some folks (called compatibilists) adopt a squishy compromise position that attempts to assess how “internal” a decision is (good luck with that). Few members of modernity reject free will completely, but that’s where Sapolsky landed, and I found his arguments to be persuasive.

A recent article by Richard Heinberg explored the interaction between belief in free will and our response to the meta-crisis: can we save the world if we don’t have free will as a motivating engine? Although I am somewhat reluctant to weigh in on the pernicious free will topic, what the hell. I find myself compelled to do so.

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Reasoning with Robots

Image by Văn Tấn from Pixabay

As technology has invaded many facets of our lives, I am guessing that all of us experienced the frustration of trying to reason with algorithmic minds. Have you ever raised your voice to a device, asking “Really!?” We might wonder if the application was designed by an unpaid intern, or if the designer ever tried to use it in realistic circumstances. But no amount of frustration will have an effect. The operating space is prescribed and rigid, so that no matter how many times we try, the thing will stubbornly execute the same boneheaded behavior.

Imagine that a self-driving car in a city detects a voluminous plastic bag in its way. It will stop, and say—perhaps silently to itself—”Object.” “Object.” “Object.” “Object.” “Object.” “Object.” I could go all day. No, actually I can’t. But it can, and that’s the point. A really sophisticated version might say: “Bag.” “Bag.” “Bag.” “Bag.” Meanwhile, a human driver might look at the bag, and based on the way it waves in the breeze decide that it’s mostly empty, but just looks big, and is safe to drive over without even slowing down—thus avoiding interminable honks from behind.

Arguing with robots would likely be similarly tedious. No matter what insults you are compelled to fling after reaching your frustration threshold, all you get back is the annoyingly repetitive insult: “Meat bag.” “Meat bag.” “Meat bag.”

Meat bag brains have the advantage of being able to take in broader considerations and weave in context from lived experience. We can decide when algorithmic thinking is useful, and when it has limits. Unfortunately, I buy the argument from Iain McGilchrist that modern culture has increasingly programmed people to be more algorithmic in their thinking—in my view via educational systems, video games, and ubiquitous digital interfaces. I often feel like I’m arguing with robots, but of the meat variety.

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Text Substitutions

Most people are probably familiar with text substitution, in some form. It’s when a particular bit of text in a document is replaced throughout with an alternate. In many packages this is carried out via a Find/Replace dialog box. My main use has been in a Unix/vi environment, where the friendly and intuitive command :1,$s/old text/new text/g finds every instance of “old text” and replaces with “new text.” The true nerd will appreciate that the command is compatible with ‘regular expressions’ (an innocent-looking term that conceals a boatload of nerdcrap).

Over the years, I have developed a number of automatic text substitutions for phrases/platitudes I hear people utter. The filter works so that what I hear is converted into my internal version before processing further. This post collects a few such examples, although I’m sure I’ll think of more after the fact.

In each of the cases below, the heading is the spoken phrase, and the bold sentence that follows is my internal translation.

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A Story of Mice (and Men)

Picture a natural prairie, boasting an explosive diversity of grasses and flowers. Every year, at different times of the year, the grasses and flowers produce seeds. Some of these seeds, naturally, propagate their respective species so that the grasses and flowers will survive into the next year and the next.

But the plants are generous, generating more seeds than are necessary. Being the only form of life on the prairie capable of harvesting solar energy and turning it into food, they know they have sole responsibility for supporting their entire community. And why would they want to share their wealth? Well, they rely on insects for pollination, fungi for trading nutrients, worms for turning the soil, birds for spreading seeds far and wide, mice for planting their seeds and providing rich fertilizer, and on and on. Open-ended generosity pays back via other gifts in a spirit of reciprocity.

The mice in the prairie have done well for countless generations. While they are capable of explosive reproduction, they can’t expand willy nilly because food resources are limited: if they overgraze, fewer plants will survive into the following year. Meanwhile, hawks, owls, foxes and snakes are always looking for a snack. And so the prairie has settled on a roughly stable mouse population that works in concert with the rest of the ecological community. The population of mice (and of their predators) is not rock-solid: it fluctuates from year to year, but seldom strays very far before self-correcting. When mice are few, their predators diminish, seed abundance goes up, and the stage is set for a resurgence.

Then one day a foraging mouse notices a new hole at the base of an abandoned silo on the edge of the prairie that’s been dormant and irrelevant for all these years. Out of this hole some grains of wheat have spilled out. Tasty! Excited by her find, she brings her friends and they all have a feast. Within weeks, the mice are growing in number and exploiting this seemingly endless resource. All troubles would appear to be over.

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Wasp Wisdom

My patient wasp family on the end of their stick, after completing woodshed reconstruction.

One way to measure the change I’ve undergone in the last several years is via wasps. That’s right: wasps.

It’s as if I woke up one morning realizing that I grew up in a society of human supremacists, that I was one too, and that I no longer want to live that way.

In 2022, I began heating my home by burning firewood—mostly from scavenged trees in my forested area that have blown down. I needed a shelter for drying the wood and hastily constructed a structure mostly out of spare materials on hand. This summer, I decided to gussy it up to last a while. As I began unloading wood from it so I could rebuild it from the ground-up, I found a small nest of paper wasps attached to a stick on top of the pile, just under the roof. It was a smart location for the wasps.

In the past, I would have eliminated the nest, as it interfered with my plans. My biggest concern would have been how to wage war on the wasps without any risk to myself. Growing up, I feared wasps. I suppose I imagined they were after me—which I see now as a form of projection. Mentally, I was at war with wasps, so naturally these enemies would also be at war with me. If they weren’t so dumb, they would ambush me as a preventive offensive.  It is somewhat telling that when I searched on the internet to identify the wasps, a shocking fraction of the search results pointed to sites geared toward exterminating these “pests.”

Now that I am trying to operate as a humble member of the community of life, and to think of wasps as sisters who have been around for a long time and can probably teach me a thing or two, I find that my initial reaction is not one of fear, but of admiration.

The wasps did nothing wrong in choosing their spot. It was a solid choice. My desire to rebuild the shed was outside the parameters of normalcy. So I decided to work around them.

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The Intransigence of Now

Everybody has beliefs. Many are so deeply ingrained that we do not even recognize them as such. The most staunch scientist—who spurns belief in Santa Claus or God—still operates on a metaphysical foundation of beliefs about how the world works: e.g., that the scientific method is the only valid path to truth, and that unproven conjectures have little worth—and unprovable ones even less—even if quite possibly correct (and important). For instance, science can probably never tell us if animals experience emotions the way humans do, but isn’t it obvious by non-scientific interactions? Maybe some animals experience a sense of awe for natural phenomena, or notice the stars and wonder, or are more aware of their own mortality than we could ever know. Plants “scream” when attacked; will science ever deliver an understanding of what it is like to be a tree? How could it?

But I digress, already. This post is not about the narrow, literalist, and almost certainly incomplete metaphysics of science, but about the stubbornness of brains. People have a very hard time getting rid of some notions, or accepting something that runs counter to their assumptions. One might even suspect some “hard” wiring at play! Hey wait—people’s predispositions, personalities, and beliefs must indeed map to real neural connections in their brains (where else: we don’t use cloud storage!). Changing minds means down-weighting or destroying some connections and making new ones: not easy. Incomplete attempts often “repair” themselves back to something close to the original state, as beliefs are woven into so many offshoots as to be difficult to eradicate fully.

But neither is this a post about brain functions. Come on, Murphy, get it together! What this post is about is how intransigent people are, in general. After a few familiar examples, we’ll turn an important case: people have a very hard time seeing how unusual and temporary this moment is, it having lasted all their lives and more. The claim that most humans don’t appreciate the obvious temporary nature of modernity might seem as dismissive as the claim that animals don’t appreciate their own mortality. Yet some can, and that’s very important.

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Desperate Odds?

Image by Kathrynne from Pixabay

In Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, one of the dialogs I especially enjoyed was in Chapter 11 when the pupil expressed his anxiety around pre-civilization life. The mental image he shared was of a man running along a ridge in deepening twilight, hungry and following tracks on the hunt, while tooth and claw pursued not far behind. The man is “forever one step behind his prey and one step ahead of his enemies.” Ishmael, role-playing a hunter-gatherer, laughed off the concerns as being wildly off the mark.

I find similar expressions of fear from people when I challenge the viability of modernity. For many, losing modernity is a frightening prospect tantamount to certain death—either by starvation or violence by man or beast. The projection is that modernity is the only thing standing between us and a life of misery and anxiety. But since it’s not even a choice whether to continue modernity (unsustainable things fail), we may as well start to think about life without that particular security blanket.

How frightened should we be? Was pre-civilization life a miserable, desperate struggle, or did things seem to be pretty well in hand? I can offer some quantitative arguments suggesting that life could not have been that knife-edge, white-knuckle anxious.

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The Cult of Civilization

From Pixabay/KELLEPICS

I recently watched a Netflix documentary series about fundamentalist Mormons, exposing along the way a number of beliefs that seem bizarre from the outside, but that are accepted as perfectly normal within their insular community. Though the term “cult” is not used in the series, it is hard not to see the sect in this light. It would be nearly impossible to convince any one of its members that they are deeply in error, in part because doing so threatens the salvation that has been dangled in front of them.  If they are pure enough in their faith, resisting external evils that try to knock them off the one true course, eternity is theirs. In today’s world, one need not look far to find other groups whose beliefs are at once bonkers and seemingly immune to attack.

Hearing the perspectives of ex-members of these cults never fails to be fascinating, providing a window into how they could have swallowed all the lies and goofy stories. Also important to know: it is possible to escape, and to suddenly see the magnitude of the deception. Once out, there’s no going back.

Cult beliefs look insane from the outside, so why don’t its adherents detect the lunacy? Why is it so hard to convince them of their folly? One possible answer—as a tangent—is that cults offer a deeply satisfying sense of identity, belonging, and (seemingly) unconditional acceptance/support within its community that we have otherwise lost in today’s society, but that in times past were central offerings of tribal life to which humans are intimately adapted. It is remarkable how quickly tribal cohesion instincts of mutual help resurface as soon as core elements of civilization (provision of food, water, electricity, for instance) fail in a natural disaster. We’ve still got it, underneath the veneer.

Leaving that for another time, let me now condemn myself in the court of civil opinion by making the charge that most people on Earth are members of a dangerous cult whose central beliefs seem every bit as bizarre to one who has escaped the thought prison, but that are seldom questioned and even fiercely defended. This post offers ten heretical statements that seem obvious to me, but tend to produce emotionally charged reactions by members of the cult of civilization. Watch yourself, now. Continue reading

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The Ride of Our Lives

Courtesy Pixabay/fraugun

How much time do we spend fretting over the course we take as a human species? Granted, perhaps too few are focused on ultimate success, which I define as long-term sustainable living as a subordinate partner to all of life on Planet Earth. Even for those who do concern themselves with the intermediate and far future, attention tends to focus on what adjustments we can make to steer a safer course. Yet, when have we ever truly steered our path as a species? Are we actually in control at all? I’ll argue that we’ve never really been in the driver’s seat on the decisions that have mattered most. Our path has been more like an amusement park ride equipped with an ornamental steering wheel, giving the adorable tykes an intoxicating but illusory sense of control.

The central idea is that any development conferring a short-term competitive advantage will come to dominate the landscape, so that failure to adopt it means losing the race and dropping out of the future. It’s a meta-evolution selecting for something other than our best interests. And it’s winning, as it must.

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Human Exceptionalism

From Pixabay/Activedia

For almost two decades now, I have been on a journey to understand what comes next in the grand human enterprise. I started out in a mindset superficially similar to that of most people I encounter—assuming that we would innovate our way into a future that became ever better: less poverty and hunger; greater conveniences; a probable space future—fingers crossed.

But the more I dug into the details, the more concerned I became that such a grand vision is an illusion built on top of a highly anomalous period in human history when we over-exploited finite resources on Earth in a one-time bonanza—using those resources to access remaining resources ever faster in an accelerating cycle. I constantly sought reassurance as to what I had wrong about this picture, but found little solace. Those who tried to ease my mind spoke in vague praise of human capabilities and pointed to the arc of history as a reliable pattern by which to understand the future. I did not get the impression that they had confronted my specific concerns and had a blueprint for how to navigate past the pile-up of global-scale problems and irreversible consumption of our inheritance.

Lately, as I meet other academics (via PLAN) who have come to similar conclusions (sober, deep, and careful thinkers, I find), a frequent question that arises is: how can something that seems so obvious to us be dismissed by so many others? What are we missing? Or what are they missing? Why is it so hard to reach common ground? Where is the disconnect?

An answer—or at least a partial one—is beginning to resolve itself in my head. Previously, I tended to focus on growth and ecological overshoot as the most important “upstream” factors impacting our complex civilization on our road to an uncertain future, while issues like climate change and political/social considerations are downstream effects (symptoms) that will not get solved without first addressing root causes (the underlying disease). But maybe I have stumbled onto something even more foundational—the headwaters (pathogen), if you will—and am starting to pinpoint why our peril is so hard to grasp.

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