The Facebook Food Experiment with Friends

free-will

Call me a dork, but I’m always thinking about the question of free will. Not too many people ponder this question because the answer to whether or not you have free will becomes onerous either way you look at it. On one hand, you are consciously responsible for every decision you make. You are the sole agent of that choice. On the other hand, you can’t help yourself and you have no conscious control over the decisions you make.

The first choice, that you have free will, is known as libertarian free will. You are the master of your destiny, you make all your choices. The second option is called determinism. Your decisions are pre-determined based on both known and unknown causes. In other words, you’re just doing what you were supposed to do.

For now, I’m not going to break down both philosophies into their smaller parts because that can get confusing. Philosophical ideas run on a spectrum much like political and religious views. There are extremes on both sides as well as a middle ground known as compatiblism. All that isn’t relevant to this discussion, but if you want to no more, go here.

What is relevant is what we experience. I watched an excellent video from CosmicSkeptic that summed up the question of free will quite nicely. He said, and I paraphrase, that you cannot choose what you want so, you do not have free will. I found this compelling and decided to interpret that also as “you cannot choose what you like/don’t like” and wanted to do an experiment.

Let’s not assume that my experiment is any way scientific and satisfies the Scientific Method. The sample size is small and it was done on Facebook, but I’m confident the results would be the same no matter what sample size I chose or the demographic of the subjects. On different, consecutive days, I handed out 3 assignments. Here they are:

Assignment #1 was to choose a food you hated. Over 50 responses which I deemed quite good. Liver, mushrooms and olives were the big losers. Raw tomatoes and Brussel sprouts also had a decent showing.

Assignment #2 was to name a food you loved. This one only received 29 responses. Not sure why I got less, but it could be the Facebook algorithm and not everyone saw this one. Bacon was the huge winner here. Pizza and pasta made a strong showing as well.

Assignment #3 was to switch them. Yup, I asked everyone to choose to like what they previously hated and hate what they previously loved.  This post got 25 replies and contained the expected “Hell to the NO!” as a general reaction. Here are some quotes:

“…If it makes me gag, I figure my body is telling me something…”

“..I was forced to eat fish as a child and physically gagging at the table gave me such an aversion to the smell and look…”

“…it (coffee)  makes me physically ill to smell.”

“I wish it was that simple to eat foods I dislike…”

These quotes tell me exactly what I need to know.  These folks are not making a free choice to like or dislike a food and they cannot choose to do anything different. We like what we like and we cannot choose to do otherwise.  Apply this to other aspects of your life – the type of ice cream, a piece of art, a quality in a friend, a book – the list goes on.  How much control do you have over who and what you are and how does this affect you?

How about your sense of humor? Do you make a conscious decision as to what you find funny? Like most people, this is an automatic reaction. You don’t choose what’s funny, you just laugh. Maybe you don’t get the joke, but that says you also cannot choose to understand it.

When you laugh at that joke, you are also physically expressing it with a smile or laughter.  When you are angry, you express it on your face as well with a scowl.  And the thing is that everyone essentially does the same thing the same way.  There are universal facial expressions that we use to signal others as to how we feel.  This is not learned behavior, it is innate within us. And, once again, you do not choose which face you’re going to put on.  When you hear something that makes you angry, you will express it in a way that others will recognize.

There is a phenomenon called frisson that you all have experienced at one time or another. It’s those goosebumps you get when you are excited about something like hearing a song that touches you. I did an experiment and found I experience frisson any time I hear a simultaneous crescendo of a singer’s voice and the background music. Can’t help it. Can’t choose to not do it, either. After a time it may wear off, but, for me, I still get goosebumps at the end of Tool’s “Sober” when Maynard screams the chorus. I’ve listened to that song thousands of times. It still gets me. I even felt it during Lady Gaga’s National Anthem and I’m not even a big fan of hers.

Having an uncontrolled preference or reaction means that a choice is being made for you.  Your brain has decided without you being conscious of it until you experience the end result. It does what it does, following the subconscious around while you are just a drooling meat sack obeying its every whim.

So, how do you feel about your sense of free will now?

Advertisements

Random Acts of Kindness

I am a cynic. I’d like to think that I’m not, but I remind myself that I am all the time. I just don’t trust people. It’s the reason I lock my car doors when my car is in the driveway, even in the daytime. It serves me well sometimes, other times, not so much.

So, in my Intro to Psych class, we have an assignment to do 5 random acts of kindness and write a paper about what we did and we felt. These acts of kindness were described as ones that were truly random and that we did not expect a thank you or any kind of selfish acknowledgement. Sounds like an interesting and philanthropic endeavor that a normal person would welcome as a way to better themselves, right?

Not for me. I already see the assignment as impossible to accomplish.

First, it’s an assignment. It’s already forced and, therefore, not genuine. I can’t see how any student can feel better about doing the act than fulfilling the requirement. Now, anything we do is part of a checklist and not a gesture that we would forget due to its personal meaninglessness. A true random act of kindness, to me, should be one soon forgotten by the executor, although it may have long lasting impact on the receiver.

Second, they can’t be random if they are mandated. True randomness happens organically, not in such a deterministic fashion. Students will be planning these acts beforehand or actively seeking them out. They cannot be random when there is a distinct order. It just doesn’t work that way.

Thirdly, there is no way this cannot be selfish. We’re trying to get a good grade, first off. We are doing it for a desired result that satisfies ourselves. You do it because it’s right and satisfy your own sense of morality or you do it to make someone else happy so you feel happy. Either way, you are a recipient of your own deed.

I’m sure you, the reader, will have some sort of objection to my hypothesis, but I want you to walk it back for a minute and really think about what I’ve written. I have not made a judgment. If you think that I did, point it out, but I’m going to guess that you think I’m saying everyone is selfish and that’s a bad thing. Did I actually say that selfishness was bad? Nope. You can argue that if the result of being selfish is selflessness, then it can’t be all that bad. It actually advances humanity. If you donate time or money to homeless veterans to make yourself feel better for having disposable income, then what’s the harm? In this case, money that you’ve worked hard to earn, to buy that big TV or nice car, really does buy happiness not only for yourself but for someone else. I don’t think you can dispute that. But, it’s no random act of kindness. It’s planned. Deliberate.

So, getting back to my assignment.

Of course, I’ll do it. But I’ll do it without pretense that it’s random or completely selfless. I’ll do it because I have to, whether to get a good grade or to truly make myself or someone else happy, but I’m not going to have any illusions about it.

Random Thoughts on my 50th Birthday.

Today, I turn a half-century old. To humanity, this is somewhat of a milestone, yet to the universe, it doesn’t mean a fucking thing. That being said, I decided I wanted it to mean something, so I wanted to confess some things to you. Some of these tidbits you may have already known or picked up on, while others you had no clue. Here you go, in no particular order.

  • I am a recovering Extrovert. I realized I like myself best. I’m funny, witty and agree with almost all of my own opinions. Most other people annoy the fuck out of me.
  • I have a “way-t” problem. First, I can’t stop being overweight. I’ve successfully lost poundage, but it keeps coming back. It has been the struggle of my life and the bane of my existence. I also have no patience, hence I also have a “wait” problem.
  • I am 95% confident that 95% of my opinions are correct.
  • I do not like looking at pictures of your family because I’m not in them. I also don’t like looking at pictures that I am in. I guess I don’t like pictures of people. No offense. I’m sure you’re beautiful, but I’d rather look at a pic of nature.
  • I meditate, but I’m horrible at it. I do it every day, but it hasn’t helped me become more present. I’m gonna keep trying, though.
  • The thought of working until I’m 70-75 is depressing. What a waste of time.
  • Free Will is bullshit. I totally believe that people are unique because they have different chemistry and experiences.
  • I would love to state unequivocally that no god exists, but I can’t and still be an honest person. I don’t think we can ever prove or disprove a god’s existence. Except, if you think Stan Lee is god. He does appear in every MCU production in various roles on various planets in various timelines.
  • I love going back to school. If you asked “21 year old me” if I would ever go back to college, I’d have punched you in the privates. Now, college seems so much more fun and interesting. I think it’s because I’m doing it without the pressure of looking forward and figuring out what the hell I want to do for the rest of my life. The rest of my life is much shorter now then back then.
  • When I was 19, I attempted suicide. Obviously, I didn’t succeed. Say what you want about failure, but that’s probably one thing you definitely want to fail at. If you do succeed, there’s no going back. Ever.
  • I don’t feel close to my family. It’s not their fault. I don’t really feel close to anyone except my wife. I tend to feel misunderstood even when I’m being transparent and I don’t like explaining myself. I tend to over explain and it gets messy.
  • I absolutely hate public speaking, but I would love to teach. Seems like a problem I should figure out.
  • I don’t do drugs and I barely drink. I’m not saying I never have, I just don’t do them now. The hardest drug I ever did was marijuana. That almost doesn’t count. I don’t understand why people like drugs or booze because they always made me feel shitty. I’m not sure how they really make anyone feel good if they were honest with themselves.
  • I’m incredibly skeptical of Deepak Chopra. He seems nice – for a snake oil salesman.
  • I always said I hated cats. I don’t. I am allergic to them. Sorry for saying bad things about our feline friends.
  • I think having a dog is the closest you can get to unconditional love if you’re anywhere close to being a feeling, thinking human being. If you’re an asshole, own a cat. Just kidding.
  • Money does buy happiness. I’m not saying it’s the only thing that does so, but it helps. Tell me that watching a movie on a 65″ TV doesn’t make you tingle inside. Plus, a roof over your head is nice. Debt, however, does not make people happy.
  • I hope parachute pants never make a comeback. They make your privates sweat for no reason at all. It seems like torture.
  • Gyms suck. That’s it.
  • Food shopping is the ultimate experience in pleasure and pain. On one hand, you get Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. On the other hand, you get people who can’t put their fucking shopping carts away properly.
  • I miss smoking cigarettes. I felt the coolest I ever felt when I had one in my hand, but I couldn’t tell I stunk like ass all the time. Even my clothes. Plus, they got real expensive. Oh yeah, cancer.
  • I’m not afraid of dying. I am afraid of dying slowly, so I’m staying away from Guantanamo Bay and cigarettes. And leprosy.
  • Really good TV shows are hard to find. Really shitty ones are on Bravo. How many reality shows does it take to diminish our mental capacity to that of a jellyfish? Apparently, not enough.
  • The music I listen to is better than yours. And yours is better than mine. Unless, it’s country music. Or pop. Then yours sucks a lot. A whole lot.
  • Having a lawn is such a waste. It’s a waste of time and resources.
  • I consider myself an amateur philosopher. I’ve been wishy-washy for a long time, but now I have a name for it. I have such a hard time being black and white when it comes to people’s motivations. It can get annoying for others who ask advice. So, I guess don’t ask for advice if you don’t know who Camus is.
  • I love to write, but my attention span is so short that everything I start becomes a dangling participle. I’ve started a book 3 times and got as far as

Atheist, Not by Choice

When folks find out that I’m an atheist, some ask “How can you not believe in God?” My answer is simple.  Because I don’t have proof that there is one. And, I’m not sure which one I should believe in even if i chose the path of believing without proof.

This is kind of a cheap answer in that I don’t believe there really ever can be sufficient proof to warrant a belief in a god or gods.  Unfortunately, “faith is not a true path to truth”, as Matt Dillahunty says and, like him, I prefer to believe as many true things as possible. After all, you can believe anything on faith if you want to.  Take, for example, the belief in Hindu gods versus the Abrahamic god.  Who is to say who is right or wrong when you place all your eggs in the “faith” basket?

I’m not going to get into all of the arguments for or against believing in a god because it’s been done a million times in a million different places, so the point of this post is to just say that I am an atheist and it’s not really my choice.

Science is the only way to measure the real world and, to the best of my knowledge, there is no other way that has proven to be reliable. In time, scientific theories change based on the data, but that’s real data that is observed in the known universe. Since I live in the known universe, I kinda have to go where the evidence takes me. I’m not afraid to say “I don’t know” to the answers of life’s biggest mysteries or create answers of my own where existentialism guides me. Can we ever know what happened before the Big Bang? I don’t know if we can, however, can I know the meaning of life?  Sure, I can.  It’s my life and I can ascribe whatever meaning I want to it.

What about the afterlife?  Do I have an answer for that?  Nope, I don’t. And you may, but it’s not necessarily correct. It may shock you to learn that it doesn’t matter to me, either.  After all, which afterlife is correct? Will I go to hell for being a non-believer?  If so, which one? Is it Naraka or the H-E-double hockey sticks, fire and brimstone, Christian Hell?  Or, maybe I’ll be reincarnated as he Buddhists believe?  No evidence is available for any of them, so the odds are is that someone has to get it wrong.

The other argument is that theists give me is that without a god, where do I get my morality from?  How can I be a moral human being?  Well, I am.  And, I’m not sure why, but I tend to agree with some scientists who believe our morals come from the fact that we are social animals.  We have developed social contracts, implicitly and innately, because it benefits us as a species.  Killing one of our own is counterproductive to species survival.  We simply have to get along to survive.  For the 1% of folks who are psychotic or sociopathic – well, they are an anomaly. All species have them.  That’s what accounts for albinos (not to say albinos are psychotic or bad in any way). Plus, the morality of a god can always be questioned.  The Judeo-Christian Bible has a god who does nothing to dissuade us from slavery and thinks homosexuals should be killed.  As a species, we’ve largely moved past those ideals (although, I have to acknowledge that some of us have not).

When asked about his morality, Penn Jillette – famous magician, libertarian and atheist – has said that he has raped exactly as many people as he has wanted to. None. Zero.  I can say the same and I made that decision without the need to consult a holy book to see if it is right or wrong.  I am sympathetic towards others and, more so, I am empathetic.  I can relate to their pain and suffering as well as their joy and elation.  No god has told me how to do that and it cannot be proven those one has instilled those qualities within me.

Of course, I can blindly agree to worship a god, and I can select which one I want to adore and prostrate myself before.  But, still, not making a choice is a choice in itself.  Most religious folks, and I mean “most” and not “all” don’t make the choice themselves.  Their selection is based on upbringing or geography.  I find it very rare, although possible, that a baby brought up in a Southern Baptist household in Alabama would ever choose to be a Sikh or Jain.  Likewise, I don’t see a child growing up in Calcutta choosing to be a Calvinist. For me, I don’t feel that I really need to make a decision, ultimately, so I am an atheist but not by choice.

 

 

 

My (Obsession with) Death

Grim-Reaper

Image courtesy of EMCrit.

Some of you may have seen my recent essay I wrote titled The Mortality of Me. If you haven’t, I would ask that you give it a read.  It reflects some of my thoughts on my own mortality which, as I approach the age of AARP (50), is something that one tends to ponder every now and then.  But, what has really made me think about it is my On Death and Dying course that I’m taking as part of my Philosophy degree. Later on, I will also publish a short research paper on death anxiety, which, I think, will be an eye opener for some of you.

But, here’s the message: Do not be afraid of death.

I know you probably can’t help it.  After all, as culture anthropologist Ernest Becker has told us in his book Denial of Death, we can’t really escape our fear of death or the terror it brings us subconsciously. Without getting too far into the weeds on that one, I think Dr. Sheldon Solomon explains it a little better when he expands on Becker by explaining that we are dualistic in nature – both physical and spiritual.  Our physical self is our body and our spiritual self is our mind.  Because of this spiritual self, our minds, we are the only species on this plant that we know of that can imagine a past and future while experiencing a present.  And, because we can imagine a future and it’s possibilities, we also know that eventually our bodies will die.  Philosopher Martin Heidegger and the Buddhists both realize the truth in this statement and not only do they know it is certain, but they also know that we don’t know when it’s coming.  The Buddhists say that you are only one breath away from your last.  Poignant, if not scary for some.

The point here is that we are finite beings as far as we know.  There is no sufficient proof of reincarnation or of an afterlife, although some assert their truth valiantly.  That’s all speculation, however, it is certain and observable that we all die. All living things do and this cannot be in dispute.  So, what do you with this information?

Well, some would succumb to an existential crisis of sorts.  They will try to find meaning in and for their lives by pursuing what Becker calls an “immortality” project.  In other words, we will seek immortality in some cultural way whether it is by having children, creating works of art and literature, or, like Freud, revolutionizing a line of thought. Social scientists and philosophers love to that.  In fact, that’s pretty much their self-prescribed reason for being.  There’s nothing wrong with that at all.

Many people will say that they don’t like to think about death because it’s morbid or sad.  I can agree with that, especially if you think about losing a loved one, but I would ask for you to reconsider when thinking of yourself. Don’t be the soldier in the foxhole who is more threatened by his buddy’s demise than his own. If you think about the finitude of your life, then you will begin to think about its meaning.  Don’t look to your prayer-book or to the stars to find that meaning, either.  You won’t find it, or, if you do, it will be the meaning that someone else has ascribed to you.

Life is meaningless.  This is what Alfred Camus taught us. The universe doesn’t owe you anything, especially a reason to live. This is where you come in.  Existentialists like Camus realized that we must find our own meaning, what he calls the “revolt against the absurd”, and pursue it with an inner honesty. Be authentic to yourself and live the life you want to live.

To be fair, I am not an existentialist by any means since I don’t believe in Free Will but I do believe that our lives are determined to follow a st path that we oftentimes reject or refuse to accept. We purposely take the wrong forks in the road because someone is whispering in our ears to do so, but, eventually, hopefully, we find out way to the right path even of we have to backtrack.

 

Why the March for Our Lives was Really Important

vote-1

Image courtesy of MegaAgent.

According to The United States Election Project, voter turnout for young people aged 18-29 has not been very impressive for a very long time.  That age group has historically been the lowest to turn out to vote, topping at around 45% in 2014.  In 2016, they were around 42%, with the majority voting for Hillary Clinton.  Around 24 million votes were cast by that demographic, so doing some rough math, that left around 30 million votes that were not cast by the future of our country. That’s enough to make you shake your head in disgust at  the very least.

Since Trump got elected (by the Electoral College, not the people), I have made some comments to fellow students at the local community college that I do not regret about how they need to become more involved with our political process.  That’s advice I did not take when I was young, so I pretty much counted on it not being followed in this day and age since politics has become so much more divisive.  I mean, I really can’t blame the youth of today from being disenfranchised when, as an adult, I frequently lose hope in our system.  In my Introduction to Political Science class, I am sadly unsurprised by the fact that students have no idea about current events and frequently are at a loss to relate to history that has occurred in their lifetime.  That frustrated me, but I understood it.

But, on March 24th, I may have changed my mind.  When I watched the March for Our Lives protests on television, when I saw the photos from all around the country (and world!), when I heard the voices of young people – as young as 11 years old – promising that this would be the beginning of the revolution, I felt a swell of pride.  There was hope seeping out of my cynicism.

No matter how you feel about gun control, if you feel anything but pride for our country and our future, then you are, quite frankly, an asshole.  The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were responsible for amassing around 800,000 protestors of all ages to peacefully petition their country.  They registered voters and inspired voters to register.  They fully engaged in our political system the way it was meant to be engaged in.  These young adults are true American patriots and citizen leaders of the highest order.

I’m not going to point out the offenses that the NRA and others have perpetrated against them.  Those people/groups are interested only in their own survival and not the public good.  I hope they see that is the wrong choice because their days are indeed limited.  Maybe they don’t see it, or maybe they do and they just want to go down fighting, but they are at the end of their ropes for sure.  I can feel it.  I hope you can, too.

#MarchforOurLives #NeverAgain

 

I Can’t Decide if I have Free Will

130926_SCI_freewill01_double.jpg.CROP.original-original

Image courtesy of Slate.com

For the last few weeks, I have been ironically struggling with the idea of Free Will and whether or not I actually have it.  It seems odd, at least, to be wavering on the decision that I have a decision to make, but, alas, that’s what’s been happening.

Let me break down my choices for you.

First, there is the philosophy of libertarian free will which states that I, as an agent, have complete free will.  It takes into account that there are events that may influence my choice, but, ultimately, my choices are my own.  For example, I can choose to hit a baseball with my bat, however, I did not make the choice to throw the ball.  And, the choice to hit it or not is not based on anything but my own will – there are no prior events or decisions that led me to that choice. And, this philosophy also gives you room to have made a different choice given the same situation, a fantasy we all fancy at one time or another.

Then there is the opposite, known as determinism, which states that all choices are the result of prior causes – known or unknown.  In other words, free will is an illusion. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, is a big proponent of this, as many other scientists are across many different disciplines. You can read Sam’s book, Free Will, which is a short, but enlightening read, or you can see him speak about it here.  He essentially lays out the case that your brain is making decisions before you’re even conscious of the decision.  Here’s one example he uses – think of a famous actor.  Think of another.  Now another.  Did you choose Sylvester Stallone?  You certainly know who he is, so why was he not presented as a choice?  Surely, your brain made the decision, for some reason, to not present him to you as an option.

(What I am not including here is fatalism which is a more extreme version of determinism that basically asks why you should make any decisions since shit is just gonna happen anyway, so you may as well just ride the wave.)

Then there is a third option known as compatibilism.  Compatibilism is basically a combination of libertarian free will and determinism.  It states that, although the choice is yours, your will is not.  Your will is determined (as determinism also states) by things like genetics, culture, nature, economics, etc., but the decision to act is yours.  As an example, you had no choice but to be homosexual, but you can choose how to express it or not express it at all.

They are all interesting choices and after thinking about it, I have ruled out libertarian free will.  It is really hard to see a world where our choices are not influenced in some way and we have complete control over them.  When given a choice, we don’t always do what we should – we eat bad food even though we know we shouldn’t, we smoke cigarettes, drink too much, etc., but we also have all the years of baggage and history that have shaped our minds in such a way that our consciousness limits our choices because that is what it is trained to do.  Students sit in assigned seats because teachers make them do so.  Because of that conditioning, those students go to college and sit in the same seat every time even though they aren’t assigned.

Of course, the problem with not having free will is that it gives an excuse to people who commit heinous crimes, which is pretty much what determinism does.  It states that all actions, all decisions, are determined by previous causes.  And, you can easily see how this is possible.  How many times have we heard about a mass murderer who was abused or was bullied? In some cases, they have physiological defects or brain damage or tumors that affect inhibitions.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished, it just means that we should react differently.  Rather than feel anger or the need for revenge, determinism says that we should feel compassion because, if you think about it, if you switched places with that person and experienced exactly what they did, would you have made the same choices?  Determinism says, if all is equal, that you would.

Compatibilism is a cushy, yet wishy-washy choice.  I keep thinking that the reason I lean towards this philosophy is because I want to feel like I have some free will and that since I don’t know the “unknown causes” behind determinism, that I can take responsibility for some of what I do. But, this just seems like another way of defining libertarianism.

For a better explanation of Free Will vs. Determinism, see this fantastic video.
Crash Course Philosophy #24