I Can’t Decide if I have Free Will


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


Meditation is not Prayer


I recently had a nice, civil conversation with a Christian friend of mine and he mentioned that he prays regularly and that he saw no difference between meditation and prayer. As a mindfulness practitioner, I felt I had to correct him, but it got me thinking how many people also believe this?

The conversation began when we were discussing the mass shootings that have plagued the US in the last few years and how I thought that “thoughts and prayers” had become more of a meme than a serious call to action. He disagreed, of course, saying that it is perfectly reasonable to pray for guidance and for the souls of those who were slain unnecessarily.  I disagreed and didn’t do so humbly.

Prayer, by my definition, is an appeal to a supernatural force to intervene.  Oftentimes, prayer is an appeal for some sort of advantage to yourself, like praying for health of a loved one or to win a sports contest.  Even the idea of “praying for strength” to cope with some hardship is a long distance call to a supernatural being from the supplicant. It’s purely a plea to something (or someone) external.

Meditation is different.  To meditate, you are not attempting to garner the attention of some mythical being in order to improve yourself or your situation.  The idea of meditation is to look inward, and to muster your own capacity for overcoming suffering by summoning compassion and equanimity. The goal of meditation is to learn how to be a part of the experiences that transpire around you and to accept that you have a role. You are really reaching deep within to find a way to handle the misfortunes of a chaotic world by being mindful.

What is mindfulness then?  It is simply being present – in the now.  The benefit of that is that you are able to assess the present through fresh eyes by ceasing ruminations of the past and eliminating any compulsion to predict the future.  Let’s face it, we simply have no control over what has happened already and what may or may not happen in the future.  The only thing we can control is what is happening now, specifically how we react to our happenstance, for better or for worse.

Whether you pray or meditate during a crisis, such as a relative or loved one becoming afflicted with a serious illness, neither method will actually cure the sickness.  I think both a pray-er and a meditator know that, although, some televangelists would likely tell you otherwise.  Prayer summons the power of a god and that god can heal all afflictions, they say, but I don’t believe this is what the majority of religious people believe.  The difference would be that there is a sort of hypocrisy about prayer that makes is shallow.  If you believe in a god, you most likely believe that god has a “plan”, that he “works in mysterious ways” and that he “only gives us what we can handle”.  If that’s so, then your god most likely gave your loved one a deadly illness that you are asking him to undo through kneeling down and showing him that you love him (and trust him).  Reversing his decision by healing your loved one would make him either fallible or a sadist. That is a problem for the pious.

Meditators accept their fates and prepare for it by living a life of compassion and understanding.  A meditator would be bedside, recounting memories, reading a book, listening to music or whatever makes their loved one comfortable in the moment.  There would be no thought or expression of pain to come. Even if the moment comes where their loved one dies, the meditator accepts the impermanence of this life and doesn’t mourn for the end of it, but, instead, celebrates the end of suffering.

I can’t think of a better way to deal with life’s twists and turns, to be honest.  I don’t want to worry about what my afterlife will bring since I don’t really have any idea that it actually exists, but I do want to effectively cope with each moment that I know that I am alive – I can see, touch, smell. taste and hear.  I can do good not my wishing for some celestial being to intercede, but by practicing a life of mindfulness, compassion and appreciation of the well-being of myself and others.

Also, when I find the strength to overcome suffering, I kinda want to take credit for it myself.


Are Men Really This Bad? Probably.


Image courtesy of Christianity Today (believe it or not!)

Harvey Weinstein. Jeffrey Tambour. Roy Moore. Al Franken. Charlie Rose. Kevin Spacey. Bill Cosby. Danny Masterson. Louis CK. Donald Trump. Matt Lauer…and so on and so on.

These are but a few of the names that have recently been spotlighted as sexual predators.  We see their names in the news every day – a growing list of men who have embarrassed themselves, humiliated and abused women and have made our sex look incredibly vile. And there doesn’t seem to be many people who are surprised by this.  I feel like I have been finally been awakened but I’m really groggy.

I was going to write a post about how confused I am about this whole thing; that I wonder how these men have gotten away with these acts of perversion for so long and how they even had the gall to even do them in the first place.  I was even going to compare the acts of one perv to another to gain some personal perspective, but after I read it, I realized how much of an apologist I looked like. I hate apologists.

Then I thought about my own past and if there was ever anything I did that may have put some poor woman in a humiliating situation.  Did I take advantage of someone? Sure, I’m no Hollywood scumbag, but there are plenty of men who are normal Joes that are also guilty of these crimes, although they aren’t the headline du jour.  After reflecting for a while, I didn’t recall anything.

I then realized this was a useless exercise.  What if Louis CK thought to himself, “Hey, I asked and they said ‘yes’, so no harm, no foul, right?” Maybe Matt Lauer just thought he was being flirty?

The point is that we, as men, cannot judge our actions through our own eyes.  We cannot be trusted. Obviously. So we have to listen to the parties, the women, we have offended and we have to take their accusations seriously.  To say that they should have come forward sooner or to say that they acquiesced is to excuse our own abhorrent behavior.  The truth of the matter is that we should not have put them in that position in the first place.  Louis should have never even asked.  Roy should never have looked at a 14 year old (allegedly), Bill should have never cheated on his wife and therefore, never even have gotten in the position where he would slip women roofies.  Harvey should have kept his bathrobe in the closet and wore normal clothes and jerked off in the privacy of his own home – alone.  Just to name a few…

Are men really this bad? Perhaps we are.  Maybe we are addicted to the patriarchy.  Dr. Joseph Pleck seems to think that we can’t help ourselves from buying into it. He posits that men not only express power over women, but among each other.  We have ranks in the military for this purpose, for example.  Straight men seek to wield power over gay men by humiliating them and by trying to take away their rights.

And what do we do to encourage it, knowingly or not?  Is it as simple as painting the room blue for a baby boy and pink for a baby girl?  Does it happen as early as childhood – boys play with toy trucks and girls play with toy dolls? Or are we still so young in our evolution that we think we still need to be the Alpha Male, spear the largest buffalo, and assume power over our tribe?

I am hopeful that this is a watershed moment for our society.  I am hopeful that we are humble enough to reflect on ourselves as a sex as a whole and not just blame a “few bad apples”.  This time in our history has exposed us (no pun intended) as the insecure sex, not the stronger sex.  We need to let this happen to ourselves and be open to the changes that are coming. We need to evolve socially if we aren’t going to do it biologically.

Modern Day Milgram


In 1961, Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, developed an experiment to test how people would react to authority.  In his test, he set up a device that simulated an electric shock that was delivered to people (“learner”) who incorrectly answered questions that were asked by a “teacher”.  The “teacher” was actually the test subject and the person being shocked was an actor who suffered no damage because there was no actual shock.

As the “learner” answered each question incorrectly, the “teacher”would increase the power of the shock.  At 150 volts, the “learner” began to cry out that he had a heart problem and he wasn’t feeling well.  At that point, the test subject had a choice to continue despite the increasing complaints or to stop despite incessant urging from the person leading the experiment who sat right next to them.

An entire 45 minute documentary can be found here. To save you a little time, I’ll tell you that 65% of the “teachers” (26 of 40) went all the way to 450 volts despite the cries of the “learner”.  So, they continued to inflict pain on another human being for the sole reason that an authority figure told them to do so.

Of course, there were a lot of questions about the ethics of this experiment and that the all of the test subjects were white men, but, hey, that was the 1960’s for you. But it does make one ponder the impact of authority over a person and whether or not they will give up their morality, their sense of right and wrong, if they are told to do so.  Obvious connections to Nazi soldiers were made in this experiment which was actually the point to begin with.

In this day and age, are we subject to the same drive – to please an authority figure to the degree that we would shun responsibility for hurting another human being?

In 2006, there was the famous Mount Washington Strip Search scam where a prank caller called a fast food restaurant posing as a police office and convinced a pair of adults to strip search a teenager and then engage in sexual molestation. The adults never even saw the actual person giving them instructions to demean and abuse this underage girl, yet they did it anyway.

Now, expand that a thousand-fold and think to yourself how similar distasteful and potentially illegal acts could be performed by unwilling people if they were commanded by a President or other elected official.  How about if someone like the Pope or some other high-ranking religious official told you to do something you would normally find abhorrent?  Would you toss away your own personal morals and ethics to please that authority figure?

Would you?

Joel Osteen is a Douche


Ask me why I’m an atheist and I can cite a bunch of reason why, but one of them is because of the snake-oil salesmen like Peter Popoff and Joel Osteen that preach to loving masses who empty their wallets for them.  What the believers get in return is nothing more than stolen wisdom.

With the disaster of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Osteen had the doors to his church closed until there was a public outcry.  He claimed it was flooded, but it seemed a little peculiar to me that he suddenly had a change of heart and let the flooded few into his palace.  His ultimate excuse was that no one asked. Hence, Joel Osteen is a douche.

This is the guy who is quoted as saying:

We need to show mercy. I mean, because as much mercy as you show people, that’s the mercy you’re going to be receiving.

Apparently, mercy needs to be requested by the city of Houston before it is granted.  It’s not enough that a natural disaster that expels people out of their homes, kills loved ones, and destroys the lives of hundreds of thousands that mercy needs to be given.  In Osteen’s view, it needs to be asked for.

He also said “If you give, you will be blessed.”  Apparently, that only applies to the people who dump cash in his pocket and not to him.  Douche.


We Are Not a Puddle


The picture above is of a puddle.  It was formed by the simple act of water, either rain or some other means, of filling in a hole.  See how it fits snugly in the hole?  Well, guess what?  That hole was not created for that puddle any more than the Universe was created for us.

For some who cling to religion, they believe that the Universe was “fine tuned” for human beings and that that fact proves that an Intelligent Designer exists.  Well, I dispute that and state unequivocally that we are just not that important. In fact, human beings have existed for mere seconds in the span of time, so if the Universe was made for us, then we should have come by long, long ago.

You can also drill down further to just the Earth.  If our lovely planet was “designed” just for us, then why is most of it inhospitable to our life form?  Our blue marble is 71% water, in which we cannot survive.  Of the land that remains, we cannot survive extreme heat or cold.  So, deserts and the poles are off-limits.

What about space?  In our solar system alone, only one planet has human life.  All the others are either too hot or too cold, and none of them have the atmosphere we need to survive.  We just could not breathe.  Breathing is, um, necessary.

Outside of our solar system, we have discovered around 3500 planets, none of which we can even get to quite yet.  And, of those 3500, it is estimated that only around 30 of them are ones that we are optimistic about when it comes to supporting human life.

So, how “fine tuned” is this Universe for us, really?


I Want to be a Tardigrade


(Credit image to atronoo.com)

Look at that little guy up there.  That is the tardigrade, which is also known as the “water bear” or “moss piglet”.  They are virtually immune to heat and cold and can even survive in space for a brief period of time.  I want to be a tardigrade and so should you. After all, they will be the last creatures on earth.  They will be there to shut the lights out or watch as the sun’s light flickers into complete and utter darkness – or a huge explosion that pretty much incinerates everything for millions of miles.

They will be here when the floodwaters come.  When you have an ice shelf twice the size of Luxemburg fall off into the ocean, you need to be a little concerned. That piece of ice is so big, we actually need to redraw maps.  But, the tardigrade don’t care.  He’ll be around.

If a comet or asteroid crashes into the planet, that’s not a problem for the water bear. He’ll just keep on truckin’.

If the apocalypse comes this time, for realsies, the tardigrade don’t give a flying fuck.  He’ll still be here doing what he does…tardigrading, I guess.

Tardigrades are meant to adapt to any environment.  They can live in boiling water and radiation.  Meanwhile, humans will still try to adapt to the planet we continue to destroy even though the Defense Department says that climate change is a direct national security threat. Yet, we are gutting the EPA and pulled out of the Paris Accord.  Our President has stated that Climate Change is a Chinese hoax.

The planet will be here long after we’re done, folks.  Eventually, we will run out of tricks and all that will be left is the tardigrade.  Bully for us.