synthetic zero


October 14th, 2010

I posted this comment as part of Nick Srnicek’s philosophical blog event on Speculative Heresy:

Hi — Nick had invited me to participate in this blog event but I was, alas, too busy to do so, but he suggested to me I might have some thoughts on this post in particular, and I finally had a chance to read it over and comment. Apologies for the lateness of my remarks.

I have some thoughts about this:

“if the world does not come in categories and objects which are divided up in certain ways, then it makes no sense to say that science (or metaphysics) can be objective in the sense that it aims to describe such natural and mind-independent divisions. In this regard, there is also no reason to prefer the conceptual scheme of science to those which are more pragmatic and “intuitive” since neither could be more ‘in touch’ with the structure of reality.”

As someone with some scientific background, I find this statement rather odd, and difficult to map into the way science is actually practiced. For example, biologists would not necessarily argue that the way the natural world is divided into genera and so on is somehow reflective of the way the world is in a pre-existing sense, but rather they acknowledge the partial arbitrariness of various schemes of dividing the world. But more importantly, scientists tend to think of themselves as evaluating theories based on criteria such as predictive accuracy, falsifiability, parsimony, and so forth. And there are various pragmatic reasons why, for example, parsimony would be valued — and these would be sufficient reasons, it seems to me, to distinguish between scientific theories and other theories which may also have predictive value or pragmatic applicability without having to make arguments that the categories of the theory has to correspond to preexisting ontologies that are in some sense given.

In other words, I think one can distinguish between a speculative realism which accepts the fact that there is a universe or ground of Being independent of our minds and the notion that the way we divide up the world is somehow also objective. I think one could argue that there are more and less parsimonious theories about the world which may be equally true, and in some sense the determination of parsimony is not completely subjective, and so this would be a nod towards the notion that there is something non-subjective about the ontologies of scientific theories — but this would not exclude the possibility of two parsimonious theories with incommensurable ontologies. However, the fact that this is a possibility doesn’t, to my mind, create any insuperable obstacle to scientific progress, because we’re not painted in the corner of saying that every theory which fits reality is equally “good” from a scientific point of view. That is to say, a partial, imprecise ordering of “goodness” of theories is enough to allow progress — what excludes progress is no ordering at all.

In the end, I can see strong reasons to admit to a reality independent of subjectivity but I cannot see any strong reasons to insist that the way the world is divided itself must admit to some sort of objective reality which is singular and exact in nature. Theories are by their nature inherently simplifications — in physics, we model a ball as a perfect sphere in order to calculate about it, we model friction with a single coefficient, etc., even though these things are tremendous simplifications of a vastly more complex reality. We must simplify, create categories and terms, etc., in order to *compute* with any theory, to cognitively process it. Why should we insist these vast simplifications and filters and the symbols we use in our computational processes correspond in a unique way to “the way the world is divided” — to rescue some form of realism, it suffices, it seems to me, simply to admit that the ground, reality, is independent of our theories and has certain properties which our theories illuminate without having to insist that the particular terms of the theory must be converging on a unique “complete and perfect” theory. As theories must leave out lots of detail it seems likely that there will always be the potential for a multiplicity of theories for different contexts, but some sort of partial ordering preserves the possibility of progress.

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September 27th, 2010

For a short time, when I was a young child, my mother and father used to spank me — my mother somewhat frequently, my father relatively rarely.  My mother’s spankings were somewhat mild, I didn’t mind them that much; she would often give me a choice between spanking and going to my room for a while, which softened the blow. But when my father spanked me, it was a fearsome event, something I really dreaded. I think he only did it two or three times. And then he just stopped; never did it again.

I asked him once, sometime in my twenties, why he had stopped spanking me as a young child. He said that when he became a father he decided he would have to start from scratch, assume he had no idea what he was doing. So he didn’t start with the presumption that any particular thing he did was necessarily “right”. And, he said, he observed that his spanking me was having a bad effect. So, he stopped.

Needless to say, my father is one of the people I respect the most in this world.

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September 6th, 2010

I wrote this to a relative and some of her friends and our relatives when she forwarded on an email about Muslims engaging in “Sharia” law breaking a child’s arm for stealing bread — the photos turned out to be of some street magicians engaging in a common trick (running an arm over with a car — in fact the arm is not harmed at all.)

Anyway I first wrote an email debunking the hoax, which relieved people on the email list, but I also wrote about tolerance for Muslims. She responded and apologized for forwarding on an email without fact checking it first. I then wrote this:

I’m glad you forward these on to me … since I get a chance to set the record straight, at least a little. I’m just sad because of the thousands or millions of people who have received emails like these and they believe them. The Internet has been a great thing but it’s also been the source of unbelievable amounts of misinformation. Someone clearly concocted this particular hoax along with many of the others circulating around the net, for somewhat nefarious purposes, it seems to me. Skepticism is always worth a lot when it comes to the current climate of misinformation that is out there.I for one am not one of those people who thinks that every practice can be excused just because it’s a different culture. At the same time, however, I have many friends of all cultures, many Muslim friends, who are no different from anyone else. We can all condemn terrorism and violence against innocent people, but it’s very dangerous when we decide to blame everyone of a particular faith or race or ethnic background for the crimes of some. I am myself opposed to violence and injustice committed by anyone, of any culture, but I’m not going to blame everyone from that culture for the crimes of a few.

And seriously, Sharia law is never going to become part of American government any more than everyone is going to be forced to become Jewish or Catholic or Buddhist or Sikh or atheist. We are stronger and more resilient than that as a nation.

She and others liked my message very much, though she mentioned that she is sometimes worried about violence, and mentioned the fact that there have been threats to us in the past, like Hitler. At the risk of triggering Godwin’s Law I wrote a followup:

Thanks… I tend to take what I call a “radical moderate” position on most political matters; I’m in favor of strong action against terrorists and others who threaten us, but at the same time strongly on the side of those who would protect innocent people from being unfairly targeted. Hitler did exist, but let’s remember what Hitler did; as the saying goes, “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.” He divided his country based on ethnic fears and eventually became one of the worst dictators the world has ever seen. I think we can all agree that imitating Hitler is not something we ought to do as we try to fight against things that threaten us. We should try to remember what our values are, in my opinion. We’re Americans and we fight not only against our enemies but for freedom and justice. I know Muslim-Americans. More than a dozen Muslim firefighters died on 9/11. Muslims fight in our armed forces. They are our neighbors and countrymen, too.

Talk to your relatives and friends about politics. Even if the subject is sensitive, or there is a lot of fear. If we don’t stand up for American values, then who will? Now is the time to have these conversations.

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August 31st, 2010

In the online Buddhism conference I host, John Lehet wrote about his recent retreat experience:

This was “warrior’s assembly,” at Karme Choling. It’s a Shambhala thing, though it’s where the Vajrayana Buddhadharma starts to come in for real. All in all it was the most amazing 10 days I’ve ever spent.

I had a “realization” somewhat early in the program that transformed my experience altogether.

I was sitting and things were feeling pretty hard. It was hard in so many ways. But then a while later while I was sitting, it was easy. The contrast struck me, so I paid attention. What was easier? What had been so hard? And it hit me, sort of like those gestalt pictures — two black faces — no a white vase — no two faces; pick the way you want to see it, and you can see it that way, the vase or the faces.

From the perspective of Me, myself, I, conceptual thought, expectations, comfort orientation, agenda, plans — from that perspective the program was excruciatingly difficult. Two black faces. But from the gestalt of openness, flexibility, open mind, open heart, letting go — from that perspective it was very very easy. The white vase. So from that point on I was able to pick the white vase much of the time, though of course sometimes the two black faces picked me. This is very clear on a meditation cushion in a long program, but I think it turns out to be exactly the same as normal life. The same gestalts apply, to the same effects.

This is of course old news, but somehow it hit me in a bigger way.

I think both in contemplative/meditative practice and in life (they’re not really separated), there are obviously always these two alternatives; two different ways of working with our experience and our lives. But I think what really strikes me about John’s realization isn’t just that he was able to choose the white vase most of the time, but that his realization essentially consisted of seeing the faces and the vase at the same time. What’s really liberating isn’t escaping into heaven, but seeing heaven and hell simuiltaneously, two aspects of the same reality, both always already present. Liberation doesn’t come from escaping hell but from going beyond the division of heaven and hell in a way which encompasses both in pure presence which is always already present.

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August 20th, 2010

Just got back from watching the new Todd Solondz film, Life During Wartime, an intense, brilliantly written, shot, and acted film, a meditation on the meaning of crime and forgiveness, a message to the audience, us, to wake up in our lives, to our lives, how we’re living right here and now, to face the grim reality that we are living in a time of war, even if that war seems far away and disconnected from our moment to moment existence. The characters exist in a world of crazy, caricatured extremes of psychosexual violence and fear, and yet the film isn’t so much about that as it is, in my view, about present awareness, appreciating the people and contexts and the hidden aspects of our lives. The film unfolds in a Tarantino-like fashion, beautifully crafted self-contained vignettes, though the violence isn’t physical but psychological, and each vignette is tightly written and directed with a moment to moment quiet power that is darkly hilarious, mildly disturbing, and viscerally thrilling.

But, strangely, one of the things which I started to think about, somewhat tangentially, after watching the film, while having a conversation with Kat and Susan about the film, was the old East Coast vs West Coast divergence; or really more the DC-New York Northeastern culture corridor, and how it diverges greatly from the culture of the West Coast, and by that I mean the entire West Coast, from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Portland to Seattle. And I was thinking about how, while there’s neurosis and depression and heartbreak and psychological abuse and horror in both regions of the country, there’s something just a bit less dark and entrenched and doomed-feeling about life in the West. Of course, at the same time there’s an artistic and intellectual culture in the Northeast which is vibrant and alive, but I’m not speaking so much about that as I am about the respective “success” cultures in these two regions of our country.

The totems of success in the two regions (again, not including the artistic/intellectual world) really are very different. In the West Coast, of course being a doctor or a lawyer or an MBA or an investment banker are certainly respectable careers, but in no way are they thought to be particularly glamorous or exciting; they’re seen, for the most part, as nice ways to make a decent living, the sort of ordinary, kind of boring life one might choose if you want to live in a place like Palos Verdes (a bland upper-middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles). Sure, it’s nice to live in Palos Verdes. Big houses. But it doesn’t have a hint of glamour or excitement. The desirable careers on the West Coast include being a filmmaker, a web developer, an entrepreneur, an actor, a producer, a writer; even being an engineer or a mountain climber or a yoga instructor or a restaurateur is in many ways seen to be far more exciting than being a corporate attorney or a banker. There’s just no “juice” in those careers, they are invisible, they’re not colorful or interesting, they’re not the things people on the West Coast really dream about becoming. There’s certainly nothing wrong with those careers, they’re perfectly fine, obviously you can make a good living doing them, but they just don’t have much cachet in the West.

But here in the Northeast, while artists and intellectuals are celebrated and admired, for good reason, there’s also considerable glam in any career that just makes a lot of money. Corporate law, investment banking, etc., are not the bland career choices they appear to be on the West Coast, they’re some of the ways one is supposed to be able to achieve true success, life satisfaction, and public validation. Yet it seems as though those achievements are primarily measured here in terms of how much money one makes doing them, more than whether the activity itself is either intrinsically satisfying or how much it contributes to society. It is as though the mere ability to consume is itself seen to be somehow a measure of the value of the activity, a notion which seems simply weird and quixotic to my West Coast sensibilities. This idea, it seems to me, diverts far too many people towards professions which aren’t that interesting (I mean, of course, for some people the law can be a satisfying and interesting profession, for those with a particular interest in it, but I’m speaking of the droves of people drawn to it primarily because it generates income) and which may really not be the best allocation of the brightest minds, so to speak. Valuing mere ability to consume as opposed to ability to produce is to my mind a backwards set of priorities, and generates both grossly inefficient allocation of resources and much less personal happiness all around (and please don’t tell me that investment bankers are actually producing as much value as they consume — maybe some who directly invest in companies do, to some degree, but the more abstract it gets, the less about creating it is. Casino owners don’t produce much value other than perhaps mildly amusing entertainment — investment bankers engaging in abstruse derivatives trades aren’t even creating that. Perhaps they’re providing a bit of value in terms of additional liquidity but this generated value is hardly in proportion to the amount of money they rake off the top of the economy.)

Yes, to some degree I’m being a snob here, and I realize that, naturally, there are some fantastic things to be said about Northeast culture. I live here, I went to school here, my parents lived in Greenwich Village in the 60’s, there’s tons I can say that is great about this place. But when it comes to this issue: the worshiping of the ability to consume, it strikes me as just as pointless and doomed as the competition on Easter Island to build bigger and bigger statues: the worshiping of something that is both meaningless and ultimately barren, leading to the weakening and the potential downfall of the civilization. It’s time to shift the culture to admiring things that actually make a difference, building things, making things, creating things. It is happening here, of course, already, and it is a trend I hope only accelerates (as I noted in another post).

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August 18th, 2010

Peter Merholz recently linked to Pharyngula’s takedown of Ray Kurzweil:

Kurzweil knows nothing about how the brain works. It’s design is not encoded in the genome: what’s in the genome is a collection of molecular tools wrapped up in bits of conditional logic, the regulatory part of the genome, that makes cells responsive to interactions with a complex environment. The brain unfolds during development, by means of essential cell:cell interactions, of which we understand only a tiny fraction. The end result is a brain that is much, much more than simply the sum of the nucleotides that encode a few thousand proteins. He has to simulate all of development from his codebase in order to generate a brain simulator, and he isn’t even aware of the magnitude of that problem.

Kurzweil may well be wrong, but he’s not stupid (well, if he’s stupid he’s not as stupid as the above would make him seem): he’s not making an argument about simulating gene expression, but a totally separate argument based on Kolmogorov complexity, that is to say, what is the shortest algorithm you can use to reproduce the behavior. Simulating gene expression is a problem which everyone knows is incredibly hard, and may be impossible in general, as it requires the running of exponentially complex quantum field calculations — but that’s really not what Kurzweil has in mind here. He’s saying that an upper bound of the Kolmogorov complexity would have to be the genetic information required to generate the brain. Obviously he’s not saying that in 10 years we would literally build a gene expression simulator that could take the genome and generate a functioning brain. If classical processes can be used to simulate gene expression, then Kurzweil would certainly be right, at least in principle: the genetic information would be an upper bound of the minimum size of the algorithm needed to simulate the brain, regardless of which algorithm you use (and obviously Kurzweil imagines you’d probably use very different algorithms than nature uses).

He may be wrong, however, just because the generation of the brain may rely on quantum field effects which might allow for compression beyond that which a classical computer is capable of (i.e., it’s known that biological systems can take advantage of quantum effects, for example, a recent paper showed that plants take advantage of quantum computation). Quantum computers are of course capable of computational feats that would defy a classical computer, so his estimate could end up being wrong for that reason.

And even if he is correct, he may be grossly underestimating how long it might take for human beings to build algorithms with sufficient “compression” to generate brain-like behavior. But my main point is that most of Pharyngula’s blog post is beside the point, interesting as it is, because it attacks an argument Kurzweil is not making; i.e., the post is conflating algorithmic complexity with the difficulty of simulating gene expression, two totally different things.

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August 13th, 2010

In recent columns in the NY Times Russ Douthat makes strained attempts to find some rational justification for a prohibition against gay marriage:

The interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships is, for want of a better word, “thick.” All straight relationships are intimately affected by this interplay in ways that gay relationships are not. (And I do mean all straight relationships. Because they’ve grown up and fallen in love as heterosexuals, the infertile straight couple will experience their inability to have children very differently than a same-sex couple does. Similarly, even two eighty-nine-year-old straights, falling in love in the nursing home, will be following relational patterns — and carrying baggage, no doubt, after eighty-nine years of heterosexual life! — laid down by the male-female reproductive difference.) This interplay’s existence is what makes it possible to generalize about the particular challenges of heterosexual relationships, and their particular promise as well. And the fact that this interplay determines how and when and whether the vast majority of new human beings come into the world is what makes it possible to argue — not necessarily convincingly, but at least plausibly! — that both state and society have a stronger interest in the mating rituals of heterosexuals than in those of gays and lesbians.

There are so many obvious logical holes in this argument it’s hard to know where to begin. First of all, the most salient: in what possible way would granting marriage rights to homosexual couples affect, even in the slightest, how the marriage institution impacts heterosexuals, our “mating” behavior, the way in which we decide or don’t decide to reproduce, etc.? I cannot see, in any sense, how gay men and lesbians marrying would have even in the slightest affected my own decisions regarding sex, marriage, and having children. Can Douthat be seriously suggesting that his own marriage and/or sexual or reproductive choices would have been influenced by the fact that gay men or lesbians were getting married as well? All he seems to be saying is that the existence of marriage as an institution has an effect on reproductive habits (which is obviously true), and that this only applies to heterosexual couples (which is obviously false - see below - but even if it true, would be irrelevant), but regardless, it is still obvious that extending marriage rights to homosexuals could not possibly, in any way, affect the behavior of heterosexuals. So where’s the compelling state interest here?

Of course it also falls flat because homosexual couples can choose to reproduce as well, and/or adopt. They might do so via any number of means, including surrogate mothers/fathers, sperm donation, egg donation, etc. A gay couple might get a sister or brother to donate an egg or sperm. Furthermore, extensive research indicates that children of homosexual parents grow up to be perfectly healthy. So the argument falls flat here as well (though again, it wouldn’t matter even if it didn’t).

Finally, Douthat ignores the fact that marriage confers many state benefits which have nothing to do with children, but have everything to do with recognizing the fact that a loving couple has created a long-term bond. Marriage provides tax benefits both at the state and Federal level; it affects probate/inheritance rights, visitation rights, workers’ compensation, medical benefits, legal testimony issues, property ownership, etc., all of which are linked to the notion of a long-term, committed relationship, and have no obvious relation to Douthat’s irrational argument with respect to procreation. There’s clearly no compelling state interest to discriminate, whatsoever, and many strong reasons to believe this discrimination subjects a group of citizens to second-class status based solely on irrational grounds.

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August 4th, 2010

Adgrok writes in “New York will always be a tech backwater“:

Every yuppie I knew in New York worked as either a Wall Street guy, a lawyer, or an agent of some sort. Basically, there were all subtly screwing someone else for a living.

As an academic exile, my passport to this foreign world was my then live-in girlfriend, an embodiment of her socioeconomic cohort: Bryn Mawr School for Girls, followed by Harvard, followed by med school. This was a person who could open the Sunday Styles weddings section2, instantly identify a half-dozen couples, and rattle off the juicy gossip dating back to their time at Eliot House.

At cocktail parties with these people, the “ambitious ass-kickers” Paul Graham thinks will save the New York tech scene, the second question you’re asked is inevitably what do you do? And so begins the not-so-subtle binning of you into your social echelon, more ritualistic and damning than any Japanese business card exchange ceremony:

+2 for working at Goldman Sachs
-1 for being a quant rather than a banker or trader
-1 for living on the Lower East Side
-2 for not being Ivy League
+/- 1 for being Gentile (depends on the cocktail party).

And you’re socially in the red at that point. The rest of the conversation is as vacuous as interstellar space.

I’m from the West Coast. I went to Harvard, but I moved back to the West Coast after graduating, living in the Bay Area, LA, San Diego, and Portland (my favorite city of all). But I finally moved to New York for the change of pace, for the different lifestyle, for the art scene, for the challenge of living in a difficult-to-live place. I’ve lived here for eight years now, have never worked for a bank or financial services company, and for the most part, while I have met, know, and think many folks working for financial services companies are perfectly fine people, I think they’re more or less wasting their lives doing things which are simultaneously boring and unproductive. I am, in other words, a West Coast snob. I think building things is more worthwhile than skimming off the top of the economy. I think hustling is a waste of time and life. You only live once. I have no interest whatsoever in appearing in the Sunday Styles wedding section and I have to say if I ever met anyone remotely interested in that I would run, not walk, the other direction as fast as I could.

But you know what? There are a lot of other people like me here. They are either tired of working for banks or they never took a bank job. They want to build things, too. If all you did when you lived here was work as a quant, no wonder you have a skewed view of what people are into here. I’ve worked for nonprofits, also staffed to the gills with Ivy Leaguers who want to build things and make the world a better place. I’ve worked for startups here too.

Yes, Silicon Alley is probably never going to rival the Valley. But there is a vibrant culture of smart, dedicated builders here who couldn’t care less about the vaporware culture of the financial services world, who want to make a difference, who want to build things and have fun. And frankly, Silicon Alley folks, for whatever reason, seem to be a bit healthier, and more female, than the equivalent crowds in the Valley. Don’t know why, but it’s just an observation.

Quality of life in New York is way less than the Bay Area, yes. Food on the West Coast (not just SF — LA and Portland have superior food in my opinion than New York, too) is far better overall. Produce is better. But there is a real tech culture here and it is not going to disappear.

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July 27th, 2010

My friend Jenny Doussan asked me for my thoughts on this New York Times op-ed on free will:

According to the Basic Argument, it makes no difference whether determinism is true or false. We can’t be ultimately morally responsible either way.

The argument goes like this.

(1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are.

(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.

(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.

(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.


It may be that we stand condemned by Nietzsche:

The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far. It is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness … (“Beyond Good and Evil,” 1886).

Here’s my take on it (slightly edited from my correspondence with Jenny):

I think Nietzsche is on the right track in asserting this as a non-problem, though he just sort of dismisses the problem rather than really examining it carefully. Basically I believe the fundamental problem comes in with the illusion we all seem to have that what we call our “reasons for doing things”, i.e., our conscious cognition, somehow comprises a complete picture of both the causal situation and all factors that go into any given decision or action. But obviously this is bogus, as any careful reflection shows, I believe.

The idea that “to be responsible” for something requires a metaphysical free will in operation I believe rests on a fundamentally false idea (or set of ideas). There is never a point at which we are in fact fully “in control” of our actions — what we call our reasons for doing things are obviously approximate factors that appear as symbols within our cognition and they influence things to the extent they do at that level of representation. There is a conflation going on when we decide that these symbols or concepts or ideas ought to somehow correspond to fundamental causal factors that operate in a complete fashion, metaphysically, so to speak — this makes no sense, really. First of all, any “reasons” or conscious factors we might be aware of for doing things obviously do not form a complete picture in any realistic sense of what is actually feeding in to our actions — that would be impossible, because it would require that we be aware of and take into account in some conscious way everything that factors into the causal picture — including, for example, the state of every cell in our body, every elementary particle impinging on us from space, and so on. So it’s evident that any description at the very high-level approximate picture we talk about as conscious causes for action can only vaguely describe a tiny fraction of what goes into any given decision — and that’s how it has to be. They operate at an abstracted level of cognition and they have a meaning only insofar as they feed into that level of cognition, inherently incomplete by necessity.

So the question of fundamental determinism or randomness really doesn’t enter into this. From the point of view of our conscious cognition, it can and must live at a level at which the vast majority of what is going on at any given moment must necessarily be unknown and unknowable, we have a fundamentally incomplete picture of ourselves, even our so-called inner world, and the known or knowable world, the represented or conscious cognitive process is a small island immersed in a sea of the unknown. Clearly it has some influence on what we do, but the nature of that influence is murky and approximate, and combined with factors beyond our direct control. Thus, when we say we have a notion of “responsibility” what this means operationally is a judgement of the coherence and efficacy of conscious cognition, that is to say, we are making a judgement about the quality of cognition. We can say someone isn’t responsible for their actions because of the quality of their cognition, insofar as it interacts with and is embbeded with all other factors in their being (i.e., are they delusional, mentally impaired, etc.) — relatively high quality cognition is what we operationally mean when we talk about responsibility. We cannot possibly be referring to something fundamental at a metaphysical level, because that exists at a totally different level, and statements about fundamental, total responsibility as it were are absurd on their face; when we talk about someone “choosing” to do something we obviously don’t mean that they are somehow consciously involved in the operation of every one of the cells in their body, all the elementary particles interacting with every atom in their body and their immediate environment and so on. Yet discussions of free will that bring in questions of determinism are inherently conflating the level of metaphysical, totalistic determinism or lack thereof with a question which properly operates only at the level of conscious cognition, which is inherently fragmentary, partial, vastly incomplete in its scope and reach. Responsibility is an idea, one which we use at the level of discourse or thought at which we operate consciously — it is not a statement about our relationship to the nature of the universe at the level of physical laws and elementary particles.

The fundamental mistake I believe comes in also because we have a false sense of agency. We think we “do” our actions as a self which somehow absolutely controls or decides what we do. That is clearly wrong! As the Buddhists have often pointed out, but many others as well. There’s no possibility that this description could be in any total sense correct. However, this doesn’t eliminate the idea of responsibility for the simple reason that the idea of responsibility operates at very different level; it’s not possible for anyone to be completely, absolutely responsible for their actions in a metaphysical sense — because that would imply the existence of a self-agent which controls things absolutely — and that is clearly impossible. But that’s not what we mean, operationally, by responsibility — even if we often think that’s what we mean. What we mean in practice functions as an idea or symbol and at that level it is perfectly appropriate and sensible to use, even if always operating at a level of cognition which must be both incomplete and approximate, where even the limits of that cognitive world are fuzzy and not entirely known or even knowable. But then all our ideas about the world, about how we operate, about anything at all, really, are similarly incomplete and imprecise.

So that’s my “basic argument” on free will… in a nutshell (a sketch of an argument, really, as I’m hardly being complete or rigorous in my discussion above… but one could take the sketch above and expand it into a rigorous argument.)

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July 24th, 2010

One of the interesting things about visiting or spending time in the context of other countries and cultures (I am just returning from an intense two week visit to India which I plan to write about at length later) is noticing the unspoken assumptions of your own culture much more forcefully. For example, one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how rule-oriented we are in the United States; perhaps driven to some extent by the fact that our social contract is very explicit, it’s written down, we have a tendency to want to be explicit about everything. We write these gigantic contracts hundreds of pages long, and we even have the temerity to ask people to “agree” to laughably enormous contracts as a routine matter when buying or signing up for online goods or services, based on a somehow ludicrous fiction that we are actually reading these things when everyone knows we don’t. Contracts in other countries are often either nonexistent, based purely on handshake agreements, or far more brief than what we use in America. The UK doesn’t have a written constitution, for example; rather it has a scattering of written documents overlaid with precedent and tradition in some cases only instantiated in the minds of living people.

A peculiarly American tendency is to want, therefore, to find some way to clearly define and capture life in terms of some clear rules; it’s actually quite beneficial in many cases, but it can descend into lunacy in others. Mandatory minimum sentences, zero tolerance, and so on, are all examples of this tendency taken to its ridiculous extreme, and there are many cases where taking away intuitive discretion leads to completely absurd results. I think taking this to an extreme shows us as still a somewhat adolescent, somewhat immature culture — for all the ways in which America leads the world, there are many ways in which we betray our relative youth as a civilizational system. In the end, however, for all our tendency towards excessively legalistic processes, we are also pragmatic; we’ve pulled back from our more absurd excesses (Prohibition, mandatory minimum sentences, zero tolerance, etc.) and I think we’ll continue to do so in the future. It’s a deeply embedded habit, however, and will be with us for a very long time.

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