Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Some Stupid Questions About Free Will

Robert Vickrey, The Labyrinth

I was a terrible student and probably not exceptionally bright to begin with. I'm dense. Sometimes I need things explained to me.

I have several friends who talk to me about "free will" and was hoping for some help toward understanding the concept.

A good place to start would have been asking these friends for a definition of "free will," and I wish I thought to do it. I can only make inferences. When people refer to "free will," what they seem to be referring to is an obscure capacity by which the individual (or perhaps his or her mind) acts as an autonomous creative agent with regard to his or her behavior. I'm told that people freely choose their actions and are accountable for these choices.

Stupid Question #1: What if we act without thinking? Are we still exercising free will?

When it comes down to it, how many of our actions throughout the day are predicated by a conscious choice? When my phone vibrates, I usually don't pause to consider whether to answer it or let it keep buzzing -- I just answer it. When I eat mashed potatoes I don't pause and deliberate before taking the next spoonful; I just keep stuffing potatoes into my mouth until no potatoes remain. I don't get up in the morning and choose to go to work -- not in the sense of assessing the situation and gauging the potential costs and benefits of going to work or playing hookie. I get up and go to work.

If all of our actions are volitional, why are we not constantly aware of arriving at a crossroads with every new moment?

Stupid Question #2: How does habit square with free will?

When something you regularly do becomes so routine, so natural that you cease to be aware of it, are you still choosing to do it? Can you choose not to do something you're oblivious to doing?

I am in the habit of answering my phone right away when my boss is calling. I am also in the habit of skipping phone calls that arrive at the dinner table -- after checking the caller's number.

Sometimes my phone rings at the dinner table and I discover my boss is calling me. Now I'm aware I have a choice to make.

How frequently is it the case that we become aware of choice when two or or more of our opposing habits or exclusionary desires come into conflict? What other circumstances make us aware of choice? Are there any?

Do we only possess and exert free will when we're conscious of having to select a course of action from multiple alternatives? Are we just running on rails the rest of the time?

Does that imply that our actions between junctures of conscious decision-making (possibly the majority of our actions) are not volitional?

If we possess and exert free will at all times, who or what's making the calls when we choose without thinking, when we act unconsciously, habitually, or indeliberately? If a person's "will" dictates his actions even when he's not conscious of it, are we still talking about freedom of action?

Stupid Question #3: Is there such a thing as "partial free will?"

If so, what are the determinants of those instances when we are able to act freely?

What does it mean to "act freely" anyway?

Can most people say that they choose how they live? If you followed somebody around for a day and asked her to explain every action, to describe to you the processes by which she decided to do such and such things, adopt such and such routines, or carry such and such preferences, would she be able to tell you? If not, could she still claim that the course of her life, as a whole, was voluntary and self-determined?

I'm confused. Please help.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Conservative Christian Talks about Welfare

Paul and Percival Goodman, Communitas
So. My lady friend’s father was recently in town.

Yes, yes, I’m as shocked as anyone else about the girlfriend thing (actually, I am MUCH MORE SHOCKED), but the surprises don’t stop there. The woman I’m seeing is a pastor’s kid. A double pastor’s kid: both of her parents are Methodist ministers. Although she had an upbringing in which religion thoroughly permeated her family life, she is now fairly indifferent where dogma and liturgy are concerned. (When asked if she still considers herself a practicing Christian, she says she identifies as "sort of Quaker.")

But her father isn't only a very actively practicing Christian and a pastor, he's a Biblical Christian (a term he prefers to "fundamentalist") -- one of those folks who believe that the Bible is the Literal Word of God; a “teach the controversy” kind of person. As you can imagine, father and daughter disagree on a lot.

But she loves her father. And it’s not just out of sentimentality, nostalgia, or filial obligation: her dad is gentle, affable, funny, and really very erudite. He's a hard guy to dislike. Though his beliefs might be questionable, he can mount an admirably articulate argument on their behalf. This unrelenting reasonableness of his puts an even greater onus on his daughter to evade any conversational paths that seem to be heading towards religion or politics. (It's one thing to argue with a dolt who defends his point by repeating his point; it's another to argue with an accomplished scholar who can capably defend his position from every conceivable siege.)

But it sometimes happens. When it does, both she and her father walk away mutually unpersuaded, and then she has go outside and run something like six or eight miles before the steam generated during the exchange has been satisfactorily vented. (I’ve suggested it would be easier to just smoke six or eight cigarettes, but she will not be convinced by me, either.)

But there’s that damn reasonableness of his. Sometimes she walks away from one of these talks and wonders if the Christian conservative doesn’t have a point.

She tells me that she and her father got to talking about the social safety net during his recent visit. It it his belief that federally-funded welfare programs are unconstitutional and should be done away with.

If you lean liberal, as I (and the lady) do, this one of those propositions that immediately reaches past everything and starts slapping at the buttons on your OUTRAGE console. Your first instinct might be to immediately argue yes of course it’s constitutional are you crazy, and then immediately pull up Wikipedia to teach yourself what you’re certain you already know about the Constitution of the United States of America.

Instead, she found it more constructive to ask: “well, who’s going to take care of the sick and poor, then?”

“The church,” was his answer.

He elaborated after some probing. He objects to federally-subsidized welfare on the conviction that aid to the needy should not come from a distant, thinly-spread government agency. His view is that aid for "orphans and widows" in the community should come from the community itself (ideally, a community propped up and bound together by the church). This scheme imagines that if somebody in the community is ill and can't afford healthcare, the community passes the hat around until there’s enough to cover the hospital bill. If someone’s house down the street is knocked over and trampled during a buffalo stampede, folks up and down the block pitch in and help him rebuild, while the collection plate goes back around. If an old woman in the community has nobody to care for her and too few resources to provide for herself, people from church volunteer to make sure she is cared for and comfortable. Families take care of families; families that can't care for themselves are cared for by the community until they are capable of sustaining themselves.

Your response to this might be something like come on, get real; that’s totally unreasonable and there’s no chance that would work. You’re probably right.

But doesn’t that suck, though?

We’re admitting to living in a society where it is generally acknowledged that people cannot be counted on to care for each other. Not to generalize, but most of us probably don't even really know our neighbors, much less share with them a relationship of mutual responsibility for each other's well-being. Am I off-base for thinking it's a little perverse that a family in need can more reliably expect a helping hand from a government agency than from people on their own street?

I'm not saying I'd be thrilled about an immediate wholesale dismantling of federally-funded welfare programs. There are people who need help, and they might not get it any other way. But it's a system that isn't hard to game and abuse -- and even worse, it's predicated on the idea that it's just enough to toss money at a problem. A check in the mail helps buy food and keep a roof over the head of a man without a job, but it doesn't do much in the way of helping or encouraging him to take proactive action toward getting back on his feet, or giving him the support he might need to stay on his feet.

"Help from the neighbors" might not have the same instant appeal as "money in the mail." But what might aid from the community actually amount to? Say you've just been laid off. Imagine if, instead of only receiving a monthly check, you could count on your neighbors to invite you to share their meals and offer you rides. Imagine if you could expect everyone on your street to keep you in mind, to be on the lookout for for leads on your behalf, or to offer to pay you for any odd jobs that need to be done around their households in the meantime. Imagine if you could count on somebody in the neighborhood to take care of your kids while you go out for job interviews.

One of the presumptions of a welfare check is that a person can't count on such things, and will need money to pay for them.

In middle-class America, we only see this sort of community spirit when a hurricane rips through the town or a bomb goes off. Why should we only feel responsible for each other after a disaster strikes?

Again: I'm not suggesting that the government should have no role whatsoever in providing financial help to those who need it. But I can't help wondering if the sustained dissolution of communitas (I'm apt to place the blame for this on capitalism, but that's another conversation altogether) hasn't created a vacuum that bureaucratic coin-tossing can't reasonably be expected to fill. And I much prefer the minister's vision of a communal safety net of shared responsibility, and I wish our society was one in which such a thing were feasible.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Comic: buyfeelgood

New comic! Finally.

Click to read!

I've already spotted one typo, but I'm not at a terminal where I can easily fix it. I'll take care of it later tonight.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Humanity, Transhumanity, and Progress

Lately I've been doing some unexpectedly extensive research for a (hopefully) short fiction piece about the concept of progress, reading (re: attentively skimming) a thick stack of documents and books abut the printing press, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, 21st century futurism, and the philosophical concept of progress. This project won't achieve even an approximation of what I'd like it to and will ultimately be more trouble than it's worth, but I can't say it hasn't been fun taking a type and magnitude of work I haven't really done since my undergraduate days. (All of a sudden I really miss having JSTOR access, though.) I've been ruminating on technological developments, past and future.

From SingularityHUB.
Some nights ago I interloped upon a conversation between two colleagues speaking about the early epoch of the Internet. They were discussing digital technology's benefits and shortcomings, and one mentioned that she had recently ditched her iPhone in favor of a "dumb phone" to give herself some mental and spiritual breathing room. I asked the pair if either of them were transhumanists (or posthumanists, as I've been told some prefer to dub themselves), and the one who had just spoken about her new post-smartphone existence said me she wasn't familiar with the term.

Since I've never had an opportunity to explain anything to her before (she is very well learned) and was sensing this would be the only chance I'd ever get, I magnanimously gave her the gist on transhumanism as I've been made to understand it: that as our technology and knowledge continue to evolve, it is inevitable and desirable that humanity integrates its technology with its physiology, creating people who are more intelligent, durable, capable, and ultimately happier. "Everyone gets smartphones in their brains and we live forever," is how I may have summed it up.

Her gut reaction was NO; just no.

When I asked her why, she admitted that her rejection of this vision of the future was purely reflexive. She couldn't cite any substantive reasons -- ethical spiritual, or otherwise -- as to why she found the idea so appalling. (Granted, she'd had only twenty seconds to think it over.)

When we find ourselves upset by some argument or new idea, it's helpful to ask why instead of just leaving it at fuck that. Once we've gone beyond an emotional reaction and can put it in context, we can respond to the argument with sounder reasoning and a greater degree of intellectual honesty. I sympathize with my colleague's antipathy, but the stuff I've been reading and writing lately has compelled me to try and unpack my own anxiety towards the prospect of a humanity whose life is subcutaneously interwoven with its technology. My viewpoints might be evolving.

As for the cause of our anxiety, I've come up with two speculations.

One. Our reflexive abhorrence (hers and mine) of the assertion that humanity's march toward the Singularity is not only well-advised but inevitable has less to do with principles than with stomach-level trepidation at the notion of systemic changes in human life (our lives) occurring at such a magnitude as to cast doubt on our whole conception of "humanity."

This beggars the question: what is it we're talking about when we talk about "humanity" or the concept of "human?"

Most of us have a general idea: the people whom we know (personally and in the abstract, and including ourselves) share a set of characteristics, and it is some by arrangement of these characteristics that we define what is fundamentally "human." This definition is important to us. Our abstract landscape is a human landscape. Our concerns are human concerns; our passions and fears are human passions and human fears. (We are predisposed towards the anthropic fallacy -- and by the logic of natural selection, we are properly so.) We order our world by way of our conception of humanity (and perhaps also of "the human condition"); and so we might be profoundly disturbed if we imagine that all of a sudden -- and we will imagine it is all of a sudden, crashing down at once without the intervention of the staggered millennia, centuries, or years over which any epochal changes in a culture (or species) must encroach -- that all of a sudden, ourselves and everyone we know are made to be completely different, without anyone consulting us or asking our consent before the switch was thrown.

So what is humanity? We could talk about physiology and genetics, but that doesn't do us much good. If a human being is an upright, mostly hairless ape with a large brain and opposable thumbs on its forelimbs, 23 chromosomes pairs, and such-and-such a genome, then humanity is something we can come to understand simply by poking at a wide enough sample of cadavers. We know this isn't true.

Any proper definition of what an organism is must not exclude what that organism does -- the full extent of what it does. (So if we claim to "know" an organism, what we are claiming is a simplified but fairly thorough abstraction.)

With most organisms, there is a fairly close correspondence between a species's exhibited behavior and how we might reasonably expect to behave, given its physiology. (Anything we can't guess about its behavior must be laid at the unquantifiable obscure and unobservable aspects of its physiology.) But a knowledgeable biologist can, for instance, look at a dinosaur skeleton and extrapolate, by way of deduction, many sound inferences as to how this extinct organism likely behaved. An apatosaurus has a small brain cavity, a long neck, and dull teeth: an apatosaurus probably had relatively low intelligence and subsided on leaves from tall trees. That's a simple example, but the basic principle holds true throughout most of the animal kingdom.

But a human being is an upright, mostly hairless primate with a large brain and opposable thumbs on its forelimbs. It does not necessarily follow from the bare facts of its anatomy that human beings are organisms that drive cars. Build prisons and diesel engines. Fish and grow food. Read books. Sit up all night watching television. Talk on the phone. Play tennis. Take photographs. Strap dynamite to themselves and and blow themselves up. Ride horses. Build model ships in bottles. Heat up frozen pizzas in the oven before putting them in the microwave. Suck helium out of balloons to heighten the pitch of their voices and amuse their friends.

However interminable the range of any given terrestrial organism's general locus of behavior, a modern human being's potential actions constitute a higher degree of infinitude. We can attribute this  fact to humanity's high quotient of the characteristic commonly referred to as "intelligence" (which is a tricky word), but it is also the result of the "modern" qualifier. Humanity's history is now more cultural than it is genetic or physiological -- which is self-evident, given that technology must be counted as an aspect of culture.

Humanity has uniquely altered its environment to such an extent as to systemically alter human behavior -- and over a relatively brief period of time.

We are products of our environment. Different kinds of circumstances build different kinds of people. A generation of human beings born and bred within a culture that has access to stone tools, wheels, and knowledge about firemaking and irrigation will behave much differently than a generation born and bred in an environment where these things are unavailable. Depending on which of humanity's epochs we are considering in our definition of "human," we might already have to consider ourselves transhuman.

We've already remade our world; in doing so, we've remade ourselves. It is an ongoing process.


Another consideration: many of the attributes we might call "intrinsically human" are contingencies of our species' history, many of which are virtually ubiquitous. Where our cultural history is concerned -- and again, humanity is at a stage where culture brings far more to bear on behavior than genetic characteristics -- the situation is much more susceptible to change, and changes can occur with a sweeping speed that far outpaces the creaking gears of biological evolution. Our definition of "human" -- unless we consider a supernatural possibility or only permit the most general and nebulous qualities -- must depend disproportionately on cultural contingencies. The very concept of "exoticism" attests to the radical impact of cultural factors on what we consider to be "normal" or "natural." (And we can probably bet that most of the qualities we've elected to represent what is most basically "human" will coincide with our notions of what is normal and natural.)

So: much of what we define as "human" must be arbitrary. Ergo, any arguments regarding transhumanism (whether in opposition or advocation) citing "human nature" or "the human spirit" must be commensurately flimsy.

But then there's the second objection: that this is different; that although cultural changes have tremendously changed human behavior, none have thus far affected the constitution of our human meat.  The thought of a wetware future warping what's under our skin can equally or more appalling than the aforementioned scenario of the human "soul" undergoing an invasive electronic implant. To someone who isn't already sold on transhumanism, the old "computer chip in the brain" trope doesn't connote much in the way of desirability, no matter how smooth the sales pitch.

But these objections are, again, are purely cultural. Cultures change in time; what is taboo for me will be embraced by my grandchildren. Case in point: the widespread public support for the legalization of gay marriage, which would have been politically unmentionable (let alone feasible) a century ago.

(Still, cultural objections are perfectly valid -- during a given moment. Just don't count on "accepted" reasoning to stay on your side for very long. You must also acknowledge that your objections probably spring more from opinion than reason.)

Besides: we are already modifying our bodies. Eyeglasses: an optical enhancement tool that allows a human being to correct a biological deficiency. Vaccinations: a homeopathic augmentation of one's cells to prevent disease. A pacemaker: a mechanical implant to improve the performance of an (otherwise) irreparable and indispensable organ.

Neural implants are not too tremendous a leap forward from this.

Again: I don't think a rejection of transhumanism on a sentimental appeal to "human nature" is intellectually sound or even honest, and biological modification of human beings is already something we've been doing, albeit on a low-tech level.

But I remain a skeptic.

From Beyond ONE.

While we can't make any effective objections to the transhumanist philosophy or the eschatology of the Singularity on behalf of the human spirit, we can make them on behalf of the human species and the tenability of its existence on this planet.

I've gathered that transhumanists tend to be fervent believers in progress. Humanity will invariably improve as its technology improves. We entrust our salvation to science and technology. It's a good thing for today's futurists that we're fresh out of World War I veterans who might tell us about a similar age that made similar noises, and how these myths were literally exploded. (The situation today, of course, is vastly different, but it is only responsible to examine the past when considering the future.)

My faith in science and technology is not unalloyed. I fear we've already created a humanity that's been priming itself for a catastrophic meltdown.

If I have a broad objection to futurists and technologists, it's in the assertion (whether explicit or implicit) that the proliferation of technology, developed and proliferated for its own sake (or some providential whim of the "invisible hand") is our stair to salvation. Whatever the market wants to sell will be sold; whatever the engineers can build, the engineers will build; and this is how it should be. (Guns that can be made on 3D printers! Great! Whatever! Science! What's the worst that could happen!? But I digress.)

We've already been winging it under the banner of "rational self-interest" and the humanity into which we've redesigned ourselves is, within the planet's ecology, like a bomb on a bus (to borrow a phrase from Jack Collom).

Speculations about a transhuman tomorrow imply a future in which we use even more energy than now; I want to know how it will be generated after the oil runs out. They assume a future in which humanity will have enough to eat, despite the effects of climate change and soil degradation; I want to know where the food will be coming from. They assume a future in which nations aren't fighting drone wars over dwindling natural resources; I'd like an assurance that we've got some plan in place, or are thinking about getting a plan in place, and I want to know what that plan is.

The question shouldn't be about what kind of technologies we can develop or will develop. The question should be: what path forward is in humanity's best interest, and how can science and technology help us toward that path? (I hope and pray humanity is approaching an epiphany during which it realizes it has grown too massive and too complex to safely improvise for much longer.)

Humans beings are products of their environments. What sort of humanity would we like to succeed us? What kind of world do we think is best for them to inherit? These are reciprocal questions.

Obviously I benefit from modern technology. I'm not claiming I don't. But if we're talking about what developments will lead to the best future for humanity, sustainability must be our first consideration. As it is, the "advanced" world civilization we've haphazardly constructed on science and technology is running on borrowed time. I don't mean to act the doomsayer, but again: like a bomb on a bus. Are we certain the solution is to keep on racing in the same direction that brought us near to the cliff?

If transhuman technology presents itself as the solution (or part of it), great. Sign me up. Otherwise, I'm inclined to put optimistic preaching about transhumanism and the Singularity on level with Christian talk about the Second Coming (don't worry, the scientists have got the air/food/water/energy thing covered, or they will anyway, so just whatever, we'll all live forever, it'll be great): both represent an obstinate faith in the certainty that divine intervention (whether by the hand of Jesus or Science) will arrive right on schedule to renew the world, and they distract us from more pressing concerns: namely, redesigning human civilization such that it is able to withstand the potentially cataclysmic shocks looming on the horizon without lapsing into a new dark age, screwing over the poor, or miring itself in international wars over natural resources.

(As always: if you think I am misunderstanding an issue or an argument, please do correct me.)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Frog wrap-up

Well! That was a well-deserved weeklong nap, if I might be forgiven for saying so myself. Time to get back to business as usual (read: flaking on updates and posting excerpts from stuff I've been reading instead of producing new material).

I had a comic strip I wanted to post today, but it isn't finished yet. So I got nothin'. See you later.

OH! Wait. I do have something.

I enjoyed reading all'a y'all's frog poems, and I'm not just saying that to be polite. I liked them all, but there were a few that I really liked. Choosing a prizewinner wasn't easy -- and heck, if I could afford it, I'd send a bag of granola to everyone who gave me a poem. But I can only spare the scratch for one bag and one stamp, so there can only be one prizewinner.

And the froggy princely prizewinner is Tim.

A frog, a pond, a sound Panama!

I don't love it on the basis of its being cute or ironically familiar, or because it's simple and funny; I'm struck by the PANAMA at the end arriving like an sudden splash upon the surface of a summer pool.

So, Tim: drop me a line (beechleavesold[at] and give me an address to which I can send your bag of authentic (and organic!) Quaker granola.

Well. I'm gonna get back to work on that comic strip.