Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Not as special as you thought

Whenever we blame society, we are merely protesting our own inability to contribute towards its betterment.

Lately, science has become increasingly outspoken about a number of studies addressing what we've always perceived as free will and took for granted to be what sets humans apart from the rest. These studies consistently suggest that our brain makes decisions before we consciously know that we will make the choices we think we've made. Needless to say, this isn't helping set the thinking mind at rest. We have, in all likelihood, discovered something about the brain that is so controversial it could be the biggest scientific discovery since our realization that the Earth is not flat. It must have been hard for previous generations to adapt to such world-shattering notions and it's fortunate that they didn't remain too obstinate about it; we may still be living off trees today.

We commonly assume our species to be uniquely superior to the rest of nature, calling things that we have modified artificial and everything else natural, not really understanding what we mean by it most of the time. Not only is this conception of nature quite bogus, it often seems to handicap our ability to interact with it. However evolved and increasingly complex our brain structure might have become over a few hundred millennia, we remain the pattern-seeking apes that our not-so-distant ancestors were all along. Being so developed and awakened, we should be able to wrap our minds around hundred-years-old evidence and, at last, fully appreciate the pretenseless scientific fact that we are nature. We simply cannot hope to understand it if we boycott its most essential principles.

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch...
As history repeats itself, enlightenments and dark ages sorely succeed each other in a vicious cycle. Science is fragile and many factors, including unbridled capitalism, menace its great albeit limited achievements. More so, what little you and I comprehend, in comparison to the total sum of human knowledge, is so small it's ludicrous. Plagued with uncertainty, as ever, we build belief upon belief, upon unverifiable assumptions, rarely realizing how feebly they stand, piled on each other as a house of cards. The more fundamental we consider these truths, the more difficult it seems to put back into question their basis. We know how it would force us to start over and reexamine a multitude of previously unquestioned ideas on which we relied for morals; inspiration and self-worth.

Notwithstanding the sad fact that having to reprocess all this is bound to be mentally exhausting, it is obviously easier to just pretend like we own reality; but again, bear in mind: for us to be standing here now, unfortunate folks had to go through this, time and time again. Anything about which we are right today, we had to be wrong about first; and what you and I, taken as individuals, assume to be knowledge... is in fact mostly unchecked data. We simply can't be expected to personally verify it all and as ambiguous as the word truth might be, being wrong is the only path towards it. We have all been told things that hurt because they forced us to deconstruct notions we considered fundamental and from which many others of our cherished beliefs were borrowing all of their validity.

Decision making: as close to it as you'll ever get...
If a spiritual entity created us in its image, wouldn't it be absurd to think it may have had free will while it turns out that we actually don't? Also, while being all-powerful implies an ability to make conscious judgments, doesn't the idea of divine perfection seem quite incompatible with decision making? Why would you need to make any if you ultimately knew what the best possible path is? In fact, if a perfect being made any choice, knowing it not to be the best available, wouldn't that make him slightly malevolent? This is not a new issue, it is a problem with the abrahamic God that has eluded people for a while. Devout believers will come up with all kinds of tentative explanations, mostly made of redundant, circular logic. Is it not getting obvious that we make gods in our image?

You came across this blog through a succession of factors too complex for anyone to say that you chose it all to happen. Someone or something outside made you want to give it a chance. Your choices were narrowed down. Depressing? A bit too much exposure to reality may have its toll on you after a while. Healing from religious abuse takes efforts and time, just like withdrawing from some "comfort-inducing" chemical substance would be a painful challenge. Atheism is not the answer, merely the result. You'll never be presented with certainty and this is difficult to a lot of people who quit religion. Whatever you may think of this article, having read it will slightly modify your perception just like every stimuli that ever reached your senses. Truth is rarely too convenient.


  1. "if a perfect being made the decision of not doing what he knows to be best for everyone, wouldn't that make him somewhat evil?"

    Except that a perfect Being wouldn't make that kind of decision. To make a statement like you just made, you would need to know what this Being's goal is, as well as every factor included in any decision He ever made. You would in fact need to be just as perfect as the perfect Being to be able to make the kind of judgement that you're making.

    Nevertheless, good luck on your journey.

    1. You can't be omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent at the same time. I didn't notice this paradox myself. It is one of the "mysteries" of theology... Bullshit, in other words... :)

  2. But on what basis can we blame ourselves for our failures? Aren't we, one and all, just the way nature would have us be? If we are nature, as you note, then, like nature, aren't we fundamentally and absolutely blameless for being whatever way we happen to be?

    1. Well, we are nature as far as all components of your body are on the periodic table of elements. After your death, these atoms might randomly become part of other objects, etc. We feel like we're on top of this, I point to the fact that we're made of the same Legos as everything else.

      About who to blame, this is where it gets difficult when we keep our old notion of free will. We've always been used to the idea of blaming failure, punishing crime, etc.

      Sam Harris, Neuroscientist, explains it best in my opinion. He gives the example of a serial killer. Of course, for everyone's safety, he should be arrested and incarcerated. But once you start getting used to the idea that free will is an illusion, you realize that if you had had the misfortune of being born with his body and brain, you would have committed the same crimes. Someone with your brain would have committed the same failures, etc. We have always known that blaming is not useful in any situation, it's always counterproductive. Now we have further confirmation of this.

      What does it change? Among other things, understanding the misfortune of having been born with the brain of a mentally impaired person can only lead to feelings of empathy; yes, even towards the perpetrator of the crime. We have always known that vengeance makes us feel better only for a brief moment. We are much better off seeing people's decisions for what they are.

      By all means, don't take my word, check his latest book out. I think he makes a lot of sense.

    2. Perhaps I misconstrued your OP. Seemed like you were suggesting one could be blameworthy for failing to contribute to the betterment of society.

      I have a particular interest in the psychological experience of knowing about oneself that one lacks the power to be blameworthy or creditworthy.

      Thanks for the referral to Harris' book. I've read it and a number of other works on the topic of free will. Extremely interesting.

      On the broader question of man and mind as wholly natural, I recommend "The Athiest's Guide to Reality" by Rosenberg.

    3. Thanks for the reference too, I'll check it out. I'm a bit late since you already replied, but here's a slightly better 2nd paragraph to my previous reply:

      About who we should blame, this is where it gets difficult because we seem to be stuck with this old (and intrinsically religious) notion of free will. We've always been used to the idea of blaming failure, punishing crime, etc. For example, the whole idea of sinning (even if a god existed, what would be the point of religion without sin?) is based on mentally torturing people for things they have often not even done themselves, or merely committed the crime of thinking about. In my last sentence, please note that I am not specifically saying we should blame anyone but rather trying to make an observation. I find it interesting that even you would ask 'then who should we blame, what should we blame?' I'm pretty certain most including myself will need a lot of time before we can really get over this and be comfortable with it.

  3. Actually on Harris' blog you'll find a post by Sam about how living without a sense of free will is actually quite pleasing. In addition, Tom Clark on has a piece about freedom from free will where he expresses a similar sentiment.

    My own experience is that I'm much less unhappy and also more compassionate. Come on out and play! It's safe out here.

    1. I still have to get used to it but I think I can sort of imagine why... You could perhaps make the analogy with when you're about to wake up from a dream and you are actually aware that you're dreaming... and you consciously try all kinds of crazy things just for fun because you know there are no consequences. I know it's not the same but the feeling of freedom is sort of similar to the one you feel, I think.

  4. SeaTurt1e19/4/13 11:40

    Whether you attribute our existence to God or not, free will is a fantasy.

    If God exists, then He created us knowing full well how we would turn out and every little thought and action we would make along the way. So having the ability to NOT create us, everything we do is His will, and we're just following a pre-ordained path under the illusion we control our own actions.

    If God does NOT exist, we are the product of nature (genetics, our physical and mental traits and abilities) and nurture (how we were raised, our friends and acquaintances, and chance events). Both of these "tracks" are beyond our ability to change.

    So ultimately, none of us are responsible for our own actions. But collectively, the well-being of our societies dictates that we are punished and/or rewarded for following behaviors that benefit the larger entity. We can therefore consider ourselves nothing more than a mathematical equation playing itself out, as each of us compare behaviors that benefit ourselves at the expense of others vs. those that benefit others at the expense of ourselves. Different individuals will calculate the tipping point in different places, and there will always be outliers, but the fact that most of us for the most part conform is what allows us as a species to continue to be viable.