Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Free Will or Free Won't

Let's us talk about free will for just a bit. And we'll start off being a little irritating and obnoxious, as is our wont.

1, 2, 3 go:

Your opinion about free will is entirely irrelevant.

Sound familiar?

Free will either exists, or it does not.

What you believe about free will is immaterial.

Your belief in free will does not cause it to exist, nor does your disbelief cause it not to exist.

Nor is pretty much anything that science has to say about it very informative.

I posted two articles in the same week back in spring on FB, one which said free will exists, one of which said that it did not.

There will be a study that suggests that it does not, and some time later, another study poking holes in the first study. I've been watching this thing for 25 years, so trust me on this.

That's the way science works, of course, and that's a good thing.

But the way the human mind works is to pay very close attention to the study that we like, and not so much to the one we don't like.

Plus, the way things get reported is that first study gets large print on the front page (FREE WILL DOESN'T EXIST! PROOF AT LAST!) and the second study somewhere else in tiny tiny print (Free Will Might Exist. We were wrong. This time. But you just wait. One of these days...).

The problem with figuring out free will is that it's not just or even mainly a philosophical or theological question,

It's a brain question.

And here's what we do not understand at all.

The brain.

Here's a bit from an article in Wired Magazine, the world's greatest magazine ever:

"Studying the brain now is like trying to navigate a vast city without any driving instructions. You don't know where you are, and you have no idea how to find what you're looking for.

"Every brain is profoundly unique, a landscape of cells that has never existed before and never will again. 

"The same gene that will be highly expressed in some subjects will be completely absent in others. 

"This variation is even visible at a gross anatomical level - different people have differently shaped cortices, with different boundaries between anatomical regions. 

"If the human atlas is like Google Maps, then every mind is its own city.

"Scientists assumed for decades that most cortical circuits were essentially the same - the brain was supposed to rely on a standard set of microchips, like a typical supercomputer. 

"But the atlas has revealed a startling genetic diversity; different slabs of cortex are defined by entirely different sets of genes. 

"The supercomputer analogy needs to be permanently retired.

"Scientists are just starting to grapple with the seemingly infinite regress of the brain, in which every new level of detail reveals yet another level.

"The problem with this data is that it's like grinding up the paint on a Monet canvas and then thinking you understand the painting.

"You can't help but be intimidated by the complexity of it all. Just when you think you're getting a handle on it, you realize that you haven't even scratched the surface.

"What you mostly discover is that the mind remains an immense mystery. We don't even know what we don't know."

So when some guy in a lab is trying to figure out whether or not there is free will, he has to test living human brains in living human heads, brains that he might even assume that he understands,

But he doesn't. Or she. They. All of them.

And when you or he or she or they or all them read some article about some other scientist(s) claiming they have figured out something about the way the brain works, the truth is, they've made assumptions about the way the brain works that don't seem to be at all, um, assumable. 

So if our first guy or whoever is trying to figure out if there's free will, he/she/it/or they is doing a free will test on something (a brain) he/she/it or they have no understanding of.

So really. It's just not going to work.

The interesting thing is how badly we seem to want free will not to exist.

Someone's gonna have to explain that one to me.

Oh, never mind. I'll just do it myself.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Gaps are back

Now, what happens to science when the gaps come back?

Remember the God of the Gaps problem? 

Religion said, we got earthquakes and volcanoes and plagues and floods and fires and all sorts of horrible things plus Kardashians because the gods are all pissed off at us. Also, rainbows and butterflies and waterfalls and suns and moons and stars and sunsets all come from the gods. So throw some virgins into the volcanoes and we'll get rainbows and sunsets all over again. The gods love it when we throw virgins into volcanoes. Those crazy gods.

So science, all Newtonian about it, says, hah! you guys are idiots. Everything happens because the laws of physics make everything happen. Gods!?!? Seriously!?!? You guys are idiots.

And we were, kinda.

'Cause the laws of physics DO cause everything to happen.

If we had not been idiots, we might have said, um, so, where do the laws of physics come from?

And THEY would said, hah! you guys are idiots. The laws of physics have always been here. Just like the universe has always been here. ("Oops" is what they said about that later.)

How many laws of physics are there, actually? we could have politely asked.

One, they would have said. Gravity. Everything else comes from that.

Then after awhile, they would have said, Two. Gravity and Electromagnetism. Everything else comes from those.

And then the 20th century rolled into view, and all of sudden, things got messy.

First, there was Quantum Theory.

Then, there was Relativity.

Then, there was Big Bang.

Then, the universe hadn't always been there.

Then, the laws of physics hadn't always been there, either. Because nothing had always been there.

Plus, then there were two more laws. The Strong and Weak Interactions. That's what they call them.

And all of a sudden, there were more Gaps that needed to be filled with science.

And the actual science that filled the Gaps just gave us even more Gaps. Gaps upon Gaps.

Fortunately for science, religious people didn't like Big Bang, so it turned out not to be much of a problem, because then they didn't know about the new Gaps.

But it should have been.

Because science had filled all of the OLD gaps with Newtonian science, which doesn't work at all well at filling the NEW gaps.

And we have all of the NEW gaps because of the NEW science. Relativistic, quantum science. Which created the gaps.

It's a problem. Because the new gaps look like this:

Where did all the science come from? Laws of physics-wise, I mean.

Where did the universe come from? Since there were no laws of physics to make it come from anywhere, and since there was no where there for it to have come here from there from.

And what the heck is this whole quantum thing, anyway?

So now we've got quantum weirdness and space-time weirdness and Dark Energy and Dark Matter and Strings and Loops and Holographic and/or Computer Simulated Universe options and Biocentric Universe options and 41 (or more) interacting universes options and Multiverses options and Higgses and Cosmological Constants and Inflationary options and there's hardly anything we know about a lot of them that might be true and a lot that we know that is true that is totally bizarre and NOT Newtonian.

And frankly, there's a lot more gaps than not gaps these days, cosmology-wise.

And God has become a reasonable answer, unless 

you think that God will never ever be any kind of reasonable answer because


But, here's a thought.

Just because God was a lame answer for some problems we had in understanding nature doesn't mean

That he might not be a really fine answer for other problems we have in understanding nature.

Maybe we just need to ask better questions. And maybe we need to be ready for our understanding of God to be too small.

Which only makes sense, since our understanding of the universe has clearly been too small.

'Cause here again is what science did. It assumed that the God it didn't believe in was exactly like the God that religious people did believe in. That since we knew that volcanoes weren't actually the gods blowing off angry steam, that there was a nice neat scientific explanation for volcanoes, then THAT God or THOSE gods did not exist.

And indeed, they did not.

But a much better conclusion would have been,

Maybe God is a bit more complicated, complex, and interesting than the pissed off gods of yore. And maybe rejecting the existence of God today by assuming that God is the same God or gods that the modern religions accept today is no more insightful or imaginative.

That is, to say that the God of the Old Testament or the Torah or the Koran is harsh and brutal and therefore God does not exist, is the province of small minds.

And maybe assuming that God is constantly in a state of being constantly pissed off is a bad assumption.

The volcano virgins of the world like where this is going.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


I find this to be a curious thing.

Atheists think that religious people are idiots for believing in miracles. Atheists also tend to be mad at the God they don't believe in for allowing evil things to happen.

That is, for not doing miracles. To stop the evil things from happening. Of course, if he did stop some, they'd never know.

And, as it turns out, they are desperate for God to stop things like tsunamis or genocides or earthquakes or tornadoes or serial killers or the Kardashians, but not the evil things that they themselves do.

And then religious people, for whom finding a good parking spot is a miraculous Act of God, somehow don't notice when God doesn't do things like stop tsunamis or genocides or earthquakes or tornadoes or serial killers or the Kardashians.

We are a confusing species. So let's try to figure it out.

There are always things humans do not understand.

As religious people (and humans have always been religious), when we met things we did not understand, we would ascribe those things to God, or the gods.

Volcanoes, earthquakes, sun, moon, stars, cats, mysteries of all shapes and sizes. 

Any gap we found in our ability to explain the universe, we filled with gods.

Later on, science would call this the “God of the gaps” and use it to dismiss religion entirely. This they did from the entirely reasonable perspective that science had explained most of the things we didn’t understand and had blamed on God, or the gods. And they felt pretty good about being able to explain all the things they hadn’t been able to explain yet. They had a good track record.

They have a point. And we haven’t learned the lesson yet.

It’s pretty simple. Bad things would happen. You know, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, famines, plagues, fires, landslides, cats. Terrible things. The Kardashians. Teeeerrible things.

Since it didn’t make sense to us that bad things just happen sometimes, we would figure that the gods were angry about something we did and were doing these bad things to us as punishment.

Since we didn’t know what we had done, and the gods weren’t letting us know, weren’t giving us any hints, we would make stuff up. 

And then we’d try to fix it by doing, I don’t know, whatever. Sacrifice some virgins. Cut out some hearts with black obsidian knives. Shrink some heads. Eat some enemies. Whatever seemed right at the time. 

The gods were fairly irrational about doing bad things to us, so we were pretty irrational about trying to keep them happy and off our case.

There was this sense that we had to sacrifice stuff to the gods to keep them off our backs. Gods - very demanding, very much like little babies, teenagers, bad bosses, mother-in-laws, and Kardashians. It's always totally about them.

The Greeks spent a lot of time and energy trying to keep the gods happy. The Romans, with pretty much the same gods, did the same thing.

Even in our more modern, educated, sophisticated times, religious people do the same thing. 

Hindus have some 350 million gods they have to keep happy by following their dharma to build up good karma so that reincarnation can happen at a higher level next time around. 

Buddhists, at least in its purer, Buddhist form, have to avoid developing fond attachments for the things of the world, including friendships and family relationships. In its more western, less Buddhist form, there are chantings and incenses and good feelings and thoughts. 

Jews have something over 600 laws they have to follow to keep God happy. They have each their rabbinical interpretations of how much to carry and how far to walk and who gets to wear what when and why. It's not really a growth religion because, well, circumcision.

Muslims, luckier than the Jews, have about five laws, but there are myriad interpretations of how to follow those laws. 

Outside of the mainstream religions and denominations, cults are defined by the weird, cultish things they demand of their followers to keep the gods happy.

And Christians spend a lot of time and energy trying to keep God happy, trying, as it were, to stay saved.

They mostly try to do this like everyone else does it - by trying to follow laws and rules and regulations, even though they know better.

Because Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Confucians and Shintos and Jains and Hindus and everybody in every faith and religion and belief system EVER thinks that what God is all about is 

1) being pissed off all the time because apparently none of you IDIOTS can 

2) follow all the rules.

God doesn't need to use all-caps, btw, but, well, you know.

And atheists and scientists very rightly think to the themselves, God is an idiot, because all he does is demand that people follow of bunch of mostly stupid rules. And he's mean and nasty, besides. If he exists at all, that is.

So the atheists and scientists reject the existence of this God. This mean, nasty, petty, tyrannical, cruel, heartless, arbitrary God who clearly and easily could have created a universe that didn't have evil and suffering in it and should fix it anyway, although that would take miracles, which they don't believe in, because those would be supernatural, and they don't believe in supernatural stuff.

Now. Just suppose. Maybe that's the wrong God entirely to believe in, or to reject. Maybe most of us, believers and non- alike, have God got mostly wrong.

Maybe he is not a God of rules and regulations. Maybe he is a God of interactions and relationships. Maybe he is a God of love.

Humans get it backwards. We traditionally have thought that if we follow all the rules and regulations, then God will love us and will not squash us like a bug. If you want an equation, it might look like this:
Rules => Love. 

Or like this: Obedience => Love. 

And like this: Disobedience => Getting Squashed Like a Bug.

Bug. Not Bugs. Pay attention.

Instead, maybe it looks like this:

Love => Interaction => Rules.

So instead of Acting Right so That God Will Love You, maybe it's

God loves you already, and wants you to love each other, and here's how you might do that. You interact with each other, and out of the interactions come the standards of behavior.

Culture emerges from relationship. The interaction between me and thee.

Just like, gravity emerges from relationship. The interaction between space-time and matter. Matter emerges as an interaction, energy becoming matter becoming energy becoming matter. And so on.

The universe arrived with four, maybe five rules in place, and the rules are all about interaction. Gravity. Strong force. Weak force. Electromagnetism. Quantum Mechanics, whatever the heck that is.

QM might just be the miracle juice we need to make everything happen.

And all the rest of the laws of nature emerge from that starting point as a direct by-product of interactions.

Four rules. Four types of interactions. And the supernatural, the magic, the mystery, the wonder of the quantum universe that gives us something from nothing and a universe that is nothing but connected interactivity between forces and particles.

What the universe does emerges from the interactions. The culture of the universe emerges from the interactions.

How and why what it does, and how and why what we do as humans, as life-forms, as the aliens' aliens, emerges from our interactions.

If we start our interactions with an intention to have that interaction be sort of, you know, nice, um, loving and kind and good and thoughtful and sacrificial and caring and all of that, then what emerges is highly likely, statistically, probabilistically, scientifically, experimentally verifiably, to be, you know, kinda


On average. Over time. Generally. Usually. Interactions are complicated things, which makes it all just that much more interesting and sometimes messy and fascinatingly unpredictable and all butterfly-effecty and emergent and stuff.

But still. Worth a shot.