Religious Bathwater

I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists.

Religion for Atheists (cover)

De Botton’s big idea is that the least interesting thing about religion is whether its claims about God are true. We should be more interested in the fact that religions have had a couple of thousand years of experience of understanding and guiding human nature through art, ceremony, and moral codes and through the social interactions that come from sitting together for a couple of hours every Sunday. Religions also make a big deal of celebrating life’s important events and the passage of the seasons.

It’s true that we don’t actually need religion for any of those things. Secular art can be beautiful; we can get our social interactions at a football match on a Saturday afternoon or at quiz night at the pub every Tuesday and there are plenty of non-religious ways to celebrate the seasons. The trouble is: we don’t though. Not really.

Virgin at Prayer after SassoferatoSecular artists broke free of the shackles of religion in the 19th century but when was the last time you were truly inspired by a painting? Was it painted in the last 50 years? I didn’t think so. In theory, there is plenty of secular inspiration to be had—De Botton cites Jane Austin and Shakespeare—but they don’t really bring us together the way the Bible or the Ramayana used to.


Earlier this month, I stumbled across an interview with Alain de Botton on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast where he expands on some of these ideas.

On Being - The School of Life

De Botton observes that much of what we think of as typically Christian was originally pilfered from pagan culture—not just Christmas trees and Saturnalia; philosophy and ethics too—and it’s about time we took some of it back.

I suppose what I’m arguing for is a kind of reverse colonization. In the same way that Christianity colonized the pagan world absorbing its best elements, so I’m arguing that non-believers today can do a little bit of this with religion just as religion did it with them, because, you know, a lot of what we find in Christianity comes, of course, from Greek philosophy. Even the concept of monasticism was taken from the Epicurean philosophical communities that existed in the mount_athosMediterranean world. So an awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments, are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them.


Alain de Botton founded The School of Life to lead this recolonisation effort.

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm, and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.


From On Being.

I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment. We get so stressed. We got so confused. We get so overwhelmed by the kind of people around us, what’s in our diaries, what’s going on right now. And then once a week or more or less, you can go to a religious institution, be it a mosque, a synagogue or church, and you can step outside of the ordinary and you can be brought into contact with very, very old things or very vast things, things that are much greater, deeper, more mysterious than ordinary life. Suddenly that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to be made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

At The School of Life’s non-church, they hear sermons, sing hymns and enjoy a nice cup of tea afterwards.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I’ve read a journalist account of coming to “The School of Life” and it’s really interesting. They described it as a place of play and whimsy and big talk, that it’s warm and stylish and serious. I mean, I have to say, I watched a bit online and I watched a sermon that you gave — and that is a word you use, that some of these talks are called sermons. The video I watched, there were a lot of people there that looked like people of all ages and a lot of young people and they were singing “Jerusalem,” this great classic hymn which is at once deeply Christian and deeply British.

MR. DE BOTTON: We could say what on earth is going on?
MS. TIPPETT: Exactly.
MR. DE BOTTON: But, of course, you know, when you talk to people who don’t believe, one of the things they often say is, “Such a pity because the music’s fantastic and the singing is great and I love to have a cup of tea at the end and, you know, chat to neighbors and all the rest of it.”

I have to confess that Jerusalem is one of my favourite songs and I can barely make it through the third verse because I get choked up at the bit about bows of burning gold and arrows of desire. It’s an amazing song.

I think it’s important to sing the original words to sacred hymns like Jerusalem and to not bowdlerise away the religious bits. How profound to wonder, as Blake did, “Was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen?”. And how inspiring to pledge to build a new Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land?  Would Odysseus’s adventure be as compelling without the mythical creatures? Would Frodo’s tale be so memorable without the immortality of the Elves? Christian mythology has some great stories too. Let’s keep them and learn from them.


The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings are both moral tales but we don’t really talk about morality in public any more and the hole left by the absence of morality has been filled by commercialism. De Botton would have us reclaim that space too.

So, you know, we don’t live in the kind of completely neutral public space that’s often fantasized about by secular defenders of a kind of neutral liberalism. We are actually assaulted by commercial messages. So religions want to assault us with other messages, messages to be kind and to be good and to forgive and all these things, and they know that having a feeling of being observed, having a public space that is colored by moral atmosphere, all of this can help.

For de Botton, morality is about how we interact with other people and how we deal with the difficult challenges that life confronts us with. We should make more of an effort to learn about life’s lessons together.

MR. DE BOTTON: You know, the modern secular education system is based on the idea that life is essentially a kind of fairly easy process to get through, so you need to teach people certain skills for the modern economy like accountancy and microbiology and all this sort of stuff. But what you don’t need to teach them is how to live because how to live is fairly obvious. All you need to do is, you know, separate yourself from your parents and bring up some children, maybe, and find a job you like, deal with mortality …

MS. TIPPETT: All those really easy things [laugh].

MR. DE BOTTON: All those really easy things, and then confront your own death and it’s just really simple. You don’t need guidance.

So you’re supposed to know this stuff and my question is, how? I don’t know this stuff. And the fascinating starting point of religions, all religions, is they start from the idea that we don’t know how to live and so that’s why they need to teach us wisdom.

Much of the dissonance between religion and secular life comes about because religion has hijacked many of the words that we use to talk about morality and meaning. Words like soul, spirit and sin are rarely used in a secular setting. But the words are important and should still be significant even if put aside their supernatural meanings.

MS. TIPPETT: So I often make a statement which I think is somewhat controversial that atheists have spiritual lives too. Then it ends up depending on how you’re defining spiritual, but would you say it that way, do atheists have spiritual lives?
MR. DE BOTTON: Of course, I mean …
MS. TIPPETT: Do you have a spiritual life?
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, if you — it’s like the word soul, you know. Do atheists have souls? In the strict religious sense, no, but in the loose sense, yes. You’ll know what we mean. If you meet somebody and you say, you know, that person he was quite interesting but he seemed to lack soul or she doesn’t seem to have much soul.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. We have secular ways of using this word.
MR. DE BOTTON: Right. But I think when we use it that way, we’re onto something rather useful. It means an illusion to the deeper sides of a human being, the side that’s going to confront death, the side that’s there at moments of love, the side that is interested in questions of kind of ultimate meaning and direction, the serious stuff, the side of us that kind of we confront at 3:00 a.m. when we’re awoken and suddenly the world seems a challenging place to deal with the in the way that sometimes we might not notice in the kind of busyness of the day. I think that’s the soul bit and, of course, it exists in nonbelievers as much as in believers. Similarly, atheists have amazing moments under the stars as well when atheists look up and see the galaxies and contemplate the sheer nothingness, puniness of humans in the cosmos. It’s just how we choose to interpret it. We don’t leap to a supernatural conclusion. So when I look at the cosmos, I’m not forced to then make the next step, which is to say there must be something out there. Look, there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars, we may differ about, you know, what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.


In Which Sturgeon’s Law Explains Everything

In 1951 Theodore Sturgeon was giving a talk about science fiction when someone in the audience noted that “90% of science fiction writing was crap”. Sturgeon shot back that “90% of everything is crap”.

This observation came to be known as Sturgeon’s Law.

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

— Theodore Sturgeon

Sturgeon’s law is just as valuable when you are thinking about professionals as the old joke about doctors illustrates.

Q: What do you call a doctor who graduates at the bottom of his class?

A: Doctor

After years of pondering, I have come to believe that Sturgeon’s Law is more about the 10% that isn’t crap than the 90% that is. Forgetting the exact ratios for a moment, in every artform and every sporting contest, in every profession and every human endeavour, there is a distribution of quality in which a minority stands out as much better than the rest. We all know teachers who work that little bit harder to make their lessons interesting or the pharmacist who goes the extra mile to make sure that you understand your prescription. In my own profession—software engineering—only about 10% of engineers ever read a book about their craft once they leave college. This leads me to what I think is a more profound corollary to Sturgeon’s Law.

If you are a software engineer at the top of your game, you probably read books, attend conferences, study relentlessly to enhance your skills and engage in endless discussion on how to improve the state of the art of software craftsmanship.  Average software engineers do not do this but you are probably surrounded by the rare few who seek to be the best they can be. This is where the less obvious aspect of Sturgeon’s Law casts its insidious spell. When you meet people outside of your elite circle, they are more likely to be average than elite.

Most engineering managers have a similar disinclination to better themselves. The best of them are very good but most of them are not the best. Too many are merely average. When the very best of the software engineering profession looks at the competence of software engineering management, they sigh a little because most managers are not very good.

Oddly enough, the very best of software engineering managers have a symmetrical view of the engineers they manage. Most engineers are not very good either. This isn’t just true of software engineers and their managers; it’s true of QA engineers, product managers, and designers too. Most QA engineers think that most programmers suck at testing. It’s true. Most of them do. But most QA engineers suck at it too. To the best QA engineers, the average programmers seem like uncaring barbarians. And vice versa.

I should emphasize at this point that I am not suggesting that some people are better than others at everything. Even very great software engineers might suck at gardening or astronomy.

This corollary to Sturgeon’s Law pertains across so many domains where the best of folks surround themselves with other folks who are motivated to excel. The average person outside their circle contrasts poorly as a result. Consider a Kalenjin long distance runner from the Rift Valley in Kenya. He probably encounters other great runners almost every day of his life. Most of the people he runs with, eats with and loves with are also great runners. If our Kalenjin got on a plane to Helsinki, he’d probably be disappointed to find that most Finns are not great long-distance runners. Most of them are just average. Truth be told, most of the Kalenjin are probably average too but our guy doesn’t encounter them very often. He hangs with the elite when he is at home. Away from home he has less opportunity to be so picky. It was only when he went to Finland that he encountered so many people who were not elite runners. Finland has elite runners too of course (I fondly recall cheering for Lasse Virén at the Montreal Olympics) but you are not going to bump into them at the airport as you might when you are at the Kenyan School for Elite Runners.

It’s helpful at this point to remember that individuals are not statistics (The median is not the message in the memorable words of Stephen Gould). If you wanted to recruit a team of long-distance runners it wouldn’t be a great idea to fly off to the Rift Valley and round up the first 5 runners you came across. You’d probably have a very average running team. You’d be much better off choosing great runners wherever they hail from. Furthermore, if you had to choose between a Finnish runner and a Kenyan runner, there is no need to check their birth certificate or the colour of their skin when you decide which one should join your elite running team. You can actually race them and choose the one that runs the fastest. When you are dealing with individuals, you should concern yourself with their individual qualities, not with some arbitrary statistical correlation however accurate that may be. It might be true that the average Kenyan runs faster than the average Finn but—so what? You will never be in a situation where you have to choose between average individuals without some other evidence to inform your choice.

The insidious nature of statistical racism is magnified by confirmation bias. Once you have decided that Kenyans run faster than Finns, it’s all too easy to reinforce your prejudice by noticing all the data points that confirm your bias—Hey! There goes another fat, slow and lazy Finn!—and to overlook the occasions that contradict your instincts. There is a long, unfortunate history of people doing exactly this.

There’s a whole garden of isms that wither under Sturgeon’s steely gaze. My dentist (Hi, Dr Bobba!) has a lovely cartoon on the wall with a caption that says something like “Women will never make good dentists. Their wrists are too weak!”.

Put yourself in the perspective of a Victorian gentleman who just happens to be a very good dentist. All your friends are very good dentists. They all have a certain background in dentistry and very strong wrists. You probably have a quite distinct image of what a proper dentist looks like. The average woman of your acquaintance probably seems very un-dentist-like. She is probably very uninterested in dentistry and has very dainty wrists. If you had to choose a dentist based only on wrist strength, you’d be marginally better off choosing the dentist with the stronger wrists—in 1875. But in 2014, you can skip right past concerns about wrist strength and whether your dentist has the appropriate genitalia and just hire the one who is the best at dentistry. And Doctor Bobba *is* very good. Trust me on that.

More casually—in our everyday lives—we are surrounded at work by people who share a certain intellectual outlook on life. Maybe your colleagues are more interested in politics than the average citizen. Maybe your friends at the sports bar care an awful lot about the intricacies of the infield fly rule or exactly how many defenders need to be behind the ball before offside is called. They know more than the average Joe about sports and certainly more than the average wife. Does that mean that women don’t understand politics or sports? No, of course not. The median is not the message, remember? It means that the average wife—in fact, the average anyone—knows less about sports than the fanatics you hang out with at the sports bar.

Let’s try some more examples.

The average tourist who visits Paris from their friendly little town in Georgia will find most Parisians quite distant, abrupt and possibly rude. The literary Parisians that he encounters will surely conclude that tourists from Georgia know very little about French art and are quite uncultured.  If you repeat the experiment in the opposite direction and send a farmer to Atlanta from a little village in Provence I’ll wager the outcome will be identical. Repeat as necessary with Beijing, Nairobi, Melbourne and Rio.

The average kid who spent every evening of the 1970s browsing record stores for rare blues recordings is likely to be disappointed with the crap his kids listen to on The YouTube. And vice versa.

If you are really interested in US history, I bet you are disappointed with how little the kids of today know about your favourite topic. Guess what! They are disappointed in you too!

The average software developer who does not have a degree in computer science probably doesn’t know much about data structures and algorithms. Neither does the average CS graduate. Most of them slept through that class or forgot most of it the next day. More surprisingly, the average PhD is not very good at software engineering either unless they are working in their very narrow field of expertise. Of the best engineers I have ever worked with, only a few had a PhD or a Master’s degree in CS. Some had degrees in English or music and a good number had no degree at all. In fact, it’s quite amazing that many of the most famous people in software dropped out of college—or maybe that’s just my own confirmation bias playing tricks on me.

I expect the world would be a much happier place if people listened to their Uncle Sturgeon and relied on statistics and biases only when they prove useful. A statistical overview of a population can be helpful when you are deciding how to profitably market your new product or where to spend your campaign dollars or which college recruiting fair to attend. But if you are choosing an umpire for your baseball league or an anchor for your running team or a new hire for your software startup you’d do better to ignore the statistics and hire the individuals with the right skills for the job. To do otherwise is prejudice.

Moral Instincts Don’t Scale

Excellent idea that I never thought of before…

The first half of this bloggingheads video is about Paul Bloom experiments showing how very young babies have a well-developed moral sense. In the second half of the video, Paul & Bob discuss how well our moral instincts and emotions like justice, anger and empathy work in our everyday lives but how badly they scale up to interactions between nations.

There’s a one in five chance…

When the big little clown was in fourth grade, he and his friends were really into Texas Hold’em. I regularly hosted a bunch of nine year olds for poker sessions. They couldn’t get enough of it. The Little Clown and I used to play all the time, even when his friends weren’t around.

Texas Hold'em
Texas Hold’em

Nine year old poker players are pretty easy to beat because they tend to be very aggressive, betting on all kinds of crazy hands. After The Little Clown went all in with three cards to a straight for the umpteenth time I decided it was time for a lesson in probability. As synchronicity would have it, The Little Clown’s annual science fair was coming up and we agreed that he would choose as his question:

What should I bet if I draw three cards to a straight in Texas Hold’em?

We filled in the forms and it didn’t take long before his teacher contacted me, appalled that a nine year old would be playing poker, let alone that he would have the audacity to want to study the topic in a science project. After some negotiation, we compromised on a less provocative hypothesis:

What is the probability of getting a pair if you draw two random cards from a deck?


Science Project

Little Clown did a science project every year from kindergarden to fifth grade but this one was my favourite as it fulfilled all of my criteria for a good science project.

  1. There should be an obvious hypothesis that is wrong.
  2. The hypothesis can easily be proved wrong by an experiment.
  3. The experimental result can easily be confirmed with maths.

Excuse me for a second while I rant a little about elementary school science projects.

Paper Mache Volcano from Science Project Lab
Paper Mache Volcano from Science Project Lab

Who exactly was it that decided that filling a cardboard volcano with baking soda and vinegar was a good science project? What is the child learning from the experiment?  What is the hypothesis? How come the vast majority of children’s science projects are either variants on the volcano “experiment” or an exercise in building a model out of lollipop sticks and elastic bands?

I predict that if I leave bread out for three months it will go moldy.

I predict that if I make a little car that is jet-propelled by a balloon, the car will be jet-propelled by the balloon.

How is that science? Where is the experiment?


What are the chances?

The poker experiment is perfect because 9 years olds (like most people) don’t really get probability and will always get the answer wrong (that’s why they are easy to beat at poker). It’s also easy to demonstrate by choosing random pairs of cards from a deck and recording the results. The maths is a bit harder, but this was actually my favourite bit of maths instruction ever with my budding scientist. We started with a coin.

What is the chance of getting heads if you flip a coin?

We tried it a hundred times and confirmed our intuitions before moving on to something more complex.

What are the chances of getting two heads if you flip two coins?

This was a little bit harder but we figured it out and experiments again confirmed our intuition. We tried more coins.

What are the chances of getting three heads if you flip three coins?


Intuition failed us here but … maths to the rescue! Do 9 years olds know about exponents? *shrug* Mine did and we got the results quickly and confirmed it with experiments. From there, it was trivial to try four coins and five coins so we moved on to dice.

What are the chances of getting a six if you roll a dice?

Intuition was inadequate again, but again the maths held up (hooray, maths!). Exponents still work if the base is 6 instead of 2 and the experiment confirmed it.

What are the chances of getting two sixes if you roll two dice?

By now it was easy and we zoomed through three dice and four dice. Time for cards.

What are the chances of getting a pair if your draw two cards from a deck?

A deck of cards is trickier because you have to deal with the whole take-one-away thing but, luckily, 51 is divisible by 3 and the maths is not hard, even for a nine year old. The experiments are more tedious because you have to deal a lot of pairs to demonstrate a 1 in 17 chance and nine year olds are not famous for their patience. Fortunately my nine year old was already a pretty good Logo programmer as he was already a four year veteran of the business having started to learn Logo in first grade.

I helped him recreate the coin-flip experiment in Logo and then we did it again for the coins. The cards were beyond his programming skills but he followed along OK when I wrote the code and he got a kick out of the results.

Chance of a Pair

Challenger School – where my little clown learned his nine year old skills – gets a bad rap for allegedly teaching rote learning. But the rap couldn’t be further from the truth. Having sent one little clown to Challenger and another to public school, I can attest that only one of them was ever subject to rote learning and it wasn’t the Challenger clown.

Challenger is intensely academic and, while I can understand that it is not right for every kid, mine was challenged in ways that he didn’t experience again until high school. In fact, I wonder whether the transition from high-performing fifth grader to coasting sixth grader wasn’t detrimental to his determination as it taught him that coasting was an option; an option unavailable to him at Challenger.

Fast-forward nine years and my little clown is now all grown up and accepted to UC Santa Barbara and, under protest, Ragged Clown Sr and Ragged Clown Jr are on their first road trip together to go check out Jr’s home for the next four years. It’s a long trip so we brought along Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich for company [editor’s note – this post sat in my drafts folder for a couple of months].

Jad and Robert – and their magnificent Radiolab show – have long been our companions on road trips. On this particular trip, the podcast app summoned up the episode “Are You Sure?”

Radiolab episodes have a certain structure. There is always a main theme – in this episode the theme was doubt –  and they do a powerful job of exploring variations on the theme with an  eclectic selection of interviews and zany editing and contributions from psychologists, scientists and moral philosophers – and anyone else who has a good story to tell.

The first segment was interesting albeit not relevant to my theme here. A couple of devout Christians were due to get married until one of them started to wonder whether all that stuff in the bible was actually true. That topic would make a great blog post, but it was the second segment that intrigued me more.

Anny Duke is a decision strategist – a poker player – and won the poker world championship in 2004. In her segment, Annie describes the strategy that professional poker players use for winning poker games: know the odds. But knowing the odds doesn’t just mean knowing which hand is likely to win; it means understanding that the hand that is most likely to win will often lose (and vice versa). The secret is in knowing the pot odds.


If there is a $300 in the pot and you have to bet $100 to stay in, you could lose the pot three times and still break even if you win the next hand.


So you could lose a hundred dollars on Monday, a hundred dollars on Tuesday, you could lose another hundred dollars on Wednesday, but if you win the hundred back on Thursday, you are good.


So you just need to win one out of every four times

In other words, it’s not enough to know your chances of winning. The important thing is that your chances of winning are greater than the pot odds.

The climax of the story has Annie playing against her brother in the final of the World Hold’em Championship. They are playing for two million dollars and she’s holding a pair of sixes and her brother goes all in with a pair of sevens before the flop. Her brother is 82% to win the hand. Amazingly, the flop gives Annie a full house and she wins the $2,000,000.

Pocket Nines
Pocket Nines

Aside from the lessons on how to play hold’em, Annie’s good luck highlighted some fundamentally different ways of thinking in the Clown household. There’s one strand of thought that says, if there is a chance that a bad thing might happen at a particular event, you should avoid events like that in the future. Bad movie? No more movies! Awkward silence or said the wrong thing at a social gathering? No more social gatherings! On the other hand, the more optimistic clowns are willing to tolerate a lot of  crap movies and awkward gatherings in the knowledge that, eventually, you’ll find a movie to enjoy or that a social gathering will sparkle. Even without knowing the pot odds, I’m pretty certain that if you never take a chance, you’ll never win.

Final word from Annie:

It’s not about winning the hand all the time. It’s about winning the hand enough of the time […] That embracing of uncertainty does some really wonderful things for you.


You learn how to avoid that very human tendency to feel ashamed or embarrassed when you lose. You just float right above it.

Annie’s brother:

If you are making good decisions, then you are making good decisions.


You have to be somewhat outcome blind.

By coincidence, Annie was a psych major and Little Clown is majoring in bio-psych at UCSB. He’s gonna be a scientist!

UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Barbara

I hope he’ll learn from Annie and take some chances. I hope he’ll win some too.

I’m Free

I read two articles this morning.

The first was about the nature of the activity that we call science. The author uses the example of Anaximander’s realization that the Earth is not flat to illustrate what he believes to be the fundamental principle that drives scientific progress.

Until him, all the civilizations of the planet, everybody around the world, thought that the structure of the world was: the sky over our heads and the earth under our feet. There’s an up and a down, heavy things fall from the up to the down, and that’s reality. Reality is oriented up and down, heaven’s up and earth is down. Then comes Anaximander and says: no, is something else. ‘The earth is a finite body that floats in space, without falling, and the sky is not just over our head; it is all around.’

Science is not about the invention of theories that explain our observations. It’s not about answering questions that our current theories can’t answer. It’s about questioning the assumptions that lead to faulty questions.

He understands something about reality, essentially by changing something in the conceptual structure that we have in grasping reality. In doing so, he is not doing a theory; he understands something which in some precise sense is forever. It’s some uncovered truth, which to a large extent is a negative truth. He frees ourselves from prejudice, a prejudice that was ingrained in the conceptual structure we had for thinking about space.

I like the Anaximander example but my favourite example of questioning the question is about the hunt for phlogisten (the attempts to detect the ether were similar, but phlogisten has a cooler name). Phlogisten was assumed to be the hidden element that was released during combustion and it wasn’t until Priestley’s and Lavoisier’s work on oxygen that the people looking for phlogisten learned that they were trying to answer the wrong question.

The hunt for free will always strikes me as a similar problem to the hunt for phlogisten. The mainstream view of scientists (and some philosophers) is that, if the universe follows deterministic (or probabilistic) laws, there is no room for our thoughts to influence our actions and therefore no such thing as free will.

My second article of the day was an interview about, among other things, how the determinists choose definitions of determinism and free will that make their argument a fait accompli.

Whether they are justified depends on three things: whether their target conception of free will is a reasonable one to use, whether their target conception matches what people think free will is, and which, if any, of these conceptions of free will the scientific evidence plausibly challenges. Most of them use unreasonable definitions of free will, ones that require supernatural or magical powers. For instance, willusionist Jerry Coyne says, “Free will is, I believe, an illusion that we have that we can somehow affect the workings of our brain and free them from the laws of physics.” If that’s how you define free will, then we don’t need science to show us that it’s implausible.

The interview served to reinforce my intuition that we will only make progress on this topic when we find the right questions to ask and when we have better definitions for words like determinism and free will and consciousness and self.  It drives me mad when people use studies like this one,

these studies were able to detect activity related to a decision to move, and the activity appears to be occurring briefly before people become conscious of it. Other studies try to predict a human action several seconds early (with greater than chance accuracy). Taken together, these various findings seem to confirm that at least some actions – like moving a finger – are initiated and processed unconsciously at first, and only after enter consciousness

to justify their claim that free will is an illusion. There are so many places for free will to hide outside the gap between conscious intention and activity that I sometimes wonder if the determinists choose their narrow definitions deliberately to make their conclusions easier to justify.

I don’t know the answer to the question of how free will can be compatible with a universe that follows the laws of physics but I have a deep sense that the deterministic explanations are wrong because of the paradoxes that arise from this point:

Free will matters. Our views about free will influence our self-conception and our moral and legal practices.

This is only true if we have free will. If we don’t, it doesn’t matter at all. If we don’t have free will, it doesn’t matter one jot what we think about justice or responsibility or morality. In fact, we don’t even have a choice about what we think so we’d be better off not even worrying about the question (as if we could).

This was not the post that I had intended to write today. I had meant to write about how I am mystified by an argument made by Ross Douthat; that without revelation from on high, morality is just an expression of our preferences (therefore god exists?). It’s obviously wrong, but the explanation will have to wait for another day.

Philosophical Comprehension

Here’s a quick way to test whether you understand what’s going on or whether you are still clueless like me.


There are three people on a bus going to the beach. One person says “Does anyone want a newspaper?”

The correct answer is:

  1. No, I’m fully up-to-speed with the day’s events already thanks.
  2. Yes, please. I’d like to check up on the opinions of the cognoscenti.
  3. There’s a purveyor of newsprint on the corner. Hold on a sec, I’ll get one for you.


During a telephone conversation, the caller says “We have no food in the house. You should pick something up for yourself and your daughter. Some chinese or something.”

The correct interpretation is:

  1. We have no food in the house. If you are hungry, you should pick up something you like. Make sure it’s something your daughter likes too.
  2. Your daughter is hungry. She likes chinese food. Please bring her some.
  3. Please bring me some chinese food.

I always get these questions wrong. I think I am missing an important component of comprehension. An X chromosome or something.

I Like Like

Facebook’s biggest contribution to civilization is the like button.

Before we could like things, we had to decide whether something was 3 stars or 4 stars and I could never decide whether 3 stars meant this is pretty good or I am quite disappointed in this but not enough to give it two stars. 4 stars for me means it’s fairly bloody amazing but not quite up there with the all time greats but for someone else it might be it’s not their best work and, frankly, I am a bit disappointed. What if you change your grading scheme three years into using, say, Netflix? Would you have to go and recalibrate all your scores? And what does it mean when something is three and a half stars?

No. Like is so much simpler. You either liked it or you didn’t. If you want to say some thing more, you can share it or blog about it.

Like is liberating too. You don’t have to give it too much thought. If it made you smile, click the like button. It’ll make the person at the other end smile too to see that little red number 1 that says “Pew, Barney McGrew and four others liked your post”.

For some reason, +1 doesn’t quite have the emotional effect that like has. I click +1 all the time on stuff like posts in Google Reader but I am never quite sure where all those 1s go. Does Google have a big bucket of 1s somewhere that I’ll get to enjoy later?

I click like all the time now, even on my stuff, and I get to smile twice. Last night, I reviewed a ton of old posts to see if there were any problems in my new layout and, of course, ended up reading them all. Every time I read one that made me smile, I clicked like. I didn’t even care that no one else would see it. Try it yourself. Start with the highlights down there in the fat footer.


You don’t need no satisfaction

I’ve been following the RSS feed for Thinking Aloud. It’s a series of interviews with philosophers and other thinkers, asking about topics where philosophy meets our everyday lives.

The quality of the interviews has been mixed at best. I loved AC Grayling’s but, then, I always love his writing. Others, not so much.

Today’s interview just sparkled or, rather, whatever the antonym of sparkled might be. Smouldered, perhaps.

You should watch it, especially if you are someone who thinks that philosophy has no relevance to ordinary living. Prepare to be burned.

Adam Phillips: On Pleasure and Frustration

Who is Stealing from Whom?

I am a bit of stickler for intellectual property respect. That’s a trait, I am proud to say, I have passed on to my children. I glowed when one of them opted to buy the latest Phoenix Wright rather than play the pirated copy that his friend acquired. The Ace Attorney  himself would be proud too.

I get funny looks sometimes when I ask about fair use of stock photo images that I have bought (bought!) … and why would anyone pay $10 per month for Rhapsody when all the songs in the world are just sitting there for free on the internet waiting to be taken? The whole population of Malta (and China? and India?) thinks it a sign of mental illness to pay for anything that can be stolen for free.

As someone who makes a living from intellectual property, I feel a certain solidarity with people whose livelihoods are slowly leaching away into the pirate-infested deeps of the Internet. A couple of deep blemishes tarnish my otherwise squeaky-clean self-image though and I need the world to change a little to help me restore my faith in myself.

Firstly, don’t make it so damn difficult to comply with your rights and regulations. I’m not too good at dealing with bureaucracy. Make it easier for me to do the right thing. Maybe y’all could embed urls or licenses in digital images. Blogging software and browsers could do something smart with them like show attribution info and link back to the copyright owner.

Secondly, and this is the biggie, someone needs to clean up the cesspool in which sheet music swirls – and I am talking about the so-called legitimate sellers here, not the tab sites.

The tab sites are a soggy morass of pirated content with their gossamer-thin chemise of this is for private study only covering their shame.

And my shame.

But they are not the real criminals.

Every now and again, I decide I would feel so much better to pay for a piece of music  rather than download it for free but each time I see the price tag I conclude that the merchants are bigger pirates than the pirates are.

Five bucks for I Just Can’t Help Believing! How can they possibly justify that?

It reminds me of those third world markets where the shops have an outrageously marked-up price for locally-crafted kitsch when the exact same crap is on sale out in the street for a twentieth of the price. They can dismiss the vast majority of the market because one sucker keeps them in rice and beans for a month.

The market for sheet music is a sucker’s market. But, just as iTunes – despite the best efforts of the music industry sharks – made it easier to be moral than to sin, maybe someone out there can bring some sanity to the sheet music business.

Steve? Larry and Sergey? Jeff?

I read, the other day, that, compared to the software industry, the entire music business is relatively tiny. One of the tech titans could buy up the whole thing with spare change the way Russian billionaires buy up English football teams.

How about if a consortium of leading Internet companies – Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Baidu, Amazon etc. – jointly bought the entire music industry, and promised to license its content to anyone on a non-discriminatory basis?

Google Should Buy up the Music Industry

Sheet music on my Kindle or iPad? How awesome would that be? I’d be sending you 99c every couple of hours, Jeff. Just make it easy for me to do the right thing. I’ll pay.