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Comments by Kurt Unwise

Go to: Highly Religious People Are Less Motivated by Compassion Than Are Non-Believers

Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 33 by Kurt Unwise

Comment 1 by Roedy :

In my experience Christians are far more interested in enumerating and punishing other people's sins than in compassion. This is not new.

In the early 70s I met a Greek Orthodox monk. He told me a story which I think was based on Anton Chekhov’s The Murder. It goes roughly like this:

Matvey Terekhov lived in Russia with his cousin Yakov, who ran an inn. Matvey was once extremely religious and ascetic, but left asceticism behind. Yakov, on the other hand, was obsessively religious. During Lent they both fasted eating nothing but boiled potatoes. Yakov discovered that Matvey was secretly pouring some oil on his potatoes. Yakov was horrified. Yakov was overcome with anger and Aglaya, Yakov’s wife, hit Matvey over the head with a bottle, and killed him.

That is a great metaphor for what goes wrong when you base your life on endless petty thou-shalt-nots. You lose your sense of proportion. This story applies even more to Muslims that Kristians. They are driven nuts by fear of eternal roasting for violating trivial rules.

Wow! What an anecdote! It hits the nail on the head!

Comment 32 by btheist :

Interesting speculation!

I believe most people are born intrinsically to be compassionate, but that it is their life experience and education they get that dictates how they react in these situations. The insidious part of religion is the overwhelming messages of only true believers will be rewarded and that others in need are "getting what they deserved"

Religious or just plain lazy thinkers, most people rationalize their own selfish behaviour by assuming that people get what they deserve.

The unconsidered life is not worth living - Socrates

Tue, 01 May 2012 19:15:26 UTC | #938774

Go to: Religion as "comfort" to people in distress: fact or myth?

Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 113 by Kurt Unwise

"Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy. And in the final tolling it often turns out that the facts are more comforting than the fantasy." - Carl Sagan

Mon, 30 Apr 2012 20:08:44 UTC | #938454

Go to: School vouchers and the religious subversion of church-state separation

Go to: Religion as "comfort" to people in distress: fact or myth?

Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 45 by Kurt Unwise

Comment 30 by Ignorant Amos :

I'm I the only person that see's religion as a vice? It is an addiction with all the baggage any addiction carries.

It gives comfort, but at a greater overall cost.

It is hard to break.

It is bad for the health.

It is a drain on the addicts resources.

An addict of any vice gets comfort from that vice, should that comfort be the buzz of the win of a gambler. The buzz from the high of the drug. Even a chocolate addict gets their comfort at a cost.

We don't say to a heroin addict, "As long as you get comfort for it, blast away". We look at the effect on society as a whole and decide that heroin addicts are detrimental to the overall good and we address the addiction as a major problem.

The UK is going through an issue with alcohol at the moment. No one can tell me that alcohol while being imbibed is not a source of comfort, I'm an expert, but the overall effect on society is detrimental. Society is not concerned with my wee moment of comfort, it must look at the bigger picture.

And so should it be with religion.

Precisely! Religion purports to solve a problem that is largely it's own creation! Yes, fear is a natural instinct. But if religion feeds on this instinct, magnifies the problem many times and then offers comfort through false stories, is it really helping anybody?

'why does all this crap happen ?' . . .

. . . Perhaps it is an illusory question. But if so, I think it is a lot more fundamental to our nature than belief in sky fairies, and we'd probably have to evolve into a species of utterly logical Vulcans to be rid of it.

No. We only have to become more respectful of the fact that our uneducated intuitions can sometimes be misguided. Certainly, nothing is lost if we lose a little of our tendency to ask silly questions!

Wed, 25 Apr 2012 20:29:22 UTC | #937325

Go to: Religion as "comfort" to people in distress: fact or myth?

Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 12 by Kurt Unwise

Fear is THE overarching, disempowering emotion! And I guess, there's no need to discuss the evolutionary reasons for fear being perhaps, this most important , overarching emotion.

Religion is based on fear, even if it is not explicit, but only subconscious fear! That is why, I think, there are so many religious aplogists. That's also why there are so many agnostics (50/50 type) and also a large number of people claiming that "the question of God's existence is not an interesting one; what is more important is that one is a good person."

Fear conditioning must involve parts of the brain - Amygdala, Hippocampus etc.... I don't really know exactly. But, such conditioning must be progressive, cumulative.

Similarly, conditioning the brain to shun fear can only be achieved gradually as the mind becomes progressively more confident. That is why, only repeated exposure to atheists, their arguments and their healthy and successful lives can convert middle of the road, fence sitting religionists into staunch atheists! Neuro-science will also tell why exactly it is so difficult to convert the dyed-in-the-wool religionists!

Fear, I suppose, is the emotion that negatively affects quality of life more than any other emotion. That is why telling a child that she'll go to hell is child-abuse!

Tue, 24 Apr 2012 22:06:18 UTC | #937090

Go to: Pell, Dawkins wage battle of belief

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It is available for download here -

Mon, 09 Apr 2012 17:13:26 UTC | #933385

Go to: In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech

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Comment Removed by Author

Mon, 02 Apr 2012 19:29:47 UTC | #931979

Go to: In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech

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Comment 20 by Zeuglodon :

I don't think it would be less than a decade, though. On a naive estimate, if the number of self-proclaimed christians drops another 18% in the UK (to 36%), that's still only one country in the west. I dislike sounding like a party pooper, but I'm wary about getting optimistic over the forecast.

Count out the oldies - they'll be cramming for finals in churches, anyway... and I don't think that the battle for reason will be won only when the last person in the country is deconverted... No. I think, when secular principles are generally respected, faith stops enjoying special privileges and undeserved respect, when the majority of students graduating out of college are atheists, when Christianity & Islam & Hinduism are regarded as ridiculous cults, we'll have won anyway.

Also, I think, you are underestimating the positive effects of accelerating technological developments and free-er access to information. Heck! I think, a decade is good enough for even some developing, but generally educated nations to get there! And, by the way, have you heard of 'the tipping point'? I think, the celestial dictator will go the same way as Arab dictators... from one (educated) nation after another as each catches the wave of reason, i.e., whenever, it happens (though nobody can tell exactly when). But I suspect, it'll be roughly when the notion that ridiculous superstitions deserve some sort of respect goes away.

Mon, 02 Apr 2012 19:26:50 UTC | #931978

Go to: In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech

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Comment 18 by Zeuglodon :

Comment 17 by Kurt Unwise

I have a funny feeling that even if only a small number of atheists (5% or so) initially adopt that approach, the tide will soon turn..... more atheists will join in..... then, journalists and other opinion-makers will be ashamed to be on the ridiculous side and there will be a snowball effect.......

Not immediately, I suspect: it would take at least a few years, and that's me being optimistic. Its spread would be hampered by a combination of anti-atheistic prejudice and a tendency not to talk about religion in public. It would be very slow.

Oh...and did I mention about safety in numbers?

I am pretty sure (from my personal lengthy interactions with religious people) that a majority of them are taking Pascal's wager or atleast something like that, subconsciously. Even if you can convince them that all their beliefs are ridiculous, they will go back and think "I'll pray to some sort of God, just in case there is one..." or atleast assert more vigourously than ever before that they are good persons (so that they could perhaps make a case in heaven for being judged on their good deeds, if not their beliefs)

I know, that's a very cynical judgment of 'ordinary' people, but then, I won't be wrong if I say that fear of punishment is certainly the most important reason that people worship the supernatural dictator.

Once people begin to see that lots of other people around them are atheists and happy and safe, the pressure to believe will be off their minds! As Richard had said in that remarkable 2002 TED speech, 'the more number of openly atheist people that we have, the more we will get'!

Also, I think, technology and open exchange of information are things that are going to help our cause, no matter how the other side uses technology for propaganda at the moment! I believe, we are going to win the battle for reason in the west in less than a decade!

Mon, 02 Apr 2012 18:16:41 UTC | #931959

Go to: In Defense of Dawkins’s Reason Rally Speech

Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 17 by Kurt Unwise

So, when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is, “I don’t believe you.” I don’t believe you until you tell me, do you really believe, for example, if they say they are Catholic, “Do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafter, it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that?!” Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood? Mock them. Ridicule them. In public. Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe that need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.

I have a funny feeling that even if only a small number of atheists (5% or so) initially adopt that approach, the tide will soon turn..... more atheists will join in..... then, journalists and other opinion-makers will be ashamed to be on the ridiculous side and there will be a snowball effect.......

Richard's ideas always seem outrageous when he first expresses them... just recall his 2002 TED speech!

Mon, 02 Apr 2012 17:30:32 UTC | #931947

Go to: UP w/ Chris Hayes

Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 35 by Kurt Unwise

Comment 34 by Richard Dawkins :

Suppose a political candidate has sensible enough views on economics, taxation, foreign policy etc, but lets it be known that PRIVATELY he believes he is a poached egg. I wouldn't vote for him. Would you? Believing that a priest, by blessing a wafer, can turn it literally into the body of a first century Jew is of the same order of lunacy as believing you are a poached egg. I would not be impressed by this politician's promise to be scrupulously careful never to let his belief that he is a poached egg influence his policies. He believes something ridiculous and should be called out on it, because a voter might reasonably doubt the judgment of a man who thinks he is a poached egg.

What about Jack Kennedy, you say? Well, he claimed to be Catholic and that commits one to the ridiculous transubstantiationist belief. I don't think for a moment that Kennedy did believe in transubstantiation, but I think he should have been publicly challenged to deny it and therefore to deny his Catholicism. Actually, I doubt that somebody as intelligent as Kennedy believed in God at all. Again, I think politicians should have their religious beliefs publicly challenged: should not get away with hiding behind the convention that it is somehow not polite to ask about somebody's religion.


Couldn't agree more! For years, my mother used to believe in astrology, faith healing and many other kinds of non-sense. As a kid, whenever I ridiculed her, she was insistent that her private beliefs were her private business. But of course, she made hundreds of decisions for the entire family every single day (and for herself too & I certainly did care about that too).

See, the problem with ridiculous beliefs is that, it is symptomatic of the fact that -

1) the holder of such beliefs has either never learnt how to think clearly or that

2) the holder of such beliefs believes that rationality and science have a limited domain, that science isn't applicable to everything

Now, both because I don't want to bore you and because it's a little too painful for me to narrate here, I won't go into the details, but I'll say this - My father died because of my mother's stupid and hazy thinking. No, she didn't intend anything bad; it is just that she had never learnt to think clearly.

I'll also say this - By outing people's ridiculous ideas (while simultaneously reassuring them that they aren't stupid, just ignorant), you can empower them with nothing less than the power of clear thought. It definitely is well worth it.

Mon, 26 Mar 2012 21:09:49 UTC | #930615

Go to: Free Will

Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 178 by Kurt Unwise

Ok, this really is my last post on this thread... the discussion is stuck on semantics and is hardly moving towards the interesting moral implications of "free-will" or its lack thereof.....

Steve Zara: Deniers of free will seem to want to deny that we even exist as causal agents, when we clearly do, because that is the function of our highly-developed brains.

No. Speaking for myself, I am not denying that we exist as causal agents. All I would like to say is that we exist as causal agents only in the same sense that computers do. The fact that we become conscious of some of the things that we do (but only after we do them) does not make us causal agents in any other sense. We are not the ultimate cause of even the most trivial of our decisions and cannot be held ultimately responsible for them. By the way, our 'decisions' are decisions in the same sense that a computer makes decisions. We do not hold computers morally responsible for their actions. But wouldn't a reward and punishment system for a learning robot be like a moral code for that robot? That, in essence, is what our justice system should evolve into once Jerry Coyne's view becomes the generally accepted view.

And one more thing - we aren't denying the obvious facts of evolution either. Yes, we have bigger brains and more elaborate nervous systems than those of dogs, parrots and wasps. So, all it means is that, each of those animals needs a different moral code, i.e., a tailor-made reward and punishment system.

But then, obviously, the smart and the dull, the rich and the poor people must need tailor-made reward and punishment systems too! One thing is certain, however: no one deserves anything - the poor don't deserve to be poor, the rich don't deserve to be rich. Our moral code is a covenient and generally accepted incentive system to encourage good behaviour and to maintain order!

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 17:48:50 UTC | #924353

Go to: Free Will

Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 171 by Kurt Unwise

Comment 164 by RH :

Hence, "true freedom" entails not just the metamental transcendence of our motives, but the power to determine the outcome. So Fred must not only have the the ability to consider his motives and determine which motives prevail, he must have the external power to perform, or refrain from performing the considered action. So, for freedom, we must not be deceived about our powers. A match between the internal conception of our powers and the truth about those powers is essential for freedom. (Again, this is me going back to what has been written on the subject, that I agree with).

If I have metamental control over my motives, and my powers are as I conceive them to be with respect to an action, then I am free with respect to an action. (And responsible for that action). (BTW, if contrary to my conception of my powers, someone else has the power to control my thoughts or movements, then this would not meet the conception of "freedom" and "responsibility.")

So what you have wrong in your descriptions and examples is that free will (compatibilist) is not simply about how we "feel - the feeling of freedom" (or coercion): it's necessarily tied to facts about which we could be wrong or right - it also involves the powers we actually have now.

Hence, in your example of your working for the boss, all of you have free will, insofar as you have a motive for your action (which may be different among you, some enjoying the action in of itself, you having the motive of keeping your job or whatever), and having metamental control over your motive (you've decided to act on that motive), and you are not deceived about your powers (it is in fact the physical case you could choose to do or not do the task).

I hope that was clear enough :-)



RH, I admire your clarity of thought. But, what you have described in very clear language is your intuitive conception of free-will. I cannot hope to persuade you if you are so emotionally committed to the conclusion that people have a sort of free-will and can therefore be held morally responsible.

To quote Routledge Encyclopedia on the matter,

But in many human beings, the experience of choice gives rise to a conviction of absolute responsibility that is untouched by philosophical arguments. This conviction is the deep and inexhaustible source of the free will problem: powerful arguments that seem to show that we cannot be morally responsible in the ultimate way that we suppose keep coming up against equally powerful psychological reasons why we continue to believe that we are ultimately morally responsible.

Sun, 04 Mar 2012 14:18:01 UTC | #924313

Go to: Free Will

Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 169 by Kurt Unwise

  • It seems to me that we ultimately have to incorporate hypotheticals in saying "could have done otherwise," but insofar as that is accepted pretty much everywhere else, science especially, we can accept it to talk about free choices.
  • &

    But then the incompatibilist will happily go into his lab and start describing the nature of the phenomenon he is looking at in terms of exactly such hypotheticals...apparently unaware of his inconsistency.

    Scientists & free-will atheists are normal people too, you know! How else should they talk about everyday world? Quantum mechanics describes a very strange universe. Yet all of us, physicists included (and Deepak Chopra not included), do talk without bringing up quantum mechanics into everyday conversation.

    While asleep, Fred is brought to a room. The room is locked so Fred can not get out. Fred wakes up in a room, and finds the room agreeable to stay in. He has a motive to stay, and he has also been able to "metamentally" consider accepting or rejecting the motive, and has accepted it, and therefore is fully mentally responsible for HIS CHOICE to stay. But that is still not fully sufficient for true freedom and total responsibility. Fred doesn't have the freedom we ordinarily desire or think we have. He thinks it's up to him to stay in the room, but he is wrong, deceived about this situation. So what is missing from this scenario is the POWER for Fred to actually leave.

    How can you have a generalised example and how can you realistically comment on Fred's POWER, even if he was awake, without knowing anything about Fred? If Fred is smart, resourceful and alert, he has much more power than if he's dull - think about breaking the lock, calling someone or shouting out from the room's window for help or persuading the helper to break the lock by fabricating a false, but believable story about why he was locked up in the first place. So a smart Fred has more free-will than a dull Fred, eh?

    Actually, no! Both have exactly equal amounts of free-will (if we account for all hidden constraints) - zero!

    Actually, I thought most of us here agreed that the Physics debate was settled, so didn't bring this up before, but......

    The problem of what to base our morality upon when there's no free-will is a sticky one, however. I shared some of my thoughts about it, but on re-reading that bit, I realise that it has obvious internal contradictions. It's far easier perhaps to pick holes in any moral argument about free-will than to present a coherent, consistent case.

    I am off!

    Sun, 04 Mar 2012 13:58:25 UTC | #924310

    Go to: Free Will

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 144 by Kurt Unwise

    Comment 140 by danconquer :

    I thought I had been quite careful to make plain that I wasn't talking about punishment per se - which makes sense from a self-preservation point of view - but rather the moral disapproval that is exhibited.

    Why bother to exhibit and announce your moral disapproval of, say, religious fundamentalists but not wasps? If you think that neither freely chooses their actions, then why is it exactly that the people who hold such a view are frequently to be found morally condemning the former, but not the latter? Surely a religious fanatic no more deserves moral condemnation than a wasp does.

    My point exactly! Nobody really deserves any moral condemnation if 'deserve' means what it normally means! The mere fact that you would like to have some moral basis for our legal system does not make it so.

    Ofcourse, we expect a greater amount of information processing to have happenned in the brain of a religious fanatic than in the brain of a wasp, but can we really be sure? :) More seriously, if we take your reasoning to its rightful conclusion, then it should be entirely reasonable to say that, because the fanatic's brain was programmed (by religious leaders) to reject any reasonable persuasion or appeals to decency, the fanatic deserves no moral condemnation. You see, the fanatic was infected by a mind virus and was therefore not free to make reasonable choices. But ofcourse, we don't do that! A terrorist caught alive and proven guilty is normally awarded a harsh sentence. Our legal system does not punish people because they 'deserve' those punishments, but merely to deter potential criminals.

    Surely a religious fanatic no more deserves moral condemnation than a wasp does.

    It is better not to bring this up very often if you are an atheist-activist. It undermines your position....but only until the other side makes its own postive prescriptions...

    Sat, 03 Mar 2012 08:03:24 UTC | #923979

    Go to: Free Will

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 118 by Kurt Unwise

    Comment 42 by Byrneo :

    I once heard Richard Dawkins on an Irish radio debate with Catholic loudmouth David Quinn. Quinn brought up the free will/determinism problem and Richard brushed it off and said he wasn't interested it. I thought this was strange, for me it is one of the most interesting philosophical debates. I wonder why he's disinterested in it?

    More recently, in the debate with Archbishop, Richard admitted that he believed free-will didn't exist. If you ask me to speculate why he generally plays down that topic, I might think it's because, it is a prima-facie silly thing to say for any atheist-activist, any activist in fact!

    Fri, 02 Mar 2012 21:18:45 UTC | #923864

    Go to: Free Will

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 116 by Kurt Unwise

    There were so many worthy topics on on which I wished to comment in the past few months but didn't and now I see 'free-will' being discussed for the umpteened time here and I am jumping right in! .... but to make an important point as I would like to believe.......

    danconquer and RH, good points!

    (1.) RH, it is quite interesting that you make a distinction between compatibilist and contra-causal free-will and then admit that contra-causal free-will does not exist. You and other compatibilists simply want a concept, perhaps just a term, to distinguish actions performed under threat or duress and those performed otherwise. You say, they are qualitatively different. Fair enough - I grant you that point but we will come back to it in the following paragraphs.

    (2.) You also believe, if I have understood you correctly, that a concept of compatibilist free-will is a sound basis for making moral and legal judgments.

    Let's consider your proposal to define 'free-will' as people's experience of how free they feel in some detail -

    (1.) Actions performed under threat or duress and those performed otherwise are qualitatively different. Precisely! They are qualitatively different because we experience them differently - they feel different. In other words, compatibilist free-will is essentially about the 'feeling of freedom' (or as Peter Grant might put it, just 'freedom' since 'freedom' is all about feelings).

    Example 1: I don't experience any joy or freedom when my manager forces me to do a particularly boring task. When I rebel, he goes on to subtly suggest that I could be fired if I didn't complete it! I often feel that I am forced to do boring tasks. But similar tasks are assigned to many of my colleagues. Each of them experiences those tasks differently. The dull, non-curious types don't find them boring at all. Instead, for them, such tasks are much less stressful than the more challenging type of tasks. There are others who are looking to 'impress the boss'. Since they have different expectations from their jobs, they don't experience boredom. Are we to say, then, that the rebels in my situation have less 'free-will' because they certainly feel less free and more stressed out?

    Example 2: An uneducated and sexually frustrated jerk may be uncontrollably and irredeemably turned on at the sight of a skimpily dressed extremely attractive woman. He might experience extreme stress if he did not act on his desire to rape the woman (rapes are common in India). He might certainly feel that he has very little freedom to act otherwise. Ofcourse, if the woman was dressed more "appropriately" (& this is the sort of thing that India ministers and MPs routinely say), potential rapists would feel much more free to choose not to rape. Also, you may consider all those other males who see just the same skimply clad attractive young woman but are not turned on or atleast not to the same extent. So RH, do you still want use the term 'free-will' to describe different people's arbitrary experience of the feeling of freedom?

    Example 3: Religious people may feel that they are being ostracized and mocked and made to feel inferior by the smart-arse new atheists. Many really feel that they are no longer as much free to practice their religion and hold silly beliefs as they were before the new atheists arrived on the scene and closeted atheists came out and then became more and more vocal. How would it be if we based our moral and legal judgments on how people felt, experienced freedom or experienced stress?

    (2.) As regards whether the concept of compatibilist free-will is a sound basis for making moral and legal judgments, I cannot comment definitively, but here are some of my thoughts

    Fri, 02 Mar 2012 21:05:43 UTC | #923858

    Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 320 by Kurt Unwise

    It may be that we are all wrong about the nature of physical law. But, if we broadly accept determinism to be true in this universe - as most people here seem to - then, surely, words like "deserve" could, at best, be described as useful fiction. Somebody here pointed this out before.

    Does a terrorist who's murdered hundreds "deserve" torture and death? What if the collective memory of people about the murders could simply be erased and the terrorist completely reformed into a saint or say, a (humanitarian) scientist? Would the terrorist still "deserve" horrible, or indeed any, punishment?

    Is it possible that when someone says somebody "deserves" something, he is expressing his thirst for revenge?

    Thu, 02 Jun 2011 19:21:57 UTC | #633417

    Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

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    Comment Removed by Author

    Thu, 02 Jun 2011 18:48:00 UTC | #633400

    Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 314 by Kurt Unwise

    Comment 307 by Noble Savage :

    You seem not to understand my point. What do you mean by the brain "not working properly" when I'm asleep? I'm asking you this: What is taken away from me while I'm sleeping that makes me not have free-will? The answer isn't consciousness or rationality, since the latter depend on the former, and the former is not needed for decision making anyway.

    So why do I have free-will while awake, yet not while I'm sleeping?

    Precisely. Consciousness and rationality are non sequiturs given the results of the Libet's experiment and yet in both cases, the nervous system of the body is involved in directing the behaviour. So why is one act to be regarded as expression of free-will and the other not?

    Thu, 02 Jun 2011 18:46:53 UTC | #633399

    Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 184 by Kurt Unwise

    Comment 180 by Peter Grant :

    What would punishing the Koran burner, even just a little bit, achieve?

    Well, I had hoped that, it would draw Steve Zara into the 'morality from compatibilism' vs. 'morality from incompatibism' argument. :) Having already known his views on the Koran burner, I was conceding a minor point to make a more important one.

    Wed, 01 Jun 2011 19:57:02 UTC | #633040

    Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 176 by Kurt Unwise

    Comment 153 by Steve Zara :

    I also believe that dropping the term would give a false impression that materialism somehow reduces individual personality, morality and responsibility. So I believe that philosophically the use of the term free will is justified and politically that happens to be useful.

    I no longer believe that the compatibilist position is a mere word-play. The compatibilist position is incompatible with the incompatibilist deterministic position. How?

    The "no free-will" position actually leads to very different conclusions on morality at least in the extreme cases. One nice example given by Sam Harris would be -

    If we imagine that a cure for evil exists, we can see that our retributive impulse is ethically flawed. Consider, for instance, the prospect of withholding the cure for evil from a murderer as part of his punishment. Would this make any sense at all? What could it possibly mean to say that a person deserves to have this treatment withheld?

    To quote a nasty or at least distasteful and perhaps politically self-defeating example -

    Now, I am embarrassed to give a link to my own previous comment over and over again, but I think, nobody has yet refuted it or even dismissed it.

    Wed, 01 Jun 2011 19:25:39 UTC | #633031

    Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 173 by Kurt Unwise

    Comment 167 by Quine :

    I am going to try to see it from the decision, so not from a question of if we have so called "free will" or not, but to look at each decision and try to see how much "freedom" there was for that decision or action.

    I believe, if you accept that this is a deterministic universe, then the answer in each case should be exactly zero. Of course, in order to reach such a conclusion, you will have to account for all causal factors and not merely whether you are forced to do something at gunpoint. When you consider the all the causal factors in complete detail, i.e., whether you are famished or sated at the time of decision-making, the water content in your brain at the time, the weather, the back-ground noise, the odd fly's flutter etc., the answer to your "how much freedom" question should logically be exactly zero.

    Of course, if by freedom, you mean the feeling/illusion of freedom or your or someone else's ability to imagine the number of alternatives available at your disposal, then surely, the amount of freedom available is different in different cases; for example, going by that definition of "freedom", a caged bird is surely less free than one on a tree-top.

    Wed, 01 Jun 2011 19:06:29 UTC | #633027

    Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 73 by Kurt Unwise

    Freedom can be defined to mean "real variability of outcome", or, it could mean "the feeling/illusion of being able to vary the outcome and control it". .

    Compatibilist "free will" simply means "the feeling of freedom" - no more, no less.

    I do not know whether that makes it a subject of great complexity, but I am sure that any atheist who can be impressed by an argument that says, "personal feelings = truth", should also concede such dubious suggestions like "God may exist for some people and not exist for others"; after-all, different people feel differently about God.

    Tue, 31 May 2011 18:30:09 UTC | #632735

    Go to: Morality without 'Free Will'

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 54 by Kurt Unwise

    Wow! What a clear-headed argument!

    If we imagine that a cure for evil exists, we can see that our retributive impulse is ethically flawed. Consider, for instance, the prospect of withholding the cure for evil from a murderer as part of his punishment. Would this make any sense at all? What could it possibly mean to say that a person deserves to have this treatment withheld?

    Now, that's what I call hitting the nail on the head. I wanted to say much the same thing here -


    Comment 48 by Caivs :

    The Richard Dawkins Foundation should invite Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet to debate the subject!

    How exactly does Mr. Dennett justify the current assumption underlying all or at-least most of modern law? Since I haven't read his books, I can only guess. Here, I hazard my guess -

    Tue, 31 May 2011 16:53:31 UTC | #632699

    Go to: Support Christian missions in Africa? No, but . . .

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 137 by Kurt Unwise

    Christians will abuse children, cause the faster spread of HIV virus & make life hell for homosexuals.

    Muslims will do all of the above and on top of that, fail the society as a whole. At the cost of repetition, I want to present an example - Pakistan. Here's an open letter from the well-known Pakistani nuclear physicist and peace activist, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. There is sense of hopelessness in his writing.

    Islam will be very very difficult to reform or get rid of 50 years down the line especially owing to the human costs involved in attempting to do so. And people like Steve Zara will then argue that it would be immoral to even try. Therefore, let's nip the problem in bud so far as possible and by any means possible.

    Mon, 09 May 2011 21:33:05 UTC | #625098

    Go to: Support Christian missions in Africa? No, but . . .

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 134 by Kurt Unwise

    There are lots of comments here and I haven't read most of excuse me for repetition if the following point has already been made.

    I don't know what exactly is meant by 'support', but yes, I would like Christianity to spread as fast as possible among the African people who comprise 'the untapped market'. That's because, I am sure it's certainly going to be either Christianity or Islam.

    The Christians will most certainly use English language to educate the African youth....and English language will introduce them to the 'western culture' and make them relatively open to the liberal values of the west. Who knows, they may someday even come across books of Dawkins and Hitchens and shake off their religious beliefs! It's also important to note that the Christians certainly do have vast experience in setting up and running such schools.

    The Muslims, on the other hand, have experience of, if anything, setting up and running Madarasas and the medium of instruction could be Arabic.

    The Islamic virus is such that the victim, no matter where on the globe he is located, thinks that he's Arabic! And problems of Palestine, say, become his own problems! For example, Sufi Islam evolved on the Indian subcontinent via blending of Muslim beliefs with Hindu practices. This strain of Islam fast spread among the indigenous people of the subcontinent. The other way in which it spread was via forced conversions or because the Mughal rulers offered tax incentives to Muslims etc. Anyway, the important word here is 'conversion'. But today, most Pakistanis think that all of them are Arabic in the sense of descendents of Arabs! And the Pakistani society is on the brink of collapse owing to religious fundamentalism.

    I say, avoid Islam at any cost!

    Mon, 09 May 2011 19:16:09 UTC | #625045

    Go to: India would have been a better place without Sathya Sai Baba

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 2 by Kurt Unwise

    Finally, an article here on "the Great Avatar"..... most of the major Indian newspapers devoted several full pages to the news the day after his death.

    He had predicted at a public gathering at his head quarters in Puttaparthy, in 2000, and repeatedly many times, that he would die at the age of 96 only. And till the last moment, many of his devotees clung to his word and waited for a miracle. May it be an eye opener for the millions of gullible people whom he misguided and deluded.

    No, the rationalizing was quick among the devotees that I knew..... "The prophecy was never made Baba himself, it was planted in the media by jealous people...." I hope the internet becomes widely available here in India at the earliest....that'll help!

    Many of his high society devotees came to serve their own vested interests.

    That's true. Many Indian politicians, including two former prime ministers and a former president, were his "devotees" simply because of his large base of followers. But I guess, that's how it works in a democracy!

    Thu, 28 Apr 2011 20:11:32 UTC | #620368

    Go to: Yes, we do have free will, and here's why

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 277 by Kurt Unwise

    Comment 273 by Peter Grant : The basic argument has always done it for me, but maybe we can simplify it even more and popularise it somehow:

    (i) It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience. (ii) It is undeniable that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible (this might not be true if there were reincarnation, but reincarnation would just shift the problem backwards). (iii) One cannot at any later stage of one's life hope to accede to true or ultimate responsibility for the way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of one's heredity and previous experience. For one may well try to change oneself, but (iv) both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of success in one's attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And (v) any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous experience. (vi) This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are traceable to the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But (vii) it is foolish to suppose that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is ex hypothesi in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute to one's being truly or ultimately responsible for how one is.

    That is fine, but it is an argument developed by pre-19th century philosophers (whether compatibilists or incompatibilists), and as I said before, by "determinism", they meant only the nature and nurture variety, not 100% pre-determinism which was first conceptualized by Laplace. Yet, what the above recursive argument does show is that even without "hard" determinism, an individual cannot be held morally responsible in the strict sense.

    But we can improve that argument. Today, when we say "determinism", we mean 100% determinism, i.e, we'll include not just heredity and the early environment as the causal factors, but also others such as the hormonal balance in the body just before the thought arose, the water content of the brain at the time, the sound of the neighbour's car whizzing by, the direction of the wind and to make the point very explicit, the flutter of a butterfly's wing in the rainforests of Brazil etc. - all of them would be counted as causal factors. To be fair, point (vi) of your summary covers it, but some people like jimblake will just not get it without explicit examples. Either the argument of 100% determinism must be framed in this explicit way or in the way that Sam Harris puts it as you previously quoted.

    I am not going to reply to jimblake's latest comment as he hasn't provided a point-by-point rebuttal of my reply to his previous comment...and I am tired.

    What I was interested in discussing was how the acknowledgement (or rebuttal) of the lack of free will affected our morality - it should be the main point of debate. Yet, most members here (except perhaps Peter Grant) are apathetic towards that area of debate.

    I was surprised to read on Wikipedia that Dan Dennett has used the example of Conway's Game of Life to explain free will and moral responsibility. I just didn't get it and was wondering how exactly he did it. I haven't read his books. So I am guessing that he used one of the following three ways of reasoning to arrive at his conclusions.

    (1) He argues for punishment that is "deserved" in the same way as some people would argue that Darwinian evolution tells us that weak "deserve" to be eliminated from the competition for survival. (I don't think he's employed this method of poor reasoning)

    (2) He compartmentalizes his brain - "Physics may tell us that everything is pre-determined, but I am going to forget all about it when doing philosophy. When I look around, I find that people are free to make choices unless somebody forcibly places restrictions on them. The "free" people may only have a feeling of freedom and it may be that the "free" people are not free at all to make the choices that they imagine to be available to them. Physics may tell us that there hidden constraints on each but one choice, but for goodness' sake, how is anyone going to actually account for the direction of the wind or the butterfly's flutter or other random factors that affect decision-making? How can anyone measure those factors? Let's ignore all those effects and continue to carry on with our illusions. Since we cannot measure the effects of hidden variables, we'll put the blames of crimes on the people that our intuition tells us to be guilty." (I think this, most probably, must be the method that Dennett employs, though the words should obviously be different. But I think, it's also pretty much the way that religious scientists compartmentalize their brains and keep God & research separate).

    (3) He employees a rigorous & consistent method of reasoning but arrives at the same conclusions on moral responsibility in a roundabout way, something like the one employed in Comment 253 (I don't think he actually uses this kind of an argument since he's a compatabilist)

    So my point in the last few of my posts (especially Comment 253) was that the difference between the philosophy of compatibilists and incompatibilists was NOT JUST A SEMANTIC ONE, and that such difference would become obvious when we apply the respective world views to moral judgements on extreme scenarios. But it seems that nobody is interested, least of all Steve Zara. So I am also retiring from this debate. I have upcoming exams too. Thank you all for enriching my world-view.

    Thu, 28 Apr 2011 18:37:40 UTC | #620328

    Go to: Yes, we do have free will, and here's why

    Kurt Unwise's Avatar Jump to comment 269 by Kurt Unwise

    Comment 262 by jimblake :

    You were doing a pretty good job of explaining how the law of entropy has driven the evolution of our universe till the last couple of paragraphs. After that, whether you were spouting some ingenious new theory of physics or of consciousness or total woo is not something that I am qualified to judge since I am not a physicist.

    After hundreds of years of philosophical debate, this issue has not been resolved because of a conflict between assumed causal links and the the quite compelling observable behavior.

    The debate has not been settled because (I am tired of quoting it over and over) -

    In many human beings, the experience of choice gives rise to a conviction of absolute responsibility that is untouched by philosophical arguments. This conviction is the deep and inexhaustible source of the free will problem: powerful arguments that seem to show that we cannot be morally responsible in the ultimate way that we suppose keep coming up against equally powerful psychological reasons why we continue to believe that we are ultimately morally responsible.


    Most of us have assumed that there is an unbroken determined causal link between the beginning of the universe and the end of the universe.

    That assumption has been made on this forum only for the sake of argument so that the more important point of conflict between determinism and free will could be highlighted. Depending on the interpretation of quantum mechanics, one could reasonably say, "it is false to believe that there is an unbroken causal link between the beginning of the universe and its present state".

    But that's not what you are referring to. I read your previous posts. What you mean to say is that even if there are fixed initial laws at the beginning of the universe, since universe is an "emergent" system and life is an "emergent" phenomenon, there necessarily aren't causal links from the start of the universe to our everyday actions. What I can definitely say about it is that, without quantum mechanics, it's impossible to do away with any of the causal links. Without quantum mechanics and without external intervention, no matter how complicated or "emergent" the system is, it is 100% determined by the initial conditions and the rules of the game. Here's an example of an "emergent" system - Conway's Game of Life. If you restart the game with the exact same initial conditions, you get the exact same output every single time. To be fair, I must concede that it may be very difficult to predict the outcome of such a system. But that doesn't mean that one could do away with the causal links.

    And if the argument is that quantum mechanics may introduce the element of indeterminacy , it's not your brain, nor your whole body that could be given "credit" for it. It happens just as much inside the subatomic particles comprising a stone as the ones comprising your neurons. Quantum mechanics does not alter the free will argument at all. Because, the free will argument is essentially about morals and specifically about "ultimate moral responsibility".

    Maybe, I should repeat it one more time - the free will argument is essentially about morals and specifically about "ultimate moral responsibility". And that is what it has always been about. To know whether we have "ultimate moral responsibility" is the sole purpose of this debate as it has always been over the centuries; the debate is not about how the universe works in detail or what are the ultimate laws of physics.

    If the compatibilists want to accept the more or less deterministic picture of the universe as presented by physicists and merely label some phenomena differently, that's not a problem. But if they then want to argue that "ultimate moral responsibility" exists, they must show how that's the case.

    What Dan Dennett may say about it is that

    even if the laws of physics may have determined everything, we can look around and find the people in the West to be free and women in Afghanistan to be less free. It doesn't matter if you say that freedom is "subjective" or that it is just an "imaginary feeling", in the context of the world of people, it makes perfect sense. Money is an illusion, love is illusion, matter is an illusion, but all of these "illusions" are alright within the context.

    That's alright, but to then not probe these concepts further to improve upon them is a bit like being Karen Armstrong who would say - "It's meaningless to ask whether god actually exists or not, that's not the point".

    For eg; money may be an illusion and we can work perfectly well under that illusion in a stable economic environment. But if you were doing business in a very high inflationary environment like say, Zimbabwe of 2008, it was important for you to have understood the worth of the Zimbabwean dollar.

    So the important point about free will is whether its existence or non-existence leads to different moral and legal decisions, at-least some of time and at-least in some of the extreme circumstances. And I am sure that the answer to that question is an unqualified "yes".

    In Comment 253, I have presented an argument of that variety. Now it does have grammatical errors and some badly constructed sentences, even the argument may not be "sophisticated" enough. But to imagine that the moral side of the debate is of no consequence is a bit too rich, and silly, because it is precisely for its moral implications, that the free will debate has been conducted since centuries. Now could anyone of you, and especially compatibilists like Steve Zara comment on "Comment 253"?

    Thu, 28 Apr 2011 12:37:21 UTC | #620225