Posts Tagged ‘ Sam Harris ’

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

The never ending discussion on the compatibility between science and religion asks if they can get along and coexist. The argument, no matter how it is stated, comes down to this: Science has facts, religion has faith. As long as religion has faith it will remain incompatible with both science and reality. Believers might argue that their faith is compatible with science yet they will not allow for someone else’s faith being compatible with their own. When believers can’t even get their ‘faith’ coherent but decide to disagree with the best method we have of knowing the world around us then it is completely incompatible with science.

A religion that is not incompatible with science would be one that requires no faith. Would that be a religion?

Can’t we all just get along?

NO, we can’t as long as you are unwilling to be a full participant in reality.

Before anyone thinks I’m calling all believers stupid, just stop. This is a reaction to the discussion of compatibility and not simply your particular point of view. That said, if you want to feel offended, that is your prerogative, just don’t expect an apology.



Evolution Evidence Breakthrough

I know that you know that I know that I’m not an evolutionary biologist but I just found this and it’s amazing.


First prepare to play the video.

Turn up the volume.

Press play as you stand to get a coffee from the kitchen.

Next, Sam Harris will explain in evolutionary terms why babies look like they do. (no peeking, just listen)


You Don’t Know … So Here You Go, You’re Welcome

There is not much that I can add to this except that Sam and I don’t agree on all things but on this video mashup, we’re in synch all the way.

Enjoy… then go buy presents for people that already have more than they need…

What Is Human Consciousness?

I know I keep at this topic almost relentlessly and I seem to have to draw it out as I think about it. Today’s thought is brought to you by our cousins.

If human consciousness is to have special meaning, which I do not ascribe to it, we should see some differences between human apes and all other animals. Clearly humans and elephants are not going to be similar in any physical way. Likewise, this is so with most other animals. What are the ways that we are similar though?

  1. Mammals
  2. same body plan for many of us
  3. social creatures
  4. wake/sleep cycles
  5. …. well, in fact we seem to have quite a few things in common even though we humans don’t think of things that way very often

When we look at animals that save other animals we see a trend in their behavior. They act in altruistic ways. They react to danger, not out of loyalty to the endangered being, but from some ethical nature. Their reaction requires thought, some level of planning, free will to execute the plan, and the cognitive ability to adapt the plan to achieve a goal.



I can use my dog as an example. He does not like to see animals or people fight. In the dog park, if two dogs face off he will run fast as he can to get in between them and use just enough force to prevent the fight. This has so far only required physical presence and a dominant behavior. He has never attacked any being. He uses minimal action to achieve a goal of his own making…. not rage or fury, but minimal means to achieve the goal.

If dogs and other animals show compassion, altruism, thought,  planning, ethics, free will … what is left for us to explain with our big brains?

Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (2012)

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

Cambridge University, UK.

Whatever consciousness is, humans are not alone in possessing it.



If I’m right, whatever thoughts are, humans are not alone in possessing them.

If I’m right, whatever morality is, humans are not alone in possessing it.




There are many more videos of animals exhibiting ethical behavior that requires thought and planning etc.

So what is it then that we do with this big brain we have? It would appear that pre-modern humans were conscious and intelligent beings, with ethics and free will. .. the very things which we think make us special. We do not attribute animals with a soul nor think they have some external cause making it look like they think thoughts at all, yet they do think and plan and choose to execute, and modify the plan during execution, to achieve a chosen goal. This flies in the face of Sam Harris’ statements about we humans having no free will. It flies in the face of those claiming ethics come from a deity. It flies in the face of those thinking humans are a special species regarding cognition.

I suggest here that whatever is true for humans regarding consciousness and cognition must also be true for the animal world. The thought that we have a controlling soul is hubris in this light. Deductively then, we can reason that cognition and consciousness is an emergent property of the animal brain.

Do you have any thoughts on this? I would love to know them.


Random Things – Apr 03 2013

To go along with my adulation of the venerable earthworm  I just couldn’t help but think of this song. Enjoy


This Is Why…

This is why you should, at best, find religion a doubtful set of myths and superstitions.


Ask yourself why your pastor or priest is not telling you these things. Ask why your religion does not explain about the universe other than to say your creator god did it. Why doesn’t your holy text cover black holes, nuclear energy, electricity, and so many other things in your daily life. For all you know, driving in a car could be one of many unforgivable sins but they didn’t cover that in the holy text so you won’t know.

Oh sure, these are different times, but why didn’t the most powerful and omniscient being in the world see fit to explain some of the stuff from the future so as to truly be a guide to his special friends? He could have given them some useful stuff, like forks or perhaps better sailing ships, or maybe even an accurate depiction of the solar system and it’s place in the galaxy. There are millions of ways that such a deity could have improved the lives of those special friends he supposedly put on this planet. Yet your deity did none of them. Why is your church not telling you about this? What happened when you asked? Post in the comments about what the reaction was from your church.

Why is it that your pastor or priest etc. will not show this video before their Sunday preaching? Why? You might as well ask why your pastor or priest etc. doesn’t want you to ask the questions and doesn’t want to answer them if you do.

I challenge believers to present this video to their church leaders and ask them what their response is. I’d be happy to post those responses here or have you post them in the comments.

Free Will – The Sequel?

There is a review by The Barking Atheist of Sam Harris’ book ‘Free Will’ and a bunch more reviews here.

Why, oh why, why would you mention so many reviews, I hear you ask. (deep breath) Having posted about it, it seems to be my destiny to read it. Mind you I’m still slogging through “The Moral Landscape” at the moment. Just the same I will post a review of his book in my own style when it is done. In the mean time there are all other other ‘unoriginal’ reviews that you can read 🙂

I guess the point of this is to say that yes, I will read the book since it’s ‘hot’ and I’ve already posted so much on free will and how I perceive it.

I want to also thank all the new readers/followers for stopping by.


And now… a chicken

I’m watching you!

My World View – Free Will

There are a lot of people who talk about free will. Theists say that we have free will and use this to explain why there is evil in the world, why their Satan is left loose on the world, why Jesus was murdered, why we must choose their faith. There are a few people who will argue that we do not have free will, or more subtly that we only appear to have free will.

My view is this, we do have free will. If you wish, you can choose to stop reading right now. That is a choice, an exercise of free will. If by saying that I have triggered in your brain the mechanisms which will cause you to read the rest anyway we might say that you don’t really have free will. So lets imagine we can look at the things that might have just happened in your brain, shall we?

1 – you already read so far

2 – you had made preliminary decisions about whether the writing was interesting or not

At this point we might say that you have already made the decision to read the whole post – or not read it all.  Was that really a decision then to finish reading once questioned if you would? Yes, but you had made the decision to read the entire post before being asked if  you would or not. Were you conscious of that decision? No? Well, you made it, why were you not conscious of making that decision? Did someone else make it for you? Did quantum mechanics kick in and make you decide to not do things you don’t like doing in the first place? Hey, all that sounds complicate, right? Well lets see what we can find out about that.

There is no good single spot to get the low-down on thinking about free will but Wikipedia gives you a great spot to start reading from as it always does. Everyone has a common sense understanding of it, but those that write about it go quite a bit deeper to get beyond the common sense version of it. From the Wikipedia article you can see that there are many views on free will. Certainly more views than you might want to try on if you found yourself bored one weekend.

I can still remember asking why, why, why to my parents and anyone that would listen to me ask the same question over and over again. Once my mother sent me along with a man (uncle?) as he went to repair someone’s stereo/turntable. He was a patient man and answered my why’s until I had no more, or at least did not know how to ask any more of them. I was 5 years old, maybe 6. I understood little of the answers but did understand that they were ‘real’ answers. So I tried to remember them. I still do. I still ask why.  On the question of free will, you might well ask why…

Ian Pollock gives a nice run down of some recent arguments about free will. There is a lot of talk about J.Coyne and here and of course there is Sam Harris’ take on free will that we don’t have.

Though Sam Harris has come closer than the others I disagree with just about everybody. Welcome to the machine, the meat machine.

Come on, tell us what you really think!

We human apes are machines, meat machines. The business of our brain is to make decisions. Decisions about everything. What is safe to eat, what is not, what is dangerous (we’re weak on that one) and what is not. When to duck out of the way, when to stand our ground. An immense ocean of decisions every day, every minute. We make them so fast that we don’t have time to think about them. If we had to make conscious decisions about everything we see or hear as we drive a car it would be crippling. Try it, watch someone else while they drive and try to figure out how many decisions they are making per second. You won’t be able to keep up.

So, if you can’t keep up with their decisions, how do they? That is the ‘why’ question of free will. Lets go ahead and consider the machine between our ears.  Do you imagine that it has only a single core processor? If you said yes, you’re wrong. Even though you think of your mind/brain as a single thing it is made up of many processes. When have you ever had to think about making your hear beat, or concentrate on what is in the edges of your peripheral vision? The reason that you won’t remember is that these things happen without explicit consent or command from your consciousness process, that part you normally think of as your mind. Jill Bolte-Taylor has an incredible story.

She is a brain scientist who suffered a huge stroke and tells what happened. Half her brain shut down and with half gone she did not lose conscious thought, but did lose time sequencing to all the sensory inputs. She explains all this in her book and we can only conclude that more than one processor is running in our brains.

Yep, our brains are a group of processors, a machine. Some parts analyze various parts of our visual sensory input some parts keep your heart beating and so on.

What does all that gibberish mean?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Harris argues that if our conscious process does not make the choice then we do not have free will. This is flat out wrong. He is not paying attention to how our actual brain works.

As Jill Bolte-Taylor explains, if you shut down some of the parts of the brain catastrophically, we do not stop making decisions. We simply have more trouble doing so. This means decisions are not made outside the brain as if we are puppets or have no choices. We make decisions based on all the processes happening in our brains at any given instant. We also cannot claim that this world is a simulation and thus we have no free will because the loss of brain function does not stop decision making, only our ability to make good decisions. Follow along now. If this universe were a simulation, the simulation did not stop her from making decisions when her stroke happened, just her ability to make them. Decision making is done inside the brain. Okay, you might argue that this does not refute a simulation. There are also other reasons to refute a simulation, but they are long. The world is not likely to be as it is if this were a simulation that was programmed to give us such a keen sense of self identity and agency, and we would not understand why we have made the decisions that we have.

What’s the point already.

We do have free will, but it is based on the multiple processes in our brains. Something which has not been discussed by modern philosophers or ancient ones. It has not been considered how multiple process systems make decisions, and what exactly this does to free will.

We do have free will and in the investigation of it we will find what exactly it means to think of ourselves as meat machines. This machine between our ears makes us human apes a little bit different than other animals… just the same, we are as we perceive. That is to say that we perceive ourselves as a single agent with free will. That agency is based on the interactions of several processes and we can measure the communications between them. Such times and delays are the cost of making decisions. They are the cost of free will. Decisions are not made instantly but by careful analysis of all the sensory input we have along side analysis of the previous information that we’ve stored up. These things take time… but the delay does not indicate that we do not have free will.

The deeper philosophical arguments were made before any thought that we are not alone in our heads. There are many processes here, not just one. This makes a huge difference in how to interpret thought and feeling and action. I do not believe that any argument against free will has merit.

Of course you are welcome to prove me wrong… leave a comment, thanks.

Things I Don’t Believe In (I’m looking at you Sam Harris)

I like to think that my lack of belief in gods, ghosts, the supernatural etc. does not mean that I have a specific world view. I like to think that I’m free to take knowledge from any place I find it. That said I also like to think that I don’t have to agree with every famous atheist alive in order to have a valid world view as an atheist.

To that point, I have disagreed with Sam Harris on a number of issues, and today we find one more. Mr Harris wrote that we should be profiling airline travellers to ensure our safety in his post In Defense of Profiling.

He makes quite a few good points about the ineffectual nature of the TSA and by reason Homeland Security. I’ve said as much too. The trouble is that Mr Harris goes on to state that travellers should be profiled and that we should be wasting money trying to stop what will not be stopped without far more effort than is being made. The next terrorist plot will not be with an airplane and no matter what method is chosen we will not be ready for it. More pointedly, our resources will be tied up with worrying about how to deal with airline based terrorism rather than in creating an infrastructure and citizenry that is ready to respond to any threat without regard to its method. Can any reader name more than one terrorism plot foiled by either the TSA or Homeland Security? Let me know in the comments.

Update: I just thought, profiling would not have caught the shoe bomber or the Oklahoma City bombers. In fact there are innumerable situations that the TSA and Homeland Security have failed miserably to address. Sure the TSA is limited in scope, but their budget doesn’t seem that way.

I have said just in the past week that we should shut down the TSA and Homeland security. Give 15% of that budget to the FBI and let them do their jobs – they’re good at doing that. Now take the other 85% and give it to NASA.

Stop terrorizing and traumatizing little kids and old folk and lets get our happy little asses to Mars… like yesterday!

Sam, please stop telling people to keep wasting money and resources on silly crap that is grossly ineffectual, even on its best possible day. Stop acting like the FBI doesn’t know what they are doing. Stop acting like ‘doing something’ has to mean doing something that wasn’t already being done. You cannot predict where lightning will strike, but you can do some cost effective things to prevent or minimize the damage done when it does strike. By the by, you don’t put lighting protection only in airports.

Besides, Sam, if we have no free will isn’t it likely that we aren’t going to be able to prevent terrorism?

Sam Harris Does Have Free Will… sheeesh!

So that I would have some text to quote, I present some text from this article below. Read this to get a sense of the philosophical arguments regarding free will.

If you’ve read my writings you know that the actual basic meaning or purpose of life for human apes is:

Wake, eat, breathe, procreate, drink, sleep …. repeat

It’s not necessary to do these things in that order, but all are basic requirements for continuation of our species. Everything else is extra. We are meat robots with rather complex decision making devices crammed inside our skulls in order that we can be able to complete the six basic tasks of human apes. Our brain is not a single object, but a group of them working together. Our consciousness is not located in a single part of our brains but is emergent from the interactions of all the cooperating parts. What we call our conscious mind is really like the captain of a large vessel sitting in the pilot house watching everything as if it were a movie. When it comes time to think the captain’s very capable subordinates go about making decisions and creating a work plan. Just as the plan is being put into motion they broadcast it to the movie screen the captain is watching. He has veto power and control to make things change. He also has a subliminal channel tuned in so that he knows things are happening even though they are not on the screen.  When you ask the captain if he runs the ship he replies “of course I do, I make all the decisions around here, I do all the work”.  We have the capabilities that we do precisely because the workload is shared around to various well tuned portions of the brain and body. Great athletes move with a kind of instinct on the playing field. It’s not instinct and their captain is NOT telling each muscle when to move or in which direction. Those subordinates of the captain are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. They are in fact such a close knit team that they cannot be separated. When you allow that the captain speaks for all the crew members the captain does indeed have free will. Those subordinates cannot be elevated to the position of captain and the captain cannot be demoted. These things are fixed. You can lose a subordinate and the ship will still function, perhaps not as good as before, but it will continue to function. Indeed, the captain is useless and without communication … except for the subordinates. They may be a team, but they cannot be separated or considered as separate performers. The communication between them in not instantaneous and never has been. To think so is simply and profoundly bizarre.

To get some reference here is a video or two to get the conversation going.

Sam Harris on Free Will

Roenazarrek on Free Will

Think of it like driving an automobile. When you decide to go faster you make the decisions, press the pedal, and some milliseconds later a surge of fuel gets to the engine. Some milliseconds later you sense the vehicle going faster. Now, who made the decision? Who did the work? That is not a perfect analogy, but it’s kind of close.

Now for Sam Harris’ part. In the excerpt from his book he says:

Even though we can find no room for it in the causal order, the notion of free will is still accorded a remarkable deference in the scientific and philosophical literature, even by those who believe that the mind is entirely dependent on the workings of the brain. However, the truth is that free will doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us, for introspection soon grows as hostile to the idea as the equations of physics have. Apparent acts of volition merely arise, spontaneously (whether caused, uncaused or probabilistically inclined, it makes no difference), and cannot be traced to a point of origin in the stream of consciousness.A moment or two of serious self-scrutiny, and you might observe that you decide the next thought you think no more than you decide the next thought I write.

Clearly he believes that he must have micro-managerial control over every part of his brain. He doesn’t. He won’t. He’ll have to get over it. He would cease to function normally if every decision were made by his conscious mind with  him processing thoughts about it. It would kill him if he had to remember to breathe and make his heart beat. It’s just stupid to think that your conscious mind should be kept busy remembering to breathe. It does not diminish the value of our conscious mind in any way that we relegate mundane repetitive tasks to non-conscious parts of our brain. Think about it. Ever see anyone chew on their tongue when they are focused? Ever see someone twirl their hair when they are thinking? Do you normally consciously decide every movement of your body language? Sam is just wrong on this.

The very idea that we would  NOT use experience and history to make decisions sub-consciously rather than delay them with waiting for the conscious mind. You’d never be able to duck out of the way of flying objects. You’d never have fight/flight actions. You could not survive. We rely heavily upon those parts of our brains which are not actively engaged in conscious thought. The captain is great and all, but to get things done efficiently and effectively you need real highly trained professionals at the controls of the machinery, not a generalist who prides itself on doing all the work. Sam will be one of the first to agree that our brains are huge pattern seeking machines. All our sensory data is processed prior to being sent to that part of our brains which are actively involved in conscious thought. I mean ALL of them. We continuously live our conscious life several hundred milliseconds in the past – with reference to when things really happened.

He continues with:

All of our behaviour can be traced to biological events about which we have no conscious knowledge. In the 1980s the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated that activity in the brain’s motor regions can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move.

As I have described, only a part of our brains are actively engaged in conscious thought. The rest are processing sensory data and doing pattern recognition, preparing to move muscles here and there if there is no veto from the conscious mind. Have you ever been cutting something with a knife and dropped the knife? Did you reach to catch it before your conscious mind could veto that action due to the high risk of injury? Do you consciously turn what you see upside down? Well, when light hits your retinas the image is upside down compared to reality. Parts of your brain fix that for you before your conscious mind gets to deal with the data. There are people whose brains don’t function quite right … they see in 2D not 3D. Babies have to let their brains learn to create 3D information from their visual data. It is not done consciously.

Another lab recently used functional magnetic resonance imaging data to show that some “conscious” decisions can be predicted up to ten seconds before they enter awareness (long before the preparatory motor activity detected by Libet). Clearly, findings of this kind are difficult to reconcile with the sense that one is the conscious source of one’s thoughts and actions.

Again, your conscious mind does not have time to micro-manage all the functions of your body. If you had to remember to breathe and keep your heart beating or which muscles to twitch in which direction so that you don’t fall on your face 30 times a day, you would have no time to think of anything else. It’s just stupid to think that all your actions must necessarily be accomplished at the conscious mind level if you are to have free will. Every one of us has a hive mind. It has always been this way. The effectiveness of this hive mind is so great that we don’t normally realize that it is a hive mind.

For better or worse, these truths about human psychology have political implications, because liberals and conservatives are not equally confused about them. Liberals usually understand that every person represents a confluence of forces that he did not will into being – and we can be lucky or very unlucky in this respect. Conservatives, however, have made a religious fetish of individualism.

This is pure mumble jumble. There has been quite a lot of talk about how differences in the brain or the way in which our brains work lead a person toward liberal or conservative leanings. It’s not some ill-thought-out confluence of forces. cough … cough cough. Sam is simply losing it. Far too much time thinking that there must be some philosophical answer to life’s big questions. Well, he’s off the mark here. From an efficiency and engineering standpoint it simply does not make sense to have every action and thought be originated in and processed by the parts of the brain which are dedicated to conscious thought. Long ago we had to run or hide faster than we could think about it when encountering a predator etc. Evolution gave us a hive mind for a reason – it’s successful. A hive mind does not mean that we have no free will. It simply means that we don’t make the decision based only on the conscious mind’s activities. That’s a good thing. It has kept us alive, made us apes successful, gives us art, dance, athletics and many other things. These thoughts on free will being illusory because of delays in internal communications is too bizarre to be useful.

With that I think we can add a seventh item to the basic functions or purpose in life:

Eat, breathe, drink, procreate, don’t die, sleep, wake … repeat

Of course we have free will. Go do something of your own volition. Be unexpectedly kind or something. Be.

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