Posts Tagged ‘free will’

Chess is a solvable game, right?

I mean, once you’ve defined the rules and the starting conditions, then everything else which can ever be said about it all follows inevitably from there. There’s no randomisation brought in from any outside elements, like rolling dice or shuffling cards. Every game of chess proceeds from an identical situation, under the same regulations as every other.

None of which has stopped its vast cultural significance. The more it’s studied, the more poetry and beauty folk seem to find inside it. Chess fanatics talk about it in terms of metaphors for human nature, among other things. The early games and midsections and endgames can be packed with apparent philosophical insights. There are styles of play which can reveal things about you, strategies you can adopt in a given position, and so on. We’ve been playing for centuries, and even those who’ve racked up tens of thousands of games don’t feel like its possibilities have been exhausted. Even starting from exactly the same board, against exactly the same opponent, doesn’t feel samey or unoriginal after decades.

And yet everyone who’s ever sat down to play a game of chess has either: been potentially able to force a win no matter what their opponent does; been able to force a draw; or been doomed to a loss however well they play, if their opponent plays perfectly. That is, depending on the colour you play, you’re always in the same one of those situations – we just don’t know which it is. With enough computing power we could. An answer exists, it’s just too mathematically unwieldy for us to have found it yet.

Would the game be less fascinating, if it were solved? If it was known and understood that, say, white could always force a win, that a sequence of moves exists which you could simply look up in response to whatever your opponent did (in an implausibly large book), which would lead step-by-step to a provable, guaranteed victory? Would the whole venture seem dull and pointless, if the sole deciding factor of the outcome of a game was no longer player skill, and could just be a matter of blindly following an algorithm? Would we stop playing, the idea of self-improvement and learning anything for ourselves suddenly seeming inconsequential and foolish?

If I were a proper writer I’d tie in some deep and impressive parable about free will to close this off.

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  1. One of the regular criticisms made by the anti-skeptical subset of skeptics is that we don’t do enough outreach to schools in between all our constant back-slapping and self-congratulatory champagne-slurping. I’ve moaned about this cynicism before, and Steven Novella has expressed things far more clearly than I managed to. Kash Farooq also wrote about what he sees as the point of these skeptical get-togethers, and defends the idea that we can’t all be working on exciting new projects to reach new audiences all the time and constantly be out making a difference in the world. There’s room for both approaches.

    And the JREF will hopefully soon be doing even more to undermine the irritating notion of skeptics as an isolated, exclusive in-group unconcerned with getting things done in the real world, with their new Education Advisory Panel. It’ll be a while before we can see how it’s going to work in practice, but the names of the panel members that I recognise are good people, and its stated aims are exactly what skepticism could do with more of. I’ll be following this one with interest.

  2. Jen McCreight announces the winners of her Atheist Christmas Carol competition. There’s some fantastic creativity in there, well worth a read. I might have to try something like that for this year’s festive season, what with the poetical mood I’ve been in lately.
  3. The latest Carnival of Evolution is up, with more excellent biological science-writing than you’ll know what to do with. (By which I mean, more than I had time to read while I was at work today.) The three carnivals I used to regularly submit to (and hosted) all seem to have dissolved into the void now, but it’s good to see some science round-ups still continuing.
  4. The latest episode of DJ Grothe’s excellent For Good Reason podcast finally turned up this week. For what it’s worth: I, too, do not accept the existence of contra-causal free will. I’m not going to reason all the way through meanings and implications of this right here. Maybe later. But listen to the show.

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I eventually closed this thread after 54 comments, deciding that the circular inanity was becoming tiresome and its protagonist was never going to be reasoned with.

In retrospect, I kinda wish I hadn’t done that. Nobody was being that obnoxious, and the stupid really was funny. I’d vacillated on whether to get involved myself, but eventually there was just so much fantastic material provided by the one resident Christian nut, I couldn’t stay out of it completely.

Here are some of the highlights, with my commentary. If anyone wants to restart the discussion here, I promise not to cut it off this time unless things become unacceptably abusive.

People who have same sex attraction are not a problem, it’s their disordered actions that are. Homosexual sex is not natural because it doesn’t exist for any reason. Otherwise you could just have sex with a hole in the ground.

First off, it’s entirely natural. It just is.

Secondly, “it doesn’t exist for any reason” is apparently now enough to deem something morally impermissible. Given that “to create a new human being” is the only reason David seems interested in, this renders almost the entirety of human endeavour not only pointless, but downright evil.

Of course, if you don’t want to write off all art, music, and literature as forbidden activities, you could note that they serve the purpose of enriching the soul, broadening the mind, diverting the spirit, and bringing joy and delight and wonder and fulfilment to our interactions with our fellow humans.

But then, if you do that, gay relationships would seem to serve the purpose for some people too.

David’s approach is utterly illiberal and oppressive. He has no complaint against this activity except a whine of “Do you have to?” and thinks this justifies homophobic discrimination.

To hell with that. Yes, you could just have sex with a hole in the ground. You really could.

Let me say this emphatically to everyone reading right now: If you want to have sex with a hole in the ground, never let go of your dream.

For what it’s worth, most Christians do not say that something can’t be true because it’s not in the Bible, so that’s a straw man arguement.

No, it’s not.

Almost one in three Americans believe that the Bible is the “actual word of God, to be taken literally”. That’s a significant chunk of the population. It’s not what every Christian believes, but I never said that it was.

The poem, as apparently David didn’t figure out, was about the different circumstances under which atheists might encounter religious belief, and the different levels of antipathy with which to respond. There are different theists described, in different situations, some largely harmless and some meriting serious resistance. It never claimed to be an a depiction of every single person who calls themselves a Christian.

So, David needs to brush up on his logical fallacies. A straw man argument isn’t named that because most people aren’t made of straw. It’s because nobody is made even slightly of straw.

[E]ven a married couple using either the pill or barrier contraception is engaging in sinful activity… [G]ay people are called to be celibate. Some “straight” people are, too.

“Called” is a cosy way of saying God will burn you if you don’t repress the urges he gave you and deny yourself the chance of finding love because of his arbitrary rules.

And for the record, I believe evolution, but not Darwinism.

I am genuinely curious what version of evolution David thinks he believes in.

Does he think it’s credible and scientific that the Biblical account of creation is a myth, and life on Earth developed slowly over billions of years… but it had to be guided by the Christian god, and any attempt to deny this is dogmatic anti-religious fundamentalism?

He never actually explains. He repeatedly claims that creationism and evolution can be compatible, so he’s clearly not using words the way I’m used to them being used. He suggests the existence of “more correct evolution hypotheses”, but gives nothing to explain why these are now rejected in favour of the current theory by a virtually unanimous consensus of experts, or how he’s reached the conclusion that all these experts are wrong. Or what the entire scientific community would have to gain by pushing Darwinism as some sort of grand deceit.

Darwin had to change the rules of science in order to fashion his theory. He changed the rules of scientific proof.

No, he didn’t. I’m not even sure I know what this means, but the theory of evolution including processes of Darwinian natural selection is accepted by the same criteria of scientific evidence as any other solidly established model of reality.

It’s our duty when teaching others to give both sides of the argument. You folks want to exclude half of the subject.



Here’s a list of creation myths. Please to be explaining why yours is the one religious opinion that should be considered on equal footing with the entire modern scientific study of biology, unlike all of the others.

Why does the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster not deserve equal time to be put forward in science classes?

Both sides!!

Deists = people who believe in a God. I can show you more that the founding fathers were Christian in both upbringing and independent thought.

Actually, “theists” are people who believe in a god/God. Deism is more specific, and generally implies that, while some supreme being is believed to have been necessary for the creation of the cosmos, said being remains entirely uninvolved in human affairs, and has essentially abandoned the whole business immediately after setting things in motion.

This is most likely the belief held by most of the Founding Fathers of the United States. However they may have been brought up, there is no mention of Jesus, Christianity, God, or the Bible anywhere in the Constitution. They could easily have written numerous endorsements of Christianity into the text, if the people establishing the country had had any intention for it to be a “Christian nation” whatsoever.

In fact, they went out of their way to do the exact opposite. As you can tell from Thomas Jefferson’s precise words on this matter, or the many times he made his feelings about religion and its role in government abundantly clear.

I don’t know why I’m spending so much time on 18th century American politics, though. Moving on.

By the way, there is no evidence for gay people…

I’ll just leave this here.

Priests and clergy give up their sexuality to God in order to serve him better.

Yeah, how’s that working out for them?

But let’s look at homosexual sex from an evolutionary point of view. Sex is meant to further along a species. So, while homosexual sex may happen, it is species ending if it is the majority.

I know that if a species spends all it’s time practicing recreational sex which doesn’t produce offspring, the species will die.

First, saying that gay sex is evil because it’s not evolutionarily helpful is like saying that star jumps are an immoral affront to the law of gravity.

Second, I know spending all our time recreationally screwing each other’s brains out sounds like fun, but nobody has suggested we try that. You’re letting your imagination run away with you again, David, and the places it’s going are pretty gay.

David decries the catastrophic flaw that homosexuality is not “procreative”, but he can’t seem to decide what reason best justifies this. Sometimes it’s because God says so. Sometimes it’s because it could wipe out the species if everyone decided to do it all the time (which they’re not). Sometimes it’s… something to do with Nancy Pelosi? Wait, I think I’m flashing back to an earlier discussion.

Anyway, you know what’s just as unlikely to be procreative as gay sex? Abstinence.

I’ve never had any children, and yet my body has produced just as many sperm cells – potential humans all – as if I’d been getting picked up in gay bars every Saturday night for the past five years.

So what’s the problem with homosexuality? How does it take anything away from your own hetero concerns that you seem so keen to shove our faces in? Are the gays somehow using up all the sex, and you’re worried there won’t be enough left for when you want to get down to some hot, steamy baby-makin’?

As for your belief, or lack of belief, why should God jump through hoops for you? He already suffered and died for you. If that’s not enough, I don’t know what is.

Hey, David. I got a deal for you. You eat this spider and I’ll give you a million bucks.

C’mon, think of what you could do with a million bucks! It might be an unbearably horrible sensation while you’re doing it, but think of the reward you’ll definitely get afterward!

What’s that? You want to see the money before you’ll do it? Geeze, how ungrateful is that? I’ve already gone to the trouble of making a huge cash withdrawal and packing a suitcase full of my own hard-earned money. It’s in my car, you can have it once you’ve eaten this spider. How many hoops do I have to jump through for you, man?

I should try a different tack as well, since sarcasm didn’t seem to work too well on him the first few times it was tried.

The reason God ought to “jump through hoops” for me, David, is that he’s demanding that I surrender every aspect of my life to him. At least, that’s what his supporters claim. It’s not unreasonable for some kind of evidence that the deal’s legit before I start shunning gays, stoning children to death, and give up my regular Friday night ass-coveting session.

God didn’t want robots, or zombies, who would do everything he wanted. God realized that love without free will is slavery. He freely gave man free will.

God didn’t want his creations to be happy. He wanted them to fall prey to every mistake they could possibly be led into by the primitive urges he’d given them. Because it’s just more fun that way.

And you say this guy isn’t a sadist?

And this last one’s a real doozy.

God now uses the evil in the world to help those who try to love him. Catastrophe tends to bring people together to work to dig out of said catastrophe. Look at what happened in America after 9/11. We actually worked together for a time. That’s not to say God willed 9/11. But He took the evil action and made it into a postive.


I know I said not to be abusive here, but… can I make an exception when it’s so patently merited?

What David’s saying is that God could have prevented the suffering that ensued after this devastating attack, but he didn’t. It happened anyway, in spite of the wishes of our omnipotent loving creator. But although he could have stopped it, it was mankind’s fault for choosing to exercise our free will in such a damaging way.

So God gets let off the hook for tearing thousands of families apart. But he also gets the credit for all the work done in the aftermath, by countless incalculably brave people, who formed communities and support groups and tried to pull things together following such a tragedy. We’re expected to be grateful to him, for the nuggets of solace and comfort we find in each other’s company, after he allows us to suffer unbearably.

This is rationalisation of a blind ideology at its most evil.

So that’s the state of play, folks. If it ends up kicking off again, be nice to each other. Your points may seem more credible if not prefaced by straight-forward insults. And while he wasn’t above responding in kind, it wasn’t David who launched the first volley of “You’re an idiot” last time. Be nice.

And have fun!

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I don’t think I’ve written on this exact thought here before, but stop me if it sounds familiar.

The problem of evil is perhaps the most persuasive argument that all religion is bullshit. Why does so much human suffering occur, if a god exists who’s not a complete sadist?

Any deity who has deliberately or negligently set up a world in which thousands of children starve to death every single day, utterly unable to do anything to improve their circumstances, is not worth any kind of notice, let alone praise. And while every theistic explanation for this sorry state of affairs I’ve yet encountered has been insipid, vacuous, disingenuous, demonstrably false, patronising, or in some other way unconvincing, the point that most believers will eventually settle on goes something like this:

People have free will to do terrible things. If God didn’t let people make mistakes, we’d be mindless robots incapable of making any real choices about how to live our lives.

Now, even assuming that things like disease and natural catastrophes can somehow also be covered by the “free will” excuse, it still fails for one particular reason that doesn’t seem to get brought up a whole lot:

Free will sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d object as strongly as anyone if some alien bodysnatchers started to take control of the limbs and mental faculties I call “mine”, and of which I currently enjoy the sensation of being in command. The notion of having one’s free will taken away, or of simply being a purely deterministic automaton, is inherently kinda creepy.

But think about the trade-off here. In the above apologetic, free will is offered as the primary reason why every living human being isn’t blissfully, wonderfully happy every moment of their lives.

I cannot be alone in considering this a seriously shitty deal.

Of course, there are good reasons why giving up one’s autonomy is so often presented as a sinister prospect. In film and literature, it tends to be governments and corporations that are presumed to know what’s best for all of us, and which invariably turn out to have some kind of deplorable, megalomaniacal underside. The protagonist will usually (though not always) succeed in exposing and undermining this charade, and returning to the populace the independence they never knew they’d lost. Humanity has a hard time ahead, but a new dawn rises on a hopeful future.

And yes, that’s all jolly good. In practice, in the real world, surrendering authority so completely can only leave oneself vulnerable to being exploited, and no such guarantee of pure happiness as a trade-off can ever be trusted.

But we’re talking about God, not a group of people easily corrupted by power. Surely we can rely on the creator of the universe to be more benevolent than the guys who invented Google?

I cannot imagine anything that mankind is accomplishing in the current arrangement, which wouldn’t be far surpassed by the simple, continuous, eternal contentment and bliss that God ought to be capable of providing. If he wasn’t a dick. And fictional.

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