Vision for the Future

I’ve got to say that Pawan Sinha‘s TED talk had me going. He leveraged the congenital blindness of some Indian children to learn about how we see (spoiler: it’s motion). In the process he achieved a very Humanistic goal: he gave children sight. I once was blind, but now I see. Our goals work best when we do this: we focus on how they can actually help people now instead of in the great by-and-by. More focus on the now is a good thing.

Facebook is EVIL

Hyperbolic subject, but a couple of Facebook related tidbits. Facebook is dying:

This week’s news that Goldman Sachs has chosen to invest in Facebook while entreating others to do the same should inspire about as much confidence as their investment in mortgage securities did in 2008. For those who weren’t watching, that’s when Goldman got rich betting against the investments it was selling.

And this great Assange quote:

What are the differences between Mark Zuckerberg and me? I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I’m a villain. Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he’s Man of the Year.

Merry Christmas!

Last night in Choir we sang some traditional Orthodox Christmas Hymns along with the more typical Western hymns. Since I’m in the choir, I had to pay more attention to the words. The one that I really liked was this one that revealed the awesome presence of God in the plain setting of the Christmas Event:

“I behold a strange but very glorious mystery: Heaven — the cave;
The throne of the Cherubim — the Virgin.
The manger — the receptacle in which Christ our God,
Whom nothing can contain, is lying”.

Other than that, it has been a quiet Christmas day. My wife grew up a devout Catholic immigrant and she and I have been working to preserve “peasant traditions” (as she calls them) of a humble Christmas. Our Christmas remains (largely because of her efforts) a religious holy-day. In that vein, I am amused by the “War on Christmas” folks. While ranting about people’s season greetings, they continue to participate heavily in the consumer aspects of how Christmas is celebrated in the States. Which is not to say that I am offended by any of this: people are welcome to celebrate their holidays however they wish. God knows (and those who have even a passing acquaintance with me know) that I’ve had and will have my share of rants. I’m just a little bemused that people are offended that other people want to celebrate at the same time they do without sharing their faith. There is some special irony in the hoopla over the greetings. After all, is there any special religiosity in the phrase “Merry Christmas” (which we hear often enough here in the States from the Coca-Cola Santa) versus the Orthodox Christian greetings of “Christ is Born! Glorify Him!”

No one is that important

People inflate their own importance. I am no exception to this trend, but I was reminded (again) that this is how people operate when I listened to America Abroad’s Remembering the Cole and one of the soldiers interviewed voiced his frustration that some Americans don’t remember the bombing of the USS Cole where some of his shipmates and friends were killed. This is a pattern that has repeated itself over and over. Of course, our pain is important to us, but, because we’re generally myopic and self-centered, we are easily frustrated when our pain isn’t important to everyone else. In reality this is just our inner 2-year-old showing up. Young children are just developing a sense of their selves as separate from others. After we’ve developed enough “self”, though, there is still some sense that we identify the larger tribe or nation as a part of our self. We share so many traits with our immediate family, for instance, that it can be difficult when they grow to be dramatically different than our selves. It is this sense of betrayal that I see so many parents struggling with when their children embrace a different religion, or when their children reject God entirely … when those you love — people who you’ve thought of as that larger self, part of the “us” in “us versus them” — don’t assimilate parts of your identity that you think of as fundamental, you’re in for some pain. And it is that pain that I heard in the words of the Cole survivor — “My buddies and I were out there defending America, and Americans can’t even remember and honor my friend’s death.” I can’t blame the veterans for feeling this way. After all, we’re reminded every day how much the military deserves our respect for, we’re told, the willingness to fight to the death for our freedom. And it is safe to say that most people in the military have adopted this mindset — that there is something more noble about armed service. Which is all fine, except that this point of view, embracing the nobility of service, identifying with it enough to be in the service, means that whenever you encounter someone who doesn’t share your paradigm (which happens pretty regularly when your friend has been killed), you experience a some real psychic pain.

Back in the saddle (metaphorically, that is)

I’m back home now after being released from rehab yesterday. While my doctor has ordered me off the bike and not to drive, I’m finally able to sleep in my own bed. Today I met the guy who called the Ambulance for me. He said he saw me skidding along with my head down, when I didn’t get, up he ran over and borrowed the driver’s phone to call 911. Through the whole experience, my faith in humanity (and especially in the people around me) has grown, something I hope to write about soon. But for now: I’m alive and home.

Free Will or no

Why am I cursed with a love of philosophical discussion? Or, if I were more honest, I would say I’m cursed with a love of philosophical monologue — I keep doing it even though I get little to no response.

But in any case, I once again find the 140 characters that Twitter allows too few to express my thoughts adequately. So here goes.

Over on Identi.ca (an open source, de-centralized version of Twitter), I got into a discussion with @teddks about the god that both he and I don’t believe in. But don’t worry, that’s not the discussion I want to talk about here.

While talking to @teddks about all this I made a statement about free will that John Goerzen picked up on. After a little backnforth, John asked (and here I translate freely from the twitterese he used):

What you’re saying has echos of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism where he said “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.” Is unhappy knowledge better than blissful ignorance?

Now, I hadn’t read anything about John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. So I did what anyone who’s mildly curious would do: I read the Wikipedia article.
After that quick read, it looks like Mill’s Utilitarianism is a distraction. Sure, I can see the similarities between “if free will doesn’t objectively exist, it won’t affect my choice to believe that it does” and “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”, but I don’t really think its relevant.

Instead, my point is existentialist: who cares about theories of reality when they don’t match our own experience of reality? Even if you don’t believe that free will actually exists, you still make choices.

Dwelling on the proof of free will is, itself, a distraction. Don’t get me wrong: acceptance of free-will is important — it affects the choices we make. But proving or dis-proving it existence is futile. We’ll still end up making choices.

To me, the interesting bit is how often we’ve re-visited the argument for or against free will. Before classical physics, men developed systematic theologies that relied on God’s omnipotence to eliminate the possibility of (at least some) choice.

The we got Newtonian physics which, taken to its natural conclusion, seems to say that everything is predictable. Take a snapshot of a system (even, say, your brain) and you can predict with precision any future state. In other words, if you know all the variables, you know the future.

Now-a-days we have quantum physics — something I don’t pretend to understand at all — but it seems to allow some sort of free will.

Even without quantum, though, we can’t model all the variables. The future is unknowable. The choices others will make can’t be predicted. Our own choices are still, effectively, our own.

As a result, isn’t it best to believe in free will and act as if it exists? Believing in our own ability to affect change in the world empowers us. Denying free will seems to lead us to nihilism — something I’m not too excited about.