Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Darwin's Casino

Our age has no shortage of curious features, but for me, at least, one of the oddest is the way that so many people these days don’t seem to be able to think through the consequences of their own beliefs. Pick an ideology, any ideology, straight across the spectrum from the most devoutly religious to the most stridently secular, and you can count on finding a bumper crop of people who claim to hold that set of beliefs, and recite them with all the uncomprehending enthusiasm of a well-trained mynah bird, but haven’t noticed that those beliefs contradict other beliefs they claim to hold with equal devotion.

I’m not talking here about ordinary hypocrisy. The hypocrites we have with us always; our species being what it is, plenty of people have always seen the advantages of saying one thing and doing another. No, what I have in mind is saying one thing and saying another, without ever noticing that if one of those statements is true, the other by definition has to be false. My readers may recall the way that cowboy-hatted heavies in old Westerns used to say to each other, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us;” there are plenty of ideas and beliefs that are like that, but too many modern minds resemble nothing so much as an OK Corral where the gunfight never happens.

An example that I’ve satirized in an earlier post here is the bizarre way that so many people on the rightward end of the US political landscape these days claim to be, at one and the same time, devout Christians and fervid adherents of Ayn Rand’s violently atheist and anti-Christian ideology.  The difficulty here, of course, is that Jesus tells his followers to humble themselves before God and help the poor, while Rand told hers to hate God, wallow in fantasies of their own superiority, and kick the poor into the nearest available gutter.  There’s quite precisely no common ground between the two belief systems, and yet self-proclaimed Christians who spout Rand’s turgid drivel at every opportunity make up a significant fraction of the Republican Party just now.

Still, it’s only fair to point out that this sort of weird disconnect is far from unique to religious people, or for that matter to Republicans. One of the places it crops up most often nowadays is the remarkable unwillingness of people who say they accept Darwin’s theory of evolution to think through what that theory implies about the limits of human intelligence.

If Darwin’s right, as I’ve had occasion to point out here several times already, human intelligence isn’t the world-shaking superpower our collective egotism likes to suppose. It’s simply a somewhat more sophisticated version of the sort of mental activity found in many other animals. The thing that supposedly sets it apart from all other forms of mentation, the use of abstract language, isn’t all that unique; several species of cetaceans and an assortment of the brainier birds communicate with their kin using vocalizations that show all the signs of being languages in the full sense of the word—that is, structured patterns of abstract vocal signs that take their meaning from convention rather than instinct.

What differentiates human beings from bottlenosed porpoises, African gray parrots, and other talking species is the mere fact that in our case, language and abstract thinking happened to evolve in a species that also had the sort of grasping limbs, fine motor control, and instinctive drive to pick things up and fiddle with them, that primates have and most other animals don’t.  There’s no reason why sentience should be associated with the sort of neurological bias that leads to manipulating the environment, and thence to technology; as far as the evidence goes, we just happen to be the one species in Darwin’s evolutionary casino that got dealt both those cards. For all we know, bottlenosed porpoises have a rich philosophical, scientific, and literary culture dating back twenty million years; they don’t have hands, though, so they don’t have technology. All things considered, this may be an advantage, since it means they won’t have had to face the kind of self-induced disasters our species is so busy preparing for itself due to the inveterate primate tendency to, ahem, monkey around with things.

I’ve long suspected that one of the reasons why human beings haven’t yet figured out how to carry on a conversation with bottlenosed porpoises, African gray parrots, et al. in their own language is quite simply that we’re terrified of what they might say to us—not least because it’s entirely possible that they’d be right. Another reason for the lack of communication, though, leads straight back to the limits of human intelligence. If our minds have emerged out of the ordinary processes of evolution, what we’ve got between our ears is simply an unusually complex variation on the standard social primate brain, adapted over millions of years to the mental tasks that are important to social primates—that is, staying fed, attracting mates, competing for status, and staying out of the jaws of hungry leopards.

Notice that “discovering the objective truth about the nature of the universe” isn’t part of this list, and if Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct—as I believe it to be—there’s no conceivable way it could be. The mental activities of social primates, and all other living things, have to take the rest of the world into account in certain limited ways; our perceptions of food, mates, rivals, and leopards, for example, have to correspond to the equivalent factors in the environment; but it’s actually an advantage to any organism to screen out anything that doesn’t relate to immediate benefits or threats, so that adequate attention can be paid to the things that matter. We perceive colors, which most mammals don’t, because primates need to be able to judge the ripeness of fruit from a distance; we don’t perceive the polarization of light, as bees do, because primates don’t need to navigate by the angle of the sun.

What’s more, the basic mental categories we use to make sense of the tiny fraction of our surroundings that we perceive are just as much a product of our primate ancestry as the senses we have and don’t have. That includes the basic structures of human language, which most research suggests are inborn in our species, as well as such derivations from language as logic and the relation between cause and effect—this latter simply takes the grammatical relation between subjects, verbs, and objects, and projects it onto the nonlinguistic world. In the real world, every phenomenon is part of an ongoing cascade of interactions so wildly hypercomplex that labels like “cause” and “effect” are hopelessly simplistic; what’s more, a great many things—for example, the decay of radioactive nuclei—just up and happen randomly without being triggered by any specific cause at all. We simplify all this into cause and effect because just enough things appear to work that way to make the habit useful to us.

Another thing that has much more to do with our cognitive apparatus than with the world we perceive is number. Does one apple plus one apple equal two apples? In our number-using minds, yes; in the real world, it depends entirely on the size and condition of the apples in question. We convert qualities into quantities because quantities are easier for us to think with.  That was one of the core discoveries that kickstarted the scientific revolution; when Galileo became the first human being in history to think of speed as a quantity, he made it possible for everyone after him to get their minds around the concept of velocity in a way that people before him had never quite been able to do.

In physics, converting qualities to quantities works very, very well. In some other sciences, the same thing is true, though the further you go away from the exquisite simplicity of masses in motion, the harder it is to translate everything that matters into quantitative terms, and the more inevitably gets left out of the resulting theories. By and large, the more complex the phenomena under discussion, the less useful quantitative models are. Not coincidentally, the more complex the phenomena under discussion, the harder it is to control all the variables in play—the essential step in using the scientific method—and the more tentative, fragile, and dubious the models that result.

So when we try to figure out what bottlenosed porpoises are saying to each other, we’re facing what’s probably an insuperable barrier. All our notions of language are social-primate notions, shaped by the peculiar mix of neurology and hardwired psychology that proved most useful to bipedal apes on the East African savannah over the last few million years. The structures that shape porpoise speech, in turn, are social-cetacean notions, shaped by the utterly different mix of neurology and hardwired psychology that’s most useful if you happen to be a bottlenosed porpoise or one of its ancestors.

Mind you, porpoises and humans are at least fellow-mammals, and likely have common ancestors only a couple of hundred million years back. If you want to talk to a gray parrot, you’re trying to cross a much vaster evolutionary distance, since the ancestors of our therapsid forebears and the ancestors of the parrot’s archosaurian progenitors have been following divergent tracks since way back in the Paleozoic. Since language evolved independently in each of the lineages we’re discussing, the logic of convergent evolution comes into play: as with the eyes of vertebrates and cephalopods—another classic case of the same thing appearing in very different evolutionary lineages—the functions are similar but the underlying structure is very different. Thus it’s no surprise that it’s taken exhaustive computer analyses of porpoise and parrot vocalizations just to give us a clue that they’re using language too.

The takeaway point I hope my readers have grasped from this is that the human mind doesn’t know universal, objective truths. Our thoughts are simply the way that we, as members of a particular species of social primates, to like to sort out the universe into chunks simple enough for us to think with. Does that make human thought useless or irrelevant? Of course not; it simply means that its uses and relevance are as limited as everything else about our species—and, of course, every other species as well. If any of my readers see this as belittling humanity, I’d like to suggest that fatuous delusions of intellectual omnipotence aren’t a useful habit for any species, least of all ours. I’d also point out that those very delusions have played a huge role in landing us in the rising spiral of crises we’re in today.

Human beings are simply one species among many, inhabiting part of the earth at one point in its long lifespan. We’ve got remarkable gifts, but then so does every other living thing. We’re not the masters of the planet, the crown of evolution, the fulfillment of Earth’s destiny, or any of the other self-important hogwash with which we like to tickle our collective ego, and our attempt to act out those delusional roles with the help of a lot of fossil carbon hasn’t exactly turned out well, you must admit. I know some people find it unbearable to see our species deprived of its supposed place as the precious darlings of the cosmos, but that’s just one of life’s little learning experiences, isn’t it? Most of us make a similar discovery on the individual scale in the course of growing up, and from my perspective, it’s high time that humanity do a little growing up of its own, ditch the infantile egotism, and get to work making the most of the time we have on this beautiful and fragile planet.

The recognition that there’s a middle ground between omnipotence and uselessness, though, seems to be very hard for a lot of people to grasp just now. I don’t know if other bloggers in the doomosphere have this happen to them, but every few months or so I field a flurry of attempted comments by people who want to drag the conversation over to their conviction that free will doesn’t exist. I don’t put those comments through, and not just because they’re invariably off topic; the ideology they’re pushing is, to my way of thinking, frankly poisonous, and it’s also based on a shopworn Victorian determinism that got chucked by working scientists rather more than a century ago, but is still being recycled by too many people who didn’t hear the thump when it landed in the trash can of dead theories.

A century and a half ago, it used to be a commonplace of scientific ideology that cause and effect ruled everything, and the whole universe was fated to rumble along a rigidly invariant sequence of events from the beginning of time to the end thereof. The claim was quite commonly made that a sufficiently vast intelligence, provided with a sufficiently complete data set about the position and velocity of every particle in the cosmos at one point in time, could literally predict everything that would ever happen thereafter. The logic behind that claim went right out the window, though, once experiments in the early 20th century showed conclusively that quantum phenomena are random in the strictest sense of the world. They’re not caused by some hidden variable; they just happen when they happen, by chance.

What determines the moment when a given atom of an unstable isotope will throw off some radiation and turn into a different element? Pure dumb luck. Since radiation discharges from single atoms of unstable isotopes are the most important cause of genetic mutations, and thus a core driving force behind the process of evolution, this is much more important than it looks. The stray radiation that gave you your eye color, dealt an otherwise uninteresting species of lobefin fish the adaptations that made it the ancestor of all land vertebrates, and provided the raw material for countless other evolutionary transformations:  these were entirely random events, and would have happened differently if certain unstable atoms had decayed at a different moment and sent their radiation into a different ovum or spermatozoon—as they very well could have. So it doesn’t matter how vast the intelligence or complete the data set you’ve got, the course of life on earth is inherently impossible to predict, and so are a great many other things that unfold from it.

With the gibbering phantom of determinism laid to rest, we can proceed to the question of free will. We can define free will operationally as the ability to produce genuine novelty in behavior—that is, to do things that can’t be predicted. Human beings do this all the time, and there are very good evolutionary reasons why they should have that capacity. Any of my readers who know game theory will recall that the best strategy in any competitive game includes an element of randomness, which prevents the other side from anticipating and forestalling your side’s actions. Food gathering, in game theory terms, is a competitive game; so are trying to attract a mate, competing for social prestige, staying out of the jaws of hungry leopards, and most of the other activities that pack the day planners of social primates.

Unpredictability is so highly valued by our species, in fact, that every human culture ever recorded has worked out formal ways to increase the total amount of sheer randomness guiding human action. Yes, we’re talking about divination—for those who don’t know the jargon, this term refers to what you do with Tarot cards, the I Ching, tea leaves, horoscopes, and all the myriad other ways human cultures have worked out to take a snapshot of the nonrational as a guide for action. Aside from whatever else may be involved—a point that isn’t relevant to this blog—divination does a really first-rate job of generating unpredictability. Flipping a coin does the same thing, and most people have confounded the determinists by doing just that on occasion, but fully developed divination systems like those just named provide a much richer palette of choices than the simple coin toss, and thus enable people to introduce a much richer range of novelty into their actions.

Still, divination is a crutch, or at best a supplement; human beings have their own onboard novelty generators, which can do the job all by themselves if given half a chance.  The process involved here was understood by philosophers a long time ago, and no doubt the neurologists will get around to figuring it out one of these days as well. The core of it is that humans don’t respond directly to stimuli, external or internal.  Instead, they respond to their own mental representations of stimuli, which are constructed by the act of cognition and are laced with bucketloads of extraneous material garnered from memory and linked to the stimulus in uniquely personal, irrational, even whimsical ways, following loose and wildly unpredictable cascades of association and contiguity that have nothing to do with logic and everything to do with the roots of creativity. 

Each human society tries to give its children some approximation of its own culturally defined set of representations—that’s what’s going on when children learn language, pick up the customs of their community, ask for the same bedtime story to be read to them for the umpteenth time, and so on. Those culturally defined representations proceed to interact in various ways with the inborn, genetically defined representations that get handed out for free with each brand new human nervous system.  The existence of these biologically and culturally defined representations, and of various ways that they can be manipulated to some extent by other people with or without the benefit of mass media, make up the ostensible reason why the people mentioned above insist that free will doesn’t exist.

Here again, though, the fact that the human mind isn’t omnipotent doesn’t make it powerless. Think about what happens, say, when a straight stick is thrust into water at an angle, and the stick seems to pick up a sudden bend at the water’s surface, due to differential refraction in water and air. The illusion is as clear as anything, but if you show this to a child and let the child experiment with it, you can watch the representation “the stick is bent” give way to “the stick looks bent.” Notice what’s happening here: the stimulus remains the same, but the representation changes, and so do the actions that result from it. That’s a simple example of how representations create the possibility of freedom.

In the same way, when the media spouts some absurd bit of manipulative hogwash, if you take the time to think about it, you can watch your own representation shift from “that guy’s having an orgasm from slurping that fizzy brown sugar water” to “that guy’s being paid to pretend to have an orgasm, so somebody can try to convince me to buy that fizzy brown sugar water.” If you really pay attention, it may shift again to “why am I wasting my time watching this guy pretend to get an orgasm from fizzy brown sugar water?” and may even lead you to chuck your television out a second story window into an open dumpster, as I did to the last one I ever owned. (The flash and bang when the picture tube imploded, by the way, was far more entertaining than anything that had ever appeared on the screen.)

Human intelligence is limited. Our capacities for thinking are constrained by our heredity, our cultures, and our personal experiences—but then so are our capacities for the perception of color, a fact that hasn’t stopped artists from the Paleolithic to the present from putting those colors to work in a galaxy of dizzyingly original ways. A clear awareness of the possibilities and the limits of the human mind makes it easier to play the hand we’ve been dealt in Darwin’s casino—and it also points toward a generally unsuspected reason why civilizations come apart, which we’ll discuss next week.


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Carolyn said...

For those in the Twin Cities area (Minneapolis/St. Paul), I invite you to join me this Sunday at 3pm for a discussion of the themes covered in The Archdruid Report. The meeting will take place at Open Book on Washington Avenue. Future meetups may be elsewhere; we're trying out a few different locations. Please RSVP at the group's page on Meetup if you can, so I'll know how many to expect.

Venkataraman Amarnath said...

As a scientist I really liked this post.
I want to bring in your last week's post to prove free will.
Machines are highly predictable and do not have free will.
Animals are not machines.
Therefore, animals including human beings have free will.


MindfulEcologist said...

The ability of the human mind to recognize its own limits is both the subject of this week’s essay and some of the responses you made in the comments last week. I want to thank you and Jim for the intellectual honesty about floundering; it is certainly refreshing in a time where fundamentalism, scientific or religious, seems to grow easier than weeds.

The quick summary of your intellectual development from GD to Schopenhauer you shared with us comforted me considerably. It is helpful to learn how another person who cares deeply about our biosphere has experienced the evolution of their positions. Standing the Platonic on its head is something I'm sure many of us are engaged in. Please do share on either of your blogs or in a book what you are discovering. It is amazing to me how easily we slip into abstractions and miss the actual.

I find there are both peace of mind and strength of purpose to be found in placing our species and the eco-crises in evolutionary context. Along these lines I am curious what your take is on evolutionary psychology. My blog project is currently in a cycle on evolution, about to begin discussion of the brain.

Skill with these minds of ours is hard earned in my experience. Teachers like Korzybski are priceless even if, sadly, not well known today. I used his ideas when taking a stab at some of what you are getting at between thoughts and reality in This thing, right here.

This week you wrote we should "get to work making the most of the time we have on this beautiful and fragile planet… Human beings are simply one species among many, inhabiting part of the earth at one point in its long lifespan." With these I thought you and your readers might be interested this morning’s post. It paints a picture of the vastness of evolutionary deep time, touches on modeling the biosphere as a machine and includes this Druidish paean:

“I see the study of life in the fields of evolution and ecology somewhat like the symbols in the Masonic lodge. All the symbols are there and the terms are accurate but like the neophytes in the lodge we are prone to misunderstand what they mean. We are blind to the real implications of these symbol systems, these sciences, for our lives... With evolution and ecology we are in the temple’s Holy of Holies where it would be wise to take off our shoes for we are treading on our sacred ground.”

Thank you John and crowd of commenters, my life is so much richer for what we have shared.

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

Be careful, or you'll find yourself being accused of being a… (say it in a whisper) relativist. Richard Rorty was called that for making exactly this sort of argument.

I do wonder, though. Rorty had the advantage here of being a materialist, so when he appealed to evolution's role in shaping our brains, he didn't have a separate problem of how our minds evolved. Since I do have that problem, I wonder: do brain and mind co-evolve, adapting to each other through our various incarnations, or is something even more subtle going on?

Patricia Mathews said...

@JMG - you said "If our minds have emerged out of the ordinary processes of evolution, what we’ve got between our ears is simply an unusually complex variation on the standard social primate brain, adapted over millions of years to the mental tasks that are important to social primates—that is, staying fed, attracting mates, competing for status, and staying out of the jaws of hungry leopards."

I had to grin. I have never forgotten the primatologist who was studying gorillas and was getting bad performance reviews from her department for intangibles like "attitude." It occurred to her one day, watching the gorillas and spotting a resemblance, to try treating the tenured professors the way the junior gorillas treated their silverback. To her surprise and delight, not only were their interactions smoother, she got an good performance review and a comment about having improved her 'attitude'." Thereby, of course, hangs a lesson.

Pinku-Sensei said...

"An example that I’ve satirized in an earlier post here is the bizarre way that so many people on the rightward end of the US political landscape these days claim to be, at one and the same time, devout Christians and fervid adherents of Ayn Rand’s violently atheist and anti-Christian ideology."

I remember that post of yours. I could recycle all of my comments about it from a year-and-a-half ago here, but I don't think I'd get a gold star a second time for the same material. I will say that the only way that combination works is if one is working for a bunch of religious fanatics in service to a kleptocracy. That's definitely Satanic.

"I’ve long suspected that one of the reasons why human beings haven’t yet figured out how to carry on a conversation with bottlenosed porpoises, African gray parrots, et al. in their own language is quite simply that we’re terrified of what they might say to us—not least because it’s entirely possible that they’d be right."

The best response that I've run into comes from Douglas Adams--"So long and thanks for all the fish." Given what we're doing to the biosphere, that might actually be appropriate. The next best comes from Larry Niven, filing a class-action lawsuit against humanity as a species for our whaling practices. Since dolphins can't do that, we've had to settle for PETA suing to set orcas free from Sea World. That got thrown out, as cetaceans do not count as persons. Too bad.

As for the randomness of evolution, that's the main theme of Stephen Gould's "Wonderful Life," how utterly contingent the history of life is. Run it all over again and entirely different results would happen because of the random and chaotic nature of, well, nature.

John Brink said...

I guess I've always chafed under rigid structure. I'm ok with a certain amount of chaos and anarchy. Fear is often the motivation for people to reject the concept of randomness as related to the possibility of personal change and happiness. Life is often more tolerable if taken as a jam session. I like to hike and camp back in the mountains and the experience is probably enjoyable to me because of my lack of expectations. We like to eat the occasional trout or small batch of trout if we can catch them. We are not that skilled at it. We may be skunked but we still go fishing another day and we say, "Maybe we will have better luck this time!. Thanks for shaking up peoples perception JMG. Oh, and may you have good luck.

Degrigolade said...

I think that I will split hairs a little bit on this one. Luckily, you gave me the ammo within your post to better explain my point of view.

Yes H. Sapiens does have free will. But, like the atoms in the phrase "What determines the moment when a given atom of an unstable isotope will throw off some radiation and turn into a different element? Pure dumb luck." Our free will appears to me to work in a similar manner.

You just don't know when the damn thing will raise it's little head, and the opposite side of the equation is a deterministic approach.

I would posit that most of the time, free will is napping, but it turns itself on often enough that our lives are enriched

mr_geronimo said...

I belive you will write about mimesis in the next post. The creative minority creates new representations and drill the masses to follow them and the masses even like it. But something breaks someday: it might be a conflict among the minority, or a failure to adapt the representations, that are also changing due to their own dynamics, to the ever-changing reality.

And when this happens (and it always happens) society breaks down. The creators become tyrants and the more or less willing servants become angry proles.

Howard Skillington said...

Amarnath: forgive me but, while I agree with your premise, your syllogism is faulty. I am not a scientist, but I did study basic logic for a year in college, several centuries ago. From the premise that "machines do not have free will" it would follow that, if we were machines, we would not have free will. But it is non sequitur (does not follow) that, as non-machines, we do have free will.
If I remember correctly, the fallacy here is of the undistributed middle. A nice example of this logical error is:
God is Love. Love is blind. Ray Charles is blind. Therefore, Ray Charles is God.
If we must have a god, I suppose Ray Charles is as good a candidate as any, so if you hold that belief, it’s ok with me, but it’s still a flawed syllogism.

Ray Wharton said...


Orbits are highly predictable and do not have free will.
Machines are not orbits...
(Not that I disagree with your conclusion in the slightest)


Convergent evolution is such an interesting thing! I remember until very recently thinking that it was about the best argument I could come up with for Idealism. Basically there is the idea of the 'eye' that no particular eye quite matches up with but some what more often than a dozen times it has independently evolved. The potential for eyes existed (the form) and the eyes have it. But a few weeks ago I was thinking about the law of limits and the law of planes (from JMG's book Mystery Teaching of the Living Earth) and realized that the 'eye' isn't out there in some objective bag of possibilities but is defined by the limits which are shared by all the species that could be disposed to gain from evolving eyes. Even the concept of an eye is monkey business, do the thermal pits of some snakes count? The power to evolve eyes is something about the things that didn't even have eyes yet, and couldn't have grokked that (some of) their decedents might; but not something materially explicit, that could be found written on a piece of junk DNA [flip GAT for TTC to activate 'eye'] but something that, to borrow a metaphor from conversation, is implied by the current realities of the creature. Would benefit from being able to make a differentiation, is exposed to electro magnetic radiation broadcasting that information to anything with the right receptor, has components that are effected by electro magnetic radiation, has enough flexibility to accept a new input as a reaction trigger. Mix in a little biomagic and some patience, and boom some megagreat grand kid gets some nice peepers.

A similar situation can be described in logic or math, two places that claim to have absolute truth in the bag. Logic allows one to take data, expressed in the appropriate system of symbols, and by putting it with other data parse out the unstated pieces of data that 'follow from the premises'. If you start with true data, and act upon it with valid operators you can generate out puts that the system guaranties to be true. Of course they aren't really guarantied to be true by anything except the system it's self, its power to guaranty must be assumed or derived from something which implies that it must be true. A joke in logic class is "all valid arguments are circular" because if the conclusion isn't implicitly stated in the premises, a good logical system shouldn't be able to pick it out. Of course all the 'truths about logic' eventually run back to this issue; when you get to it they are all implied by the limits set by what the creators of the logical system set out to do when they started the process (plus any number of other limits that might get stuck in their by circumstance). Long story short, of course all the maths fall to the same sword, they are fundamentally based on the intentions of doing math, and the powers available to the minds for putting together mathematical systems.

Andrew Crews said...

John Michael Greer,

I would like to suggest a biological mechanism for the delusion of control and this weeks post.

"Hormesis (from Greek hórmēsis "rapid motion, eagerness," from ancient Greek hormáein "to set in motion, impel, urge on") is the term for generally favorable biological responses to low exposures to toxins and other stressors. A pollutant or toxin showing hormesis thus has the opposite effect in small doses as in large doses. A related concept is Mithridatism, which refers to the willful exposure to toxins in an attempt to develop immunity against them. Hormetics is the term proposed for the study and science of hormesis."

an inverse hormetic response would be the way a man in a wheel-chairs legs atrophy in response to not being used. Biologically processes serve to limit unnecessary energy expenditure, if you aren't using your legs but getting around fine, then you don't need leg muscles. I would suggest a similar response has taken place as a direct result of living in a world filled with technologies. I believe our brains are meant to form narratives for a more abstract systems based world, which is clear in the customs of more "primitive" cultures. In the technological world and mechanistic narrative these cognitive processes have atrophied. In the same way, a child born after 2000 can hardly read a map, but get can around using a smartphone based GPS device. cognitive process, narratives and memories all fade and atrophy with non-use. Darwin's Casino hints at this energy conservation narrative, that human's never developed good cognitive processes for determining the nature of the universe because it never provided a positive energy return.

Much of the social pop-psych you have discussed over the past few years has a great amount of coherency with a grand hypothesis that has personally helped me and been one of the great system science based discoveries of out time. The Gene-Environment mismatch theory says that we are all very much paleolithic hunter gathers biologically living in a world which does not match. I believe a plethora of terrible consequences have emerged from this in the health and food system, as well as our cognitive deficiencies for managing a hyper-complex world of interconnected things.

Simply put humans were never meant and ill-equipped to inhabit a hyper-complex world of incredibly complex technologies, not for long anyway.

Ray Wharton said...

On the other hand before we go back to just counting out three biologically gifted numbers and the occasional finger, it is worth noting that things very very different from us (as far as we can make sense of that concept) also behave in ways that are math like or logic like. Mathematical patterns in living things, causality in many many kinds of physical phenomena are very very similar to the maths and logics we use, even the basic sensors of living things very often do something that is functionally akin to quantification on the material level. So, even if math and logic, and cause cannot find a Universal Objective validation they can find validation in such huge swaths of the world we live in that ignoring them basically requires checking out from most forms of monkey business.

Remember those limits I mentioned? The thing is that the limits that invoke the eye are less restrictive than the limits that it takes to actually have an eye. Physical matter has to take very specific shapes; genetic lore has to be created, passed down, preserved, and interpreted; various other physical systems are distorted and resources rerouted to grow the things; and countless other paths that might otherwise have been followed are forever closed. That is the cost of limits, is if you don't have the freedom to do with out them (Matthew 5:29) they can build up into a dead end path. The more powers (sight, flight, might, touring with the Grateful Dead) one tries to manifest the more limits one accepts, if powers are sought foolishly they eventually limit you to one path, and then none.

Repent said...

This blog article really hit a note this week. I suspect that as an Archdruid with a secular upbringing, that you don't follow the new age religious movement much. I am however an avid part of this spiritual community.

Over the years one of the principal figures in the New age religious movement has been Neale Donald Walsh. He was a homeless man who couldn't work due to a neck injury caused by a car accident. He lived on the streets, ate garbage out of dumpsters, and lived in a tent community with other people who were down and out. Then he had a 'Conversation with God', he claims that he took dictation from God and he subsequently published the work. It was an immediate best seller, it sold tens of millions of copies, it was translated into 35 languages and published around the world, and it is still of prime importance today. The former homeless man was now a multi-millionaire who started his own television channel called CWG TV and he became a televangelist.

He is the principal source of many of the new age ideas, some of which became 'The secret' movement, and much more. Recently, much to his own displeasure people have been trying to start a new religion around him and his work. (He doesn't want to be worshiped and he is aggressively trying to sidestep this role)

He published an audiobook interpretation of his 'Conversation with God' books, called 'Communion with God' in 2001, and I happened to listen to this audio book recently:

The above link is part one of a six part audiobook. One of his most salient points,(which he claims comes directly from God), is that you get what you give. If you want a house you have to find a way to help others get a house, if you want love, you have to find a way to give others love. If you want happiness, then you have to find a way to give others happiness. This is the process of how the universe works, if you want something you have to give it away to someone else first, then you will receive.

Most of Neale Donald Walsh's books are right out of science fiction, really, really strange and bizarre stuff, he gives Kurt Vonnegut a good run for his money. However, the difference is that he claims that his work is the direct word of God. In book 3 of his 'Conversations with God' series he asks God how humans compare with other advanced civilizations in the universe, and he gets told the answers. (Interesting read, even if you only read and regarded as fiction)

Out of curiosity, I have been trying to do exactly what he suggests. Give others what I want to receive myself. My initial results have been surprisingly supportive of this concept, the process actually seems to work!? I am far from totally convinced, however if it works, why not use it?


Clearly you, John Michael Greer, are an Einstein genius of human social cultural affairs. It is, and it remains a privilege to read your weekly essays, typically it is one of my favorite highlights of each week. The best part, is that like Einstein, that you respond back to your correspondences in writing yourself, just like Einstein did in his letters. I think that it the reason that you have become so popular, and why your work will live on past your years and you will be remembered as one of the great thinkers of our times.

To that end I have sent a small donation as a tip in your tip jar tonight. I strongly encourage all people who read this weekly blog, and who correspond with you in writing, to think of what this weekly essay means to them, as well as the enlightened responses in the comments section, and to suggest that a direct tip in the Archdruids tip jar is an appropriate complement and honorarium to such a talented and gifted mind!

onething said...

Well, I bounce back and forth between wishing people had better role models and teachers, and realizing that they choose, for example, Ayn Rand because they want to, like it. It's like some churches talk about little else than hell and others rarely mention it. It's a matter of attraction, sympathy, resonance.

I also realized that our hands as much as our brains are the reason we are able to accomplish what we do. Still, I rather prefer the approach of uplifting everyone, including animals, than convincing ourselves that there isn't much difference. The religions tell people they are rotten to the core and naturally sinful, which I think tempts them to belittle animals in turn.

aiastelamonides said...

This is an interesting post, as always. You don't mean to suggest that there are genuine objectively true ideas that some greater intelligence could access, even though humans cannot, do you? That there is some perspective that comprehends and unites all the others? I don't _think_ you do, but if so I would be interested in hearing why.

Have you read any Daniel Dennett? I was reading him on free will this morning, and his ideas are pretty much the same as yours. His sense of humor is also like yours, and his beard isn't all that far off either. Interestingly, his ideas in the spiritual realm are utterly opposed to yours, to the point that he has been accused of claiming that consciousness doesn't exist. (What he actually says is that consciousness does not have all the properties that most people think it has, which I suppose can be confused for the claim that it doesn't exist in the same way that your argument in this post can be confused with the claim that human intelligence doesn't exist.) His idea of the three "stances" (physical, design, and intentional) has been popping into my head a lot while reading your last few posts. I'm not sure that I would recommend him (particularly not the consciousness stuff), but the parallels between you two are interesting.

If A then B
Not A
Therefore: Not B

is not good logic. Your argument has the same structure as: All machines are less than 100 miles tall (true!); animals are not machines (true!); therefore all animals are more than 100 miles tall (um...).
Your deduction would only work if you started from by saying that only machines lack free will, which either presupposes that humans have free will (i.e. assumes what is to be proven!) or fails to presuppose that humans are not machines.

onething said...

The author of My Big Toe has said that it's impossible for consciousness not to have free will. I've been pondering that, and it does make sense.

I think that the divide between living things and nonliving, is will/desire. Nonliving things have no preferences. All living things do.

richard b said...

Dear Archdruid

While I don't discount Darwin's theory at all, since there seems much that is explained by it, I do have some problems with it which I think it is at a loss to explain. Briefly, my problems with it are:

1. Sexual reproduction. ie, which came first, the chicken or the egg? My googling of this topic suggests that scientific theory is baffled on this question; and

2. Every man made object we observe is preceeded by it's idea. First the idea of a car, and then the car, and so on. While there could be some randomness in the discovery process, still this observation holds true. It's a universal law like gravity which is always attractive.

But when we come to evolution the process is just the opposite. A man, or tree can appear where we must believe that there is no idea of a man or a tree. This starkly contradicts the manner in which all man made objects appear in the universe. And so we must now have 2 contradictory theories of how objects appear in our universe.

It's a bit the argument of is there intelligence in the universe? Well, I'm intelligent and I'm in the universe, so yes, there is intelligence in the universe. If so (because I am not the author of my own intelligence) intelligence must therfore be a quality if the universe, and so be universal. And sure enough, everywhere we look we see intelligence. From the working of a tree to an operating bee hive, the intelligence of the system is exquisite.


Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, pardon if this is off-topic, and too personal, but I would very much like to know more or less exactly what was on your mind when you did this: "chuck your television out a second story window into an open dumpster, as I did to the last one I ever owned".

Mark said...

OK, Let's break it down, and then break down the break-down; then connect it to where the rubber meats the road; then connect it to where the cartwheel made the rut; then where the foot followed the path. And then, let's discuss it. If there is a Pulitzer Prize for well, reporting on a blog, you have my vote. Although there should be a category called "Raising Philosophy from the Tomb". Maybe, the work is it's own reward. To attempt such a thing in a public forum is true to the task. The proof, in this process, is an improvement in the life of the participants.


Jasun said...

Is free will as you are using it here synonymous with agency?

I don't know about free will (it strikes me as a borderline meaningless term) but the notion that we are determining our behavior via conscious decisions is one that I only *act* as if I believed (what choice do I have?). Even if we allow that our actions are determined by conscious thinking processes (a fact seemingly refuted by experiments that show - or "show" - that the brain sends signals to our hand to move before we register a conscious thinking "decision" to do so), we still have to factor in all of a lifetime's conditioning and prior acts and events that are backed up behind any current action, making it not so much an isolated action in the present but one more in an endless chain of re-actions.

Add to that (or maybe the same argument phrased differently) the existence of the unconscious and how all of our thoughts, feelings, decisions, and actions are determined by unconscious fears, desires, resistances, and unremembered traumas.

Last of all, the notion of human beings or any other organism existing discreetly from its environment and from the larger cosmos begs the question, does the tail ever wag the dog or the finger direct the hand?

As I say, this speaks to the idea of agency, which I suspect is the illusion to end (and begin) all illusions. Possibly you mean something else by free will that I failed to grok?

Yupped said...

Human intelligence really is limited. Coming to terms with that is a wonderful thing. Just being able accept that I am never going to really figure out the great big questions in life has been quite liberating for me. I went through one phase where I tried to think important thoughts and rather fancied myself as a great philosopher, with razor sharp mind and all that. On reflection I suppose I was trying to think myself out of my human condition, or something. That phase didn't end well. Then I got into a phase of developing my awareness, stepping back from those thoughts and seeing them happening in my head, and considering how they got there, and deciding whether I wanted to follow them, etc. I thought that might be the start of a process of awakening, coming to some sort of liberated consciousness. Again, though, there is a good dose of wanting to escape from myself in that urge. And I reached a plateau of awareness pretty quickly.

More recently, I'm coming to terms with the fact that, while I can indeed condition and challenge the thoughts in my head, and escape from their grip to a good degree, I can never, ever escape the situation I am in - of being an aging human, living on this planet, limited by my talents and resources and certain to die. And why would I want to escape anyway? It's been a great ride, for the most part. Best to buckle up and enjoy it. It still interests me, though, as to why evolution resulted in us having the ability to not just have thoughts, but to be aware of them and to overcome them. Presumably some sort of evolutionary advantage associated with second guessing, or challenging one's actions and beliefs? And why then are some people, those perhaps more spiritually rigorous, apparently able to achieve a more complete freedom from their thoughts? Are we all capable of Buddha-like mental liberation, or is that just another talent that some have more than others, rather like juggling perhaps?

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, concerning what you said,
"A clear awareness of the possibilities and the limits of the human mind makes it easier to play the hand we’ve been dealt in Darwin’s casino—and it also points toward a generally unsuspected reason why civilizations come apart, which we’ll discuss next week."
I'd say the reason you have in mind is the fact that the array of possible intellectual creations of any given civilization, vast as it may be, is finite, and there comes a time when the fountain is depleted, exhausted. When that happens, the civilization enters its ossification stage: it begins to institutionalize its intellectual professions, forcing its formal adherents to conform to rigid schemes of thought and practice - the intellectual maverick, the scholar, disappears or becomes a marginal figure, distant from the mainstream; similarly, the arts become a rehash of great works of the past of that civilization, or vulgar imitations of the art of different civilizations, past and present. In either case, the cause is simply this: the worldview, the driving intellectual force that accompanies and sustain a civilization from birth to death is exhaustible, and, eventually, it does exhaust itself, leaving those whose office is to mine that worldview without a supply. They are plants without a sun. A philosopher in Late Roman times, for example, could not do much by seeking inspiration in the Classical vision: all the thoughts, ideas, and possibilities that the Classical worldview had already been done. If he wanted to be creative, original, all he could do was to draw on new fountains, such as Christianity - a worldview that was opposite to the Classical worldview, and which dealt its deathblow. That phenomenon is also happening to our civilization, and in fact has been happening from at least the end of the Nineteenth century - Nietzsche might have been the first to realize that.

Sima said...

Dear JMG,

Your comments on divination struck a particular chord for me. I’m interested in game play - what we’re doing when we play and why we become so absorbed. Games seem to take us beyond our ‘normal’ daily mental states and are frequently similar to other human activities, such as warfare. There’s quite a bit in common between a game of tennis, a duel with swords, and a trial in the courtroom. Each of these situations usually ‘decides’ a winner and a loser (or a choice from a greater range of outcomes) - it makes a decision or judgement in a way that is generally acceptable to the participants (and others).

Divination seems to be doing something similar. It’s not just a random selection, even if we take a strictly materialist view of whichever system of divination we’re using. It’s actually permitting us to make a choice *with conviction*. When we toss a coin, we usually accept whatever ‘the coin says’. This is not so far removed from the legal process in a trial, where society by and large accepts the outcome of the trial less on the basis of its having found the truth than on the basis of its having been fairly conducted. We *could* simply toss a coin, or perhaps adopt some slightly more complex and mysterious form of divination involving both parties to the dispute, to decide the outcome of a trial and, of course, at certain points in history processes like trial by combat have been used.

You suggest that divination is important (and valued) for its ability to introduce unpredictability but it seems to me that something special is going on here. We really convince ourselves of the outcome - the choice - of an obscure process. We can often throw ourselves behind a decision made in this way when we don’t trust our own reason, or gut feeling, or a choice made directly by another (fallible) human being. I suspect that ‘suspense’ matters, both in the sense of a pause - waiting for the coin to stop spinning - and in the sense of suspension of belief/disbelief.

Can you explain a little more about how or why divination so appeals or point me to further reading on the subject?

Steve D said...

Greetings! Long-time reader, first time poster and very much hoping not to embarrass myself too terribly here. You've said that you normally skip commentors who dispute free will, but since you actually brought it up this time...

I'm having a bit of difficulty seeing how the only two possibilities are either 1)a mechanistic, totally predictable sort of determinism or 2)free will. Perhaps I've missed something. If so, please correct me. After you pointed out that the occurance of random events (whether at the quantum level or elsewhere) effectively debunks the determinist view, you gloss over the fact that those very same random events would also act upon (and perhaps drive) the mind and thought processes of a free will possessing entity, thereby negating the "free" part of that will. In other words, how can my will be free if I am at the mercy of neurons firing-off at random times (due in turn to the random actions of the atoms that make them up) which in turn influence, if not "determine" my very thoughts? Are we humans uniquely NOT affected by randomness the way all the atoms and subatomic particles that make us up are? Seems to me that if random events determine things then random events DETERMINE things. Predictability just doesn't seem necessary or relevant.

Admittedly, I have a personal distaste for the idea of free will stemming mostly from the way it is often presented as an anthrocentric conceit of (literally) cosmic proportions ("Look at us humans! Aren't we oh-so special and important to the entire Universe! Don't sin or it'll screw EVERYTHING up!" etc.). But that aside, arguments for the existence of free will simply fall flat for me. I fail to see how social primates could possibly need or benefit from it as they (we) go about feeding, mating, avoiding predators, etc. Without a need for it, why would we have it? Couldn't the perception of free will/choice simply be a side-effect of our peculiar kind of cognition/intellect (without regard for whether that intellect was spawned from random radiation or some early hominid accidentally discovering "magic" mushrooms a la Terrence McKenna's theory)? Or perhaps it's a side-effect of our social nature itself: social order must be maintained, therefore those who step out of line must be punished, therefore they must "deserve" that punishment, ergo, they must have free will, else we are simply punishing someone for a reflex action (so to speak). Our intellects being thusly satisfied, we can yank the cord on the guillotine.

The only other plausible argument for free will would be a mind that is truely separate from the body (might as well call it a soul) and thereby unaffected by the quirks & quarks of quantum mechanics, etc. At the risk of sounding like a materialist (I assure you I'm not), that too seems to fly in the face of Darwinian evolutionary theory. How is the soul an advantage for physical survival? Also, if the brain is a containor for concsiousness (rather than the generator of it) it certainly is a necessary containor, particularly with regards to cognition and intellect. If a decision is a thought, and thoughts come from the brain, whose matter is subject to random sub-atomic events, then at least the cognitive aspect of mind must be as well and there goes the possibility of free will again.

My apologies for any lack of coherence here, but this is exactly the kind of crazy that erupts in my head when I try to wrestle with free will as a concept. (And if it consigns this post to your Oblivion file, I understand) Usually, I wind up throwing up my hands and deciding that it's one of those things we were simply not meant (or configured?) to know, but hey, if anyone could shed some insight that might change my view, I figure you're the guy. I also apologize for waiting until I had an actual bone to pick to finally post - I love the blog and look forward to every Wednesday evening because of it.


Marinhomelander said...

You said "We convert qualities into quantities because quantities are easier for us to think with." I wondered where this might be reversed in the natural world where thinking is replaced with instinct.

Larger quantities of something , like say fruit in a tree, is good but that's not what I'm referring to. It is the lack of quantities, or a singularity, a one-off, that can, I believe, become a quality in evolution.

In a group of women, for example, the unusual looking woman with the extra high forehead, or oddly shaped face, often gets the most attention from men because of possible genetic diversity, and thus the singularity, or lack of quantity becomes a quality, for purposes of reproduction.

The Germans have a word for it "Markant"

Nano said...

I'll play devils advocate. Free from what?

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this essay. I was smiling and nodding and saying "yes!" with each paragraph. Thank you.

greener pastures said...

A morning walk around our homestead provides so many examples of evolution in progress every day. Those Japanese Beetles were really easy to sweep into the bucket but those potato beetles sure are fast. The Japanese Beetles survive by epic reproduction, the potato beetles by being clever.

On another evolutionary plane I am struck by how human interactions always devolves into into discussions of "us" vs. "them." I'm beginning to feel that the evolutionary traits that served us so well 8,000 years ago (when many of us lived in small social groups of a few dozen people) are now erecting insurmountable barriers to effective communication when we need it most.

Ray Wharton said...

Another thought, isn't it a running theme in the works of Plato that the folks of his day were quite apt to hold positions which contradicted themselves, and would even, from time to time, persist in doing so well after ol' So Crates spelled it out for them in terms that a uneducated slave could understand if he wanted to. More to the point is ideological consistency something that we are long evolved for; of course seeking ideological consistency is a useful habit for one who want to be able to use their ideas, for reason similar to why sharpening knives is useful to a butcher.

On a bit of a tangent I wanted to ask about two things. First, are you still chewing on the idea of a system's theory Tao Te Ching? I think that would be a hoot, and maybe very relevant to this post Platonic mind space you have been bringing into the discussions here more strongly recently. Second, can you give me any spoiler on the adult education theme that has been mentioned? I ask because current circumstances, personal, local, and global, conspire to make that topic much more immediately relevant with each week (at this point even to say day might not be too far a stretch).

Finally, I really appreciate your suggestion I try writing something one of these days, coming from a writer like your self it carries a lot of weight, meant alot really. Still, I got some inner glitches I haven't quite cornered. One of the reasons I have been at candidate grade in the AODA for so long has to do with a resistance to non impulsive writing that has many times sabotaged starting a druid journal. So a book or essay that isn't a lark or accident? Not yet. At least this moves me to redouble my efforts to find the root of this unusual issue; past efforts have only conclusively shown that it is something deeper than I can rationally dig out and its got a thick root.

ou are right about the world needing heroes, but I think it doesn't need daring heroes, but millions (we pray billions) of quiet heroes doing modest work for long, and here I am jabbering on the interwebs after a light day in the fields.

Marba Node said...

I usually don't even get to see the archdruid report until well after comments for the relevant essay is closed. In addition to getting to this essay on press day I am also quite pleased to see that this week your argument is quite similar to one I made some time ago.

The blog hasn't been updated for a while as I have to pay attention to more immediate matters (I do have a number of pieces stockpiled for it). I wasn't (still not) sure if I had anything useful to say but if am mining a similar vein as JMG (and others) here, the other essays may be of some interest.

P.S. About the TV thing; stopped watching it as a matter of circumstances the first time i lived on my own (just didn't have any). After a few years, I found myself at a place where it was available once again and after a week I realized how much nonsense the mainstream wisdom spouted. I've avoided it since. Give it half a year people, its like waking from a trance.

jean-vivien said...

This may be off-topic, but the Dow Jones lost more than 200 points in something like 24 hours. I always thought that DJ getting under 17 600 would publicly mark the next financial crisis. Not sure if anyone noticed, just in case, I don't live in the USA but it feels like the dung is hitting the fans right now, not just in fancy conspiracy theories.

Nathaniel Ott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Agent Provocateur said...


Though nature, and evolution in particular, may not be strictly deterministic, on aggregate in large number, things do tend to behave deterministically. In physics, given enough atoms of an unstable isotope, we can say with great certainty how many will degrade given a sufficiently large amount of time (and space).

In biology, we have the phenomena you alluded to of evolutionary convergence. Basically, if there is an appropriate unfilled environmental niche, some species is bound to evolve into it. We cannot say for certain that rabbits as such will evolve after the last major extinction, but we can be certain large eared hopping creatures will evolve into a previously open environment suited to them given enough time (and independent of each other) as has in fact happened.

Similarly, if there is a evolutionary advantage to be had in a species developing a certain attribute, we can be certain, given enough time, such will evolve if physically possible. Eyes exist (through many different evolutionary pathways) because electromagnetic forces exist and their behaviour offers an evolutionary advantage to a number of species.

Ultimately, such potentialities to exist become certainties to exist due to the sustained existence of the predictable fundamental behaviour of the universe i.e. the so called laws of nature. And yes, though “random” on a very small scale, these forces are extremely predictable and “deterministic” on a large scale of space and time.

So things may be “deterministic” to a high degree if the scale of time and space is large enough and yet still “random” in each particular of time and place.

Lets look at a specific example in human affairs. It was always certain one country in Europe would eventually default sometime after WWII. (No country ever pays down its national debt … thus default is certain unless national death precedes it.) Which one and when, and the proximate causes for it doing so, was initially up for grabs though. It was never certain Greece would be the first at the beginning, only as time progressed did it increasingly become obvious Greece would (likely) be the first.

So it is for the rest of the universe: “determined” and “random” co-exist on different scales of time and space. I'm guessing free will exists somewhere between these two extremes.

Incidentally, I think the difficulty in being able to distinguish between ultimate causes (deterministic but non-specific) and proximate causes (more random but at the same time much more specific to time and place) is the reason Ugo Bardi's last essay concerning Greece and resource limits ( does not appear to have been well received by its commentators.

beneaththesurface said...

Lots to contemplate in this post, but I will start off trying to relate some of it to something I personally have experienced all my life:

I have a condition called synesthesia (the mixing of senses), where I involuntarily perceive all language (words and letters), along with numbers, time units, and to some extent, sound, as having very specific shades of color, unrelated to their meaning. (I also have some other peculiar kinds of synesthesia too.) For example: I perceive "peak oil" as a brown-orange plus a creamy white. "John" is a silverish blue; "Michael" is a medium shade blue; "Greer" is a dark brown. "Evolution" is a lighter green; "coelacanth" is a yellow, but not as dark a yellow as "silverfish." (no, "silverfish" is not silver!) When I read or hear language, it is impossible for me not to experience color, though I can manage to focus less on it. It's still beyond me how someone can look at a printed page and only perceive black and white. I know that's most people's experience, but I have trouble imagining what that experience is like.

For most of my childhood, while I experienced all these colored perceptions, I didn't think about it and unconsciously assumed everyone else perceived language my way; that colors were intrinsic to letters of the alphabet as their shapes were. It wasn't until I was a high school senior and mentioned letter colors to others, who looked at me weirdly, that I learned, for example, "u" is not universally experienced as red by people. It was that year I learned there was a name for it -- synesthesia -- and there were neuroscientists that had recently begun to seriously study it. It was illuminating to me to realize that two English speakers of the same family looking at the same letter of the alphabet can perceive it differently.

Knowing the fact that a "u" is not universally red for everyone, does not make the perception of redness any less real for me. But it's similar to your example of the illusion of the bent stick when a straight stick is stuck at an angle in the water. I have matured from childhood, when I unconsciously thought the word "kaleidoscope" was inherently a peachy orange, to later, when I could acknowledge that "kaleidoscope" is perceived by my mind as peachy orange and not any objective truth. The stimulus of a printed or spoken word and the resulting perception is the same as it's always been, but my mental representations (an understanding of neuroscience and an awareness of other people's differing experiences) allow me to articulate the phenomena in a different way. I suppose these new mental representations have helped me become more free to acknowledge others' subjective experiences that differ from mine in lots of other areas of life.

I was going to say something further, but I'm forgetting what it was. The words -- and their colors -- may come back to me. : )

John Michael Greer said...

Amarnath, if only it were so simple...

Ecologist, you're welcome and thank you.

James, funny. As for the relation of body and soul, yes, coevolution is a good way to make sense of that; I should probably discuss that on the other blog.

Patricia, also funny! I've found that books on the social dynamics of baboons are a very good guide to Neopagan politics, for that matter.

Pinku-Sensei, "Wonderful Life" is one of my favorite books about evolution, precisely because it stresses the contingent, nondeterministic nature of the process.

John, thank you -- and good luck as well to you and your fishing buddies!

Degringolade, I won't argue -- but I'd point out that free will, like most other things, becomes more active and effective when it's exercised regularly.

Mr. G., well, that's certainly an important process, but no, it's not the thing I have in mind.

Ray, exactly -- to my mind philosophical idealism is a useful mental shortcut, a way of summing up the impact of a galaxy of influences on each organism, but not useful if it's taken too literally. There is no Big Abstract Eye of which every actual eye is a secondhand copy; there are limits, flows, functions, and processes in the cosmos that make any attempt to perceive using light converge on something more or less like an eye.

Andrew, your hormesis argument makes perfect sense, and is included in most versions of the theory of evolution I've encountered, so I'm not arguing.

Ray, another way to frame the same thing is that most of the things that social primates get up to are, in fact, facilitated by the mental structures social primates have evolved to get up to those things.

Repent, au contraire -- the occult scene and the New Age scene rubbed shoulders for many years. I never met Walsch, though I lived in the same town where he had his revelation; his ideas seem startling if you haven't read old New Age stuff from the 1950s and 1960s, when the New Age and the UFO scene had a lot of overlap. If it works for you, by all means.

N Montesano said...

A lot of what you write is over my head -- no philosopher nor scientist, I -- and thinking about the origins of the universe just makes my head hurt. But I like this post because it makes sense to me; that solid, satisfying thump of pieces fitting together perfectly. Apes with ape brains will naturally see the world like ... apes.
I wonder about the communicating with other species, though. Might it be done if we lost the hubris? My dogs and cats have certainly always been able to make themselves understood, though admittedly that's mostly limited to daily practical matters that can be clearly acted out: I want a walk, I want to go outside, I'm hungry, I want to snuggle, please help me catch this bird I have trapped ... hmm. I'm not sure how more abstract issues would be communicated. Something to think about.

streamfortyseven said...

You state: "If our minds have emerged out of the ordinary processes of evolution, what we’ve got between our ears is simply an unusually complex variation on the standard social primate brain, adapted over millions of years to the mental tasks that are important to social primates—that is, staying fed, attracting mates, competing for status, and staying out of the jaws of hungry leopards."

That statement makes the assumption that chemical interactions in the brain produce something which we call "mind", and that furthermore, "mind" is subject to certain hard-wired instincts arising from the process of natural selection in evolution. Take that view, and "free will" exists as only a very minor part of what goes on in "mind". That's the standard "scientific materialist" approach, and I'm not sure that I buy that.

East African grey parrots can learn to speak English, and converse with their human owners, to a limited extent. They can also exhibit telepathy, as Rupert Sheldrake has shown. In addition, a friend of mine's son owned such a parrot, and one day, when his son had been travelling around, hitchhiking, suddenly started saying "John's in trouble, John's in trouble." and "He's in a room, he's in a room, and he can't get out." Ten days later, my friend got a call from his son; he'd been locked up in a jail in a small town in Missouri, and he'd just been released. There was no way for the parrot to know this, and it suggests that "mind" is a non-local, non-biochemical phenomenon. It might be received and transmitted by the brain, but is not a product of the electrochemical interactions in the brain.

N Montesano said...

@ onething,
but how how would one know rocks don't have preferences? Plants communicate by giving off chemicals, and we can't sense that, either.

John Michael Greer said...

Onething, I tend to think that the universe can be trusted to do whatever uplifting is going to be done, outside of the one thing that's my responsibility to uplift, that is, myself. Still, dissensus governs here as elsewhere.

Aiastelamonides, I think it's entirely possible that there might be objective truths; being a finite, biological, limited being, I'll never know any of them, but I don't have adequate evidence to claim that they can't exist. No, I haven't read Dennett; I'll check him out one of these days.

Onething, other than the fact that I'm far from sure there are any nonliving things, I won't argue.

Richard B., you might want to read this post of mine, which among other things points out the flawed logic you're using in your comment.

Bruno, relief that I'd finally talked my wife into letting me take the thing from its place under the vacuum cleaner in the closet and get rid of it once and for all.

Mark, thank you! I think philosophy got out of the tomb where pedants tried to bury it a long time ago; it's just that way too many people have tried to pretend they didn't see it out there dancing naked in the sunlight.

Jasun, no, if I'd meant agency I'd have used that term. The logic you're using here is entirely circular: if human thought is entirely driven by unconscious factors, then human thought is entirely driven by unconscious factors. QED! If instead unconscious factors are not the only influence on human thought, and conscious thinking also plays a role, then your argument collapses: the fact that some human decisions are made unconsciously does nothing to prove that all decisions are made that way, nor does the fact that in some situations, the nervous system moves before consciousness does prove that consciousness has no role at all anywhere.

Yupped, I think we all have the potential for self-knowledge, but most of us never get around to exercising it.

Bruno, good -- that's a very important factor as well -- but no, it doesn't happen to be the one I plan on discussing next week.

Sima, that's really a subject for the other blog; I'll consider a post on the subject.

Steve, hmm. I'm not drawing the rigid binary distinction you seem to be reading into my post. I'm saying, rather, that either (a) all human thought and action is completely determined by factors not subject to conscious action or (b) some human thought and action is not so determined. If the latter, then the conscious activity of the mind can become one of the causative factors in human action. I know that's a very unpopular view just now, not least because -- as you've pointed out in a roundabout way -- the existence of free will means that individuals bear some responsibility for their actions, and a lot of individuals have good reason to want to deny any such responsibility just now! That's why I consider the denial of free will a poisonous ideology: however highflown the rhetoric, it works out in practice to an insistence that anything problematic with one's own choices are somebody else's problem, and not one's own.

John Michael Greer said...

Marin, oh, very likely, and in fact when human beings aren't primarily thinking -- as in, for example, when trying to attract mates -- they tend to focus on quality rather than quantity also. ;-)

Nano, hah! No, I know better than to play that game.

Unknown, you're most welcome.

Pastures, unfortunately, in a world of limited resources and far too many people, communication isn't all we need, and us vs. them thinking has definite pragmatic advantages, whatever its moral status.

Ray, yes, the systems theory Tao Te Ching has been on hold for a while for reasons of having to write things that'll pay the bills, but it's still going to happen; and as for writing, I'd encourage you to sit down with a notebook and a pen for fifteen minutes each day, every day, and don't let the pen stop moving. Even if all you can write is "This is so boring" over and over, keep writing. Within a fairly short time you'll figure out what's blocking you -- probably the very effective ways that public schools teach most kids to hate and fear writing, but it could be something else.

Marba, thanks for the link! As for TV, exactly: it's like getting sober after being continuously drunk for weeks on end. Once the hangover goes away, you're in a new and far more interesting world.

Jean-Vivien, and it's not the only market that's crashing. We'll see, but this could well mark the arrival of the era of impact I've been discussing for so long now.

Nathaniel, that's a very good point -- assigning the reason for an unwelcome event to some outside force is a great way to avoid taking responsibility for one's own choices.

Agent, good. As I noted a couple of times above, the existence of free will doesn't require that there be no determinism anywhere -- just that deterministic factors don't rule everything without exception. The difference between individual choices, which can be relatively free, and collective events, which seem to be more strictly determined the more people are involved in them, is a case in point.

Beneath, fascinating. To me, sounds have tangible though not visible shapes -- music in particular is partly a tactile experience, a sort of felt geometry with structures and textures that have strong emotional resonances -- so I get what you're saying.

N Montesano, oh, I think it would be possible to work out some kind of pragmatic human-porpoise pidgin, sufficient to say "please pass the fish" and "could you get that off the bottom of the bay for me?" The struggle to make sense of even the simplest abstractions would be tremendous, though it might pay off immensely in terms of improved self-knowledge for both species.

Stream, no, it doesn't actually require that. All it requires is that the material brain plays a role in the production of thought -- which we know anyway, because physical damage to the brain has demonstrable, predictable impacts on the capacity to think. If I may slip briefly into territory more appropriate for the other blog, I'd use the term "mind" for the composite produced by the presence, in a functioning brain, of another factor, for which we may as well use the ancient term "soul" -- and it's this latter that's spatially nonlocal. But that's relevant to the other blog, not this one.

Simon Toppin said...


Long time lurker, first time poster. Thanks for yet another articulate and incisive post on a complex problem.

As a recovering determinist, I retain a tendency to agree with Degrigolade's assertion that free-will seems to be something that comes and goes. While I agree that, Yes, it definitely does exist, it certainly doesn't seem to exist for everyone, and is further lacking in definition (as in, the visual kind) when observing the aggregate of humanity, and our seemingly hard-wired tendency towards hitting each other with sticks of the literal and metaphorical varieties.

Might free-will be, like quantum particles, changed via observation? Might that ability to observe and therefore exercise our own free-will only become possible through factors beyond the control of the subject?

Forgive my typically humanoid brain for being unable to see beyond the horizon of its regular programming, but I often feel that my own levels of free-will are highly contingent on any number of factors, both within and without of my control.

Declan said...

The discussion of free will made me think of the play 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead'

Says Guildenstern, groping at the notion that, rather than being a true human, he may just be a fictional character whose strings are being pulled by the author,

"Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are … condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one – that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it'll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so. Because if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we'd know that we were lost."

Tony f. whelKs said...

Good morning, JMG. Despite the small disclaimer in there, I think there's a fair bit of ovelap of subject matter between this and t'other blog. It certainly brought up some relevant resonances for me anyway.

To a large degree I kept on getting this feeling you were 'channeling' Douglas Adams to some degree - partly on the issues of language ('so long and thanks for all the fish') and also the role of randomness in creativity (the Improbability Drive, and also 'Holistic Navigation', of which more later.)

On language, I fully concur that humans do tend to privilege human intelligence and human language, and I've often wondered that many other species do have languages that not only (a) we can't understand, but (b) even if we could understand the language, we still couldn't keep up with the conversation. Or to look at it another way, ALL attempts made to establish linguistic communications with other species (cetaceans, other primates, and those parrots etc) have all revolved around teaching HUMAN language (whether vocal or signed) to the other species. Surely that would idicate a greater linguistic intelligence on the non-human side of the exchange?

A core concept in my self-identity as a human being is 'I am an evolved biological being' (using 'evolved' accurately, not as a synonym for 'elevated'). That tends to bias my reactions towards other biological beings - ie they are my equals, regardless of species, genus or class. It's an easy one to forget and I often have to keep piercing my humanistic hubris to remind myself every once in a while. No one is perfect, certainly no species ;-) Sure, I'm proud to be a primate, but that is not to denigrate psittaforms...

On randomness, especially the multi-dimensional coin toss as exemplified by divination methods, I find Douglas Adams' notion of 'Holistic Navigation' particularly useful. It is a way of busting fixed ideas and human categories of thought - Adams introduced it in his Dirk Gently novels, and it really struck a chord with me. Basically, it boils down to when you don't know where to go, JUST GO, and take random cues from your surroundings. You end up either in the right place anyway, or somewhere better that you hadn't even considered. It's a great way to explore new locations - for instance just jump on the nearest bus, pick a number and get off after that many stops. There will be something there to please you.... I know, weird, but it works. It's a principle I had actually discovered for myself, but hadn't realised. When I was a student I had arranged with a friend to go see a band - however, I didn't know the venue's name, or where the venue was... and my friend had already left before we could meet up. It was in a large city which I'd only been in for a few weeks.... Hopeless, right? Not at all, I set off towards the city centre anyway, hoping maybe I'd find a flyposter that hadn't been taken down by the council. Instead I was approached by a couple of young men who were looking for a pharmacy that would be open. As it happened I could help in that regard. As we chatted, it turned out they were roadies for the band I was looking for (the singer had a headache). Not only did I get to the venue, I got in to the gig for free. And THAT is holistic navigation at work.

Oh, dear I've rambled more than intended, so one final prediction - the biggest troll bait in this week's essay will be the bit about random events driving evolution ;-))

--... ...--

N Montesano said...

"The struggle to make sense of even the simplest abstractions would be tremendous, though it might pay off immensely in terms of improved self-knowledge for both species. "
Wouldn't that be a beautifully fascinating life's work?! With two intelligent beings working at the problem, trying to build up a vocabulary for the abstract, from the practical ... it would be profoundly amazing, I think.
Then again, porpoises might not see a point to talking to apes. Especially despoiling apes.

Thomas Daulton said...

Really deep and interesting column here this week, JMG! So humans turn to divination and prophesy, not to know the future, but to shatter determinism and thus _UN_-know the future. I bet a lot of your fellow heads of religious orders will be uncomfortable with that proposition!

Several people a few years back recommended David Graeber's book "Debt: the First 5,000 years" in this space. Graeber devotes a lot of very interesting discussion to the proposition that the invention of money (and debt denominated in numbers, as opposed to debts of honor or favors) follows this primate numerical process you suggest when you say that humans quantify things in a way that is not necessarily universal truth. Graeber has a great quote, I'm paraphrasing, where he says that during the process of barter, when you say that 1 Cow equals 25 Chickens but not 26 or 24, you are stripping both the cow and the chickens of their fundamental qualities which differ from each other, in a way that does ethical violence to both the cow, the chickens, and yourself.

Not apropos of this week's column, but very familiar: In this article, a music industry insider discusses the state of digital music, and his conclusions should be familiar to ADR readers. Paraphrasing, he says that the lords of the high-tech infrastructure do not have your interests at heart, and are heading towards an eventual implosion where too many people will try to take the money and run, leaving nothing for the little guy who produces product with his or her hard work. His conclusion, again paraphrasing: "Collapse now, and avoid the rush"!

streamfortyseven said...

You state: "divination does a really first-rate job of generating unpredictability. Flipping a coin does the same thing, and most people have confounded the determinists by doing just that on occasion, but fully developed divination systems like those just named provide a much richer palette of choices than the simple coin toss, and thus enable people to introduce a much richer range of novelty into their actions."

I don't think that people really use the I Ching to "introduce novelty" in the same way that people use coin tossing to decide binary outcomes - deciding between choice A or choice B. I'd say that most people using the I Ching are looking for meaningful coincidences - synchronicities - which describe their current situation and the possible outcomes of choices which might arise from decisions made and choices taken. It's more of a means to determine your present position in a decision space, and the probable outcome of your choices. It's why you're asked to meditate on the present situation and the choices which lie before you, and then to formulate a question - and then go through the mechanical process to get the two hexagrams, and then to find out the changes which arise, and their interpretations. It's a speculative, introspective process, not a concrete process like a simple coin toss. Coin tosses break ties, and are used to decide - randomly - between two choices, concrete and well-characterized; the use of the I Ching strikes me as altogether different sort of process, one involving the field of consciousness.

KL Cooke said...


"...a great many things—for example, the decay of radioactive nuclei—just up and happen randomly without being triggered by any specific cause at all."

That seems to set the Principle of Sufficient Reason back a bit.

"If you want to talk to a gray parrot, you’re trying to cross a much vaster evolutionary distance, since the ancestors of our therapsid forebears and the ancestors of the parrot’s archosaurian progenitors have been following divergent tracks since way back in the Paleozoic."

While we may have a problem crossing the distance into the parrot territory, some parrots appear to have made the crossing into ours. No doubt you are familiar with Alex and a few other somewhat less cognizant African Greys.

The question for me remains, is this really an open dialogue, or a sophisticated "Clever Hans" routine.

"...talking about divination..."

My experience with divination in such forms as the Tarot and the I Ching, is the reading is always sufficiently ambiguous that the seeker can impose his/her wishes upon the result. Thus, the oracle doesn't tell one what to do as much tell one what one wants to do. For good or ill. Remember Croesus and the Oracle at Delphi.

Somewhatstunned said...

Trivial but interesting side-point, JMG. Apparently, humans might have some ability to sense polarized light:

(doesn't affect main point of course)

Donal said...

Since we are discussing consciousness, languages and communication, this is a good place to recommend a book that has deepened my understanding of a collective consciousness. The book is The Secret Teachings of Plants in the Direct Perception of Nature, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. The first half of the book is some of the finest science writing I have ever had the pleasure of reading. He takes linear science to task, suggesting the non-linear, quantum vision is more useful. He discusses the scientific research that explores the connections between brain (logic) and heart (love). Awe inspiring information. He goes into great detail on the electrical communication between everything living, from cells to mammals to giant primeval forests. In the later part of the book he teaches how to listen to plants, to learn their wisdom (as shamans do). While the 70s book "The Secret Life of Plants" provides the what, Buhner's book tells the how. After reading "The Secret Teaching," I think you would be hard pressed to not understand that living things, all of them, is the real MasterMind. It is the Tao, Source, etc. Free will? Would that be someone who, having a broken connection with the universe, flicks a cigarette butt out the window, causing one of the raging forest fires that has made the skies here in British Columbia feel like doom?

Nathaniel Ott said...

I should probably add that while Free Will and randomness is probably the primary force behind most things, this isn't to say that there is no purpose or point to anything. Nor that there isn't some determinism and reason to and in the universe.

On a side note your recent posts on modern Atheist thoughts and ideas is pretty spot on, as is your previous mentionings of many modern Christian beliefs. The world would be a far simpler place if people wernt so rigid and "my way or the highway" about there beliefs.

As for myself, my current beliefs are something like a very loosly defined and fluid Agnostic/Deist/Animist hybrid. Much less confining than the Fundamentalist Christian beliefs of my childhood or the Agressive Atheist ones of some of my more recent years. Funny how similar these two ideologies really are, especially considering how much there acolytes hate eachother :)


Grahame said...

JMG, love your work and as my first comment after reading for a long time I would like to just say...


latefall said...

@JMG: Thanks a lot for the last three weeks' posts - I liked them (amended by discussion) very much but I haven't gotten through everything yet. I am thinking you'll find quite a bit of agreement/alignment in the quiet/sulking atheist corner, so I wanted to speak out on that behalf. Though I have to say it is a little hard to keep up these days. Impact indeed.

The Germans only have "markant" because of their nice neighbors. It belongs to the French (marquant,;s=2724061215;). It means something like "prominent" or "outstanding". However in this context I would say "significant" would also do the job perhaps?
The other thing is that _on average_ your argument would appear inconsistent with averageness/koinophilia (
However, when species bottleneck once in a while the (previous) average isn't really that important anymore. And it would make good evolutionary sense for individuals of a species to "develop a nose for bottlenecks"*.
@JMG: As for quantity over quality - that would depend on the reproductive details that need to be considered, no? E.g. gender, and position in pecking order one or two generations down (think: out of wedlock offspring).

Yeah, it sure smells like impact to me. But I am afraid this particular part of society has become to good at walling off reality. In my view markets are past the point where you would expect drastic actions to be taken by vested parties. They dropped the ball repeatedly, and now initiative is with the in/external prols. Damage mitigation strageties should move from walling off to channeling (unfortunately most likely at a high moral cost, not to speak of opportunities or lives lost). The markets make me cringe but they are a symptom.
What makes me sigh (on more than one level) are the newborns.
And the policy & narrative side.
To illustrate: I've recently had occasion to chat a little with a relatively fresh infantry recruit. We came upon the "vigipirate" patrols, where green military personal is conducting (or rather pretending to conduct) police duties. What am I supposed to think when I see such rookies in busy downtown places and crowded public transport walking/shoving around with assault rifles? Not enough collateral? Do they expect human wave attacks of terrorists or what?
But what really makes me sigh is that they are not patrolling their ammo depots. Another one just got robbed with C4 and 40 grenades missing in Miramas while the kids were patrolling downtown Marseille. I'd really appreciate if someone could go over the inventory of tactical nukes just next door in Istres. I say that because losing things that you really don't want to lose is not really a novelty around here:
Security in general is a sad joke here. At the last (Hollande) "lockdown" with approximately 3000 (visible) officers. I would have been able to penetrate on 2 occasions and 2 more with minimal preparation, with no more motivation than being put off by the show and being challenged for no good reason at all.
I was not challenged again when I monkeyed around on the perimeter for hours on end. They did not even take my complaint when I offered an assessment once the pres was off again.
When you are heading for the wall - it is the inertia (complacency) that does most of the killing.

*I wonder if they would share other traits as well, and how they would map onto this crowd here.

Marc L Bernstein said...

On the subject of determinism, Stephen Hawking noted that those who claim to regard the universe as deterministic still look both ways before they cross a highway.

This is a particular case of a general principle :

What people actually believe is often better determined by what they do, and the assumptions that underlie their choices of action, than it is by what they say they believe.

On the other hand, sometimes it is not made clear what people believe by observing their actions alone. In such cases we have nothing better than to take them at their word and use their stated beliefs as their actual beliefs.

On the subject of self-consistent belief systems, it seems to me that many people really don't care whether or not their collection of stated beliefs is logically consistent. They only care whether or not they are functioning adequately within the social milieu within which they find themselves. The abstract notion of logical consistency is only familiar to them if the inferences under consideration are simple and obvious.

For example, I know a lady who is a fundamentalist Christian and who is politically conservative. As a general rule she is averse to inferential reasoning, and prefers dogma and references to supposed authorities in place of engaging in critical thinking. This lady has even made it clear that referencing scientifically informative material on the internet is taboo, presumably because it might threaten her belief systems.

Being around persons like this is even worse than watching television, by the way. At least in the case of television, a mute button is often available.

SMJ said...

"Aside from whatever else may be involved - a point that isn't relevant to this blog - divination does a really first-rate job of generating unpredictability." Will you be discussing whatever else may be involved on the other blog?


Lou Nelms said...

Your words bring a few thoughts to reemerge:

1. Species do not evolve toward an end point. This is the most subversive concept of evolution which many people, including many of those who believe in evolution, can not or will not grasp.
2. Randomness contributed to the survival of our hunting/gathering ancestors. Divination facilitated the functioning of randomness, reducing set patterns and overthinking by man which tip prey off to our habits. As a deer hunter I have frequently found that the first time I hunted a spot provided the highest probability of returns. Or at least set me up for a kill on a subsequent hunt.
3. As Loren Eiseley communicated, man is trapped in a cosmic prison. How do we escape from the human box to see the world as other species see it? To think without words? To think in memories of landscapes? We do have the tool of deep time perception -- a gift of science. From that we can derive reverence and humility. And a better chance of seeing ourselves from outside the box.

John, Thank you for communicating your wise words.

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All

Some comments have touched on this already I guess, but we are tasked by circumstance (call it evolution) to survive also within our heads, and given our head to body ratio and other human exaggerations, this is not so easy. And human social bonds have their own idiosyncrasies not shared with our primate template. (See an item a few weeks back on bonding shared with the domestic dog, but not with our close relatives. Smile.)

I have been ‘saved’ on occasion. I remember one such; ‘saved by Berlioz’. Looking back I had the luck on other occasions that a fairly innocent ‘scruple’ (in one case the wish to protect somebody) saved me from taking a memory and turning it into an ongoing propagating disaster. Win some, lose some, of course.

Remembering at a tangent and as you say a subject more for the other blog; I remember a forlorn soul (perhaps using your definition), a small Gray Parrot. She was deprived of her usual loving bonds – a disaster I understand for Gray Parrots – but, I hazarded a guess, she might be saved by the unknown Forest of her imagination, however distant to her exile: an assurance of friendship, of true mind.

Phil H

nuku said...

@richard b
Regarding your assertion that every man-made object is proceeded by its idea:
I would beg to differ. In many acts of human creation, especailly artistic, there is an element of “play” or “discovery” involved. Thinking of sculpture, for example, I’ve carved things from a piece of wood with no clear idea to begin with of what the final object would be. During the process of carving, I was in part guided by the wood itself, its hardness, grain, color which suggested shapes and texture.
I agree that in the case of man-made machines which have a particular specific purpose, there is often a preceeding idea, but even then the initial idea may not closely resemble the final object.

Dagnarus said...

I have a number of thoughts here. First as to contradictory believes, to be a broken record, logic is NP-hard. My suspicion is that in evolutionary terms it is more efficient for people to be capable of holding contradictory worldviews (especially if both have been shown to be somewhat beneficial) in their head at the same time and then have contradictions dealt with on an ad hoc basis, rather than requiring that people to fully vet all there beliefs, which would likely be impossible. Also it seems likely that in order to keep a useful fully contradiction free worldview, it would probably require to much detail to be wieldly.

Second when you mentioned how radioactive decay had been conclusively shown to be random (as opposed to it apparently being random based upon current knowledge). I looked that up. I came across this from an interview with John Bell who came up with Bell's theorem which showed there were no hidden variables.


I was going to ask whether it is still possible to maintain, in the light of experimental experience, the idea of a deterministic universe?

You know, one of the ways of understanding this business is to say that the world is super-deterministic. That not only is inanimate nature deterministic, but we, the experimenters who imagine we can choose to do one experiment rather than another, are also determined. If so, the difficulty which this experimental result creates disappears.

Free will is an illusion - that gets us out of the crisis, does it?

That's correct. In the analysis it is assumed that free will is genuine, and as a result of that one finds that the intervention of the experimenter at one point has to have consequences at a remote point, in a way that influences restricted by the finite velocity of light would not permit. If the experimenter is not free to make this intervention, if that also is determined in advance, the difficulty disappears.

(The Ghost in the Atom, P.C.W. Davies and J. Brown, ch.3, p.47)


It seems that the prove that the proof of randomness in nature was contingent on the assumption that the human's had free will. I fully admit that I am in no way an expert on this, having only looked it up today. As an aside it occurred to me that possibly there could be some link between this and some of your earlier posts about magic. I.E. based upon the quantum mechanics experiments, if we assume that "inanimate nature" is absent of will we must assume that we are also. In somewhat the same way when "black magic"/"propaganda" is used to attempt to manipulate/subvert the will of others it tends to also subvert the will of those using it as well. Just throwing that idea out there.

Thirdly you define free will as the ability to do things which can't be predicted. This seems questionable to me. For example if I were to hook up a robot to a true random number generator (you can get ones based on radioactive decay and other random effects) then you could get the robot to behave in unpredictable ways. In theory the way the robot behaves would not necessarily need to be trivial either. I believe I mentioned in a comment for last post how a researcher was able to use an evolutionary algorithm (which of course uses randomness, although I suspect he would have used pseudorandom numbers) to evolve an electrical circuit for performing voice recognition, which he himself had absolutely no idea how worked and thus could not have predicted. I personally would hesitate to apply free will to such a process, would you?

Fourthly, as just touched upon, distributed algorithms described last week also rely upon using randomness to a certain degree in there decision making processes. Make of that what you will.

magicalthyme said...

I've lived with my dog Jake for 10 1/2 years. If I say the sentence, "Jake, will you go get Luna's frisbee?" he will turn back into the lake and, if he heard it splash while he was swimming for his own frisbee, will swim directly out to Luna's frisbee and bring it back. If the sound of Luna's frisbee splashing into the water was obscured by, say, the sound of a boat passing by, he will scan the lake and if he can't see it, start swimming around randomly, looking for it. I can then point in the general direction or throw a rock toward it. He will swim in that general direction until he finds the frisbee. (Luna is the "amateur" frisbee chaser who half the time goes for it and the other half gets distracted and does something other than retrieve it.) I can ask many other, more random, actions of Jake and he will immediately do them. (Other than "come" or "come here," in which case if I'm lucky he'll look my way and then go back to what he's doing, lol. Or if I'm not, he'll look my way, and turn and walk away!)

I can't understand a single thing Jake's bark means, beyond "something" has raised his alarm system. I find my inability to learn his language an embarassment.

Alex, the famous African Grey parrot, not only learned thousands of words, he could identify objects, colors, and materials. He learned rudimentary grammar, speaking in "pidgin" English. He named items; my favorite was "rock cracker" for brazil nut. He understood abstract concepts such as time. I vaguely remember reading his last conversation was when he asked Dr. Pepperdine if she would be there (at the lab where he lived) the next day. She replied that yes, she would be in the next day. And then, "I love you." And she replied, "I love you too, Alex." The next morning he was found dead.

And yet supposedly superior humans have yet to be able to really understand or speak any African Grey language.

I've read that given the opportunity, chimpanzees have learned to type. And yes, in some cases plea that their captors not hurt them again.

How much chimpanzee have we humans learned to understand?

Bill Blondeau said...

When I was in college I was, one morning in a restaurant, severely scorned by a friend when I mentioned that I felt that, yes, there was such a thing as free will.

It wasn't just the kind of scholarly mutual derision that students exhibit when learning how to debate a point. It was something altogether more serious. His face curled into a grin of hostile contempt, and I honestly thought he might hit me. "I can't believe you think that," he snarled. His lips were actually quivering with indignation. I was nonplussed; but he was a Philosophy major, and I merely an undeclared leaning towards History and Physics. What did I know? I let the matter drop.

Some time later I found out that this friend had a drinking problem that he couldn't deal with. I think I drew the correct conclusions, and formulated a handy heuristic on the strength of those.

Occam's Drinking Problem: When presented with an argument or explanation, take account of the explainer's deep fears before proceeding to a substantive consideration.

This is only a working process, not a fundamental principle. But it's saved me a lot of time, over the years.

The present point, though, is: JMG, you mentioned people who want to rant at you about the self-evident nonexistence of free will. I wonder how many of them simply can't tolerate aspects of their own character or psychology, if the existence of free will is granted?

AlaBikeDr said...

The importance of Darwin is the dagger in the heart of human importance. It is a BIG loss to lose a destiny. We all have a future but to lose a universe that cares about us is a big blow. Nietzsche may have tried to fix it but it's not obvious to me that modernism is anything but explosively destructive. As more of a Stoic I see practicing Christians that don't realize their beliefs are a cover for what looks to me like Epicureanism. But I am older and youth needs a vision. A future defined by its limits is probably accurate but there is a great deal of hubris in trying to get young people to lie down in the Procrustean bed we have made for them.

donalfagan said...

A few hours before you posted I read this Discover article, which says we can perceive polarized light with something called Haidinger's Brushes, but we usually don't realize that we can:

I just finished watching First Peoples, on PBS, a series about homo sapiens both breeding with and outcompeting our Neanderthal and Denisovan relations, perhaps even Erectus. I had to laugh though at the uplifting ending, which proclaims, 'we won the game ... there are seven billion of us now.' Thanks, big brain.

In Baltimore fallout from the Freddie Gray riot continues as the mayor just fired the police commissioner. One of the contributing factors was an OpEd by a fellow who had his bike taken by a group of what we used to call young toughs but now call thugs. He called 911, got nowhere, walked to the nearest police station, was told they were closed, tried to report a crime, was told he was in the wrong jurisdiction, then was taken to another station that really was closed. The now-fired commish had to promise to keep the stations open 24x7 because we're not exactly in Mayberry here.

I recently toured a police station that we may be renovating. This place was even worse than The Wire. While the city is funding multimillion dollar youth prisons, the police have to look to local business donations to get basic repairs going.

Andrew at Topos said...

JMG, Not to open another can of worms here, but your essay splashed into an issue that has long perplexed me. I'm in agreement with your general free will within the monkey brain portrayal of our ad hoc intelligence. What I see is that many individuals are able to carve out tremendous (though not infinite) latitude from within that brain. This can give one tremendous hope that our species is capable of true innovation, creativity and even a transcendence from the evolutionary baggage we carry. On the other hand, group people together and a reversion to the social monkey mean quickly asserts itself. This can fill one with tremendous hopelessness as we see our society and species stumbling blindly into open pits like climate change, overpopulation and capitalism - evincing no more "intelligence" than a species of toxic lichen.

My question to you is whether you would chide me for being too hopeful about the capacity of an individual human being to truly extend the capacity of the monkey brain - through will, training, philosophy or whatever. Whether you would chide me for begin too hopeless about groups of humans being able to exhibit any hint of escape from our primitive chordate brain-baggage (short of an evolutionary stumble forward, of course). Or whether you see the this dichotomizing as mistaken at some fundamental level.

Brian said...

This was an excellent distillation of many common-sense but usually willfully ignored points that are important to permit clear thinking. And a wonderful, concise definition of language. Very well done, JMG. That's why I keep reading you.

And thanks for repeating the simple fact that we are a development of the primate family tree, our cultures are developments of primate cultures, our morals of primate morals; whenever I'm most discouraged by some particularly idiotic action of our species, I try to remind myself that, hey, we don't blame a chimp for violently reacting to a strange chimp encroaching on his territory. Frans de Waal taught me that much of what we call reason and culture is actually instinct, which we then rationalize. However, we are the species that tells itself we are not animals, we are moral, and we have minds, so we are not absolved from the responsibility of restraining our violent instincts in inappropriate situations! And here come the complications....

Ben Iscatus said...

JMG, you say quite rightly that people hold mutually conflicting beliefs. So how would an archdruid reconcile belief in an immortal soul with his belief that the human mind is the result of nothing more than favourable random mutations?

pintada said...

The logic of the post can be extended to the universe in regards to the Drake Equation quite well in my opinion. What JMG said above apparently never occurred to Dr. Drake. So Dr. Drake didn't realize that all the other variables in his equation are rendered moot when one realizes that any creature that evolves from any ecosystem will be very well adapted to that environment and very poorly adapted to civilization however it is defined and developed by that creature.

Actually, the idea that there are intelligent aliens that have or may visit the Earth is just an extension of the myth that humans are somehow special. "If no other species could develop space flight, then maybe humanity has limitations." - or the same thought different spin - "Since humanity has no limitations, there must be intelligent species in the Universe that have no limitations."

George Keller Hart said...

Reg Morrison's wonderful book, The Spirit in the Gene

Relevant to this post.

Unknown said...

It's so difficult to think clearly about non-human, and especially non-mammalian, intelligence. It's easy to project primate/human emotions and motivations. On the other hand, and in keeping with the idea of parallel functions evolving through differing structures, the regime of survival and reproduction in a world governed by the laws of thermodynamics sort of guarantees certain similarities. I'm reminded of Gregory Bateson's tautology: "That which persists, persists."

Then again, as King James has it:

"For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity"

best wishes


escapefromwisconsin said...

Much of the “progress" suggested by cornucopians is dependent upon humans somehow being able to renounce the social instincts that have developed over millions of years. We could be far more technologically advanced *right now* if we did not have an economic system based around individual wealth accumulation and economic feudalism. Yet as economists to the right of the spectrum consistently assure us, this is just the natural outcome of human nature. I advise people to look at footage of the floor of any trading pit to see exactly how “logical” and “rational” the Market is. And this is the thing that holds the global economy together.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about how our ability to create abstractions has made us the dominant speies on the planet:

We control the world basically because we are the only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers. And if you examine any large-scale human cooperation, you will always find that it is based on some fiction like the nation, like money, like human rights. These are all things that do not exist objectively, but they exist only in the stories that we tell and that we spread around. This is something very unique to us, perhaps the most unique feature of our species.

You can never, for example, convince a chimpanzee to do something for you by promising that, "Look, after you die, you will go to chimpanzee heaven and there you will receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds here on earth, so now do what I tell you to do." But humans do believe such stories and this is the basic reason why we control the world whereas chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

Unfortunately, abstractions like The Market, Growth, Innovation, Progress and Truth are also the reasons we kill one another and despoil our own habitat. This article from Aeon is relevant: Was human evolution inevitable?

But perhaps the evolution of intelligent primates was itself a fluke. Intelligence doesn’t seem to be a ‘good idea’ that evolution produces over and over again, at least not the way the eye is. The late evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr once pointed out that of the (approximately) 30 known phyla of animals, intelligence evolved only once (in the chordates) – and within the thousands of subdivisions of chordates, high intelligence is found only in primates, ‘and even there only in one small subdivision’, as Mayr put it. Mayr was willing to grant the possibility of a lesser degree of intelligence to cephalopods, and today some researchers would add dolphins and corvids to the list – but he’s right to cast our linguistic, symbol-using species as an oddity.

It’s also worth noting that the species we share the most in common with is not primates – it’s ants (massive hives, complex social organization, agriculture, use of animals, large-scale war, etc.)

Isaac Hill said...

This is a fine blog post, Archdruid, though all of them are, but I especially like how the territory that is being explored here has brought up a lot of ideas that are "relevant to the other blog." That in-between-land is most interesting to me, for what it's worth. There are many lines of flight that can be followed, but I would like to depart from

"I’ve long suspected that one of the reasons why human beings haven’t yet figured out how to carry on a conversation with bottlenosed porpoises, African gray parrots, et al. in their own language is quite simply that we’re terrified of what they might say to us—not least because it’s entirely possible that they’d be right. Another reason for the lack of communication, though, leads straight back to the limits of human intelligence."

- of course one can communicate with any living being, because intelligence is an emergent property of life! There are some great books on communicating with plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner (another excellent writer with three names) and he says that the way to do this is to leave the brain-mind behind for a bit and follow the golden thread of the heart, feeling, to meet the other being in that non-localized place that language cannot enter. It is relevant that the heart and the gut have neurons and are centers of consciousness as much as the brain is! So in the Western way we are schooled into only using a fraction of our perceptive abilities, which helps create the world we live in (which in turn limits our perceptive abilities and so on) thinking that we are free, but not knowing what that means exorcising whatever free will is left. So if "free will" is a muscle to be exercised, is it just random how much (or how strong) it is naturally in any person? I was lucky in that I was home(un)schooled for my formative years, I was allowed to run out in the woods for hours, I could play music whenever I wanted to, I could develop certain muscles that were atrophied in the kids I joined in High School... which almost destroyed them. But I don't remember choosing to be born into such a life, and if cause and effect are simplistic explanations for the behavior of the universe, how much does pure dumb luck have to do with it? It seems as if "free will" is only a small part of how things go... the tree grows towards the sun, but the shade of other trees dictate what area of space is open to grow branches into, the ash seedling that sprouts on the side of the road grows just far enough to be cut down or sprayed by government workers, as it's parent dies of emerald ash borer. But it's sibling, off by the hedge, carries genes that resist the borer, and the owner of the property is busy, and cuts less of the grass... it grows.

Nathaniel said...

I've seen many people (mostly academics) get bogged down in the determinism versus randomness issue, when a third consideration resolves the apparent conflict. Given that we exist within a complex universe (and I use that term in a technical sense: the state of the system at time=N for a sufficiently large N is so sensitive to arbitrarily small changes in starting conditions such that unperceivably small changes in the state of the system at time=0 will result wildly varying states at time=N), both determinism and randomness degenerate to unpredictability.

Said in another way, determinism in a system that is unknowably complex and subtle will be totally indistinguishable from a random system: both exhibit unpredictability that is beyond precise analysis.

Fortunately, both types of modeled unpredictability can and often do exhibit recurring probabilistic patterns - a great example of this is weather versus seasons. I have no idea if it will be cloudy in ten days time, but I know it's likely to be hot and there is almost zero chance of snow.

I imagine this same type of pattern recurrence underpins social and historical trends; i.e. "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes," which seems to me another way of saying the particular events of this moment (weather) are unpredictable but general patterns of human group behavior (seasons) are highly regular.

escapefromwisconsin said...

John Gray's "The Silence of the Animals" covers some of the same ideas;

“Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals. At the same time they never cease trying to escape from what they imagine themselves to be. Their religions are attempts to be rid of a freedom they have never possessed. In the twentieth century, the utopias of Right and Left served the same function. Today, when politics is unconvincing even as entertainment, science has taken on the role of mankind's deliverer.”

hapibeli said...

" In our number-using minds, yes; in the real world, it depends entirely on the size and condition of the apples in question. We convert qualities into quantities because quantities are easier for us to think with. "

Therefore, our species needs "more" than we can use? Which leads to the destruction of the environment?

Dude, you don't want me to say it, but "brilliant"!

Dana Lundin said...

To your point about the conversation we might be able to have with animals:

Renovator said...

I have always been fascinated with the connection between identity and belief. How one impacts the other. Often, when you criticize someone's belief on a given topic, they can feel you are attacking their very identity. This can lead to unpredictable results in the individual's reactions.

Milton Rokeach's "The Three Christ's of Ypsilanti" is a good example of this phenomenon.

Also, as individuals, we often feel we are solely responsible for shaping our identity, but in reality, any one individual's identity is a result of multiple societal/cultural inputs that are often so transparent to the individual, they don't realize the impact these influences have on forming identity. In other words, no man is an island. It all comes down to connections, as you've talked about in much of your previous writing.

I often keep this in mind when talking to or listening to people's viewpoints. Someone spouting claims in which they fail to see any other options, often have the least clue as to the influences leading to the opinions they spout about the beliefs they hold.

Humans are very interesting, but very frustrating as well.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

"They’re not caused by some hidden variable; they just happen when they happen, by chance."

And only then when some sentience looks to see, it seems. Though I agree that's still a contentious idea. But what else can you conclude when you look deeply enough into quantum physics; particularly the good ol' double-slit experiment, massively replicated as it has been, with some very sophisticated tweaks recently, and always producing those 'impossible' - but constantly confirmed - results.

May I once again make a modest suggestion that people interested in a modern resolution of that intractable problem in physics, now nearly a century old - and also the intractable problem of the constant speed of light (within Rupert Sheldrake's recently-announced cyclical variations), despite the widely-varying relative speeds of the emitter and the receiver; and also the really intractable 'Hard Problem' itself - should take a look at physicist/mathematician/veteran-mystic Tom Campbell's new Theory Of Everything, "My Big TOE".

The presentation at Calgary University, available on YouTube (warning: around fifteen hours long in total!) is a pretty good entry point. Though those without steadfast open-minded scepticism (BOTH those things!) are advised not to bother, till you acquire them both.

A game changer. Probably a paradigm-shifter, destined to be up there with Galileo's, Newton's and Darwin's, I suspect. Tom has - erm - one or two arresting things to say about the fundamental nature of consciousness. :)

Rune said...

As someone that work with the decay or destruction of atoms as a career I wanted to provide an analogy on radioactive decay.

Imagine sitting in space with an asteroid belt rushing by in front of you. You have a bottle and throw it into the asteroid field where after some distance it hits a large rock and disintegrates (or decays in radioactive terms). How far the bottle travels into the field is to our mind random, far too many variables for a human to account for. If I throw a thousand bottles into the asteroid field and record how long they last I can make a statistical model, i.e. a half-life, that will provide me useful information about the situation I am observing. We could with fancy computers model all this, since asteroids and bottles are within our understanding. However if you replace the asteroids with things like neutrinos which we can’t reliably detect or understand well, then it becomes random again to even the fancy computers.

In line with you analysis of the limitation of the human mind we may not even be able to grasp the fundamental forces that cause radioactive decay or govern the quantum mechanics world, it may a question without an answer for humans. Those in the deterministic camp can believe it is not random but when you can’t know what is the difference between a world we don’t understand that is governed by rigid rule we don’t know and randomness/free will, not much.

Human being could do well to spend less time trying to figure out questions that don’t have answers and focusing on the real world, let the universe be mysterious.

Justin W. McCarthy said...

Jasun and JMG,
"Even if we allow that our actions are determined by conscious thinking processes (a fact seemingly refuted by experiments that show - or "show" - that the brain sends signals to our hand to move before we register a conscious thinking "decision" to do so)"

I think these experiments are interesting for a very subtle reason related to a point that JMG made in the post. We have a concept of time and a flow, but that is just a projection. As JMG pointed out, cause and effect are a projection layered atop this, but cause and effect are also not borne out by experimental results.

What I am suggesting is that it could both be true that the brain sends signals before we register the conscious decision, but the conscious decision could be manifesting those signals once you relax or get away from our constructed view of time before and after. Not sure that before and after, linear time, really has any basis outside of our neurology. These experiments would seem to suggest it does not, and also implies there is some basis to external foresight as well, where we predict or see events before they happen. Lots of people over time have credibly claimed to be able to do this in things like dreams or visions. (And many more have proven not to be able to in money or follower making delusion.)


Steve Thomas said...

Thanks for this post JMG. The recent discussions here have been fascinating.

Oddly, I was having a conversation on just this topic the other day. A family member was telling me how she (a devout Catholic) had been on a date with a man who revealed his contempt for religion and his belief in "science." I commented that it makes no sense to simultaneously believe that 1. The human mind is identical with the brain, an instrument that is designed by evolution to help social primates navigate life on the African savannah and 2. The human mind, or, rather, some human minds (i.e. those of college professors and popular science writers in the modern West), are currently in possession of a near-perfect understanding of the real nature of the universe.

It's especially bizarre to believe these things, which already contradict one another absolutely, simultaneously with 3. Free will does not exist and consciousness is an illusion, which means that the near perfect knowledge of the universe that some human minds currently have is a coincidence of unimaginable odds but that nevertheless 4. All other human minds, that is, brains, must be made to accept the near-perfect understanding of the real nature of the universe that college professors and popular science writers have, even though, lacking free will, they can't actually do this and, since consciousness is an illusion, their internal beliefs about the nature of the universe mean nothing anyway.

The thing is... All of this stuff really seems to be the consensus view. And it really doesn't seem to make any sense. Honestly, I find thinking about it to be frightening and anxiety-provoking. These ideas, which one hears repeatedly endlessly among the intellectual classes so that they become the sea in which we all swim, are so absurd they don't even rise to the level of lies.

When I was a somewhat younger, this all seemed rather exciting. The idea of being the hero in the story of the Man Who Found Out, the lone genius standing against an evil empire, seemed very exciting. A bit of real life experience changes that. In the story, the lone hero might struggle a bit but he usually wins in the end-- the crowd realizes that the emperor is naked, Luke blows up the Death Star. In real life, it seems that the "lone hero" can look forward to a great deal of loneliness, ostracism, paranoia and questioning his own sanity-- a question often answerable in the negative. It's as if the crowd, upon being told that the emperor is naked, erupts into laughter at the stupidity of that idea while the emperor, laughing the loudest, bans any suggestion that his exposed flesh is evidence of nudity.

Of course, part of the problem is that, in real life, Rebel Heroes and Luke Skywalker equivalents often grow up to be Darth Vader's themselves. So the question becomes-- How to live under a delusional cultural regime, without following into the equal and opposite delusion of the would-be rebel savior?

I think I'm rambling so I will stop now. I'm not sure I've gotten my point across but it's something like, How do you live in crazy times without going crazy yourself?

Steve Thomas said...

I wanted to add a couple of other thoughts which haven't cohered yet but which might be relevant...

1. It seems that many, or most, or all of us in contemporary society hold beliefs and positions that don't actually fit together for any rational reason. For example, if you know someone is a supporter of the Teachers' Union, you can probably guess their positions on gun control, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, and the Environmental Protection Agency, even though these things have very little to do with one another. It seems more that people believe the things that People Like Us believe.

2. It becomes kind of awkward when someone thinks that you're People Like Us and expects you to agree with them. I've noticed that people can be almost unbelievably unself aware when it comes to this kind of thing. For example, I have a friend who is very much a member of the Educated Liberals tribe, and he loves talking down on members of the Enemy Tribe. When someone drives past in a pickup truck (the sort of thing members of the enemy tribe drive), he's fond of saying things like "Nice truck, sorry about the tiny penis." Meanwhile, he has spent his whole life playing in rock bands. I have never known a single male rock musician that did not treat their guitar as "natural male enhancement," in the exact same way that the prototypical "redneck" treats his truck. My friend is an extremely decent human being on a personal level, and I'm always surprised at his blindness in this area.

3. This sort of unselfawareness and tribalism seems to be the general rule in our society-- maybe in every society?-- so it's not surprising that members of the Science Tribe fall prey to it. It is somewhat surprising that they're not able to see it. Also, I believe that, to the (admittedly limited) extent to which I've been able to overcome this sort of thing, it's due entirely to the fact that I make a daily practice of self-examination and discursive meditation, and I at least try to make a habit of practicing ternary thinking. This may provide an answer to the question at the end of my last post, but I'm certainly not holding myself up as a model!

4. On that last note, I've found that ternary thinking is incredibly difficult, for at least two reasons. The first is that, for every issue, People Like Us have one opinion and People Like Them have the opposite opinion, and it's very hard for People Like Us to imagine that you don't agree with Us without being People Like Them. And you don't want to be People Like Them, do you? The second reason is that, once I look at a binary and decide that People Like Us are wrong, I naturally want to go and join People Like Them, even though I think that People Like Them are wrong too. It's like a constant balancing act.

5. The experiments that I've heard of that purport to show that "Free will doesn't exist" don't really seem to show anything of the kind. In the most famous, the subject is asked to raise a finger when he feels the urge to do so. A machine then records when the electrical impulse travels from his brain to the nerves in his finger. Supposedly, the fact that this appears to occur before the subject reports "feeling the urge" somehow shows that there is no such thing as an intentional action of any kind, ever.

6. Finally, I just looked at Sam Harris's website to see what else I could find out on the "free will" subject. One of the jacket blurbs on his book on the topic reads: "Free will is an illusion so convincing that people simply refuse to believe that we don’t have it." I really think that says it all.

David James Peterson said...

I just saw a Quicken loan commercial (link below), which connects to the people on TV trying to convince other people to buy things part of this weeks article. It reeked of a general lack on confidence in the economy.

The commercial went something like this. The Jones just bought this house. It was a scary day. They got a thirty year mortgage. They must have been pretty confident in themselves. (subtext, if you are confident and believe in yourself then you should get a 30 year Quicken mortgage). It is a bit scary that people are having to be convinced that 30 year mortgages are something that cool and confident people do.

Quicken followed it up with another commercial where they say that, 'American history is about doing bold and scary things. Crossing the Ocean, walking on the Moon, ...signing a thirty year mortgage'. If I'd been drinking something it would have been all over my keyboard when I heard that.

Here are the videos:

tejanojim said...

To be able to speak to dolphins, has anyone ever hired a family with infants/toddlers to live near and have daily swimming interactions with a school of dolphins? I suspect the children would learn to interpret dolphin speech at about the same rate they learn their parents human language(s). Then when the children are old enough, they can serve as interpreters.

Nancy Sutton said...

Just have to throw this in... for whatever... don't have the citation, but from the source, I believe there is one :)

"Did you know that 98% of 3 year olds, when tested at brainstorming ideas, register as ‘creative geniuses?’
By age 25, that number is 2%."

sgage said...

@ N Montesano,

"Wouldn't that be a beautifully fascinating life's work?! With two intelligent beings working at the problem, trying to build up a vocabulary for the abstract, from the practical ... it would be profoundly amazing, I think. "

Anyone who is interesting in human/dolphin communication really ought to look into the work of John C. Lily. He gave it a really good try...

Justin W. McCarthy said...

Quick follow up on time and matter that you or others may find interesting.

Awhile back, I came across a branch of something called process physics. A Dr. Reginald Flinders of Cahill University published a few papers available on the internet wherein he demonstrates both time and space may be two different conceptual models of a single underlying reality. In other words, time and space are not objective realities that we experience as such, they are two subjective experiential realities. Time and space are two different interpretations of a singular reality we exist in.

The theoretical basis of this idea was also interesting, Flinders used a neural network that was tasked with trying to predict a recursive function, that is a function that uses its outputs as the next iteration of inputs, that also builds in random noise. What he found is that the network was able to predict the reality of this function by essentially creating two different models of linear (time) and multi-variable (spatial) search space. The other interesting aspect to this is that Flinders' results were unexpected, he was not trying to model reality, just seeing what would come of modeling an organized noise machine using a neural network and found time and space.

onething said...

Jasun said,

"Even if we allow that our actions are determined by conscious thinking processes (a fact seemingly refuted by experiments that show - or "show" - that the brain sends signals to our hand to move before we register a conscious thinking "decision" to do so),.."

I don't see a problem with this. Sometimes, it works like "That apple looks good. I think I'll pick that one" and reach up and do so. But sometimes, and I think this is called being in the flow, a deeper part of the mind takes over. For example, as a left-handed person, I am somewhat ambidextrous and willing to use my right hand. I've played a few games of tennis, just a beginner. I don't see right-handed people doing this, but if the ball is coming at me a little too far on my right, I may switch the racket into my right hand. If I do it consciously, I usually flub it. But sometimes I have done it with no awareness of the decision, smoothly switching the racket and hitting the ball. I see no reason to consider that, or other contributions from deeper parts of the mind, as indicating lack of intention/free will -- although I feel myself veering into questions of what the components of a personality are, meaning that there seems to be more than one part of the mind, and so what if there is?

There is definitely a part of my mind that is looking out for "me" that is not the conscious part. I get promptings from it. I call it the sentinel. My sentinel got neurotic at one point and I've worked years to calm it down. But anyway, the sentinel has the job of alerting me about things. It's the one that wakes me up at the right time. It gives me a weird feeling that I have forgotten something. I've learned to pay attention to that feeling. It's like a still, small voice. Just a little jiggle of discomfort. And often, it has saved the day as I work with it until I figure out what I have forgotten to bring, or to do. And sometimes, I just can't figure out what I have missed, but it always becomes apparent eventually, whereupon I smack my forehead.
Sometimes I have scolded the sentinel for being asleep at the job. (Where were you when I needed you?)

sgage said...

@ Steve Thomas,

OMG, I am both a musician AND I drive a pickup truck! Neither has anything to do with the state of my thingy. As far as I can tell ;-)

Ed-M said...

You gave us a lot to chew on this week, JMG. The human mind, limited -- but not so much that it doesn't possess free will.

But I like to say something about the title -- very apt. But if you wanted it to tie into current events, why not Darwin's Stock Market? ;^)

MIckGspot said...

After pondering the free will theme for some decades I had to put it aside without a conclusion for myself as there is simply too much else needed time-wise to enjoy life and keep alive. This much is certain, my compulsion for reading the weekly ADR report. In gratitude for JMG and company. Michael

Johnny said...

It seems like so much of our thinking is caught up in conscious thought, that that would be a lot of wasted energy if there was no purpose to it. If it was just an illusion wouldn't it likely have been stripped over time leave us as a more fuel-efficient version of humanity?

Renaissance Man said...

Inconsistency has always chaffed me. I loathe the feeling of cognitive dissonance, and have worked since a teen to modify, adjust, or jettison beliefs that are neither compatible with my values or with pragmatic reality.
If they aren't compatible with my values, they probably aren't really my beliefs, just attitudes with which I was inculated.
If they conflict with pragmatic reality, then I'll probably get hurt, because pragmatic reality is remarkably consistent. If I let go of a ceramic mug of coffee and it's not on a secure, flat surface, then it will surely shatter on the floor, leaving a mess no matter what I believe. So far it has, every time. If I poke a large jungle cat with a stick, I believe I can safely believe that it'll react with the same aggressive response as a housecat. (I'll never test this hypothesis.)
This curious tendency of people in general, and politicians in particular, to hold bats*t crazy beliefs has always puzzled me to the point of frustration. Sometimes entertaining (the comedian Roy Rogers said "as long as there are politicians, I'll never run out of material") these beliefs quite often produce tragic consequences for relatively powerless people who do not fit; who are ground down to match expectations that may or may not have any relation to reality. Do so few experience cognitive dissonance? Or maybe they do, but turn it outward to avoid the pain.
That's why I went politically to the Greens years ago. At least they begin with a consistent, reality-based set of values that determine what policies they adopt. Which leads to an admirable consistency, even if most voters cannot -- or will not -- acknowledge that they are right about almost everything, even as the popular parties are almost consistently wrong. I don't hold out much hope they will ever form a government, for this very reason.
You see, I don't think that people who are as insulated from harsh, immediate consequences of bad judgment as we are will ever make good choices for either the short or long term effects. Nor choose leaders who do.
I am sure humans developed ever-more complex technologies for exactly that purpose: to insulate us from the uncertainties of the natural world.
Need to move a large tree trunk & might get hurt lifting it? Levers & rollers & eventually the pulley, & other simple machines insulate us from possible injury.
Crop failure? The Romans and Chinese built ships that brought grain from elsewhere were insulated from starvation. Other peoples, i.e. the Mongols or the plains tribes, with fewer resources picked up their movable dwellings and went where the food was. (The fact that our ships are made of steel and powered by fossil fuels just makes them an order of magnitude more complex and reliable.)
The seed of our own demise, I think, is we have now become able to convince ourselves that we are completely protected from all the uncertain vagaries of reality which, in turn, allows many to hold beliefs that are quite detached from reality and quite inconsistent, without any real consequences. It allows us to engage in behaviours as individuals and as nations that are at odds with the natural world.
Individuals who suffer damage from a storm demand compensation, even as they refuse to consider that having a cheaply-built house in a vulnerable location was not a good choice in the first place.
Our industrial system of production and supply has become so vast that it causes feedback loops enough to do significant damage to the ecosystem, yet gives us a sufficient delusion of protection from want to allow us to deny this possibility.
I think our civilization just poked a jungle cat believing it would be like a house pet.

Dammerung said...

If the human body is the sole producer of consciousness, then where do spirits come in?

James M. Jensen II (badocelot/shiningwhiffle) said...

Steve Thomas,

6. Finally, I just looked at Sam Harris's website to see what else I could find out on the "free will" subject. One of the jacket blurbs on his book on the topic reads: "Free will is an illusion so convincing that people simply refuse to believe that we don’t have it." I really think that says it all.

Oh, that's a good one. I'll have to remember that.

I'm not too surprised, though. Harris also tried to make a name for himself by developing a "scientific" morality that from all accounts is just utilitarianism with the serial numbers filed off.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@SMJ--If you read through the comments appended to JMG's most recent post on the other blog, we got into a discussion of considerable depth about other aspects of divination. JMG did not participate; we held it to pass the time while he was busy elsewhere.

MIckGspot said...

The story writing challenge now as me researching monetary systems as two peoples in the future need to make a big exchange and I wish to have a medium for such.

Wow! Talk about wild belief systems? (monetary).

Now I know why they did not teach such things in grade or high school as many people would have a very hard time believing them and others may demand to have them altered.

I took econ and financial math courses in College but don't recall any offerings in monetary systems. Perhaps they were buried in domains of mythology?

Managing to cludge a monetary system together for 1000 years out, my peoples can now conclude a yearly trade agreement. As quickly as possible for most bills of exchange and related physical artifacts start loosing a predetermined value 1 week after notes are exchanged.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I think tejanojim's suggestion about giving infants or toddlers a lot of interaction with another species in hopes of their learning that species' method of communication makes a lot of sense. It's well known that humans have the most ability to acquire languages early in life, that the developing human brain has multiple capacities to acquire different skills, and that these capacities atrophy if the neural connections are not established.

I'm willing to entertain the possibility that other species have native languages in the full sense of the word, including the capacity to make statements about things that are not immediately present (temporally or physically) and to generate novel utterances that can be understood. I'm not up on the latest research and not sure that has been proven for any non-human species.

One reason I think the toddler project might get us somewhere is that most of the species for whom the evidence for true language is strong are marine mammals, cephalopods, arboreal primates and flying birds. What these species have in common with each other but not with us is that they move about in three dimensional space all the time. Those species are required to have more complex nervous systems and the ability to integrate more sensory inputs rapidly than great apes who mostly move around on a two dimensional plane.

Even though human sensory equipment isn't radically different from what most of these species have (other than the squids), the way humans organize the sensory data must be different because we don't have to be as concerned with the height dimension on the fly (as it were). We are born with some neural capacity to do it, but most of us don't use it much. I would expect that this is likely to present problems for human beings trying to understand the conceptual worlds of dolphins or parrots.

When I started reading about attempts to teach rudimentary forms of human languages to other species, I expected that this was being done as a necessary step toward learning to understand the communication systems that the animals themselves use. But that hasn't happened very much. Other research into the communication systems of insects, birds, cetaceans, etc. has continued with the assumption that what's being studied is signaling systems, not full languages, and the data are acquired purely via observation and correlation, with little or no attempt to speak with these animals in their own languages. Of course people have communicated with animals for millenia by using noises and gestures that the animals themselves use, but usu
ally not in a systematic way.

Steve Thomas said...

I had another thought occur to me, which has to do with dolphin language. Have you ever watched groups of humans interact while ignoring the content of their words? When you do this, we appear pretty much like any other animal. You can watch body posture and tone of voice to determine group dyanimcs and you can see these things change as higher and lower ranking individuals join and leave the group, just as you can with dogs or any other social species.

And all of these interactions occur regardless of what the formal symbolic content of the group's conversation might be! Observing our species, a hard-nosed dolphin biologist might be within his rights to conclude that humans don't have language at all, and that the search for "Humanese" is mere sentimental nonsense by romantics that study animals too closely and begin to cetaceanthropomorphize them.

By the same token, what looks to us like a group of dolphins cooperating to chase fish around a lagoon (or whatever) could really be a serious philosophical conversation being held at the dolphin equivalent of a coffee shop.

John Michael Greer said...

Simon, well, of course -- as noted above, free will, like any other capacity of the mind or body, has to be developed by regular exercise, and varies in its strength and effectiveness due to a wide range of conditions. This is why the schools where I got my training put a great deal of emphasis into exercising and developing the will.

Declan, funny. On the other hand, what if it turned out that the illusion of being in a deterministic universe was something you chose?

Tony, I'd missed "holistic navigation," but I've done the same thing a good many times with good results. You can also formulate a question in your mind and then just go for a walk, with the intention that everything you encounter bears on the question and will lead you to the answer -- hopelessly illogical, but remarkably effective.

N Montesano, oh, granted! Probably easier to make the attempt with gray parrots, though, since keeping them fed and housed comfortably would cost a lot less, and they bond powerfully with humans.

Thomas, many thanks for the tip on Graeber's book -- I've been meaning to get to it for a while, but you've given me a powerful new incentive. If he gets the difference between qualitative values and quantitative value, he's way ahead of the pack. Thanks also for the heads up on the other post -- something everybody who makes a living from creative work needs to keep in mind.

Stream, as I said in the post, there are other aspects to divination, which aren't suitable for this blog. Talking about magic and divination when there are rationalists in the room is a bit like talking about sex when there are children in the room -- a certain amount of paraphrase and obfuscation is sometimes called for.

KL, the Principle of Sufficient Reason is a description of how one set of social primates like to think about the world, and that's all it is. As for Tarot and the I Ching, well, that's one reason why some of us like to practice other forms of divination, such as geomancy, which are much less ambiguous.

Stunned, good heavens. Thanks for this!

Donal, Buhner's always worth a read. As for free will, one of the consequences of having it is that sometimes you do really dumb things. One of the others is that sometimes you do amazingly creative and brilliant things. Can't have one without the other...

Nate, of course there are also things that are determined! This habit of thinking that the extreme cases are the only possible options is one of the weirdest bad habits of the modern mind. Our actions are partly free and partly determined; so are the actions of the cosmos. As for fundamentalist monotheists and angry atheists, there's a reason they have so much alike: they're variations on a common theme. Once you've disbelieved in all the other gods, after all, what's one more?

Grahame, I think "fnord" is the appropriate response.

onething said...

Steve D,

Thank you for your thoughtful contribution. I am a bit confused. I don't know much about physics, but you seem to be saying that within the brain are random events which, although they have nothing to do with the proper function of the brain, are driving and causing our thoughts. If random events are determining out thoughts, how can we ever remain on task?
Also, you ask how is the soul an advantage for physical survival. Are you saying that the soul evolved in a subservient way to the physical? That the soul evolves for the use of the body? I should think it would be the other way round, esp if the soul is rather longer lived. Anyway, if we do have souls, I think it is an obvious advantage – intuition, compassion, integrity. Or perhaps, that is not a survival advantage...

Spanish fly said...

"The flash and bang when the picture tube imploded, by the way, was far more entertaining than anything that had ever appeared on the screen."

WOW!! When I was a child and then a teenager, that was one of my favourite wicked fantasies: TV defenestration...So the picture tube dies with flash and bang. Epic!!
I need to do it, but oh, I have never owned a TV, some time ago I lived in a renting flat (you cannot smash the owner TV), and now (economic crisis rules) I'm living with my parents. They wouldn't be very happy if I destroy tomorrow their beloved machine...
Oh, JMG, you are a very lucky man.

Daergi said...

Alway enjoy your posts, and a highlight of my week. Thank you. I also want to express my appreciation for the many thoughtful responses from readers.

On books on evolution, I enjoyed "The Beak of The Finch."

I see someone else has made the point about the body initiating motion before the conscious mind is aware. Which is one of the things that came to mind as I was reading the post. I did want to add that within this framework there is another part of the brain, that some articles call the 'storyteller', that has no direct connection with the part of the brain that puts us in motion, and creates a seamless and plausible story of our actions. In some cases the resulting story bares no resemblance to what is happening. Because of the lack of a direct physical connection, the storyteller must wait to see what we do and then improvise a cohesive account of it, and its focus seems to be on the person's mental wellbeing or sense of self rather than a strict accounting of events. (We appear to act unconsciously and then the mind delivers a fairytale account.) Can we assume free will and fact are not associated? Or at odds? A friend's son just completed his PHD in this field of psychology and is now interested in the issue of why people refuse to accept the reality of climate change.

A Canadian university claims to have discovered a part of the brain whose purpose is to believe in a higher authority. What they called God. My brother saw this study as proof of God. I saw it as proof of evolution.

These studies, on the surface, seem to make a case for no free will. Or maybe just point to where free will isn't.

Is free will the ability to reflect deeply enough to observe and be aware of our automatic behaviors and to see the fiction of the storyteller? To understand our limitations? If so, then very few individuals exercise free will, as deep reflection and introspection today are largely eschewed.

Homo Sapiens and free will? Let's say we have it, but exactly what is It? Certainly it does not exist in the way most people commonly understand or assume; in the royal, imperious sense of sovereignty over self. It certainly doesn't seem to exist in a way that allows us to commonly behave any differently than yeast in a Fructose filled carboy, consuming all of the resources until its environment is befouled. (But one species' wasteland is another's Chateau Latour.) Humans have been playing out the same scenario of ecological degradation over and over again at a local level for a long time. A detailed account of this, agriculturally, can be found in "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations" by Montgomery. Now we've outdone ourselves to go for the global scale. One example, here , on radioactive pollution in the Marshall Islands. Who would freely choose to do these things. To come back around to evolution, competitive advantage must, in part, explain our current situation.

John Michael Greer said...

Latefall, the thing is, I have no problem at all with those people who just don't happen to worship any gods -- and a good many of the atheists I know fall into that category. It's the people who love to scream abuse at me because I do worship gods who are the target of my occasional ire.

Marc, understood. If you can't get out of the situation, you have my profound sympathy.

SMJ, in due time, yes.

Lou, thank you. If I could put your point #1 on the business end of a branding iron and brutally burn it into the backside of every person who insists on confusing evolution and progress, I'd be a happy man. Mind you, I'd also be a very busy one!

Phil, true enough. We live on the interface between an inner and an outer world, and insisting that only one of those exists is an unhelpful move at best.

Dagnarus, I used an operational definition of free will in the post because I'm talking to a very mixed crowd who share very few presuppositions in common. The operational definition is a minimal definition, in that it simply makes it possible to show that not all things are rigidly deterministic. In a group that shared enough common ground to make that possible, I'd extend the definition a good deal further.

Magicalthyme, I wonder if the fact that so much of our brain is given over to fine motor control, to enable us to manipulate things with hands, etc., means that we have inadequate cognitive capacity on the linguistic end of things to understand animal languages.

Bill, why, yes, in fact, it's been my repeated experience that people who disbelieve in free will want an excuse for their own actions -- just as those people who insist that our species had no choice but to ravage the planet are generally trying to excuse their own participation in the planet-ravaging system.

AlaBikeDr, oh, no question, modernism as we know it is a failure -- I discussed this a while back in my posts on the religion of progress, and in my book After Progress. As for getting people to accept limits, though, that's one thing about limits -- once they start bearing down, it quickly becomes a matter of accepting them or becoming compost, take you pick.

Donalfagan, one thing that I think gets missed about police violence in the US these days is that the police are roughly in the same situation as US soldiers in Vietnam in the last years of the war: they've been hung out to dry by their own commanding officers and the country that they thought they were going to serve, and they know it. Morale is catastrophically low, working conditions are ghastly, and everyone knows that it's just going to keep on getting worse. It's no wonder, under those circumstances, that abuses happen.

Andrew, that's one of the enduring constraints on the human condition: what humans can do as individuals is much more diverse, in all directions, than what human beings can do in the mass. The one saving grace here is the process of mimesis, in which humans in the mass will imitate individuals -- and who they choose to imitate is impossible to predict; it may be someone creative and compassionate, it may be a brainless pop star, it may be a psychopath, or what have you.

Brian, the thing is, we are capable of restraining ourselves; people do it all the time. Quite a lot of people are alive today only because laws and social pressure keep other people from murdering them. Yes, that's where the complications come in, but they're inescapably human complications, as much a part of us as our eyes and our brains.

Ben, now find the place where I said the soul is the same thing as the mind. You really do need to pay more attention, you know.

Pintada, okay, that's worth this evening's gold star! You've anticipated, in a more general form, the specific point I'll be making in next week's post; stay tuned.

Spanish fly said...

More seriously:

Have you noticed about the origin of arithmetics? Counting with the fingers of your hands.
Arabic numbers are quite abstracts, but Roman numbers are very close to counting with fingers.

I. One finger.
II. Two fingers.
III. Three fingers.
IV. The hand minus thumb.
V. Full hand with tumb.
VI. A full hand with one finger of the other hand.
And so on. I suppose that X= the two hands with all fingers up crossing arms.

Arabic numbers are abstracts, but they also work in 10-based system, starting from zero (unknown by romans).

Most countries in the world (except you know who?) are using decimal metric system. Units go ten by ten (length), hundred (surface) and thousand (volume). Decimal system is a great french idea...only for apes walking on two legs and using two hands (each one with 5 fingers) to count bananas or pigs.
I wonder if human beings had 6 fingers in each hand, we could count in 12-base system.
So you need hands with thumbs and other fingers to have this. If you are not a primate but evolution has made your species brain very big... you can count, too; but you will need another system...
An alien octopus could count with tentacles, so that species would count eight by eight (8 base system). And I don't want keep thinking about this thing, or I would go mad...
I'm not good in maths or english, however I expect you will understand my thoughts.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear JMG,

I share your aversion to anti-free will and I think nobody who professes that philosophy really believes it, or rather everything else they believe is inconsistent with it. However it is still useful to see how to reconcile current scientific knowledge with free will.

It is not enough to say randomness proves free will, or else the unstable isotope, the coin and other random processes would have free will. None of those entities actually chooses which outcome occurs (the exact time of tunneling for the isotope, head or tails for the coin). In the case of the coin the choice is presumably made by the person tossing it, by giving it initial conditions that determine the outcome, though in non-computable ways (due to exponential sensitivity on initial conditions, aka chaos—as an aside, if the coin was thick enough I think its final state would become computable and leave the domain of chaos). In the case of the unstable atom, nothing chooses at all, but the statistical properties (such as mean number of decays per second, which can be measured from an ensemble of identical atoms) are determined by the nuclear properties and can be computed from them.

Free will seems to be an emergent property of sufficiently complex living systems that enables them to think and act outside either the deterministic box the coin is in, or the statistically determined box the radioactive atom (and other quantum systems) is in. It requires learning—I may be unaware that some of my measurable actions fall neatly into a certain statistical distribution, but as soon as I find out, I can change that distribution to another one. But how does this mysterious emergence happen? There is a temptation, at least for physicists, to try to explain it mathematically or at least to modify the current mathematics underlying physics in ways that would make that emergence possible. Another temptation is to tie free will to current poorly understood phenomena such as wavefunction collapse. Something like, with enough mass/energy per unit volume, enough particles, enough proximity to certain spacetime structures associated with brains, the quantum wavefunction (or the brain) chooses a classical outcome. But I suppose you can carry on without explaining free will in terms of something else.

John Michael Greer said...

George, thanks for the recommendation.

Unknown Lonnie, true enough. On the other hand, since all we have to work with are glorified monkey brains, it's hard for us to think clearly about much of anything!

Escape, Harari has never talked to a chimpanzee to find out if the chimp believes in chimp heaven. That's the problem with all explanations for humanity's temporary ascendancy that fixate on some aspect of human intelligence: they're extrapolating from a sample size of one.

Isaac, intuitive apperception is an important ability, and one that's been profoundly neglected in our culture, no question. At the same time, it's no more a substitute for more cognitively structured modes of communication, such as language, than they are for it. It's one thing to establish an emotional bond with a gray parrot, and intuitively get some sense of how it experiences the world; it would be quite another thing to be able to converse with parrots in some language that facilitates communication from both sides, so the parrots can tell us in their own words how the world looks to them. Both are valid goals.

Nathaniel, that works.

Escape, quite the contrary, Gray's rejection of free will and his dismissal of religion are both antithetical to what I'm trying to say here.

Hapibeli, thank you. Yes, it explains a lot, doesn't it?

Dana, thank you also! A Hesse story is always welcome here.

Renovator, true enough. The confusion between opinions and identities seems to be common in collapsing societies, curiously enough.

Rhisiart, one of the reasons I take quantum mechanics seriously is precisely because it makes no sense -- i.e., it doesn't fit the inborn preconceptions of our social-primate minds. To me, that makes it more probable that it reflects something outside our heads.

Rune, I'm not a physicist, but my understanding -- and this has been confirmed by physicist readers of mine -- is that the issue with radioactive decay has been proven to be more than a lack of adequate information; experimental evidence shows that the timing of decay is actually random in the strong sense of that word. That being the case, the universe isn't just unpredictable to our small minds -- it's inherently unpredictable.

Justin, and that's also an issue, but I figured this post was going to bring enough flak in my direction without getting into that!

Steve, nicely summarized. You'll get the same complete denial that there's a problem if you bring up the conflict between Jesus and Ayn Rand to an allegedly Bible-believing Randroid, too. The only answer I know to your question is to hang out with people who recognize that 1 + 1 isn't whatever you want it to be. As for the Sam Harris quote -- oh bright gods. I knew the guy basically couldn't reason his way out of a wet paper bag -- his Letter to a Christian Nation is an embarrassing display of bad logic, complete enough that you could probably teach an entire class on basic fallacies using it as Exhibit A through Z -- but authors normally get to approve the blurbs on their books, and if he approved that one, he's even more clueless than I thought.

Robert Mathiesen said...

My wife and I are friends with Irene Pepperberg, and we have visited her lab and interacted with Alex, the African Grey Parrot, several times. Whatever was going on with Alex, it was far more complex than the case of Clever Hans, the horse. Clever Hans did no more than a very simple form of "cold reading," in that he looked for and responded to a simple (possibly unconscious) cue from his owner that he had stamped his hoof enough times, or otherwise performed as desired. In contrast, Alex had mastered elementary phrase structure syntax for English, and could create new English phrases to describe new objects that he had not encountered before. He could verbally identify one object out of a collection that differed from the others in a specified way (out of several possible ways). He also had mastered a very small amount of English sentence structure, which he could use to express his wants. And so on ... If Alex was responding to any cuing, neither my wife nor I could see it. (She is a close student of animal behavior. I am, among other things, a competent cold-reader, skilled enough at the art to convince people that I can read their minds.) The easiest hypothesis is that Alex has a command of some parts of English syntax and a substantial English vocabulary, and is able to use them to communicate his own judgement of new situations as well as his own wants and demands.

Robert Mathiesen said...

It's easy for any multilingual speaker to see how every language shapes habitual thought for its native speakers, and how the shaping differs from one language to the next. If the several languages are rather closely related (as most European languages are), the differences in shaping are small, but still noticeable. If the languages are so far apart that their relationship is a matter of scholarly controversy, then the differences in shaping habitual thought are very great indeed. -- Note please, that I am speaking of habitual thought: any two people *who make the effort* can communicate effectively no matter how apart their native languages are, but it does take an effort to overcome the habitual patterns of thinking in one's native language.

onething said...

N. Montesano said,

"but how how would one know rocks don't have preferences? Plants communicate by giving off chemicals, and we can't sense that, either."

Hmm, well first of all, that plants are alive and within the web of life is obvious enough. Also, we sense their chemicals all the time. Right now I'm scratching...and drinking delicious sassafras root tea. Plants prefer to grow toward light.

Inanimate objects certainly don't give any evidence of having any preferences. If they do, it would be utterly different. If you think about the preferences of all living things, it has to do with seeking sustenance and pleasure. Even an amoeba has needs. Inanimate things do not have needs. Certainly, with matter, their is a difference in kind, such as when a person dies, their body instantly changes its quality to, well, dead matter. It seems to me that our living bodies are composed of a complexity of atoms and molecules, which individually, are simply matter. If you take out every molecule of calcium or iron, the life is not in it. Also, what is a rock? You can break it into hundreds of pieces. Many rocks you might find may have once been part of a much larger rock.
If matter has preferences, then since our bodies are made up of matter, I hope it does not mind the symbiosis!

I tend to think of the cosmos as the body of God, so perhaps it is like my hair or fingernails.
But I dunno...if matter has any consciousness, I think it would have to be something different and more participatory in the wholeness.
But what I actually see in the world and feel with my intuition is what I stated - a stark difference between animate and inanimate things.

Meanwhile Bernardo Kastrup has written something about this:

"I feel increasingly concerned about what I believe to be a mounting and extremely dangerous cultural threat looming on the horizon: panpsychism, the notion that all matter has consciousness, as opposed to being in consciousness. At a historical nexus when new data and more critical thinking are finally rendering materialism logically and empirically inviable, panpsychism comes in as a tortuous but seductive bandaid. It threatens to extend the delusion of a universe outside consciousness for yet another century."

Tony f. whelKs said...

streamfortyseven said...

"I'd say that most people using the I Ching are looking for meaningful coincidences - synchronicities - which describe their current situation and the possible outcomes of choices which might arise from decisions made and choices taken."

KL Cooke said...

"the oracle doesn't tell one what to do as much tell one what one wants to do."

If I had not been so embarrassed by my excessive verbacity in my first comment, this is exactly the area I would have ventured into next. To address KL Cooke's point first, I would say "Yes, and the problem is?" The oracle, in telling us what 'one wants to do', is revealing our True Will. That is EXACTLY its PURPOSE. Because we are so hedged about with self-censorship and social obligations, we often cannot determine what our True Will is. By laying out an ambiguous 'direction' from a 'higher source', it frees us to express our own innate desires - this is a feature, not a bug.

When it comes to synchronicity, I have concluded (by personal experiment and experience) that it does not happen 'out there', but 'in here'. One simple exercise proved this to my satisfaction, that of 'non-dominant hand' writing. Start writing with your left hand (that's RIGHT hand for south-paws, of course) and KEEP AT IT until you can write as well with either hand. You will find your life becomes filled with synchronicities, astoundingly so. But the way the world works hasn't changed - the way your brain works HAS. QED. It is not metaphysics, it is neurology. (I'm really sorry, but if you're already ambidextrous you'll probably have to take your socks off to get a similar result ....) But don't take my word for it, I'm just a voice on teh interwebs, try it for yourself. Though to keep this in the vein of the original article, the major point is that the way your brain works has a major impact on the way you perceive the world, and you are able to change that - at (free) will ;-)

Candace said...

It's so odd to think that there are some people who believe that free will doesn't exist. My biggest struggle most of the time is trying to figure out what I can control and change, and what is simply out of my hands. Would there be any point to figuring that out if there is no free will? It also reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend who is an alcoholic, she embraced an extreme version of alcoholism as a disease. She chose to interpret that to mean that being an alcoholic is like having some agressive form of cancer, I told her that I chose to see it as similar to diabeties. Difficult, but something that could be managed and with which you could live, and even be healthy.

My judgemental self just thinks that people who are unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions are cowards.

Ruben said...

JMG, out of fear you would delete every comment regarding free will, I wrote my thoughts on my own blog. I would be delighted if those in the comment gallery would read Free Will: we (might) use it just often enough to think it actually matters.

Nano said...

@JMG 23 all hail discordia!

Mark Rice said...

I am trying to figure out why I -- a not very social social primate -- am able to do a bit of math. My training and my work often has me in the diffuse boundary between applied math and electrical engineering.

The work often use the language of Calculus to describe things. But that is just the beginning. Much is done with Complex Numbers -- 2 dimensional vectors with a definition for multiplying them together. Then we use complex numbers to describe the relative magnitude and phase( delay) between 2 sinusoids. We go back and forth between time domain and frequency domain and use convolution sumations and Fourier transforms etc. etc. etc.

I have been doing this so long, it is second nature for me. Many properties of these operations are now just obvious on an intuitive level, even through much of this is quite abstract. Why can my limited monkey brain do this? Do not get me wrong. At this point in my life I completely accept the fact that I am limited in what I can understand.

I can see where primates need to be able to visualise in 3 dimensions. Counting is usefull. Multiplication -- well 8 bananas to a bunch and say 5 bunches is a lot of bananas.

But then the more abstract concepts and operations -- why can a primate do these things? Some of this may be due to the malleability of the human mind. After years of working at it the neural paths are generated. Perhaps I am a mutant. I do sometimes wonder if I am on the autistic spectrum.

I also wonder how we got the ability to read. Another abstract ability.

onething said...

Dagnarus said,

" if we assume that "inanimate nature" is absent of will we must assume that we are also. "

It seems to me that our culture is deeply, deeply ingrained in the idea that matter is the measure of all things. Matter is the primary reality, all else is optional and in fact debatable.

If we decide our qualities using the qualities of matter as a guide, then we are either not different than matter, or subservient to matter, with matter being primary. But if consciousness is the primary reality, then the manifestation of this universe arises out of mind. If matter is nonliving then what does it matter if it is determined or not? If matter is determined, it COULD mean that we are also, but it does not follow automatically, as we may - our consciousness may - be of a different category than matter.

If matter didn't behave itself most of the time, this universe would be so chaotic that we would all go crazy. Matter seems to be a kind of servant to consciousness. The question of the existence of true randomness on the subatomic level is certainly interesting, but I am not sure it impacts the characteristics of consciousness.

It could be that matter and Mind are a unified whole, and indeed some say that consciousness cannot exist without its having objects appearing to it, so that it can be conscious OF something; however, I do not think that the manifestation of a physical universe is at all times necessary, and there are plenty of objects of consciousness that are not what we call material.

John Michael Greer said...

David, okay, that's a harbinger. Not that long ago taking out a thirty year mortgage was something people did all the time, as a matter of course. If it's now being portrayed as something scary and daring, the collective imagination is shifting very quickly indeed.

Tejanojim, hmm! That strikes me as a very good idea indeed. I wonder if you could raise young humans and young porpoises together, and see what eventuated...

Nancy, well, yes -- the purpose of American education today is to prevent children from having any thought that some authorized person hasn't thought out before them, after all.

Justin, well, wasn't that the basic presupposition of all those branches of physics that talk about four-dimensional spacetime?

Ed-M, well, Darwin doesn't cheat, while the stock market is considerably less honest than your common or garden variety Mob-run casino, so I'm not sure it would work...

MickGspot, like most theological questions, it's good for late night conversations around a campfire and very bad to obsess about.

Johny, nicely done. Yes, that would follow, wouldn't it?

Renaissance Man, I don't think it was a jungle cat. I think it was an unusually irritable Smilodon who hasn't plunged his twenty-inch fangs into a nice juicy mammoth in a while.

Dammerung, now show me where I said the human body is the sole producer of consciousness.

MickGspot, hmm! That sounds like an interesting story; I'll look forward to reading it and considering it for a spot in the anthology.

Unknown Deborah, I always figured that the core reason attempts to get other animals to communicate with us have flopped is that we insist they learn our languages, rather than working out with them a means of communication that's more or less comprehensible to both parties. That's one of the things I meant to hint about in my novel Star's Reach, where the alien Cetans and humans had to work out a manufactured language to make some kind of sense of each other's radio communications.

Steve, makes sense to me.

John Michael Greer said...

Fly, do old TVs in Spain ever end up in the kind of stores that sell used goods? If so, I'd encourage you to buy one, and arrange for a place where you can lay out a bigcanvas or heavy plastic drop cloth. Get a pair of sturdy gloves and the sort of transparent face shield that people use when they're working at a lathe; also a five pound sledgehammer with a long handle. Spread out the drop cloth, put the TV in the middle, put on the face shield and gloves, and pound the television to small fragments -- the drop cloth will make it much easier to sweep these up and dispose of them. You'll feel much better after you've done so.

(Back when I belonged to the Society for the Eradication of Television -- which is, as far as I know, unfortunately defunct -- this used to be a common SET fundraiser. You'd get a permit to do it in a public place, have a selection of old TVs, gloves, face screens, hammers, etc., and a very big drop cloth; then you'd have one person start bashing one, and the others present offer everyone who passes by the chance to do the same, at 25 cents a whack. The thing I learned from this is how much suppressed rage and hostility most people carry toward the TV. Can you imagine a pretty secretary in nice clothes and high heels shoving a twenty dollar bill into your hand and then reducing a television to powder, to the accompaniment of bloodcurdling war cries? It happened surprisingly often...)

Daergi, there's a part of the brain that identifies potential sex partners, too. Does that prove that lovers don't exist?

Fly, exactly! Most humans use base ten purely because we have ten fingers. Aliens who look like amoebas, if such there be, may not use integers at all.

Iuval, as I think I noted above, the discussion of randomness was aimed at the phantom of determinism; my discussion of free will focused on the difference between reacting to stimuli and reacting to mental representations of stimuli, which is quite a different point.

Robert, thanks for the info on Alex! That corresponds to everything I've heard. As for languages, no question there -- in my experience, if you don't know more than one language, you're severely handicapped in your capacity to see the limits of your own thinking.

Candace, exactly -- the notion that all things are subject to free will is just as fallacious as the notion that nothing is; figuring out where the will is best applied and how to apply it is where things get interesting.

Ruben, thank you. That's a valid way to talk to this audience about something I've banned, or you think I might ban; post it on your own blog and post a reference to it here.

Nano, Kallisti! (Not sure if you know this, but my noseprint was duly mailed to the California State Bureau of Furniture and Bedding in 1982...)

Mark, simple. Take a set of basic primate mental categories, and treat them the way Stephen Wolfram treats simple computer programs in A New Kind of Science -- that is to say, wind 'em up and let 'em run. The results may include mathematics, electrical engineering, French cooking, bizarre erotic fetishes, you name it; as Wolfram shows, very simple initial rules can generate fantastically complex and unpredictable results if you just let 'em run long enough.

PRiZM said...

This weeks post concerns habits of thinking. It’s quite clear that the USA in general, and the world at large, have developed a habit of thinking which is linear, always progressing, and erroneously self-confident. This habit of thinking fits in perfectly well with an era of pretense, when it is easy to delude oneself, individually and as a society, that one is omnipotent and then quickly run themselves into the ground. I like how you’ve kind of tied together a lot of the various threads you’ve touched on over the past two years in this post.
Fortunately, as you mention, unpredictability exists. While disorders, such as Asperger’s, and events which are near-death experiences aren’t the perfect situation, a lot of people who experience these deal with limits, causing them to think in a different way, a way which may be better suited for handling the situation we are in. A way which is different than the typical American’s way of thinking. And changing the way we think are one of the keys to coming out on the other side of this implosion of the cult of progress with some of the benefits from our current society still intact.

Will changing the vast majority of peoples thinking require an evolution in humanity? Or just in human consciousness?

Scotlyn said...

JMG - so much to think about in this last few posts!!!
You said:
"The process involved here was understood by philosophers a long time ago, and no doubt the neurologists will get around to figuring it out one of these days as well. The core of it is that humans don’t respond directly to stimuli, external or internal. Instead, they respond to their own mental representations of stimuli, which are constructed by the act of cognition"

Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela worked within fields adjacent to neurology, and their seminal paper describing cognition as the salient feature of self-assembling, or "autopoietic" (living) beings, covers much of the ground touched on today: "Autopoiesis and Cognition: the realisation of the living".

(Maturana also co-wrote the paper "what the frog's eye tells the frog's brain" on research which tested the very question of whether the frog sees stimuli directly or sees its inner representation of that stimuli - found here:

The first is a difficult paper, but as far as I understand it, one of their findings is that much of what you are describing in relation to human thinking is common to all life, and also that A randomising factor in living systems (note, not THE randomising factor) is free will itself.

That is to say that by the very cussedness of free-will bearing individuals crafting unexpected responses to the situation they find themselves in, we (ALL living things) continually change one another's situations and provoke novel (free will) responses in return, which, from our own point of view, seem to occur as random, unpredictable new stimuli to respond to... and so it goes.

The fact that it is possible to predict the behaviour of aggregates of individuals using statistics, can NEVER undo the fact that individual variability of response, based on the free will of everything that lives, is the grist that goes into that statistical mill. This is why, for example, "evidence-based" medicine (ie statistically aggregated best practice guidelines) can never predict how an individual medical treatment will progress.

I certainly think that, per Darwin's findings of our non-uniqueness, if we have free-will this is because it IS a feature of living things more generally. But the only person whose free will "in action" is possible for anyone to observe is our own. Perhaps this blindness to the "inner" workings of others also contributes to the "delusion of control" touched on in an earlier post.

Phil Harris said...

Gray Parrots
Forest preserve us! And Alex! (video link)

Talk about jumping evolutionary distance; most of us have the experience of finding ourselves with strong social bonding: mind to mind as it were. It gives us some special responsibilities; gray parrots, dogs, children and all.

Reciprocity can be a big gift can jump longer distance than the other side of Evolution I guess.

On the other hand I know people who as infants had great difficulty understanding ‘mother’, let alone those who must stand-in for mother. Most of them did it of course, because they had to. The bond is too precious to be left to chance, even if the results are sub-optimal. My guess FWIW is that Alex used his brains similarly.
Phil H

Spanish fly said...

"Fly, do old TVs in Spain ever end up in the kind of stores that sell used goods? If so, I'd encourage you to buy one, and arrange for a place where you can lay out a bigcanvas or heavy plastic drop cloth. Get a pair of sturdy gloves and the sort of transparent face shield that people use when they're working at a lathe; also a five pound sledgehammer with a long handle. Spread out the drop cloth, put the TV in the middle, put on the face shield and gloves, and pound the television to small fragments -- the drop cloth will make it much easier to sweep these up and dispose of them. You'll feel much better after you've done so. "

Ha ha ha...
Yeah, there is a second-hand shop near home that sell all kind of used good; they have a big window, and sometimes I've seen small TVs on sale.
I accept your suggerence with malicious pleasure.

Scotlyn said...


"It seems that the prove that the proof of randomness in nature was contingent on the assumption that the human's had free will"

What if we assumed that unstable radioactive particles have free will? That the random factor we find, is itself indistinguishable from the cussedness of individually self-determined action? Of free will bearing individual particles deciding when it suits THEM to stop putting effort into the more unstable radioactive configuration and drop into the more stable post-decay one?

Who can know what this transition might feel like to such a particle - death? enlightenment? climax? Or what its "reasons" might be?

But is there any reason to assume the particles have no particle-reasons or particle-awareness of their own?

Phil Harris said...

I have only just read Rober's comment and info on Alex.
I will add my thanks.
Phil H

John Maiorana said...

You might be interested in the following web sites: and

John Maiorana said...

"...either mathematics is too big for the human mind, or the human mind is more than a machine." -- Kurt Godel.

August Johnson said...

JMG - This is off the current subject, but it's related to a subject you've brought up before.

On a forum that I frequent about Vintage Ham Radio equipment, there's been a conversation about interference problems with the "new" type of landline phone equipment where you phone hooks to the Internet box, not directly to the copper wires. Some people have been discussing about going back to the old type of phone connection; here's a comment from one respondent:

I work for Verizon, but not the copper phone line part, the old MCI that Verizon bought. They want copper to die, they no longer put covers back on, or put air on the cables to keep the water out. They want to be in the wireless business and want to get rid of all the other regulated stuff.

The last storm around here, the power was off for 3 days, and nothing worked, the entire cell network was down in South Jersey. No home phone, no power, no cell service. This is the way its going.

Even more interesting is the company has out sourced almost everything to Manila and some to India. They have a lot of control and access, even to government stuff.

Since the FCC ruled they can not slow down or stop access to other things like Netflix, they no longer want to be in the content provider business, just the internet access business, since young people download stuff off the internet to watch.

FIOS (Verizon's Fiber Optic to the house) is expensive to build and connect to peoples houses, I have heard $700.00 per customer plus $750.00 in house work to hook each customer up. They no longer really want to be in that business, wireless has huge profits and little infrastructure.

Things are really changing.
When the power goes out, ham radio may be the ONLY way to communicate at all.

This is something that should really be listened to, get your Ham Radio license and start using it. As JMG knows, I am very willing to help anybody who is truly interested in Ham Radio find equipment. I've been very busy around here with preparing for the future but just because I have not been writing about Ham Radio doesn't mean I don't think it's important!

Ray Wharton said...

So there is a lot of talk about primate mental category but I want to stress a subtle but I think very important point we should all bear in mind, the many scopes of mental categories we have.

Some are Western Categories, like Keynesian Economics. Some are human Categories, like representative art. Then ape categories, monkey, and primate categories, mammalian categories and tetrapod ones. Vertebrate, animal, and even mental potentials of living things. We could split that up based on something other than genealogy as well. Categories of socializers, omnivores, and singers. Forgive me for at some point stretching the concept of category, but I think its not hard to see why I find use in abstracting this direction.

The reason I think remembering this gradient is important is that it reminds us that different aspects of our mental tool kit are shared by different organisms. I hypothesise that where we share the same 'tool' with another life there is the possibility of translation with out needing some sort of additional support (system of abstraction to translate, or something less rational as the case may be). Obviously, from the accounts here concerning parrots, some birds share alot of the tools we have, even if they were developed by a convergent evolution of a kind; and if they are the product of convergent evolution than by my figuring it means that the limits creating demand for those tools have roots as deep as the split between humans and birds... even if perhaps a tiny minority of the descendants from those ancestors drew the hand to play that move (abstraction or denotative vocal grammars).

The far extreme of QM I think suggests that something like this continues beyond the realm of life as it is currently studied. Planes that are quite discrete and mark the silent limits of what live, logic, and meaning can be at the scale of existence common to animal bodies are crossed willy nilly at the Quantum level with tiny quanta of matter and energy mixing up with each other and transforming seemingly as a common occurrence. Even the math of the quantum level requires kinds of abstraction that take it fairly far away from the math of fingers. Current research into the quantum realm happens through machines, and there for focuses on those planes that machines access easily, matter and energy. The point of this being that in QM we see through a computer print out darkly a world that doesn't have many of the categories we are accustomed to, and yet has reflections of enough of the categories we work with that crude translations and faint hints of another truth shine through the math.

rsuusa said...

The fact that people have contradicting belief systems is not new to me. Even as a child I wondered how the “every sperm is precious” “pro-life” crowd could be so gung-ho to drop bombs and eliminate foreign children. I chalked it up to racism but in fact I think it is much more than that; I believe they would have been almost as satisfied if the bombs had fallen on white people in some distant part of Europe. Either way their values just didn’t line up but then neither do mine. I grew up a Muslim and never gave up the faith but I’m also a committed Communist. Both present an overarching vision of the world indeed the universe; a grand mythological context within which to live and each taken in its entirety precludes the other as a possibility. Yet both systems reside peacefully within me on this the 23d day of Ramadan. The fact that they occasionally rub against each other uncomfortably reminds me that they are in fact myths, albeit I think useful myths, the contradictions pepper my internal dialogue with humorous absurdities bringing to mind the stories of farcical Mullah Nasruddin. The contradictions actually serve me well so long as I remain conscious of their incongruities and absurdities.

The Muslim understands and respects the wisdom inherent in the cultural and religious practices handed down to him from the past even when their value isn’t immediately obvious and the Communist is cynical enough to see when these values and practices are being used for political purposes or are, indeed, entirely inane. The Communist is also irreverent enough to enjoy pointing all of the absurdities and irrationality of the other's position out at every opportunity. They may be poor bedfellows but each keeps the other on the sane middle ground and each bends just enough to avoid an OK Corral shootout. I imagine many people have such mutually exclusive but seriously held multiple identities each providing guidance and pointing out the weaknesses of the others. They keep us from taking any point of view too seriously and ground us in our own heritage and cultural traditions however ridiculous those might seem at our current place in history.

Dagnarus said...

Are you perhaps going to go into a fuller definition of free will on your other blog? One of my problems with the whole free will/determinism debate is that I don't really see why determinism negates the possibility of free will. I think this is probably because I like everybody else in the world have a different conception of what that actually is, and is likely not fully defined. In my conception what is important for me to have free will is not that I could theoretically have done a million and one different things in any particular situation, but that the impetus which caused me to take any particular decision is based upon that localized part of the universe which I consider to be my own consciousness was inextricably involved in that decision. Saying that I somehow didn't have a choice because, that which I consider to be "me" would always make that choice given that situation seems strange to me. As does the idea that my responsibility for making choices is somehow abnegated based upon the fact that it wasn't just happenstance that I am the one who happened to exist in that situation, with those particular values, that were causing that particular harm. I'm guessing that my vague not fully formed concept of what free will is could possibly allow for machines to have freewill, but hey for all I know consciousness flows into computer systems all the time and communicate there will through network crashes and what have you, further it could be that Sam Harris is so convinced of the absence of free will because he himself is actually a soulless automaton.
Which leads to the fact that while I am inclined to agree with you that the universe is actually nondeterministic, if your of the mind to abnegate your own will in a deterministic universe, then it seems quite easy to abnegate in a nondeterministic one as well, we are all slaves to random events which occur on the sub atomic level after all.

Some further thoughts, even if a process is deterministic that doesn't necessarily mean that it is predictable. For example while Pi is deterministic in that there is only one unique value for each of its digits it is impossible to predict the exact value of any of its digits without going through the steps to calculate that digit, the digits themselves appearing to be distributed randomly. Further if we consider the limits to growth study, the models and there outcomes were deterministic, but it would be misleading to state that they were predetermined. While the modelers may have had a general idea of what the outcomes would be it was necessary to actually run the model in order to determine exactly what they might be. This is different to an omnipotent and omniscient God creating the world in such a way that every outcome was an element of his divine will, which I suspect is in at least the western worlds intellectual baggage when thinking about this topic.

SacredEater1 said...

Hello Mr. Greer -

I attempted to post my entry to short story contest you are running this year but I do not think it was successful. In any case here it is: - The Final Islands



UnhingedBecauseLucid said...

["I don’t know if other bloggers in the doomosphere have this happen to them, but every few months or so I field a flurry of attempted comments by people who want to drag the conversation over to their conviction that free will doesn’t exist. I don’t put those comments through, and not just because they’re invariably off topic; the ideology they’re pushing is, to my way of thinking, frankly poisonous, and it’s also based on a shopworn Victorian determinism"]

Damn it, you deleted my comment because you misunderstood it. Perhaps I should have made myself more clear, but I went for concise instead...

My statement that "Even if the universe is a machine, it does not follow that it has a creator nor a purpose" did absolutely NOT imply that I believed in determinism; but simply that I believe that even if the universe exhibits what are manifestly MECHANISMS, that, in no way, proves the existence of a creator, nor does it implies a purpose to it all, divine or otherwise.
Water's freezing point not withstanding, when winter comes and sets in here in Québec, we still get a humidity factor that renders the cold even worse, cuts right through your bones...
Two seemingly mutually exclusive thing can both be true nonetheless. Along with the exponential function, these cases are also ones in which humans have difficulty wrapping their heads around. (Double slit experiment comes to mind...)

That being said, I think the randomness we find in physics is proof enough to debunk determinism.
Personally, I agree with Shopenhauer's "I can do what I will, but cannot will what I will."

So for having deleted my comment, you now owe me a pint of that home brewed imperial stout of yours... Don't worry, we can arrange payment further in time, when collapse has sunken in everyone's mind ;-)

(If I'm still alive-- until then, please drink to my health and well being will ya !)

Ben Iscatus said...

“Ben, now find the place where I said the soul is the same thing as the mind. You really do need to pay more attention, you know.” - JMG

So the soul is the witness that somehow moves from mind to mind and may access a mind’s memories. The difficulty with this is that it makes what is immortal or non-physical contingent on what is mortal or physical – the soul has need of the mind’s loosh despite the fact that the mind is merely the result of of random physical processes and may never have existed at all.

Caryn said...

Thank You, JGM & fellow commenters. Another thoughtful and challenging discussion, a good work-out for my brain. As I've said before these discussions are often challenging for me. I can keep up and understand the points, but it's not easy enough for me to join in with my own points, any more than just dipping a toe in the waters; Kind of like Spanish. (oddly on topic for this week. i.e.: thought processes, language...) I grew up in So. Cal, hearing Spanish fairly frequently and have at times in life been almost immersed in it, yet have never studied it or consciously tried to learn more than the necessary rudiments, as needed. I can understand whole, fairly complex conversations, yet I'm not facile with it enough to join in except, again, on that rudimentary level.

I find this discussion to be very interesting and fun, but honestly, not sure how relevant it is. I'm just perplexed as to how, let alone why so many people seem to need to pin down the nature of existence to be determinist or chaotic or the result of free will. I've always been perfectly comfortable in living with ambiguity. "This is That, (except when it isn't)".

I get that other people are not, and some vehemently opposed, but I never quite understand why? Apart from the obvious examples, i.e.: an alcoholic who chooses to believe in determinism to absolve themselves of responsibility of their actions, ( Ha! see what I did there?) or those with forked tongues - who SAY they believe in one thing and act on the opposite, (Ayn Randian Christians). They may even trick themselves into 1/2 way believing their own deception, they just conveniently ignore pesky little details, like - what were the fundamentals that Christ actually taught?

Apart from those; I think it's glaringly obvious that there are some facets of life that follow a pattern, a cause and effect a 'determinist' thread, (except when they don't), and some that present as chaotic or random - Sometimes people are really predictable and then they up and run off to live on a Greek island with the handyman. Who saw that coming?

We silly humans, in our stories and legends, from those campfire tales of old to our later/now block-buster entertainments, We celebrate the oddities, the 'free-will', those people who do the unexpected, break out of the mold, override instinct to come to some grander plateau of being. Are they exhibiting true free will or are they predestined to act outside of the mold to satisfy our fervent delusion of free will?

With all due respect, who cares? The results are still random. "This is still that, except when it isn't". We still have to live with it. We've been living with it, so why the need to control it?

Nick Vail said...

What do you think is observed when one rests uncontrived and perceives clearly in the gap between thoughts?

onething said...

Iuval said,

"It is not enough to say randomness proves free will, or else the unstable isotope, the coin and other random processes would have free will."

All it does (if true) is show that the universe at its quantum levels is not determined.

"Free will seems to be an emergent property of sufficiently complex living systems "

So this means you believe that consciousness arises from brains only? I thought you were not a materialist?

Vincent said...

I suppose it’s safe to say, in evolutionary, as well as survival terms, there is no difference between my brain and my thumbs.

The other Tom said...

It just occurred to me while reading the comments that the experience of discursive meditation could be a demonstration of free will vs. predetermination. As my own chattering consciousness narrates my own life, it could go back and forth depending on my own choice or effort, whether the mind is a wild bucking bronco or can be directed at will. Ironically, through free will one could choose a predetermined life, through default or laziness.
It was Tony f whelks comments on synchronicity that made me think of this. Since I chose to do the meditation a really bizarre series of coincidences have come my way. Often, I have been thinking a lot about some obscure topic, say the idiosyncrasies of cypress wood, and then a stranger will initiate a conversation with me on that very topic. This has happened many times lately. The most unlikely example was when I was walking to the coffee shop one morning. At the risk of sounding trivial, for some reason I was thinking about the 1975 World Series, because of circumstances I remember so well. Then I step in the coffee shop, and there's Luis Tiant, who was the star pitcher in that series. He just happened to be in town while he was traveling.
None of this was happening before I chose to do the meditation. It suggests we have the free will to choose how much free will we are willing to take responsibility for, that there are ways of altering the energy we put forth.

Also, I just can't get the image out of my head, of our Archdruid tossing the TV out the window. I described this to an artist friend who has done large murals on buildings. We decided it would be great to do a pair of murals covering an entire building. On the left would be Moses tossing the golden calf into the fire. On the right would be a contemporary man with a long beard, tossing out the TV. It would update the story, to rid ourselves of our biggest distraction.

Thomas Prentice said...

Here is a site I just recently stumbled upon ... The Dark Mountain Project / The Dark Mountain Manifesto

"The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them." - from Uncivilisation: the Dark Mountain Manifesto

"The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilisation." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We produce and seek out writing, art and culture rooted in place, time and nature.

Thomas Prentice said...

Excellent, meanigful statement by John Brink: "Life is often more tolerable if taken as a jam session"

Ares Olympus said...

For me the question isn't whether we have free will, but to know how and when that free will can be expressed, and aid us, rather than lead us astray in confusion, like new age magical thinking that "we create reality."

Last week I offered a metaphor "life is a self-consuming machine" and that has multiple levels of meaning, from physical potential, like the development is a subtract process of removing neural potential in exchange for specific expressions of that potential. And similarly as adults, our habitual ways of seeing filter out much of what we're capable of seeing, and Schumacher talks about that in his idea of adequateness.
Schumacher explains that the bodily senses are adequate for perceiving inanimate matter; but we need 'intellectual' senses for other levels. Schumacher observes that science has shown that we perceive not only with the senses, but also with the mind. He illustrates this with the example of a complex scientific book; it means quite different things to an animal, illiterate man, educated man and scientist. Each person possesses different internal 'senses' which means they 'understand' the book in quite different manners.

So what's strange about free will would be that our past decisions affect what future decisions we have available, so that's the "self-consuming" side.

So to get past what was lost, I see where Schumacher's four fields of knowledge come in.
These four fields arise from combining two pairs: Myself and the World; and Outer Appearance and Inner Experience. He notes that humans only have direct access to fields one and four.

So I imagine free will might exist in part because we have the power to hold awareness of all four fields, so we can know what we experience in the moment is incomplete, but we can test understanding by contrasting inner and outer, self and other, and self-correct through the conflicts found there.

And also that also takes us to the question of religion, and of "hidden intelligence". If the universe itself is not just a machine, but a living, self-consuming self-experiencing whole, we may have access to the whole in a way that our direct intelligence can't touch directly. And that's where I assume techniques like divination come out - randomness plus intuition makes for a different sort of nonrational intelligence that shouldn't be trusted, but can keep us nondeterministically open-minded to seeing what's there, but got hidden from view by our ordinary filters. Something like that, but good religious practices would seem to have to contain such "tools" to metaphorically awaken us when we need it.

John Crawford said...

“…Rand told hers to hate God, wallow in fantasies of their own superiority, and kick the poor into the nearest available gutter.”

I took the opportunity to re-read your essay of December 13, 2014 and I daresay you have made the same point I have oft accused my acquaintances, particularly of Catholic persuasion, who are devotees of neo-liberal economics. The denial is always vehement especially when they are confronted by the recent comments of Pope Francis.

I doubt, however, any are really practicing Satanists but instead are rapid followers or especially corrupt pipers. Looking at the actions and behavior of Frau Merkel and her henchman Wolfgang Schaeuble you can see, as related to the damage they have done in Greece by their policies, a living example of the evils within the political class of great powers including America. Those evils have, to a great extent, been promulgated by acolytes of Rand, knowingly or otherwise, and it is logically impossible for any of them to be considered “Christian” or of any other reasonable religion other than Satanism; Satanism in this instance being a lust for “mammon” and its similarly evil twin power.

Unfortunately it seems to be a human trait that we just follow the loudest voice, FOX or otherwise, without considering ethics, morality or any other path than pure lust for the very things that are working to destroy us and our world.
I read her screed when I was a teenager. It was titillating reading for a teen and to this day I wonder what was on my mother’s mind when she recommended reading it and also L. Ron Hubbard’s tripe. Years after working for Goldwater and drinking the Kool-Aid of the Birch Society I rebounded which led me to fundamentalism in the Southern Baptist Church, pretty much as you have noted. A combination of blatant corruption, Watergate, and the first oil crisis forced a hard look at the world and what we had done to it through extremism and apathy and I finally learned.

Now a septuagenarian I live in a rural patch of the Midwest surrounded by family and a slow moving local economy. The Internet connection is poor and we are in a “coverage hole” for cell phone service. Access to the county is limited by a couple rivers and poor state highways. We are as much emotionally isolated as we are physically isolated from the turmoil in the closest cities. We also tend to experience life seasonally and work out disagreements one to one with those in the community. Is it a “utopia” or some other sort of throw-back to the past, such as a transition town, certainly not. The petty local political corruption exists as does the abuse of privilege by one, or more, of the large families.
Great intractable trends will continue to drive the world to eventual collapse, or worse. For each of us life now is a daily thing on a very local basis and for that our family is thankful.

Good post, sorry my disjointed response.

Vicky K said...

I was wondering whether any of the readers were familiar with David Abram's "The Spell of the Sensuous" and "Becoming Animal". His approach to interacting with other species is less about learning each others languages directly and more about communication through identification with the creature. Although he does take the approach that our human language is just another iteration of animal communication. His apprenticeship to a shaman is fascinating and reveals elements that have been completely lost in this culture regarding our common ground with all life.

His writing style is engaging and draws you into a state of body awareness that is highly unusual in a scholarly pair of books. His views on literacy and the changes that it has made to our thinking are original and well explained. The ancient argument of Socrates on whether literacy is a boon or a bane is plumbed. It is a must that these books be read in order of publication to fully understand the flow of the arguments and his experiences.

Ed-M said...


Well I don't know if corporate-run casinos are honest, either. If it weren't for the Indian (First Nation) casinos and some or most of the casinos in foreign countries, the word "casino" wouldn't be appropriate, either! ;^)

Changing the subject to Randian Christians, did you know that because of these people, we have people painting all Christians with the same broad brush? Here is one Youtuber who does exactly that. He calls Christians ChristPsychotics in his rants and usually points out the Randian Christians to prove his case. Yes, it's hate speech, or at least comes off as such; but he's so good at it, it's like he's doing performance art -- and I like it! Just click on any of his videos and enjoy!

PS remember what I said about my iPhone; that I'd keep it until it becomes a museum piece? Well the other day last week somebody stole it when my better half and I weren't looking. Now I won't have time to read everybody's comments. :^(

thecrowandsheep said...

I was meditating on the mechanics of archdruids throwing their television sets from buildings of several stories or more.

Although dependent on the size of the television and the strength of your archdruid, does one take the "pregnant" approach, holding it from your stomach and simply releasing it from waist height? If your archdruid is sufficiently peeved after some newsman equates evolution with progress, the "shotput" style, where you stand side on and one hand drives the set while the other guides the projectile could send the set on a fairly elegant parabolic trajctory. Perhaps some talking head suggests that yes, infinite growth is not only possible, but necessary and inevitable. Lifting the set above your head with both hands and flinging it downwards with all your strength may not only feel pretty good, but increase the vertical distance the set falls by a good three metres, depending on the height (and reach) of your archdruid.

Technological progress being what it is, the televisions nowadays are much more advanced. The range you should be able to achieve with your flat screen television set by tossing it like a frisbee should far exceed older sets. For maximum destruction after reports suggest economic recovery has arrived due to wall streets gains of half a percentage point, fling the screen downwards with the axis of rotation now horizontal like that of a rolling wheel. The extra angular velocity on top of the set's own terminal velocity should, upon impact, help splinter both television and any latent delusional beliefs in the fidelity of a single piece of information sourced from television news.

Eugen Melinte said...

A well rounded argumentation. I beg to differ regarding divination. Divination and related activities exist to eliminate randomness from human life, not to introduce randomness. Human nature abhors it, and human brain is conditioned to think deterministically by everyday life (think classical mechanics). Ergo, statistics and probabilities are a misunderstood area by the common man.

John Michael Greer said...

Prizm, patterns of thinking are resistant to change in individuals but change fairly rapidly on the scale of generations -- how long has it been since most Americans considered premarital sex an awful evil? My sense is that the existing pattern of ideas will remain in place until the generations that benefited from them are gone, and then we'll see quite a bit of shift.

Scotlyn, nicely put. Yes, that would follow, wouldn't it?

Phil, very likely so.

Fly, glad to hear it. You can even invite your friends and have a television-smashing party!

John, thanks for the links -- and also for the Godel quote. I see no reason why both of those couldn't be simultaneously true.

August, no surprises there -- but you're quite right, of course; collapsing now ought to include a good dose of taking control of one's own communications links.

Ray, nicely put.

Rsuusa, hmm! Thanks for this; maybe it's just my Aspergers syndrome that makes me uncomfortable with trying to hold incompatible beliefs at the same time.

Dagnarus, when we get to a discussion of will in general, that's going to come in, yes.

SacredEater, got it -- you're in the contest. Please put through another comment marked "not for posting" with your name and email address so I can contact you if your story's chosen for the anthology.

Unhinged, I don't think I saw your comment at all -- Blogger loses attempted comments quite often, you know. Logically speaking, it's incorrect to say that "the universe is a machine" doesn't imply that it has what all other machines have, a creator and a purpose -- it's like saying that the universe is a duck, and then insisting that this doesn't mean that it has feathers, a bill, webbed feet, and a habit of quacking! That said, your broader point seems reasonable enough.

Ben, clearly the soul does need a mind and a body for certain purposes -- that's why souls indwell minds and bodies, after all!

Kutamun said...

By chance was reading a Germaine Greer Shakespeare Primer , and she mentioned something about the Bard which seems to me to be relevant to what is being discussed here
"Because he imposed no post hoc system upon the multifariousness of his experience and based his utterance upon what could be comprehended and registered in the conditions of dramatic representation , his work continues to breathe . To argue thus is not to argue , as Orwell did , that Shakespeares work contains no thought at all . Rather its pragmatism is part of its thought ; each theatrical exposure is a kind of experiment . The characters and their discourse are thrown together in the crucible ; the resulting compound is what the audience carries away . It may not be possible to extract a nugget of thought , which we usually think of as a series of interrelated propositions , but part of the reason for that is that Shakespeare knew , as we have forgotten , that feeling is as intellectual as thinking . His is , as Eliot would argue , an intact non- dissociative sensibility . The Shakespearian idea is inseparable from its mode of expression "
I agree with Germaine in her Germaine point , as a species we may have peaked a couple hundred years ago , a sentiment which the good Archdruid has also expressed on occasion ..

Nancy Sutton said...

OK, probably OT, but..paraphrasing Jesus, I think...

Pope Francis (out loud!): "... unfettered capitalism is the dung of Satan..."

Isaac Hill said...

JMG, in response to my response you used the words "intuitive apperception" (thank you) which I googled and the first thing that came up was a definition from, I perused the site, noticing several ideas in common with a spiritual group that I have been affiliated with in the past, but this idea stuck out in regards to the difference between souls, minds and bodies:

" Just like my ego had dissolved, back in 1981, my ‘soul’ disappeared. I was no longer a ‘Self’ existing for all Eternity and transcending Time and Space. I no longer had a feeling of being – or ‘Being’ – and I could no longer detect the presence of The Absolute. There was no ‘Presence’ at all. Since that date I have continued to live in a condition of complete emancipation and utter autonomy ... the condition is both permanent and actual. This is different from Enlightenment in that it is most definitely substantial: there is no longer a transcendence, for I have neither sorrow nor malice anywhere at all to rise above."

I know this might be a topic for the other blog, but what is your perception of your essential identity?

KL Cooke said...

I don't have an opinion on the existence of Free Will, because:

A. My mind isn't deep enough.

B. The issue doesn't have much bearing on practical matters on a day to day basis, at least for me.

However, in light of the discussion, I have a whimsical question (without an agenda--really).

How does Free Will correlate with Spengler's cyclical concept of history?

KL Cooke said...


"The oracle, in telling us what 'one wants to do', is revealing our True Will. That is EXACTLY its PURPOSE. Because we are so hedged about with self-censorship and social obligations, we often cannot determine what our True Will is. By laying out an ambiguous 'direction' from a 'higher source', it frees us to express our own innate desires - this is a feature, not a bug."

This is true, if one understands the oracle (and here I speak specifically of the I Ching--our host has recommended geomancy, of which I know nothing) as a kind of Rorschach for the purposes of self understanding. When the results are seen as an omen, however, one may well discover that what one wants to do has proven ill-advised. So, in oracular matters one is well cautioned by Pope's epigram regarding a little learning being a dangerous thing.

jean-vivien said...

"Jean-Vivien, and it's not the only market that's crashing. We'll see, but this could well mark the arrival of the era of impact I've been discussing for so long now. "
Turns out I was wrong. The Chinese had the guts to do the only thing that can effectively avert a stock market crash : that is, impose that everyone behave exactly as if no crash were happening. Now Greece is back in the rank, at least till its people call up the brown shirts and leather boots... and the Dow Jones is up to cruising speed again. If the price of oil was any indication, eras of impact will be preceded not by a deep crash but by high volatility.
I hope you are wrong as well : if stock market economy is a very complex derivation from the primate category of food collection, then it shapes out as a pretty frontal insult to the honest counting of bananas routinely performed by humble monkeys.

Speaking of maths, a useful skill to preserve would be building and carpentry calculations. 3d-printed buildings won't be around forever, though I don't know about the availability of cheap concrete in an era of scarcity industrialism.
One last question, maybe related to the others : since the latest posts have turned to the philosophical, and people here are positing consciousness in a lot of unusual places, how can we start hands-on divergent work, if not convergent experiments, with those other forms of awareness? Basically, if we stop dreaming of machines, what else is there to dream of, in an era of long descent ? (and I already know the answer : a lot. It's on the details that I expect the best insights from this audience)

jean-vivien said...

and another really humorous article from The Onion ... err no, from Reuters:

Our primate mental categories have derived into a pretty shrewed mess !

KL Cooke said...


"My wife and I are friends with Irene Pepperberg, and we have visited her lab and interacted with Alex, the African Grey Parrot, several times. Whatever was going on with Alex, it was far more complex than the case of Clever Hans, the horse. Clever Hans did no more than a very simple form of "cold reading," in that he looked for and responded to a simple (possibly unconscious) cue from his owner that he had stamped his hoof enough times, or otherwise performed as desired. In contrast, Alex had mastered elementary phrase structure syntax for English, and could create new English phrases to describe new objects that he had not encountered before."

This is not Alex. This is Einstein, another African Grey.

And then there's Griffin. Clearly a smart bird, as birds go.

And n the second video we meet Einstein again (at about 2 minutes in). Here it becomes obvious that Einstein is going through a set routine in response to cues. Smarter than Clever Hans, but does he have a subjective understanding of the words he's "parroting?"

Perhaps Alex was on a higher level than Einstein, even as the human Einstein was on a higher level than say, me. I'll keep an open mind on the subject. Certainly I'd like to believe that Alex had sentience as we know it. Or maybe not, for if Alex, then how about the chicken I had for dinner? But in any case, I have to remain skeptical.

Tony f. whelKs said...

I'm a bit surprised this week that no-one has yet raised Orwell, because he had a perfect word for describing this ability to adhere to two contradictory beliefs simultaneously:

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

Myself, I'm sure I hold some contradictory views, which is partly why I don't like to be too firm in expressing them, but rather treat both aspects as provisional, or an uncollapsed wave-function to put in in quantum mechanical terms. If I ever decide one or other is totally 'true', then I trust the opposing view will be expunged.

On the other hand, it can also be seen as a matter of taking multiple viewpoints into mind - by shifting between different reality tunnels, one can see the world in different ways. I think it only becomes pathological if multiple tunnels are considered to be The Truth at the same time, when - of course - any reality tunnel can never be The Truth, but only a perspective. So long as we accept that our perspective is that alone, and do not identify with it, the agility of mind required to flip between them is an asset. Once identification sets in, we stray outside the territory conventionally demarked by the notion of 'sanity'.

Cherokee Organics said...


The hypocrisy perhaps stems from the unfortunate truth that we're all "on the take". How else does anyone who has lived in the receiving end of an Empire sleep at night knowing that products are produced in sweat shop conditions in the third world? We're all the 1% here. It is that simple. Hypocrisy helps us reconcile the difficulties involved with that knowledge.

Incidentally, I'm unsure whether that Jesus dude was referring to a particular nation, people or even the entire ecosphere as it is not as if he went out of his way to provide an exact definition of what he meant by the word the “poor”? A lot of our human actions make the other residents on this planet very poor indeed.

Just for your interest both the dogs and chickens take the time and effort to communicate with me. Dogs are not difficult to understand at all and the chickens have many verbal means of communication. The boss chook will come up to me every day in greeting and go "bok, bok, bok" and I will respond in turn. When the chickens spot a predator as they did today, they will call out a rumbling "burr" sound. A wedge tail eagle circled lazily overhead and what was interesting too was that a Kookaburra bird also called out a similar call. All of the chickens in the orchard paid attention and ran back to the shed. They spotted the eagle well before I did.

Just out of pure interest: Was it all this recent talk of Conan that twigged you to next week’s essay? My take on the matter is that you have been working towards that point for quite a while now as you mentioned it a long time ago. Of course our civilisation has a self-destruct button built in, when we choose to ignore our basic programming and not adapt common sense basic limits to the worst of our behaviours. We have to believe the lies or otherwise it brings into question all of our previous decisions. Still, I'm merely guessing and have no idea where you are leading us, but I enjoy the journey - despite having a cold and not feeling very well.

The quality thing interests me because I've often noted tales of people over dosing on medicine - often fatally - and I've been thinking that they followed the principle that one is good, therefore two must be better, without being able to distinguish the quality difference between the two (or more).


Cherokee Organics said...

I've never heard that argument before that free will doesn't exist and it sounds preposterous to my ears. Perhaps I need to get out more? ;-)! Hehe! Your entire essay this week was about dissensus. To me that is hardly surprising, but then I'm off and away at the fringes of society - literally and figuratively - and worrying about practical things like wondering whether I have enough time to learn all of the things I have to learn to survive in such a place whilst there is still the fat to do so. Sometimes, I often get the distinct impression that I’m only one error away from a disaster here as the margin of error is quite thin indeed. Unfortunately people who live in urban areas have such great infrastructure that they don't even see it anymore.

PS: My current chicken project is coming along nicely and hopefully will be finished within the next two weeks. However, I'm always left with this vague and often confirmed perception that I'm only just ahead of unfolding events. It is a mildly disturbing feeling. This week has been a ripper as there is an Antarctic Vortex about to hit this corner of the world over the next 24 hours and so a bit of snow may be dumped here. I hope the many sub-tropical plants at the farm here are OK?



PPS: There is a new blog entry up: Chooks – the next generation. Let's get this next unpleasant bit out of the way because the title is a dodgy Star Trek groaner. ! I was actually wondering whether you were thinking of Star Trek when the vacuum tube exploded? Hehe! Anyway, back to seriousness. The blog shows the chicken enclosure taking its ultimate form! More concrete steps are being built. There is an awesome photo of a massive tree which is right next to the orchard which for all sorts of reasons I'd not noticed for many years. Seriously, this tree pre-dates European settlement, it's big and one of the oldest in the mountain range. One of my poor confused trees will perhaps lose its early blossoms tomorrow (dissensus rules in the plant world too) and I talk honestly about solar PV electricity generation in the depths of winter. Good stuff and lots of photos.

Mike S said...

Recently started following this blog and becoming quite a fan. Really enjoyed this post too. I must admit, though, I am one of those who is skeptical that we have genuine free will, largely because of the point you make about randomness in relation to radiation. Surely, there must be an enormous amount of randomness going on in our brains too (the way neurons fire, connect etc) when we make decisions? Each day we face so many choices, most of which we are not aware of, some of which we are. In the case of the latter (and especially when there is uncertainty, a period of indecision, or need for a quick decision) the choice between yes or no, this way or that way, etc appears (at least in the way I experience it) to occur as if by chance (ie outside of conscious control).

I don't for one minute believe that things are predetermined or that my decisions are entirely controlled by outside forces, but I do believe that the path I have led up to this point in my life has largely been determined by chance and not by a some sort of central planning in my brain that determines the way my neurons fire in response to external and internal stimuli. Reading this blog, for example, is shaping how I see the world, but I stumbled across it by chance and how I react to it and interpret it is shaped by numerous chance events (inside and outside of my head) that I had no direct control over. I agree that it is dangerous to dismiss free will, but I also think it is potentially dangerous to give it pre-eminence, largely because it over-simplifies the causes of bad choices, and risks vilifying the weak and vulnerable. I guess, as with all things there needs to be balance.

Darren Urquhart said...

Hi JMG - have been studying Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth this year. How does randomness fit in with a world governed by cause and effect?

Jürgen Botz said...

You say that what makes humans unique is just that they happen to have both intelligence and hands, each of which separately exists in other species in nature. True, but I think there's a third feature which also exists separately in nature... civilization. One of my hobbies is studying ants... specifically leaf-cutter ants who have a highly sophisticated agricultural civilization. E. O. Wilson himself recently co-wrote wrote a book entitled "The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct", and his former student Mark Moffett has a lot to say on the subject of civilization in ants as well. The bottom line is, basically all the defining features of civilization can be found in various species of ants (if not all at once) demonstrating that it is a natural phenomenon that requires neither intelligence nor hands for it to emerge in a species.

Steve from Lakewood said...


Bravo for pointing out that in complex systems quality becomes the best description, and that thinking strictly in terms of quantity will ineveitably come up lacking. A quibble on your understanding of the role of chance in quantum mechanics (my background is a PhD in physics on the foundations of quantum theory). Quantum theory is a probability theory useful for predicting the outcome of future observations, and it emphatically does not describe nature directly (epistemology, not ontology). Von Neumann invented the notion of the collapse of the wave function in his book in 1932, probably recognizing that there was a measurement problem. He repudiated that idea in 1936. Similarly, Schrodinger's Cat was introduced as a devastating criticism of an interpretation of quantum mechanics as a direct description of nature put forth by Bohr. It is still being paid attention to today as literal even by capable physicists who weren't paying attention in class (which is understandable as nothing practical is likely to come from thinking deeply about such conundrums). David Bohm tried to rescue quantum theory as a direct description of nature by introducing the notion that there were some hidden variables, but when you follow this approach to trying to convert quantum theory into a direct description of nature your physical predictions come up wrong. So, when you go to Las Vegas and play craps there are not really 36 dice in the air whose wave function collapses into a single pair of dice when they come to a stop and you look at them. Duh!

I would point out that there are limits then to what quantum mechanics, and by implication all of science, can predict. It is founded on causality, i.e., that causes precede effects, but could not relate in any way to things outside of the simple causal sequences it is based on. Poincare in 1896 destroyed the notion of Victorian determinism through mathematics--if math says you cannot do it, you cannot. Physical science can say nothing, for instance, about magic and miracles, and we know that in the scientific field of complex systems there are fundamental limits to the prediction of future measurements of physical systems. They can predict the rain with greater or lesser accuracy using statistics, but they cannot predict whether or not you will have a nice day. There are values simply beyond the physical world.

Ed-M said...

OT and many apologies if someone else posted this before, but Stephen Hawking predicts a catastrophic ending for Planet Earth in the not too distant future and declares that only by going into space will humanity have any hope for a long-term future.

And if we don't get into space? "It will be difficult to avoid disaster on Planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand," says Mr. Hawking.

Looks like Guy McPherson's crazy hypothesis is becoming contagious.

John Roth said...

re: free will

The term “free will” carries some religious baggage, at least for me. I prefer to use the term “choice.” Any person who has a number of different available behaviors in a specific situation will exhibit choice, and hence “free will.” The influences that make one behavior pop out instead of another are too complex to compute - especially since the influence seem to include some inherent indeterminacy at the level of individual neurons.

@Richard b:

The egg came first, of course. If you apply strict categorization, there are chickens and not-chickens. Something that was a not-chicken laid an egg that hatched a chicken. Of course, that kind of strict categorization has its own problems.

@Ben Iscatus

The “soul” is a lot more than that: it is not a simple witness to what’s going on.

@Cherokee Organics

I’m told that the word “poor” is not a good translation of the Greek. We have two words: rich and poor. The Greeks had at least three. One denoted a person who lived off of investments (usually land in that time and place); the second a person who had a secure profession and the third a day laborer. The latter is the word usually translated as “poor.”

peacegarden said...

@ Donal

Thank you for mentioning The Secret Teaching of Plants in the Direct Perception of Nature, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. Yes! I was going to suggest that very book! Put the teachings into practice and your life will forever be changed.



Robert Mathiesen said...

You are quite right about Einstein: that parrot is responding to obvious cues, and has almost certainly been deliberately trained to do that in much the same way as anyone might train, say, a dog to respond in other ways to other cues. To use technical terms from linguistics, Einstein has mastered a limited range of linguistic performance, but shows no evidence of linguistic competence. Performance is what a monolingual tourist has in a foreign language if he has only memorized a few dozen guidebook phrases, which he can parrot and recognize. Competence is what a tourist is starting to have when he has learned the foreign language well enough to carry on a rudimentary, but meaningful conversation in it with a stranger in a strange situation, or create an appropriate verbal response to an unforeseen experience.

You can't tell it from any *brief* video, but if you had interacted with Alex for a couple of hours (as my wife and I did), you would have seen rudimentary competence in English. But you don't have to take my word for it; if the question is important enough to you, you can read Pepperberg's published, peer-reviewed papers.

I should mention that Alex was trained to (rudimentary) competence, and not just performance, by a very clever, but time-consuming method that Pepperberg calls the "model-rival" method of training. It involves two humans, one of whom is the trainer, the other a model and rival, as well as the parrot. The other person also models, or sometimes fails to model, the desired English response (effortless for a human), and receives, or doesn't receive, rewards, in the presence of the parrot, so that the parrot is competing with a human during the training. Alex was rather competitive. The target -- the object to be named, or described by a phrase -- varies enormously, and became ever more complex over the years.

Pepperberg worked with Alex for thirty years. By the end of that time, Alex could come up with a new appropriate combination of several English adjectives and nouns to describe a target object he had never before encountered. This is not performance, and therefore not cuing, either. In answer to a verbal request, Alex could describe the one object in a tray of objects that differed from the others in a specificed, say, in shape (rather than in color), where the tray contained a target of each possible sort. And so forth. This is rudimentary competence.

Pepperberg has worked with Griffin for only about seven years so far. Of course Griffin isn't as far along as Alex was when he died.

Does your final question about the chicken you had for dinner indicate a certain amount of moral or ethical discomfort with the possibility that it might be sentient and intelligent?

If so, I have no comfort to offer you there. Truth is truth, and one of its leading characteristics is that it very often tosses us humans on the horns of one or another extremely uncomfortable moral dilemma. That's the price of being human. No one gets out of life alive at the end, and no one gets out of it without blood on one's hands at the end, either. It's just not possible. Me, I choose truth over my own moral comfort.

Iuval Clejan said...

Dear Onething,

Hi! Fancy talking to you over the internet. I suppose I am a dualist. My working hypothesis is that brains (and possibly other entities) facilitate a doorway into the realm of Platonic forms (where time is euclidian instead of lorentzian, which is what it is in the material realm).

john john said...

N Montesano as to the question of our abilities for communication across species this is a website that may interest you,

latheChuck said...

Re: Please, don't kill your TV! Just put it away in a safe, dry, place, until we can (and need to) salvage the electronic components for ham radio re-use. --*** ***-- DE AB3NA.

latheChuck said...

Re: metric vs. Imperial weights and measures... It seems to me that the system used here in the US, of pints and pounds, just doesn't get enough respect from a pre-collapse audience. In the SI system of units, one liter of water has one kilogram of mass; in our system, one pint of water has one pound of mass. If all you have for establishing a standard system of weights and measures is a two-pan balance scale, you can divide the standard pound four times: one ounce is 1/16th of a pound. One cup (of water) is 8 ounces, which is 1/16th of a gallon. 1/16th of a cup is one Tablespoon.

A decimal system is fine for calculations, but this fractional system exists because it works well for people doing actual weighing. If I were to request "a pound of dry beans" from the merchant, it wouldn't make much difference whether they're poured into a pan on a digital electronic scale, or into a prehistoric balance scale with a "one pound standard" on the opposite side.

In fact, I think I'd have more trust in the balance scale. If I doubted its accuracy, I could check the merchant's standard with my own. The merchant, knowing this, would hesitate to use an underweight standard. (If they disagree, there would be no immediate way to resolve the difference, but eventually one could appeal to The King's Pound or some such, and identify a cheater.)

latheChuck said...

Given the importance of evolution in modern thought, I assert that any philosophical school must first have the property of "attracting resources to its proponent", whether these are potential mates, publishing contracts, or tenure (just to name a few). And ANY philosophical school which is successful in attracting potential mates, publishing contracts, and/or tenure is likely to persist as long as it is successful, even if it bears little relation to the nature of the universe as perceived by Science. Rationality is optional, and in some cases antagonistic to the evolutionary success of the school.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Dr. Hawking doesn't get out much. Perhaps that influences his perspective.

winingwizzard said...

Lots of great thoughts and comments, but I STILL go back to my surfing days when I think about life. Or running whitewater in a yak or canoe - you got to go with the flow, but you do get to choose your chute or your wave. Too many variables in life - better to just try and stay afloat and enjoy it.

Sure we can dig into the guts of everything, and try to learn from life as we ride it, but in the end, teaching the young is what matters most. They are get to grow beyond where we exist - they stand to benefit most from avoiding traps and new ways of viewing the world we are in.

KL Cooke said...


"...I choose truth over my own moral comfort."

I agree with you. The chicken was a hypothetical. I don't eat chicken or terrestrial meat in general, unless I happen to be served it at someone's table, which is seldom. That's not for ethical reasons, however, but because I don't trust the meat supply. I do eat fish, several times a week. Fish that I catch myself. Some of them are quite magnificent creatures. And I kill them. Whether or not they possess the means to reflect upon injustice is immaterial. I try to be grateful to them forgiving me their lives, but the truth is, they don't give them. I take them.

Whimsical thought--I often see pods of dolphins chasing fish offshore. Since it's generally recognized that dolphins have superior mental capacity, do they experience ethical questions? Incidentally, some dolphins are known to kill smaller porpoises. They ram them at high speed, causing massive internal injuries. They don't eat the porpoises, they just kill them. No one knows why.

John Michael Greer said...

Caryn, a fine outburst of common sense! For my part, I don't worry about these things a great deal, but it's easy for people to get caught up in destructive ideologies, and sometimes a few (or more than a few) more or less cogent words about the flaws in those ideologies can help some people evade them -- thus this week's post.

Nick, if I give a name or a description to it, am I still resting uncontrived and perceiving clearly in the gap between thoughts?

Vincent, of course there's a difference: you think with your brain, and you hitchhike with your thumb. ;-)

Other Tom, I'd be delighted to pose for such a mural. Since it might require several tries for the artist to get the sketch right, I'd be perfectly willing to stand there and throw as many televisions into the dumpster as needed!

Thomas, true enough. If you go here and scroll down a bit, you might find a familiar face!

Ares, good. Yes -- and Schumacher's an unusually lucid guide there, of course.

John, well, yes, my post was satiric -- I don't actually think that American evangelical Christianity is riddled with secret devil worshippers. (Though you must admit it would explain a thing or two...)

Vicky, I read the first, though not the second, and found it interesting but rather too dependent on certain commonplaces of modern thought for my taste. That said, since most people do take those commonplaces seriously, he's probably a better fit for most readers than I am!

Ed-M, in my teens and twenties, I rejected Christianity out of hand for exactly that reason: the antics of the late-70s and 80s-era fundamentalists were so obviously driven by lust for power that I dismissed the entire tradition as hopelessly corrupt. It took me a long time to work past that.

Crow, okay, that one gets tonight's gold star for sheer exuberance. For the record, btw, I lived in a second floor apartment with a fire escape outside one window, and the dumpster was directly below the fire escape. I got out onto the fire escape, held it out some distance from my body, made sure that it would drop straight into the open side of the dumpster, and let go and let gravity do the rest.

Eugen, perhaps you can tell me why, then, nearly every system of divination known and used by human beings uses random inputs?

John Michael Greer said...

Kutamun, nah, I don't think our species peaked then; to some extent, our civilization did, but there will almost certainly be many other civilizations after ours is gone, and they'll have their own peaks.

Nancy, yes, I read about that. I think he's quite correct.

Isaac, my perception of my essential identity? Something that cannot be communicated in words, of course.

KL, the same way that the random decay of individual nuclei correlates with the fact that if you have enough nuclei, you can predict fairly well how many will have decayed at any given point in time.

Jean-Vivien, I wouldn't be too quick to assume that everything's hunky-dory yet. Stay tuned...

Tony, nice! I should have thought of doublethink, for that matter.

Cherokee, hmm! No, I hadn't been thinking of Conan in particular -- the point I plan to make next Wednesday is something I've been brooding over for some years. I may want to go digging in my Robert Howard collection for an appropriate Conan quote, though, just to add some Cimmerian spice to the brew.

Mike, of course there's randomness going on in the brain, and there's also some degree of determinism. There's also a certain amount of conscious choice. None of these three things excludes the others.

Darren, excellent. I encourage you to spend the next few meditation sessions exploring that, and in particular getting a sense of what it says about the relation between abstract principles such as the seven laws and the actual texture of the universe as we experience it.

Jurgen, of course! Some humans are civilized, and some aren't; those that are, have followed a sort of convergent social evolution into patterns like those of bees and ants. African naked mole-rats also have hivelike societies, btw, so it's a pattern found in mammals in a strict genetic sense also.

Steve, interesting. I gather, though, from the feedback I've received from other physicists, that the relation between quantum mechanics and the actual world is quite a contentious issue these days, the viewpoint you've set out here is only one of several contending opinions, and at least one of the others affirms that quantum phenomena are actually random in the strong sense of that word.

Ed-M, I wonder how many elderly scientists will go around predicting the imminent end of the world before everyone starts to notice that after an entire career spent trying to erase the subjective dimensions of their own experience and focus on the world outside, this is naturally how they deal with the awareness of their own impending mortality?

John Michael Greer said...

John, by all means use whatever label you prefer!

LatheChuck, oh, I don't plan on killing any more televisions -- well, unless I end up posing for the mural Crowandsheep suggested! Your Darwinian analysis of philosophies is brilliant, by the way -- not least because it makes sense when taken seriously, and also makes sense when taken as a parody.

Wizzard, do what keepeth thou from wilting shall be the loophole in the law. Me, I enjoy playing with ideas.

Cherokee Organics said...


If the next essay covers the areas that I believe that it will, then it is of tremendous importance - as are all of the topics that are discussed here. They get to the core of the issues gnawing away at the heart of our civilisation.

Unfortunately, there was no snow here today, but a whole lot of wind and rain. Still such weather beats heat waves hands down from my perspective - although it should be noted that it is easier to grow plants in hot conditions as long as you can provide them with adequate water. I'm feeling much better today too.

PS: There is a Conan quote website: Conan the Barbarian (1982) film Quotes.



Walter Bazzini said...

"I’ve long suspected that one of the reasons why human beings haven’t yet figured out how to carry on a conversation with bottlenosed porpoises ... in their own language is quite simply that we’re terrified of what they might say to us."

Choice. Though some of the animals you cite can be rather friendly to us, so perhaps they're not as bright as we give them credit for.

Nick Vail said...

JMG - no, we're having a conversation about it on your blog. ;)
Of course it's inexpressible. My next question for you: is the nature of reality separate from that direct experience?

Phil Harris said...

I rather liked your informing us that magic can change narratives. Having the will and practise must be involved, but morale also must have a strong resolving effect?

In that context, I am concerned with our predilections for analysis of ‘causes’ that tend to be taken for granted in many cultures, including ours, even to the extent of our engagement with notions of a Creator and some kind of historical relationship with ‘him’ and his original ‘purpose’. We can too easily end up with a strong, and often personalised ‘blame culture’? ‘Self – blame’ often seems more than reasonable, but resolving that to some better effect is pretty ineffectual within censorious and opinionated ‘blame cultures’. Crude versions of Darwinism do not do much better. Science and ‘determinism’ does not let one off the hook even if it can help avoid punishment from plagues of locusts.

A little benevolent magic can go a long way here. I regard my own narrative change 35 years ago when I became a non-smoking cigarette smoker to be down to a bit of instantaneously effective magic.

Charles Justice said...

Enjoyed these last two posts of yours JMG. I am also blogging about similar issues, although I come to different conclusions. my series is called "The Human Singularity". I agree with you that machines do not and never will have free will and independent purpose, But I do think that there is a defining difference between humans and animals, and it has to do with human moral systems. Social animals have self-organizing systems, but human society is deliberative, according to adherence to rules. Two million years ago the invention of stone tools led to the replacement of the alpha male with the collective regulation of behaviour. This is what made, larger brains, longer childhoods, larger human groups and the development of language and culture possible.

Steve Thomas said...

@ JMG-- I agree with you about the Ayn Rand Christians, of course... I remember when I first heard about La Vey's Satanism thinking that it matched the ideology of the Christian Right at the time. This was during it's heydays in the '90s, so there was plenty of time for somebody to notice, but you're still the only person to say it out loud, in public.

About the TV thing-- I don't think that smashing a TV would be very meaningful for me, for the simple reason that for most of my adult life (I'm 32) I haven't owned one. Computers are a different story. I would participate in a computer smashing contest every day of the week. A few years ago, I was working on my laptop, and it was making that computer-fan noise that provides a constant torturing soundtrack to so much of daily life, and I brought my fist down on it in irritation. It sputtered, went black, and never worked again. I lost a lot of important material that I hadn't saved anywhere else, and sort of wish I hadn't done it. But the satisfaction that I felt in that brief moment was... Well, I was going to say it was indescribable, but I think I've found the exact historical parallel:

I was reading David Bentley Hart's book Atheist Delusions. Hart is an Orthodox Christian philosopher-- I think you're familiar with his work-- who ranges between the profound and the insufferable. Anyway, he was describing baptismal rites in early Christian Europe. Apparently the candidate for baptism was required to spit three times toward the west before entering the water, the West being the location of altars in old pagan temples. Hart, of course, uses this to (rightly, I think) show that the act of converting to Christianity was an act of defiance toward one's tormenters in the official cults of the day; he then extrapolates (wrongly) that any pagan religion is oppressive in the same way.

It occurred to me on reading that that a similar rite of initiation, practiced by participants in a religion of the "new sensibility" you've talked about, might consist of smashing a computer or trampling on an iPhone. I had heard your television story before, but didn't until just now make the connection-- that a spiritual leader of the new sensibility had already undergone the baptismal rite in just that way!

@ sgage-- Goodness! I meant nothing by it, though-- I play a guitar also, and I was happy to have a pickup truck available when I lived in the country. And I've noticed that members of our sex can use basically anything as "natural enhancement"-- from chainsaws and hunting rifles to poetry and politically correct language.

Hortense Weinblatt said...

" ... random in the strictest sense of the world. .... Pure dumb luck." Or not. Gracious! Umpteen paragraphs about how little the human mind knows - and then, _this_??

Good sir, it is time for you to give Jeremy Narby's book, "The Cosmic Serpent", a read: you are perfectly poised for it. (When you do, please do read all the footnotes. Jeremy is Swiss, so his book is structured rather formally. Some of the footnotes are dry, but most of them - especially the last one of all - are vital.)

stravinsky7 said...

I'm very curious, in regards to your response to dagnarus, what shared beliefs allow this nondeterminism to become a more fully formed idea of free will. I can totally see how it at least allows it.

peacegarden said...


Instead of a universe that cares about us, how about a universe that we care about? At least the limited part we can know…for me that is not so much a loss as a more correct map of the territory…better to navigate with humility than live one’s life in a lie. I think young people might be very open to the reality of “what is” once they have a chance to ingest it…not all, but enough of them to make a future. There is much magic in life; to live it well, we need to be observers, experiencers (is that even a word?), and celebrants. That sounds like a life we can live with.



Myosotis said...

This post reminds me of two ideas I've had percolating for a while.

I'm sure this has been discussed by someone who is much more of a scholar than I am, but it seems like memetic evolution and religion are bound together tightly. Religion lasts because they make their civilization last. That's why you get the "universal truths" like being a good host in almost all the religions that have made it to now. It was better for their society, even if it isn't much practiced anymore.

Do you (plural you, anyone of you lovely people) know of any religious/spiritual groups that try to focus on microbes? I feel a sort of Animism but more so. Microbes make up a huge amount of what I think of as me. They make the soil work, they give rain something to coalesce around.

Cherokee Organics said...


It occurred to me yesterday that the whole Greek saga has some very interesting parallels to the US money printing situation. My brain has been ferreting away at the problem that Vincent (the commenter) raised a few weeks back where he was basically writing that it all doesn't matter. I tend to think that it actually does matter.

The European Central Bank (ECB) has been indulging - I believe - in money printing exercises and despite those money printing exercises Greece is still in trouble and asking for a further bailout: Athens the focus but China the risk for Australia. When you stand back from the detail and look at the situation dispassionately you can see that the ECB - apparently - can print money at will. The Greeks want further money from the ECB or International Monetary Fund too. And yet at the same time there is a reluctance to provide that freshly printed money to the Greeks. Really, it is a very fascinating insight into the human condition.

Then you swing your attention back to the US and think about how that scenario may play out there. Would the Federal government possibly provide freshly printed money to states and cities that are in financial trouble - and there are plenty of those too? I'd have to suggest that on a balance of probabilities the answer would be no - even if that meant a possible destruction of the arrangements that keep and enforce those centralised systems of power. There comes a point in time where it is wise to back down from an ideological position and deal with the realities of the scenario that you find yourself in – but then that demands a level of flexibility that few people nowadays display because I believe that they realise that this will mean a cut to their own standard of living and we are all about pushing those cuts onto other people these days.

Yes, the general conclusion that I have to take from all of the above is that we are basically pretty limited by our simian natures. Sun Tzu advised to always leave an "out" for an opponent and noted that backing that opponent into a corner would produce a very fierce and very costly response.

Incidentally, it is fascinating to witness the seemingly never ending and mind achingly dull meetings going on in Europe which are I believe are designed to wear down an opponent’s mettle. A bureaucrat’s pen can be a fearsome weapon, but it can sometimes be ignored too. As someone who has collected debts for a living, I feel that such activities as meetings are a pointless waste of time and I'd probably advise investing that time and resources into military superiority instead so you can basically tell them what to do in no uncertain terms. Just sayin... There is a limit to the effectiveness of that strategy too. If the ability to repay is not there, the debt won't be repaid, simple as that.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Charles Justice,

Quote: "replacement of the alpha male with the collective regulation of behaviour".

Surely you are joking, aren't you? If collective regulation of behaviour existed then we wouldn't be in the mess that we are in because we could set limits on the behaviour of individuals or groups of individuals for the greater benefit of the species. I don't see that happening to any large extent.

As to your claim about larger brains, mate that has more to do with an excellent adaption to difficult environmental circumstances that our forebears found themselves in. It was all to do with survival.

As to the whole social advancement thing, sometimes I feel as if every win comes at some sort of cost. Seriously, one of my favourite Australian authors now has a brand new gold mine up stream of her 30 year old totally organic and really amazing property. That mine has gone from bad to worse as the miners are currently considering employing arsenic in the mining process. Mind you, apparently, they've had a few spills into the local creek which the author also shares. What was distressing was that I read one of her recent essays and I got a chill of recognition when she was writing about: "how much her generation had achieved". Astute people will understand that the chill was a Big Chill! Yet every win that she mentioned was a social win and I have never felt that you can have a social win without the background ecological win, and yet somehow we comfort ourselves with those social wins - which mean absolutely nothing if the environment in which we all live in gets trashed. Sometimes I feel that the social wins are dangled before us like the carrots they are for our continuing good behaviour. They're often very cheap to provide, whilst in comparison the environmental wins are very expensive.



Scotlyn said...

@Charles Justice - every "defining difference" between humans and animals, when pursued, becomes impossible to pin down. We are different from other animals in many ways, but so, individually, is every other species. There is no single category in which all animals, except humans, belong together. We excel in many ways, but so does each other species in its own way. We fail in many ways, but so do (most) other species - the number that persist past the average species "lifespan" of a few million years is quite small. We are human chauvinists, and I often suspect that is one of the chief ways in which we fail - that is to say, this may turn out to be one of our most maladaptive traits.

James said...

Archdruid, a non-relevant link, so feel free to delete if it doesn't meet your needs.

It looks like Iowa is going to contract its road system.

A quote:

"Yet from 2009 to 2011 the state still spent 52 percent of its highway money on expansion. No surprise, then, that its share of roads in “good” condition fell from an already low 39 percent in 2008 to a frightful 21 percent by 2011. Iowa spends about $217 million a year on road repair, but Smart Growth America estimates that to get its roads into decent shape it needs to spend closer to $555 million a year over the next 20 years."

Wonder where that money is going to come from? I suspect it's not going to come from anywhere, and we'll have fewer roads altogether.

Cathy McGuire said...

Another very interesting post - sorry I haven't had a chance to comment, but I've been busy finishing my submission for the latest contest. You can read it here:


onething said...

Good sir, it is time for you to give Jeremy Narby's book, "The Cosmic Serpent", a read: you are perfectly poised for it. (When you do, please do read all the footnotes. Jeremy is Swiss, so his book is structured rather formally. Some of the footnotes are dry, but most of them - especially the last one of all - are vital.)

I second the motion, and also someone above gave 2 links. I checked one and it was excellent. Nature institute org I believe.

Ed-M said...


"I wonder how many elderly scientists will go around predicting the imminent end of the world before everyone starts to notice that after an entire career spent trying to erase the subjective dimensions of their own experience and focus on the world outside, this is naturally how they deal with the awareness of their own impending mortality?"

All of them?

Fabian said...

@ JMG and Cherokee Organics:

How about these, which are quotes from the original Conan stories by Robert E Howard:

"Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph." – Beyond the Black River

“Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” – The Tower of the Elephant

“What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie?
I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky.
The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing;
Rush in and die, dogs—I was a man before I was a king.” – The Phoenix on the Sword

And some non-Conan quotes from Two-Gun Bob:

“I think the real reason so many youngsters are clamoring for freedom of some vague sort, is because of unrest and dissatisfaction with present conditions; I don't believe this machine age gives full satisfaction in a spiritual way, if the term may be allowed.”

“When a nation forgets her skill in war, when her religion becomes a mockery, when the whole nation becomes a nation of money-grabbers, then the wild tribes, the barbarians drive in... Who will our invaders be? From whence will they come?”

“But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood.”

“The more I see of what you call civilization, the more highly I think of what you call savagery!” - King Kull

Vincent said...

@Cherokee Organics

Hello Chris,

In Greece’s case it certainly does matter.

I previously wrote, “Countries, such as Greece, who no longer issue their own currency, are basically on a gold standard within the framework of the Euro. Greece’s spending is now constrained just like any municipality, or you and I. They must take the austerity formula of cutting spending and raising taxes.”

You now write, “Would the Federal government possibly provide freshly printed money to states and cities that are in financial trouble - and there are plenty of those too?” Chris, I don’t expect you to know how the US system works, but that is exactly what happens here.

The richer States such as New York, and California, receive less money from our federal treasury than they are taxed. Poorer states such as Mississippi, and Alabama, receive more federal assistance than taxed. The taxes are in the form of personal income tax and the expenditures are things such as infrastructure projects.

Greece’s problem is there is no mechanism for transfer payments from the surplus countries, such as Germany. If Greece remains in the Euro there are only two solutions: continued austerity; or, debt forgiveness (default). And we all know rich people and bankers are no longer allowed to lose money.

Chris, you need to ask yourself, where does money come from? Really, think about it. Try to trace it back to its source. Hint: it’s all money printing.

Tyler August said...

I have a note about the physics of atomic decay below, but more to the point on free will, since this is apparently the only time I will be able to post a comment on it:

I believe that I am a deterministic creature, even if radioactive atoms may not be. To whit: if you knew with perfect accuracy the state of mind I was in at a given time, and all the gestalt rules and representations my mind uses to process stimuli, you could predict my behavior based on given stimuli, regardless of the laws of physics. Rewind the clock to 1995 (or whenever you please), and I would act exactly according to my nature, and would 20 years later be here, again, writing this post. Do all of you who posit "free will" find your minds so given in to random impulses that you would not say the same?

Yes, we can change the rules we use to process stimuli, but if you had perfect knowledge of my mind and its workings, you could also use that to predict my decision to do that, my choice of practice, and, I suspect, how effective the practice would be-- allowing you to continue to model my behavior. That I cannot do the same to myself is simply because I do not have perfect self-knowledge, in my opinion. Perhaps I misunderstand what is meant by free will; if so, please clarify.

Putting my physicist hat on, here:
Atomic decay does appear to be completely random. You can even use it to generate high-quality random numbers (i.e., here: Appearances can be deceiving, though. Could some underlying deterministic process produce such randomness? It is not impossible; Brownian motion comes to mind. Purely deterministic newtonian billiard-ball physics of fluid molecules colliding with a grain of pollen gives a 'random walk' that appears so completely unpredictable it took almost 80 years and Albert Einstein to figure out the mechanism.
As it happens, a purely deterministic mechanism for atomic decay has been proposed under the framework of Bohmian mechanics* (see here: ). But the kicker is this: it is only deterministic in principle. The initial conditions of the particles within the nucleus are unknowable (because they are unmeasurable, thanks to the uncertainty principle). In practice, just as with Brownian motion, we get a very random result from the 'clockwork' model.

*very much a niche interpretation of QM, for the record.

Does that count as determinism? If, in principle, you knew all the initial conditions, you could simulate it-- but, in principle, you cannot know all the initial conditions. Bit of a blurred line there, isn't it?

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, well, we'll see! The quotes I have in mind, though, are from Robert E. Howard's original stories, rather than from the movie -- though I thought the first film, at least, was an engaging piece of camp.

Walter, I suppose that's true!

Nick, since all we have to go on is experiences of one kind or another, how could we possibly know?

Phil, exactly. One of the places where the entire stand-off between determinism and free will falls down is when you deliberately choose to use methods such as those of magic to manipulate the unconscious aspects of yourself, knowing that those methods will have relatively deterministic results...

Charles, obviously I disagree. On the one hand, since we're unable to communicate with other animals in ways that would allow us to find out if they also have moral systems, you're building your entire case on an argument from ignorance; on the other, er, where did you get the idea that alpha males no longer run human societies? Last I checked, you can find one or more of them at the top of every social pyramid you care to name.

Steve, yeah, Hart's argument is pretty standard in too many Christian circles these days -- basically, "Here's how we Christians interpreted other religions in a very brief and idiosyncratic historical context 1800 years ago, and this gives us the right to insist that every other religion must inevitably act out those same roles forever." The idea of destroying an iPhone actually doesn't do much for me, just as the idea of destroying a TV doesn't do much for you, and for the same reason -- I've never owned or used one. Still, maybe that's the basis for the postprogress sacrament: take whatever piece of technology you've been most dependent on, and smash it into flinders.

Hortense, I'll put it on the list of books to get to.

Stravinsky, that's probably going to take an entire post worth of discussion. I'll see if I can fit it in one of these weeks.

Myosotis, a Darwinian analysis of religions has a lot to offer. As for religions with a focus on microbes, I don't know of one; we have yet to see the Bacterians rival the Presbyterians...

Cherokee, one of the points that usually gets neglected in discussions of money and debt is that money is a proxy for real wealth, and it only functions as a proxy if the ability to exchange a certain amount of money for a certain amount of this or that sort of real wealth -- i.e., actual goods and services -- remains relatively stable. Of course the US can print endless amounts of money -- but it can't print endless amounts of real wealth, and it's real wealth that's needed to repair decaying urban infrastructure, etc., etc. Thus you're right; it does matter, because the flows of real wealth that are managed by monetary flows matter.

John Michael Greer said...

James, it's off topic for this post but on topic generally, and relevant to the upcoming series of posts. Many thanks!

Cathy, got it -- you're in the contest. A reminder to all -- you've got a month and a half left to get your stories in...

Ed-M, I hope people get a clue a little sooner than that...

Fabian, good. As it happens, one of those is the quote I already had in mind. Stay tuned!

Tyler, I'm sorry to hear that your thinking is so mechanical. I'm quite sure that if a dozen different JMG-clones were to encounter the identical set of stimuli, they'd come up with at least a dozen different responses!

JML said...

"Free will" (whatever it means exactly) isn't really a useful concept in my view, unless you're trying to establish guilt. In Western (post-Greco-Roman, Christian, Faustian) societies, the primary method of social control is the inculcation of guilt and the criminal justice system. Free will has been a major topic of Western theology and law for over a thousand years for this very reason.

Free will as mere unpredictability is not its original meaning and not how most people think of it. Most people seem to think of free will as a person having conscious control over their decisions, but hasn't that been demonstrated to be an illusion? An even better question is why is the agent being separated from its actions? Perhaps this bias results from the subject-predicate rule of language. For example, the sentence "the lightening flashed" separates the lightening from its flash, almost making it appear as if the lightening caused the flash when they are one and the same thing.

The vital question regarding free will is what does it mean for a "will" to be "free"? Answer that question and you've answered the question of whether or not free will exists. Personally, I find it more useful to speak of agency and volition than free will.

Phil Harris said...

JMG wrote: "Myosotis, a Darwinian analysis of religions has a lot to offer. As for religions with a focus on microbes, I don't know of one; we have yet to see the Bacterians rival the Presbyterians..."

Well... there seem to be fair number of folk around the ADR who get pretty spiritual about their compost heaps.

And I have this thing about what is going on underneath the clovers.


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