How Our Will Is Not So Free – Part I

For any of you who are foolish enough to read my blog you are used to a lot of rambling.  I can’t promise this will be too different, but I would like to be a little formal and have an actual thesis for this post.  I have posted my thoughts about free will in respect to religion, but even if one is not religious the idea

From http://www.brandonragle.com

that we have free will is extremely pervasive and I think it is ultimately a not necessarily helpful concept to believe in.  The choices that we think people have are an illusion and we tend to instead judge others because people do not make choices that we would make.  It prevents us from really helping those who are violent, disturbed, hurting, depressed, etc.  It has us believe that there are people who are inherently evil allowing us to dehumanize them and cast them aside, when instead they might simply have brain abnormalities, be traumatized, influenced by people as messed up as they are, or simply lost and confused in a world that is beyond them and behave desperately.  I think it also acts to separate us from nature and is a great source of human conceit.  Free will is not something we ascribe to plants or animals and thus also gives us the illusion that we lie in a place above all else.  Whether you believe that the supernatural has imparted us this blessing of greatness or you think that evolution is a pyramid in which humans rest on top, both these notions are ultimately dangerous because they allow us to justify great atrocities against nature as we continue to satisfy our own self-importance.

In the first 8 months of watching my son grow it is clear that free will is not something he was born with.  He started out simply crying when he was hurting, uncomfortable or hungry, and sleeping when he was sleepy.  Not a lot of free will going on there.  As I watch him change, I see him simply become aware of more things.  When he first could see our cats, not surprisingly he was curious and wanted to touch them.  Now that he’s been outside he asks to go outside (well not in words).  Now that he realizes the comfort of being held he asks to be held.  He also mimics.  He sees us eating something and he wants to eat it.  He sees us using a remote, our phones, computers, and he desperately wants to use those too (or rather put them in his mouth).

Before I formally begin my argument for the absence of free will I want to put an excellent quote from an article I read some time ago from the New Yorker which has had a large influence on my thoughts in trying to understand why we are the way we are and where this sense of self comes from that I blogged about some time ago.

I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.”

From http://www.eugenecascadescoast.org

The reason I want you to keep this in mind, because not only does it support the argument I am going to make (doesn’t of course make the statement true), but most importantly I want to reveal to you that just because I don’t think we have free will, doesn’t mean that I don’t find life absolutely amazing.  The idea expressed in this passage speaks to me in a way I cannot fully express, but I find this idea beautiful.  It tells me that we are product of processes that function over many different scales of time.  From what we learn each day, to what nature has molded us into over millions of years.  We can extend even further and look at the billions of years of evolution which has produced us , and we can go back further to old stars dying and being the seeds for our own sun and solar system which allowed one fortunate planet to even allow life to evolve.  So the fact I may not be quite as in control of the process is hardly depressing.  In fact it removes a lot of the pressure if anything.  I can simply marvel at all that has taken place for me to sit here and write these thoughts out today back to the beginning of time.  It is humbling, inspiring, and magnificent.

I shall now let you pause a bit before going on to the next blog post, because going back to the beginning of time is something that requires some deep reflection. 🙂

Musings on Belief and Free Will

Christians often say that God does not reveal himself because he wanted people to have free will.

It may sound cynical, but given how many believe in spite of evidence, I somehow don’t think God revealing himself will turn everybody into the mindless automatons who have no choice.  Plenty of people reject evolution despite all the evidence.  Plenty of people believe in all sorts of conspiracies despite the evidence against.  People tend to believe in their religion and reject the other one.  People reject their creator all the time.  How many children get pissed off at their parents and never speak to them again?  Don’t underestimate mankind’s ability to ignore something that’s right in front of their eyes.

There are many also who would be still skeptical.  “Why don’t you have a beard?”  “I thought you were supposed to be a dude?”  “You’re not as white as I thought you would be” “This is some sort of a trick.”  Hey, maybe that skeptic would be me.  I mean if God did reveal himself, I’d have to have a good talk with him before I’d start fawning over him. I mean the dude would seriously have some explaining to do.  Is he just supposed to be so amazingly delicious that I have no choice but adore him?  It sounds like I am losing more than just my free will, but my rationality, my curiosity and the essence of who I am.

So God, if you are out there…let’s have a look at ya! 😉

Love and the Future

Lately and perhaps not surprisingly with a newborn in my arms I have been pondering love again.  This, in addition with a psychology class I sat in on last semester about the subject, and some other articles I read recently, has led me to feel like exploring my thoughts a little.  Not too long ago I was conversing with a fellow blogger who posted some writings from a Buddhist about love that said something to the order of “true love can only exist in the present”.  As I paused for thought, I appreciated the truth of those words in an ideal sense, but it struck me as not how love seems to

From www.mindbodygreen.com
From http://www.mindbodygreen.com

work.

When I’ve fallen in love before, and others that I’ve talked to share similar experiences, thoughts of the future seem to go with it.  I often described it as painting pictures in your mind.  You fall in love, you start to see happy times, future celebrations, children, growing old together.  These pictures seem extremely vivid.  Like memories you’ve built on events yet to happen.  From a biological sense this seems to make sense because that is how love should work.  Love builds attachments, and attachments in this world give you strength.  If love did not make us feel this way it seems like we would lose an important part of what love is really for; to give us companionship and togetherness, and increase our chances of survival in a world filled with uncertainty.  Feelings of security and visions of the future seem so tangible to me, I wonder if it is true to others who have been in love.  Nevertheless, if you could truly stay focused on the present, maybe this could take away much of the pain when a relationship ends.  And I think sometimes this is why a relationship ends.  You focus on the future that you take the other for granted in the present.   And the loss of a relationship leaves you with vivid visions of events that will now no longer take place.  Those events are in your memory and I’ve always felt that recovery from a relationship literally requires erasing those memories.

As I look at my son in my arms, I am filled up with love.  Of course this also makes sense from a biological standpoint.  I think the love of a parent in animals is somewhat proportional to how helpless they are when they are born.  Human children are completely helpless such that any indifference on our part would lead to less care and more infant mortality.  Some creatures have the ability to “hit the ground running” parents are protective to a certain degree, but especially if you are born prey, the kid has to kind of take care of himself a bit too and learn to run as fast as possible.  Love comes in many forms and certainly the love for one’s child is different than romantic love, but  I started to ask myself, what is that I love about my son?  If asked the same question about my wife I could point to a large list of qualities in her, I could recount numerous wonderful memories and happy moments. There are of course physical attributes too as a basis for attraction. The love has a clear basis.  No quality is perhaps unique in her, but all together she certainly is unique.  The fact that I love her is not surprising, and the fact that there aren’t others out there who I might love or have loved her is not surprising either.  But as I look at my son I wonder what is it based on other than a biological drive to love my child.  I find him beautiful of course.  Every parent finds their child beautiful.  Once again if we didn’t, we might be less likely to want to take care of them.  But he has no personality to speak of.  He hasn’t been alive more than a month yet and we have few memories together at all.  We have nothing in common except some DNA.  We can’t really do a whole lot together.  It is a purely one sided relationship.  We give and he takes.  If this were anybody else, friends would say,” you need to get out of that relationship.” Lol

I then read a story about someone having twins prematurely and losing one of them and of course I naturally thought about how I would feel if

My wife and our son
My wife and our son

my son were to die.  Of course it would be grievously painful, but I thought to myself what would I be grieving about?  If I lost my wife, the pain of numerous past memories and a deep sense of loss over qualities she possessed that I would no longer be privilege to would flood my mind for many years to come, in addition to the loss of the future I dreamed of us having together.  It seems that if I did lose my son the majority of my grief would be grieving the loss of his future.  For as someone in love with his child I see a future filled with vacations, camping trips, teaching him science, helping him with homework, going to graduations, seeing him grow and hit milestones in his life as we all do.

The future is truly uncertain and so loving only in the present seems wise in some respect, but I’m not sure it’s possible.  I think the best we can do is try not to build those hopes and dreams so solidly that we allow them take different shapes.  Nevertheless a part of me feels like the love I have right now for my child seems less solid somehow because it seems largely based on a feeling completely intangible and dreams of the future.  However, I know that as he grows and I spend more time with him it will simply gets stronger and I know that as we do build more memories and I do get to know him as a person that I will be more and more in love with him.  Given how much I love him already the thought of that fills me with nothing but pleasure.  That is at least one vision of the future that I can hold on to without fear.

Monster Trucks and Big Guns

There is nothing like the having a child that teaches you more what a woman goes through, and reminds you what you don’t.  I’ve spent most of my adult life becoming aware of the position of privilege I enjoy as a man in a patriarchal society.  The hardships that women face when it comes to unwanted advances, objectification and legislation of their bodies, being judged by appearances over the content of what’s inside, and of course the even harsher realities of domestic abuse and sexual violence.  But having journeyed with my wife through pregnancy, birth, and caring for a baby the world couldn’t seem more upside down.

In my new favorite book series, The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss he describes a culture called the Ademre.  In this culture they are not very sexually conservative.  Sex and love are separate and so sleeping around is no big deal.  As a result of this lifestyle they have not made the connection that a man is associated with making children.  Women think they just sort of “get pregnant”, because there is no monogamy.  As a result they think other cultures who think there is such thing as “fatherhood” are silly.  I know this doesn’t sound very convincing to you, but the book takes place in a non-modern society so you can’t do any DNA tests or anything, and you just have to read it to know that it’s very hard to find a  hole in the reasoning.  The main character of the book who is male cannot either and feels extremely frustrated that he can’t convince the woman that men play a role in making a child.  Both my wife and I feel even uncomfortable reading that section, because men feel so diminished that you actually start to feel bad for men.  That’s some good writing Rothfuss!  And I know that is his intent.  To make you feel uncomfortable. (as an aside, I think finally figured out the hole in how a culture could not develop in such a way, but that’s for another time).  My point in this preamble is that through pregnancy up until now it is pretty clear, how little I have to do with creating life.  One microscopic sperm out of millions, and my part was over.  Life grows in a woman and then after its out she feeds it!  Amazing!

Her body changes.  She feels the motion of the baby inside.  She feels the baby leave her body.  Her hormones are jacked up the whole time and even now.  Her need for attachment through breastfeeding.  There is just a very clear biological change every step of the way, that my body does not go through.  Watching even just how amazing she is right now, and how in control she is in taking care of this child, for something she has never done before is just phenomenal to see.  The hormones get strong sometimes, and she cries sometimes because she feels the slightest failure in breastfeeding, or if she accidentally scratches him or something, but she is amazing.  And then their is the pain in giving birth.  A pain unlike I’ve never seen her go through before.  She tried to be brave and go without the epidural to begin with.  Neither of us are believers that natural childbirth is necessary or anything, but I knew she would want to test the waters.  Had she been able to go into labor naturally and do the things that are supposed to help in dealing with the pain of contractions I believe she could have done it, but regardless women have been doing this for a couple hundred thousand years and here we are today.

She has been the star of the show, and I a supporting actor.  Now before men reading this get up and arms, let me say that, there is no question that this child will do better the more adults it has in his life, and that two people can better care for the child than one.  And an equal partnership will be not only be a great advantage to the child in raising, but give him an excellent example to look up to when he forms his own relationships with others.  Whether they be friendships or romantic relationships, regardless of his sexual orientation.

What inspired me to write this post is, how is it that we live in a patriarchal society?  Why am I am not the one fighting to assert myself as an important gender?  How can any man not come to realize that women are absolutely amazing?  Is it just because of our physical strength?  This seems like a poor answer, but possibly.  One biological aspect that I know men feel in regards to birthing is fear.  Fear that their offspring are not their own and are less likely to care for the offspring as a result.  Is this fear so strong that it has led to the control of women and their bodies just to make sure that we can guarantee that the offspring she has belongs to us?    Given that we evolved in social groups, that had community support to help raise children, even this seems like not a very good answer, but possibly.

But then I wondered if it isn’t all just overcompensation.  The fear that we might not be really that important after all and thus we assert ourselves the most.  We joke all the time when we see a guy drive down the street in his loud and chrome fitted truck with giant wheels …”What’s he compensating for?”  What if it all this is just men trying to make themselves seem more in control than they really are?  More powerful than they really are?

Some questions to think about.  This man has to go feed his child some breast milk his wife made and stored in a bottle while she catches up on some much needed sleep. 🙂

Evidently it’s Evidence Part II

Part I, probably doesn’t provide too much pause for thought, but hopefully this one will.  I’ve been told my posts are long, so I’m trying to shorten things up. 🙂

Perhaps I should also preface before I begin that almost anything can count as evidence.  However it seems that people with little understanding of scientific investigation often make the mistake of delineating good evidence from bad.  Or being able to determine why one source of evidence is weaker than another.  Because after all I could argue that it is faith that I believe the sun will come up tomorrow, when the truth is I don’t really know for sure.  The fact that it has come up all the days of my life, is some pretty good evidence.  It’s even better evidence that it has come up for others.  And it seems as I look through historical evidence from before I was born it has been coming up pretty regularly.  And then there is the evidence that the Earth is rotating and that we are revolving around the sun.  It may be that all that changes tomorrow, but it seems unlikely. So at the very least, I can say that my faith has some pretty solid substance to it. (Also please be aware that I do know that the sun actually doesn’t come up, it is the Earth’s rotation that gives it the appearance of rising. lol)

Here are some of the things that many people seem to think of as evidence:

  • anecdotal evidence
  • a contrary opinion
  • a book
  • a “gut feeling”
  • a low probability event (a coincidence)
  • celebrities or other famous people
  • a documentary
  • a movie
  • media
  • even worse  – social media
  • the number of hits you search for something on the internet

There are probably more things that could be added but these are some of my favorite.  Part of the problem is that any one of these could be right.  I am not going to address each one, but there are times when your “gut” tells you, you are in danger and you are right.

From hm.dinofly.com

Anecdotal evidence can also be correct.  I could say “In my experience the sun comes up every morning” and I would be right.  Sometimes celebrities are correct, and documentaries are accurate.  Someone who is disagreeing with you may actually be doing so for good reason.  Because he/she knows more than you do. And occasionally a news story might even report actual information. 🙂

I am a fairly big food snob.  I’ll admit it.  I’m probably even more proud of that fact than I should, but tasty food is an important pleasure in life to me.  Not to mention sitting down to a good meal, can be romantic, social, and/or cultural.  One of my favorite things is to

Pad thai from myrecipes.com

introduce people to new food and new culinary experiences.  It has often been the case that someone will say they really don’t like a certain food.  Upon further investigation you find that the one time they tried it, the person didn’t know how to cook it properly so they had a bad experience, and then never tried it again.  Often if I get them to give what I have prepared a try, they find that they actually like it.  The point is that our own experiences are often flawed.  I am sure the person when they first tried badly cooked spinach they had no intentions on hating spinach, they simply didn’t like what they had, and assumed it was the fault of the spinach and not the cook.

While it is not surprising from an evolutionary standpoint why we would take our own experiences as truth, it is clear that as individuals we are prone to many biases.  If you know nothing about snakes, it is ALWAYS safer to stay away from snakes since a few can be deadly.  Surviving and being safe represents 99% of our evolution as a species, but if civilization has any true advantages, it is the ability to break free from the fearful uncertainty of the wild and to give us time for reflection and thought.  The lack of detailed knowledge about something is the birthplace of beliefs that are based on little or poor evidence.  This is why education is so important.  This is why understanding of science is important.  This is why critical thinking is important.

More importantly this is why humility is important.  One lifetime, at the very least in the length it is now, is never enough time to know all there is to know (if that is even possible).  But when you have true humility, not just humility before God, but humility before all existence, you accept that you don’t have all the answers.  You accept that there is still more for you to know, and to learn.  You can accept that you can be mistaken.  When you accept this, then you can delve into the next set of questions.  How is it that we can come to know things?  What are different ways of knowing?  How do they work?  What is their reliability?

from http://www.jasonwhowe.com

How boring would life be if you just decided on how everything works at the age of 30 and then just criticized everyone else the rest of your days? Keep asking yourself questions, and enjoy the experience of enlightenment that comes from a lifetime of learning.  The feeling of enlightenment is euphoric and is an edge that never dulls, no matter the age.

Agrajag: Learning in Theory and Practice

I continue to learn from my newest teacher as I respond to her wonderfully provocative post. I am hoping if I give her an apple she will let me erase the boards. 🙂

I also agree that being defenseless is not the goal.  I see it as rather as a side effect of our intelligence.  Evolutionarily we are attracted to “defenseless”, which is why we go gooey over babies in general for many animal species.  Part of our success as a species also has to do with our longevity in age.  Having multiple generations alive at one time to possible pass on knowledge indicates how important learning is to us.  A defenseless baby is sort of a captive audience as well.  Even once it can walk it is still very dependent on adults and this gives it more time to learn from them in addition to the learning it does through during it’s own individual exploration.

From http://www.thecampuscompanion.com

Ultimately you hit on a very important point and that is the value of learning in of itself.  I think there are a number of people who are fascinated by this topic and who do very good research on this, but ultimately little of it is implemented.  There are a lot of reasons for this and sadly many of them have to do with the values of the society.  In societies where education is valued, they are much more likely to spend resources on best teaching practices.  Ultimately many of the best teaching practices require smaller class sizes so the teacher has the opportunity for more individualized instruction.  Classrooms also require ample resources so there is equity amongst schools in terms of equipment and teacher quality.  Finally when schools do not have to compete for funding they can be much more collaborative when it comes to sharing best practices instead of being competitive.  Often in the U.S. it is not a benefit to share these best practices with other schools because it means less funding for your school. Here in the U.S  education is not valued.  Class sizes increase, schools constantly compete for an ever shrinking amount of funding, and there is great disparity amongst schools in terms of resources and quality of teacher.  Investigation and creativity are sacrificed for standardized testing and rote memorization.

In my experience, it seems like, part of the reasons many students find school boring is that it simply isn’t stimulating to them intellectually because young minds are so adept at learning that the rate in which information is taught simply doesn’t challenge them.  One of the great things that Dr. Mitra’s hole in the wall experiment shows is that young children can learn at incredible rates when given the opportunity.  Children really, really want to learn.  But we dole out the information incrementally and slowly, and Dr.  Mitra demonstrates that this is not necessary.  In the U.S. parents often rail against students having hours of a homework at night, even though very often those assignments allow students to do more investigative type assignments outside of the classroom.  With class sizes increasing, teachers often hold back on assignments too as their workload increases dramatically or they fear they will not be able to give adequate feedback to the students for improvement.

From http://www.excelsiorlearningcenter.com

The type of learning that I connect with most is Mastery Learning.  I think if we accepted that children can learn at an accelerated rate and set the bar high for children from the very start of their education, then as we incorporate Dr. Mitra’s exploratory learning concept in with quality teachers who can work with students under this format we’d have the start of something great.  I agree though that learning in of itself is not necessarily something we should treat as static and yet it very much has in a lot of ways.  We should be constantly evaluating our strategies and adapting to knew technologies and the greater understanding we have gained about how we learn.  In an ideal world I would love to see everyone learn a second language so that by the time they are about 12 they are fluent in another language.

So I shall end as I began in a word about evolution.  From an evolutionary perspective we only really need to learn enough to survive.  Reading, writing, math and science, these are all things that for 99% of our evolution we did not need to do.  We are meant to learn though.  And that wonderful emergent property of consciousness makes us aware of how much we love it, and I think this is evidenced by civilization itself.  Civilization is not required for the survival of our species, but we have it.  It gives us the time to ponder, question, and learn about things we never could before.  The saddest thing I see as an educator here in the U.S. is that as a society with so much access to information and time enough to learn and absorb it, learning and education is rejected instead of valued.  Maybe it’s because education is run as a business model instead of a learning model.  Those who would make educational policy are rarely teachers and while they say they care about the outcomes rarely listen to teachers and only care about the bottom line in terms of dollars and cents.