What I want when I want to be free

I would very much like it to be the case that I am free.  But what (I've been wondering) is it that I want?

I don't just want to have choices-- to be able to choose A or B.  Sure, it would be nice if I could have chosen chocolate, though I chose strawberry, but really, so what?  I'm not too distressed by the idea that I'm a strawberry-choosing marionette.

The best way I can explain what I do want is by analogy with divine agency. We have this idea of a deity who has thoughts about what he wants to happen.  He sees that the current course of events will lead to outcome A, but he wants B to occur instead.  He doesn't intervene as a result of the past; it's all about B--he wants it, so he intervenes.  And he's effective.  His intervention changes the future so that B will occur instead of A.

It doesn't seem like this sort of agency and impact is too much for a person to want.  The way things are going,  let's pretend, it appears I will not wake up in time to catch a plane tomorrow morning.  I want to catch my plane, not miss my plane.  So I try to alter the future--I set my alarm.  I do that because I want to catch my plane, period; not because of the past.  Before I intervened, I was heading for missing my plane, and now I'm heading for catching my plane.  Thus, in this portrait, I have the power to alter the future on the basis of my own reasons.

All that seems eminently desirable--it makes sense to want to make a difference to the future, and to want your own reasons to be in charge. That's what I want, but can I have it?

There are two sticking points.  Can it really be true that I set my alarm for the sake of catching my plane, period?  If determinism is true, then the past made it inevitable that certain brain events would occur, and they would cause me to set my alarm.  You could tell the whole story about what led to the alarm setting, without even mentioning the plane.  That's not what I want.

The other sticking point has to do with the description of the intervention (setting my alarm) as diverting the future from one trajectory to a different one.  If determinism is true, there was always just one trajectory.  My thought about not missing my plane was on that single trajectory, and so was setting my alarm.

One strategy for defusing angst about free will is to say there's nothing really desirable about having it, but it seems obvious that it is desirable.  Having free will is getting to have things turn out differently in the future, owing entirely to your reasons. What's not to like?!


Haley Barbour's Pardons

Haley "drunk drivers are my friends" Barbour
When Mississippi governor Haley Barbour left office last month, he created a furor by pardoning 198 convicted criminals.  The New York Times today describes some of the people pardoned, and the connections they had.  This is one of the most shocking articles I've ever read in the Times. That Barbour continues to have respect and influence in the Republican party is utterly scandalous.

Who was pardoned ... and why?
  • Joel Vann, who killed Scotty Plunk in a drunk driving accident when he was 19.  Connection: his father was the "brother-in-law of a former Republican state committee member and contributor to Mr. Barbour"
  • Burton Waldon, who killed an 8-month-old baby in a drunk driving accident, and never served any time for it.  Connection: "He is a member of the prominent Hill Brothers Construction Company family, big money political donors who give mostly to Republicans, including Mr. Barbour.
  • Doug Hindman, who was arrested for "exchanging hundreds of sexually explicit messages with an undercover officer posing as an under-age girl."  Connection: a "family friend" of Hindman's had lunch with the Barbours in the governor's mansion shortly before sending an appeal for clemency.
  • Anonymous (the Times doesn't give the name, unfortunately), who "participated in a gang rape of a 17-year-old in 1976".  Connection: his appeal "included a reference letter from his employer, a large donor to Mr. Barbour and other Republicans."
  • Eldridge Bonds, "who in 2003 pleaded no contest to forcible sexual battery" of a 14-year-old girl.  Connection: his appeal included a letter from the dean of the University of Mississippi's School of Education.
  • Harry R. Bostick, who "was sentenced in May 2010 for his third drunken driving offense--a felony--and ordered into treatment."  In October 2011, he was arrested for a fourth drunken driving offense, "this time in an accident that left an 18-year-old waitress dead."  Then, on January 10 2012, Barbour pardoned him for his third felony DUI.  Connection: "Several former government lawyers and law enforcement officers who worked with him on federal tax prosecutions submitted letters on his behalf."
Barbour has now been disowned by the Republican party, right?  Um, no.

This story pretty much leaves me speechless.


Atheist Temples

This looks like a tower in which you'd imprison a princess for 100 years, but it's supposed to be a temple to atheism--or more precisely, a temple to science and nature.  More about Alain de Botton's proposal here.  His new book, Religion for Atheists, says religion offers people many needed things, and atheists shouldn't give them up.  We need temples, special days on the calendar, networks that facilitate charity, etc. The leading "new" atheists seem to loathe him (here and here), but I think this is pretty much a matter of taste.  They don't like temples and special days on the calendar, but some of us godless folk do.  Here's de Botton talking about "Atheism 2.0" (the type with temples and holidays).


Tightwaddery 101

And I thought my classes were pretty fun and innovative.  Here's Emrys Westacott talking about one of his classes--
I teach a course here at the university called Tightwaddery, the Good Life on a Dollar a Day. It’s what we call an honours class, a two-credit evening class and it’s both serious and somewhat light-hearted. We read Epicurus, we read Thoreau, we read articles about consumerism and advertising. We also do classes on personal finance, and there’s some jokey classes, like one where the students learn to cut each other’s hair. There’s a banquet at the end of the term, where everybody has to produce a meal very cheaply, from a Depression-era recipe. That aspect of Stoicism, the getting by on little, eschewing unnecessary luxuries, husbanding your resources, that’s definitely me. I’m very averse to spending unnecessary money, although I’ll spend money on the things I value, like travelling…
I never have my students cut each others' hair, though last week in my environmental ethics class, we did do a bottled water taste test. Unfortunately, it backfired.  All but one student could tell the difference between Fiji and tap water.

The interview with Emrys Westacott comes with five excellent "good life" reading suggestions.

(via Russell Blackford)


Sleep Remedy

This may help you sleep better tonight.  From Real Clear Politics--

Do animals have inherent value?

I haven't read it yet, but this post by Rhys Southan on whether animals have inherent value looks interesting.

Also on my things-to-read list:  "Expected Utility, Contributory Causation, and Vegetarianism" (Gaverick Matheny).  You can find it here.

The Reasons behind Mormon Polygamy and Fecundity

This is fun!  From a book called Favorite Wife, by Susan Ray Schmidt. She was one of 10 wives of a man who had a total of 58 children before she left "the life" (oooh, creepy term!).

So ... you've got God up there creating lots of spirit-children with heavenly Mothers (God is a polygamist!), and it would be a very bad thing if they didn't get to be born into fleshly bodies and raised in Mormon homes.  (It would be bad not to be born because ....  not sure.)  So Mormons have to have a lot of children, but the men also need to have a lot of wives so they can maximize their progeny. This only makes sense, of course, if the additional wives wouldn't have otherwise married Mormon men, had lots of children, and raised their children as Mormons. What this story really sanctions is Mormon men recruiting non-Mormon women to be their wives, so spirit-children don't wind up in households run by Methodists or Jews or what-have-you.  Hmm!  I've got to wonder--  Do Mormon presidential candidates like Romney (5 children) and Huntsman (7 children) actually believe they're saving the spirit children of God and the heavenly Mother by having lots of children? Maybe!


The Other Border

The innumerable Santorums
Update:  Mark Oppenheimer talks about the large families of the Republican candidates in today's New York Times.  It's more amazing than I realized.  Santorum: 7,  Huntsman: 7, Bachman: 5, Romney: 5, Paul: 5


Irony alert. There's something very odd about the fact that Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are so passionate about stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into this country.  In the last debate they both attacked Newt "let's have an open marriage" Gingrich, who thinks we shouldn't deport people who have been in this country illegally for 25 years.  After all, says Gingrich, these folks have ties to family and community. It would be cruel and un-Christian to send them home.  No, no, no, Romney and Santorum say, we've got to make the miscreants go home and get at the end of the line.   Build a fence, keep 'em out, blah blah blah.

You can see from the pictures where I'm going with this.  Mitt Romney has 5 children and a zillion grandchildren.  Rick Santorum has 7 eight children.  They don't hesitate a bit about bringing more people into this country, as long as the border is between non-existence and existence! It's a little odd, then, that they're so desperately concerned about already existing people crossing the border between Mexico and the US.  Take the movie Children of Men. There you've got rules against immigration into the UK, but rules against having children too.  Combining those concerns makes sense.  But having concerns about immigration and not about procreation needs to be explained. 

The innumerable Romneys
It might very well be that R&S are worried about Mexican people entering the US. Their own white offspring are no problem, no matter how numerous they are.  I suppose that's uncharitable though, so I'll move right along to theory #2.  That's the theory that their worry is not about the US population growing too fast (that can't be it--look at the pictures!), but rather it's about sheer law-breaking.  Illegal immigrants break our immigration laws, so they deserve no mercy, no clemency.  For that reasoning, R&S  do not deserve high marks.

Some laws prohibit inherently bad behavior. It's critical not to break the law against killing your neighbor. But some laws are essentially arbitrary, even if practically necessary. There's nothing inherently wrong with crossing the US-Mexico border. It's completely a question of luck which side you were born on, and where the line is drawn in the first place.  It makes sense that we have immigration laws, but how could it be an extremely grave offense to break these laws?  When you consider that people break them for respectable reasons--to escape poverty, to give their children a much better life--that's got to temper your judgment even further.

If R&S are just concerned about law-breaking, not US over-population--and that must be the case, given their large families--they're too concerned.  Deporting people who have lived here for 25 years is cruel and unusual punishment, considering that they stepped across an arbitrarily drawn line for a perfectly good reason.  If, on the other hand, they are worried about pressure on US services and resources, then what's with their big families?


What's so bad about SOPA?

Should this man get paid for his songs?  (Yes.)
Update (1/19):  I was happy to see this from Brian Leiter today:  "it seems to me that cyber-space is under-regulated by the law, which explains why it has become a repository for so much garbage, defamation, and invasion of privacy, as well as copyright violations.  (It's a shame, but predictable, that only the latter really gets the attention of Congress.)  SOPA and PIPA may be problematic responses to some of these problems, but the knee-jerk opposition of cyber-libertarians, who readily turn a blind eye to all the ugliness of cyber-space, is itself suspect in my view."  My reaction exactly. 


I am, I have to say, out of synch with all the passionate opposition to SOPA. The underlying problem of internet piracy is serious.  The New York Times says 95% of music downloads, globally, are illegal.  That means a vast number of musicians and songwriters are not getting rightful compensation for their work. As I understand it (see links at the end of this post), SOPA lets copyright holders go after "the middle man" -- the only solution, since it's impossible to shut down foreign sites like The Pirate Bay, and also impossible to go after individual "pirates".  The "middle man" is, for example, the search engine that helps people find The Pirate Bay, and profits from searches that people do on that phrase.  SOPA lets a copyright holder petition a search engine to stop directing traffic to piracy sites.  Another "middle man" is Pay Pal, which facilitates payments to operations like The Pirate Bay, not by downloaders (of course) but by advertisers that make the operation profitable for its owners.  There are a lot of folks not at the "sender" or "receiver" end of illegal downloading, but who nevertheless enable these transactions to take place.  Should the enablers really continue with impunity? 

Now, SOPA may be the wrong tool for the job.  Maybe it hits too hard, or too broadly, or in such a way that illegal downloading won't decrease. It may be bad legislation--I'm not sure, because there's a lot of fine print, and I haven't digested it all yet.  But the goal is a good one, and the basic idea of targeting the middle man makes moral and practical sense.  I would understand opposition to SOPA, if it were a question of details, efficacy, side-effects, etc. but the zeal of the opponents make me wonder if they really appreciate that creative artists ought to be protected from internet theft.  The opponents strike me as being way too sure the sky is falling and they throw around the word "censorship" too casually.  All measures that prohibit speech are not censorship -- in any morally significant sense.  Surely we already do stop the middle man from enabling child prostitution and child pornography, and if we don't, we should.  The first amendment was not designed to protect speech like "Get your very own little sex slave at kiddiesex.com"-- a sentence (with link) that's merely a conduit to illegal behavior, not the expression of an opinion about that behavior.  Search results that take people to illegal piracy sites seem about the same.

OK, it's a complicated bill, and you have to be "for" all of it, or else against it.  I'm only for the thing in principle, not for it line by line (I haven't studied it line by line).  So go ahead, if you think specific SOPA provisions are unacceptable, have at it.

P.S. Wonder what all the fuss about?  Here are some links: 

Pirate Bay
Wikipedia blackout
Google doodle
SOPA explained "What it is and why it matters" (CNN)
New York Times editorial
Supporters of SOPA
Opponents of SOPA


The Value of Prayer

Julian Baggini acknowledges the value of prayer, despite being a non-believer:
I do think that prayer, like many rituals, is something that the religious get some real benefits from that are just lost to us heathens. One reason is that many of these rituals are performed communally, as part of a regular meeting or worship. This means there is social reinforcement. But the main one is that the religious context transforms them from something optional and arbitrary into something necessary and grounded. Because the rituals are a duty to our absolute sovereign, there is strong reason to keep them up. You pray every day because you sense you really ought to, and it will be noticed if you don't. In contrast, the belief that daily meditation is beneficial motivates in much the same way as the thought that eating more vegetables or exercising is. Inclination comes and goes and needs to be constantly renewed.
Like Baggini, I can see how it could be valuable to  pray, but I'll go a step further--I can see how it could be valuable to think praying makes a difference (whether or not it really does).  Suppose someone you know has a serious illness, and you want to express concern.  I'm afraid "I'm thinking of you" doesn't convey quite the same thing as "I'm praying for you."  If you're praying, and you believe praying makes a difference, then you're not just thinking of the person, you're trying to help them.  It's better to try to help people than think of them, right? Sometimes we are in a position to pray, but can do nothing else.  We are too far away, the disease is too serious, whatever.  I have been in situations where I'd much rather be able to say "I'm praying for you."

I also think praying can be useful for the person suffering from an illness.  You'd think it could backfire. The patient might pray instead of getting all the advanced treatments. Yes, there are people who believe in prayer instead of medicine. But what I've observed (here in the religious heart of Texas) is that people who pray will also go to the ends of the earth to find a medical cure.  In fact, I believe there may be a connection, sometimes, between praying and aggressively trying to treat disease.  Prayer may sometimes give someone just the boost in hopefulness she needs to believe that further treatment might be helpful.  At least, that's how it seemed in the case of a woman I met about 15 years ago.  A mother of three young children, she prayed mightily for a cure for her breast cancer, while also seeing out every conceivable cutting edge treatment. (Sadly, she did not survive.)

You'd think maybe if a person believed God answers prayers, then she'd have to think God also causes diseases to begin with.  So she'd feel better in a way ("God may help me") but also worse ("God let me get this disease").   Could be--but not necessarily!   God is good, you might think.  The cancer is not God's doing--but the cure could be.

I couldn't possibly believe in the efficacy of prayer.  Come on--what God can cure, he could have prevented in the first place.  More overwhelmingly, it's impossible for me to believe in a God who let six million Jews die in the Holocaust, but is now on standby to help individuals with cancer.  Please. Still, it would be good in very tangible ways not only to be able to pray, but to believe it was beneficial.


2012 Discoveries (So Far)

I've made a surprising number of discoveries already in 2012 - apparently it's going to be a great year.  Without further ado:

(1)  Soba noodles.  Really good, do not accept whole wheat as a substitute. Soba noodles contain buck wheat as well as whole wheat.

(2) The world's smallest frog.  Need I say more?

(3)  Portlandia.  Just saying that I watch it establishes that I'm cool.  (Shhh!  Don't tell anyone that I fell asleep in the middle of it last week.)

(4)  French lentils.  So good.  Do not accept regular lentils as a substitute. 

(5)  Wilco (The Album). It sounded so generic, so I hadn't listened, but OMG--fantastic.

(6)  The fact that Christopher Hitchens left his first wife when she was six months pregnant.  Sorry, no more sanctification for him.

(7)  An annoying thing about environmental ethics anthologies. The most interesting question in environmental ethics is about our duties to future people. Anthologies should have an entire section on this critical topic, but most have not even one article.

(8)  Another annoying thing about environmental ethics anthologies.  Most of them don't include a section on climate change. (You've got to be kidding!)

(9) Naming days.  Yes, you can give every day it's own proper name. A calendar I got as a Christmas present has one name per day.  Today is ... oh wait, I can't remember. That's the disadvantage of naming days.

(10)  Over the Rhine. Great group, look 'em up.


Everlasting Everything

Next time I teach my course on the meaning of life I will have to discuss the lyrics of "Everlasting Everything," a (swoon) fantastic song from Wilco (The Album).


Santorum on Gay Marriage and Polygamy

It looks like Rick Santorum is going to be around for a while.  In fact a horrible thought has entered my mind: he's eventually going to be Mitt Romney's running mate.  So we're going to have to listen to him on the subject of gay marriage and abortion for some time to come.  It's heartening that he was booed over his stance on gay marriage at a New Hampshire event yesterday.  But better push-back is needed.

The audience in New Hampshire let Santorum get away with the silly argument  that goes "if we allow gay marriage we'll have to allow polygamous marriage."   Listen to the video.  Santorum says "Are we saying that everyone should have the right to marry?"  Audience:  "Yes!"  Santorum:  "So anybody can marry several people?"  Audience erupts.  Santorum:  "So if you're not happy unless you're married to five other people, is that OK?"  Santorum keeps pressing the point:  "If it makes three people happy to get married, what makes that wrong?"  The audience says it's irrelevant.  Santorum says we should employ reason:  "Reason says that if you think it's OK for two, then you have to differentiate with me why it's not OK for three."   The audience doesn't rise to the occasion, but instead boos him as he leaves the lectern.

Liberals need to be better prepared for this sort of tussle.  The answer to the opening question--"Are we saying that everyone should have the right to marry?"--should be "No".  People can have whatever relationships they want, but legal marriage is an institution societies use to honor and incentivize relationships that are valuable to the society.  Two-way marriage, whether straight or gay, is socially valuable in a way that polygamy is not. Here's the differentiation Santorum was looking for:

In a two-way marriage, both people involved are desirous of the marriage.  The marriage is a kind of contract or exchange--I'll do certain things for you if you'll do them for me.  There are benefits to this for the society as a whole.  People need government support less when they have a long-term, intimate partner.

In polygamy, as it's actually practiced in the real world, three or more people don't suddenly decide to get married.  Rather there's a first marriage, and then more wives are added to the marriage (yes, wives--polyandry is extremely rare). The first marriage is mutual in the usual way, but then more wives are added to the marriage, contrary to the preferences of the first (second, etc) wife.  (If you think first wives welcome additional wives, dream on!)

It stands to reason that the additional wives put the welfare of older wives at risk.  And yes, of course the new wives do tend to get younger and younger.  Certainly, there's nothing consensual and mutual about the relationship created between the wives--they didn't desire a co-wife.  This non-mutuality does not pertain to gay marriage at all. Gay marriage is just as mutual as straight marriage.

Next differentiation: for each additional wife a man takes, some other man is deprived of the opportunity to marry.  This is bad on a personal level for bachelors, but also bad on a social level.  Bachelors have poorer health, but they also commit more crime.  The problem of the bachelors isn't a fantasy--it's a reality in countries like India and China where gendercide is commonly practiced. In southern Utah, where Mormons practice polygamy, bachelors wind up having to leave the community. One man's gain is another man's loss.

Same-sex marriage doesn't have that drawback.   When gay people marry each other, there aren't more bachelors and bachelorettes as a result, because whether they marry or not,  gay people are going to be in same sex relationships.   Only polygamy gives the benefit of marriage to some people at the direct cost of taking the benefit away from others.

Next differentiation:  men with lots of wives have lots of children.  With each additional wife, the father-to-offspring ratio becomes less favorable.  And it's just not true that a man can nurture and provide for two children as well as he can for 12 or for 24.  Gay marriage does nothing to worsen the ratio between parents and offspring, but polygamy does.

There are lots of reasons to honor and incentivize only two-way marriages.  So it's just not true that, in all consistency, we must legalize polygamy if we legalize same-sex marriage.  Polygamy is different in lots of ways, and you just have to think about it a bit to see why.

Another argument conservatives make is that if gay marriage is legalized, we'll have to let people marry their dogs.  Seriously, people say that, as if there's no conceivable reason why a society might honor and incentivize marriage between two men or two women, but not between a man and his golden retriever.  Help!


Feminist Philosophy Playlist

Now this is fun.  Via Feminist Philosophers.

I need to create an environmental ethics playlist.  First job: make myself listen to Bjork, Biophilia.  (First impression is merely hmm.)

New Issue of TPM

A nice feature of the new TPM website is that all the reviews are now online.  Check it out!  Here's the line up--

Sticky Music

I'm still on winter break and not quite focused, so pardon my continuing obsession with The Shins. Let's see if we can get a little reflection going anyway.  Question:  what makes their music so damned sticky?!  I adored the song below (from Chutes Too Narrow) the very first time I heard it. This morning I woke up literally hearing it.  What gives, and why is it that so many Shins songs are so immediately addictive?  If you wanted to write a very sticky song, how would you do it?  Oh hell, let's just listen.  My new goal:  see The Shins next time they go on tour.



And now for some super-subtle, astute political commentary.



Slam, Dunk, No Free Will?

Here's Jerry Coyne at his blog today, discussing his column arguing against free will in USA Today:
Compatibilists resemble theologians in many ways, not the least of which is that they both engage in endless lucubrations trying to show that something that doesn’t exist, but that is necessary for our psychological well-being, really does exist in some form or another. People hate the idea that they aren’t agents who can make free choices, just as they hate they idea that there might not be a Protective Father in heaven.
As someone who leans toward some sort of retention of free will, I don't think this makes me like a desperate theist.  Free will seems real, whatever your position on it.   Should I lift up my tea cup now or keep typing?  I seem to be free to go either way.  God would have to be appearing in the sky day in and day out and speaking in a thunderous voice for theism to have as much experiential support as the belief in free will.  Free will supporters are trying to "save the phenomena," which can't be said of theists.

I do hate the idea that I can't make free choices, but not "just as" people hate the idea that there's no "Protective Father in heaven." It's much more unsettling to suppose the course of history was settled, in every last detail, before you were born, than to do without a heavenly father.  It's not just seeing myself as an automaton that's disturbing. What really bothers me is thinking that my efforts never alter the course of the future, though of course I do my part to bring about the future that's bound to be.  This used to especially bother me a lot when my children were very small.  I wanted to think that being vigilant in all things would protect them from some awful eventuality, shifting the future away from Bad B, and toward Good A.  But there aren't two possible futures, if determinism is true.  We're heading for Bad B or Good A, and my efforts are just a link in a predetermined, unilinear chain.  If you let that thought sink in, it's extremely unsettling.

So--free will is much more "evident" than God, and free will is much more existentially crucial than God.   That doesn't mean, of course, that free will is a reality.  Coyne says science will not allow it, since our choices take place in our brains, and our brains are part of the completely law-governed material world.  But this simple overview of what we know subtlely exaggerates what we know. OK, choices do take place in our brains, and not without brains, but it's not as if consciousness has been fully explained and reduced to a specific physical property of brains.  Consciousness is a huge unsolved puzzle.  Since free choices are conscious choices, it would seem premature to say you were absolutely sure how they work.

Weird analogy (since I'm pre-coffee):  suppose you think a river works deterministically, its direction and flow constantly determined by past events.  You now learn that the river is conscious and experiences itself as making various decisions.  Should you stick to your guns as far as determinism goes?  I think you ought to slow down at least a little--what's going on to make the river conscious?  And is that, whatever it is, relevant to whether the river flows deterministically?  Until you're on top of consciousness, it seems only reasonable to be a little modest on the subject of free will.