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Month: November 2002

Free Will vs. Determinism v2.0

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

November 25th, 2002 

The debate between free will and determinism stems from the apparent conflict between the universal rule of causality found in nature and the apparent ability of men to choose between multiple courses of action in order to lead to the most desirable outcome. Inorganic matter such as chairs, stones, and planets, blindly follows whatever forces affects it, and non-human organisms act for their survival alone, but human beings seem to be an exception to nature’s rule by their unique ability to ponder about how to go about their life and which values to live by. Determinists reject the idea that any of these choices are freely chosen however, and claim that a man is no exception to nature’s law because he and his choices are nothing more than the product of his environment. Decisions, they usually claim, are simply a product of conflicting environmental influences duking it out. A proper understanding of the nature of volition however, can reconcile the apparent conflict between free will and causality, and soundly reject the position that man is merely a product of his environment.

Determinists claim that the nature of the universe is such that it is governed by certain universal scientific laws, so that each action is caused by a specific prior cause, and human action is no exception. They claim that the human mind is also governed by these rules so that no alternative course of action is possible to humans other than the specific and unique set of prior factors that caused that human action to be made. Thus, human choices are not “free” because they are determined ahead of time by whatever environmental, social, genetic, biological and any other unknown factors caused such choices to be made. Accordingly, men cannot be held morally responsible for their actions, since they have no more control over the causal chain of events in reality than anyone else.

The determinist would say that whether the human mind operates by random firing of neurons or strict logic is irrelevant: both are governed by specific prior causes, and even if science could show that human choices were caused by random firing of neurons, the choice would not be “free” because it would not be “chosen,” independent of prior factors. To the determinist, free will would not be possible under any condition: if it was caused by prior causes, all choice would follow the strict laws of causation, and if it was independent of any prior causes it would have to be random, and hence not “chosen” in any meaningful way.

The classic reply in favor of free will to adopt some sort of indeterminism: to claim that free will involves some sort of exception from the rules of causation. Traditionally, God has played this role, providing some sort of mystical staging ground, exempt from causality, that allowed choice to occur. Rene Descartes took a similar position by arguing that that the mind exists on a separate plane from the body, and more recently, quantum physics and chaos theory have provides scientific excuses to “escape” causation and allow a possible for “free” choice to occur. Both of these notions are nonsense. If a human choice is independent from any prior factors grounded in reality then it must be random, and randomness is in no way a “choice.” A man who acts randomly is mad, not “free.” Whether God or quantum physics is the excuse, it is not viable to claim that human choice is independent of prior cause, and yet not completely random.

The self-determinist position rejects both of these views. Affirming free will does not involve a rejection of causality in favor of a magical mechanism for human choice, but an affirmation of the process of volition that is the process behind all human choice. The self-determinist position rejects both the notion that any supernatural forces are involved or that human decisions violate or are independent of whatever laws, known and as yet unknown govern the workings of the universe. No “alternative world” where different choices were made is possible because the brain itself is not excused from the same rules that govern all other matter. Rather, “free will” – as I see it – refers to the uniquely human process of volition that allows multiple courses of actions to be considered and evaluated and one selected. Hence, the process of volition does not involve a separate realm of uncaused thought and decisions, but the specific process of human thought and decision-making.

Free will is “free” in the sense that the human mind has the ability to consider multiple decisions and choose particular outcomes. In reality, only one choice and only one decision is actually made – the hardware of the brain allows no uncaused, truly random or causeless factors to enter the process – but from the perspective of the person making a decision, multiple decisions are possible, and multiple outcomes are considered. It might be said that the process I have just described is really just an illusion of free will since in actuality only one decision was actual after the consideration. However the term “free will” does not refer to either uncaused or random actions (for then it becomes useless) but to our ability to evaluate multiple courses of actions, consider different outcomes, and then select the action most likely to leave the world in a more desirable state than if we had selected a different action or none at all.


While we do not yet understand the specific physical process by which we make decisions, the evidence of our own ability to choose between multiple outcomes is readily evident by introspection. We can easily observe the fact that we can consider different factors, evaluate different possibilities and come up with original choices and decisions. Unlike inanimate objects, human actions have both a purpose and a goal, and unlike an animal’s actions, they arise from the choice to pursue certain goals and values, rather than the automatic guidance of instinct. The result – the creation of human civilization and peaceful interaction between individuals in society stands as a testament to human originality, creativity, and more fundamentally, the choice of some values over others.

A better understanding of the distinction between human choice and the interaction of non-volitional matter can be gained my examining the fundamental requirements for an intelligence. Suppose that a human brain or a sentient mind was somehow transferred onto a computer. Would that very complex computer program have free will? It would not base its decisions on randomness or act without a cause, but if it were able to conceptualize and independently choose between different ideas and decisions, it would in fact have free will. Free will then, is not dependent on random neurons or some other otherworldly trait of the human brain, but the ability to independently consider and choose between different alternatives. An intelligent computer may “think” by varying the charges on electrical circuits while humans think by firing electrical charges between axons and dendrites, but they will both be able to conceive of the concept of a thunderstorm and decide that it is better not to be outside or on a non-grounded line when lighting strikes. In both cases, they will use their particular means of thought to reach decisions about which alternative scenario (golf course or inside, non-grounded line or a heavy-duty surge protector) will provide the most desirable outcome. Thus, the ability of both sentient computer programs and sentient human beings to create original ideas rests in the (so far) uniquely human ability to create concepts out of sensory inputs, relate the concepts to one another, and reach the conclusions about the nature of reality that are necessary for our survival.


While the decisions reached by the human mind and the artificial intelligence are limited by their particular hardware, the software program and the human mind can function independently of hardware they run on. By “independent,” I do not mean independent of causality, but rather able to perform conceptual analysis that is not strictly limited to the hardware it runs on. For example, I cannot multiply large numbers in my head any more than a computer can feel tired or excited, but I can write out the solution on paper, and a computer can emulate the biological influences of a human. The function of one’s mind is not limited to the particular nature of the brain, giving humans the ability to discover new relationships and understanding among old concepts.


Objections to volition often rely on downplaying the difference between human volition and other organic and inorganic matter. Some determinists argue that humans are no different from animals – they act on whatever goals they believe necessary for their survival. However, man is unique in his ability to choose the values he lives by if he decides to live at all. Animals do not have such a choice: their actions are automatic and governed by instinct. When we interact with animals, we do so only by force or reward, not by reason, and when we punish them, it is only to alter their behavior, not to carry out justice. For example, when a dog misbehaves, we punish it not because we hold it responsible but to change its habit, but when a human acts in an immoral way, we hold the person as morally responsible: as culpable for their basic choice: to think or not. Humans can choose what to live for, how to live, and even whether they should live at all.

A more basic argument against free will is the comparison of a human mind to inanimate matter, such as a car. After all, we turn a key and the car either starts or not, depending on whether reality is such that the process of causation leads to an engine starting or to the battery being dead. In the same way, the determinist will claim, the human mind will either make the right or wrong choices, depending on what prior state it is in. However, a car and a human mind are fundamentally different: the ignition process is a rigid mechanical chain, whereas human thought (when one chooses to think) involves a process of evaluation and conceptualization, which considers multiple possible avenues of action and allows for an evaluation of the consequences of each choice. A car that could think would be able to evaluate whether it is low on gas, and then decide to start or not depending on a variety of such factors. Of course, a human may design such a car, but the evaluation to include such a feature still rests with the human, not the car.

While the determinist position generally accepts the possibility of thought, it rejects the possibility of true choice, negating the possibility of more responsibility. However, the determinist position is itself contradictory. By saying that humans should “pretend to have free will” the determinist accepts that all human thought requires choices to be made between various choices. By arguing that his position is a true statement about reality rather than simply the product of various influences, he implicitly accepts the correct definition of volition while rejecting its logical consequences. The determinist cannot argue that he knows his position is true – after all, he is only arguing for it because of prior environmental factors, not because it is independently true or false. In short, in arguing for determinism, the determinist implicitly accepts the opposite of his position.

Rant on "structural racism"

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

The following post was inspired by the fine folks at the Atheist & Agnostic listserv:

It seems that everyone who has replied to my recent posts so far is stuck in the racist mindset. Black’s must obviously favor taking all the government’s money and steal…err, “redistributing” it to themselves and letting al the black criminals out of jail, and unenlightened whites who do not realize that they are racist (and just don’t know it) are only interested in keeping their “superior social status” and perpetuating “structural” racism. “Enlightened” whites like the fine young gentlemen debating with me however, have become wise to the situation and engaged in trying to get all the white people to loathe themselves and blame themselves for their ancestors mistakes.

I don’t suppose it has ever crossed your mind that it’s possible to look at people by what they believe in and how they act rather than judging them by factors outside their control. I don’t suppose you would realize that to a color-blind person, (of any race or creed) it doesn’t matter what the race of the criminals in prisons is, as long as they are guilty, and it doesn’t matter what color a college student is, as long as they are qualified.

To a person who views other people as fellow human being, rather than rival racial factions, it is completely irrelevant what the ratios of blacks and whites and Asians in the prison and universities is. To a non-racist, it’s really completely irrelevant what the racial proportions are in any category. Where there are social problems, you address them as social problems, irrelevant of whether they are “black” or “white” problems.

Not being racist yourself is not going to make other’s stop being racist, but it WILL end it on your part. Trying to “compensate” for white racism by encouraging black racism is only going to prove that you still see people as tribes and collectives rather than individuals. Joining the NAACP is only going to show that just like the clansmen of the KKK, you only see colors, not people.

Let me re-emphasize something very important: if you view people as individuals, not races, it is COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT whether “structural” unequalities exist. The entire notion that all institutions should mirror society in their racial proportions is based on the racist idea that race is the primary defining factor of people, not their own identity. Eventually, by teaching others and being an individual yourself, racial divisions in society will disappear. However when or if they do is completely irrelevant, because the whole notion of “getting back” for past discrimination is inherently racist itself. You CANNOT make up for slavery by giving a black man now a job he doesn’t deserve, and you share NO RESPONSIBILITY for past discrimination, EVEN IF you benefit from starting off in a higher position. Two wrongs don’t make a right, especially when you are not “righting” anything by being a bigot yourself.

Listserv: Divine Inspiration and Religious Guilt

by David Veksler David Veksler 8 Comments



I was writing a reply to a post, and thought that my idea was significant enough to merit an essay. Here goes:


Many theists claim that some sort of “spiritual connection” is a universal part of human experience and valid proof of some sort of spiritual realm. Furthermore, some Christians claim that if one tries hard enough, he will feel a “connection” and experience “proof” that some sort of spiritual realm exists. While such a spiritual feeling certainly exists, when properly identified, it indicates the greatest flaw of religion, rather than proof of an omnipotent being.


First, many widespread religions have no concept of a “spiritual connection” and are inherently atheistic, such as Buddhism, Taoism, etc. They may have spiritual elements, but they do not claim that mediation, prayer and such allows any connection to some sort of higher being. More importantly, only a few sects of Christianity believe that one should believe in God because of internal spiritual evidence. Certainly the old (Jewish) testament, traditional Catholicism, etc attempt to give evidence of historical events as proof of God, not internal “connections.” Furthermore, Judaism, Islam, and most other major religions focus entirely or mostly on external evidence for God, not “feelings” or any such evidence. Thus, it is not factually accurate to claim that “all” religions accept some of spiritual connection as proof of God, Jesus, Vishnu or any other such being.


Now, even if such a belief were universal, it would be no indication at all of whether some sort of spiritual world existed or not. Certainly, before the scientific process was invented, it was almost universally believed that gods, demons, etc. ruled nature and caused rains, volcanoes, seasons, and other natural events. However, this idea has been completely discredited by science. Spiritual feelings are no indication of external reality and are not accepted as valid evidence in any field – and should not be considered conclusive evidence of a God.


For example, suppose that when Einstein came up with his theory of relatively, the scientific body replied that they simply “felt” that Newtonian laws were true, and no exceptions were possible. Certainly, they had spend their whole careers accepting the validity of Newtonian physics, and since classical physics was almost universally accepted and embedded in their minds, they certainly “felt” them to be true, and relativity wrong, but no one tried to argue the absurd argument that feelings constitute proof in science – any neither should one say that in theology.


Nevertheless, it is true that many people experience a strong feeling during prayer and religious services, and it is worthwhile to examine its nature. Let me give a brief personal account of “spiritual connections” at this point. When I was six, I read several novels by Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes.) These authors taught me to apply “philosophical detectivism” to my study of the world, and rely in logic and the validity of my own conclusions. Ever since, I have applied a critical approach to all my studies, and when I was first exposed to religion at 10, I attempted to do the same. I attended Jewish Sunday school for eight years, eventually becoming an assistant Sunday school teacher for three years. I studied various religions and different views on God, attended services of different religions and denominations, and tried very hard to feel the “connection” that everyone was talking about.


I did experience the emotion commonly described as a “spiritual connection,” and since I believe that my feeling is what most people refer to when they talk about divine connection, I would like to describe what I experienced in particular and my conclusions on the nature of religious feeling in general.


Initially, when attending Sabbath services, I felt nothing but unease and awkwardness at being unable to understand what was going on –especially since at the time I did not speak English or Hebrew – the two languages used in Jewish services. I was like a native to whom a missionary was trying to sell religion. Eventually however, I learned the format of the service, and was able to read and understand both the English and Hebrew prayers. After several years, I became familiar with not just the literal meaning, but also the theological and historical significance of the prayers and rituals involved in services. I studied Jewish history, spent a summer in Israel, and immersed myself with trying to understand theology.


I began to experience a strong emotion during services, which I suppose many people would call “God.” However, since I knew that oftentimes my emotions were proven wrong by experience, I attempted to define and verify the nature of my feelings. I realized that the feeling I felt during services was much like the feeling I felt when I heard politicians and preachers talk about things like “freedom,” “a cause greater than oneself,” “justice” etc, etc. Such words, whether in the forms of prayer or political rhetoric, where a projection of values and goals to my life, which otherwise had no apparent end or purpose that I could derive on my own (at the time). In short, the feelings I experienced during services and while reading and listening to “deep thoughts” about the meaning of life involved the projection of the proper purpose of man’s life on earth and the proper beneficiary of his actions.


Giving a purpose and meaning of one’s life is certainly both a noble and crucial goal for anyone who wants to have a meaningful and happy life. It is only proper that realizing the mission and function of your life should be accompanied by a feeling of great joy and self-fulfillment. This is why many (most?) atheists who believe that religion is the only thing capable of giving life a purpose become either depressed or hedonistic, (unsuccessfully) seeking to give meaning to their life by drugs, sexual experimentation or New-Age mysticism.


However, adopting a religious basis for the purpose of one’s life creates a problem commonly mentioned but rarely identified: regular cycles of inspiration and guilt. Every single religious person has a cycle of going to a religious service and experiencing relief at the fact that there is after all a greater meaning to his or her life, and then finding their religious ideas impractical, idealistic, unattainable, or just hard to apply to real life. While this conflict varies greatly by person and religion, every single religious person experiences the feeling of guilt that arises from being unable to fully live up to their religion. Every Sunday (or whatever day they have their services) the guilt is absolved and the theist is newly inspired and motivated by their particular God, and as soon as their leave their church/temple/shrine the guilt begins to accumulate and the cycle begins anew. The greater the persons devotion to their religion, the greater their guilt at not being able to live up to it, and the deeper the emotion they experience during their weekly fix.


I know this, because immediately after my trip to Israel, I briefly went through this weekly cycle, and I have had many friends who have described exactly the same cycle to me. For some (like born-again Christians), the escalation of this cycle leads to life-long fundamentalism, for others it leads to a periodical ups and downs of depression and devotion, and for others, it leads to a complete rejection of religion, never to be tried again.


My initial bout with atheism happened when I was 15, during a Sunday school retreat that culminated a yearlong discussion on God. After a weekend of discussing our “relationship to God,” we were having our closing ceremony, lighting candles, singing songs, and the usual. All throughout the weekend I critically examined the different “relationships” that were talked about, and other than the feeling mentioned above, I could find no proof whatsoever that they led to the existence of God. Finally, right in the middle of a song proclaiming my devotion, I suddenly realized how silly and irrational the words I was singing were, and firmly rejected the whole notion of God. In the next few years, I discovered Spinoza and toyed with deism, and “cultural” religion, but shortly after beginning college, I examined all the evidence I had on theism and religion and rejected the whole enterprise for good.


Back to the topic at hand, my discovery of the philosophy of Objectivism filled in the holes in my understanding of emotion and morality. I realized that feelings are not random chemical reactions or hormones reacting in your head. Neither are they forms of divine inspiration guiding us in all our actions. Rather, feelings are the near-instantaneous reactions to things and events based on subconsciously and consciously held values and beliefs. “Divine inspiration” is simply the reaction to our need to give our life a purpose and meaning, not evidence of a supernatural being sending us messages.


Unfortunately, while a good life does need to have purpose and meaning, using religion for this purpose has several major flaws, which lead to the aforementioned cycle of guilt and inspiration. A proper discussion of religious ethics is beyond the scope of this essay (see for a hint) but suffice it to say that religious values are impractical because they strive towards a non-existent spiritual world while ignoring the means needed for a happy and successful life in the real, physical world, leading to the eternal conflict and ever-present guilt because one is not able to fully live up to either. When I discovered that the world was natural, I finally felt free to find my own meaning and purpose, experiencing a feeling aptly described by Robert G. Ingersoll in “Why I Am Agnostic”:


When I became convinced that the Universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world — not even in infinite space. I was free — free to think, to express my thoughts — free to live to my own ideal — free to live for myself and those I loved — free to use all my faculties, all my senses — free to spread imagination’s wings — free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope — free to judge and determine for myself — free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the “inspired” books that savages have produced, and all the barbarous legends of the past — free from popes and priests — free from all the “called” and “set apart” — free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies — free from the fear of eternal pain — free from the winged monsters of the night — free from devils, ghosts and gods. For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all the realms of thought — no air, no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings — no chains for my limbs — no lashes for my back — no fires for my flesh — no master’s frown or threat – no following another’s steps — no need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words. I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

Listserv: Memorizing vs. Learning

by David Veksler David Veksler 1 Comment

Being inspired by other people’s ideas and not having any of your own are two very different things. I have many heroes and sources from which I gain inspiration and material to further my own ideas and actions, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The key difference between the copy-cat and the independent thinker is that the copy-cat is capable of merely reading and memorizing words and phrases. He never develops the critical thinking skills needed to analyze other’s ideas and compare them to personal experience and the rest on his knowledge. Rather, he merely memorizes them, stuffing them into an ever-larger closet full of contradictions and inconsistencies.

The errors of such a process becomes obvious when such a person attempts to apply his knowledge to answer a question which involves arranging the ideas he already holds in a new way: because he never learns to relate ideas and concepts together, he is unable to do anything but spit out the same old lines he has memorized word by word.

For example, a student may take a programming class and memorize all the commands of a language and all the functions needed to accomplish certain tasks, but ask him to write a program using the most basic of these commands, and he will be completely helpless unless he has learned the relationships and meanings of the commands and functions. Likewise, many students study arithmetic, geometry, algebra, calculus in their education, but without integrating and learning the meaning and inter-relationships of these subjects, they will be unable to solve the most basic mathematical problems in real life. They will study history not as a chain of causally-linked events and trends, but as unrelated dates and actions, and science not as integrated and related fields, but as abstract, trivial, and independent areas.

It is not surprising then, that such people will view philosophy not as an integrated, and hierarchical structure, but a series of abstract questions, to be solved by logical calculus or left open with a big question mark.

The person who actually learns, rather than merely memorizing is not only able to relate existing knowledge and apply it to new situations, but more importantly, he can critically judge the ideas of his teachers, no matter how well-regarded they may be. Most students take their professor’s ideas at their word, either neutrally memorizing material and spiting it back out, or finding something instinctively wrong with ideas (perhaps because their parents, peers, or preacher told them otherwise) but being unable to say just why because the professor’s words are just as un-integrated as their previous knowledge. So, they put a question mark on the whole thing, and adopt a general apathy and equivocate all ideas as just “opinions.”

This, then is the general stupor in which most we find most people today, and it is the direct result of an educational system that fails to provide students with the critical thinking skills (despite a superficial dedication to it) needed to integrate and evaluate knowledge.

Reports BusinessWeek:In April, 2002, hackers

by David Veksler David Veksler No Comments

Reports BusinessWeek:
In April, 2002, hackers broke into the payroll database for the state of California. For more than a month, cybercriminals rooted around in the personal information of 265,000 Golden State employees, ranging from Governor Gray Davis to maintenance workers and clerks.

Worse, the California Controller’s Office, which ran the database, failed to notify state employees for more than two weeks after the breach was discovered. Although officials with the Controller’s office insisted the break-in probably hadn’t resulted in any significant harm, the incident enraged Golden State pols and employees, whose Social Security numbers, bank account information, and home addresses were fair game for the hackers.

This lapse sparked what may mark a dramatic shift in legal policy toward cybersecurity. Over strenuous objections from the business lobby, on Sept. 26 California enacted a sweeping measure that mandates public disclosure of computer-security breaches in which confidential information may have been compromised. The law covers not just state agencies but private enterprises doing business in California. Come July 1, 2003, those who fail to disclose that a breach has occurred could be liable for civil damages or face class actions.

Here is Slashdot’s very perceptive take on the new law:

” IMHO Big companies will have the resources to set up investigations even when they know it is unlikely to get anywhere, and business will go on as usual for them. Small businesses that don’t have the resources to maintain an investigation will have their reputations ruined. Also, the article doesn’t mention the contingency where a break-in occurs because of a software/hardware issue for which there is no released technical solution (i.e. anyone else who has software X would be susceptible to the same type of break-in). This is not good.”

Another Slashot comment on the story:
“Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) filed documents with the SEC today relating to a breach of network security.

According to the filings, at 5:23 AM last Tuesday, Microsoft’s network was “owned” by a hacker calling himself “Z3r0 kew10r”. While the hacker refered to himself as “1337” in his defacement of Microsoft’s webpage, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates indicated that the security breach was very minor.

In a press release accompanying the filing, Gates said: “t#1s punk th1nks h3’s 1337 but h3’s just a littl3 scr1p7 k1dd13 and i’m g0nna sh0w h1m what 1337 is when m3 and the M$ haxx0r cr3w crak his b0xx0r!” “