“I don’t like the ending…”


Doobster has posted another masterpiece called “I seen it all”.  The story has a great beginning, but then suddenly ends causing the readers to beg for more, if you read the comments.

This is a great story.  I think, it reveals a great deal about ourselves.  We get irritated when things do not go according to expectations: when unexpected things come up and mess up our plans, when other people behave irrationally (i.e. in a way that wee cannot explain or expect). Getting irritated about those things often leads to anger, fear, worry, and anxiety. I train myself to accept reality as it is, good or bad, expected or not. It’s just my way to be content.

Doobster’s story is great for practicing this philosophy. One would think that the story does not have an “ending”. Well, it ends, doesn’t it? The problem is that we don’t like the ending. We expect something more. But that’s not a problem with the story. It’s a problem with ourselves.  Just deal with it, folks.  And, to add some seasoning to the recipe, Doobster, who is an excellent writer, calls the story “I seen it all” and sprinkles this grammatical error, like a good chef, throughout the story to tickle the taste buds of the “grammar Nazis”.

This reminded me of my favorite TED talk by philosopher Dan Dennett.  In the beginning, he promises to explain consciousness, but warns that his explanation may disappoint many people because it’s like explaining a magic trick: when it is explained, the “magic” disappears — it’s not “magic” any more. Then Dennett uses a few examples of optical illusions to show how our mind creates “reality” that does not really exist — how we see people on a picture where, in reality, there are just few color spots on a canvas that don’t look like people at all;  or how we fail to notice that an airplane is missing an engine simply because we presume that it’s there.  The basic message behind this video is that we see what we expect to see, whereas consciousness and reality are not what we expect them to be — they are what they are.

The comments to the talk are most amusing.  People are disappointed by Dennett’s explanation of consciousness because…  it is not what they expected…  although Dennett warned everyone that they will be disappointed and although that’s the point of the talk — that consciousness is not what we expect.  In other words, Dennett has masterfully delivered on his promise to disappoint.  Brilliant.

Do we have free will?


Daniel Dennett has recently published a detailed response to Sam Harris’s book “Free Will”.  As one can see from the reviews, the book was received with enthusiasm by many scientists.  E.g. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, also chooses the point of view that free will does not exist.  I like how engineer Jacque Fresco explains this idea in the first part of this video (the second part where he mentions how a person may decide to borrow a weapon to protect himself from a wild animal despite being preconditioned by society that stealing is unacceptable seems somewhat inconsistent which is OK considering that, according to himself, he did not choose what to think or what to say).

The popularity of incompatibilism (the notion that deterministic laws of nature are incompatible with free will) among scientists and engineers is not surprising.  It is not a new idea and has been known for many centuries as shown in  this review on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy web site.  All good and well… But…

We still make choices, don’t we?  What do you say, yes or no?  How come?

I tend to agree with Dennett on this issue who espouses compatibilism, the notion that we can consider that free will exists for our practical purposes despite the determinism of laws of nature.  Although Dennett has a few good explanations of his view, I’d like to offer my own.

If we accept that every event is strictly determined by the laws of physics and all circumstances of that event, we must reject also the concept of probability.  There is no likelihood of occurrence of any event because, according to determinism, there is certainty whether and how this event will happen.  Nevertheless, probability is one of the most important concepts in science and everyday decision making.  Why?  I think, it has to do with predictability.  Determinism implies that all events are predictable in principle, if we know all circumstances leading to this event.  However, in practice, we never know all circumstances.  Therefore, we estimate probabilities.  This distinction between in practice and in principle also seems to be the source of confusion about falsifiability of scientific theories.

Let me ask you to name a random integer number between 1 and 10.  Can you do that?  I bet you can.  Now, that you picked a number, it’s not random for you any more — you know what it is.  But for me, the number is still random because I don’t know what number you have picked.  I can still talk about probability of what the number is, whereas for you there is no probability, there is certainty.

Once a lottery has been drawn, there is no longer any uncertainty regarding what the winning numbers are.  The probability of the numbers being what they are is 1.  Probability of the outcome of the lottery only makes sense before the lottery is drawn or if we do not know the results of the drawing.

Imagine a deck of cards face down on the table.  When I take a card from the top of the deck, what is the probability of the card being queen of hearts?  1/52, right?  Now imagine a deck of cards face up on the table with the top card being jack of spades.  What’s the probability of the card being queen of hearts now?  Now it’s zero.  Why?  Because we know it’s not queen of hearts.  But why does it matter whether the deck is face up or face down?  Isn’t the top card what it is regardless of what we think about it?  Why is it reasonable to talk about probability in the first case and unreasonable in the second case?

Perhaps, that’s enough of examples.  In summary, I think, probability, free will, and determinism are  ways to describe the world in a similar way as color is a way to describe the length of electromagnetic waves hitting our eyes (Dennett’s analogy).  In a similar way, imagining that electron is a wave or a particle or forms a cloud is a way to describe certain properties of electron.  But in reality, electron is neither like a wave in the ocean, nor like a cloud in the sky at all.  Thinking that an electron is a particle is incompatible with thinking that an electron is a wave.  Yet, scientists manage to use both models successfully, without contradiction.

It’s important to consider contexts in which concepts are meaningful.  Concepts lose meaning if they are used in a wrong context.  E.g., abbreviation “CD” can mean “compact disc” if we talk about audio records, “certificate of deposit” if we talk about banking, “critical dimension” if we talk about semiconductor processing.  In a similar way, the concept of “free will” is meaningful in most contexts of every day life, but not so in some specific contexts.  “Free will” and “probability” are all mere concepts.  If we argue that they do not exist, we might as well dismiss all other concepts and ideas we may have.

So, although, what I do is determined, I don’t know it, and it gives me the freedom of choice…  Or an illusion of freedom of choice which is as good as freedom of choice for all practical purposes.  There is no difference between free will and the illusion of free will just like there is no difference between real intelligence and fake intelligence.

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