Sunday, May 19, 2013

Do You Believe In Fate? No, I Mean Really?

Do you believe in fate? Do you believe that everything happens for a reason? Do you believe in karma? No, I mean do you actually believe in these things, or do you just make casual statements to this effect? Have you spent any time thinking about the consequences of these sorts of statements? I have a sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of people who say things like "I guess it's just not meant to be," or "karma's a bitch" haven't actually given a moment's thought to the implications of these statements, if they're actually made seriously.

These statements do seem fairly innocuous, and perhaps for most people they're just little stock phrases, little learned locutions we spit out in certain circumstances. I'm not concerned with this casual use, in the same way that I'm not trying to stop myself from saying "oh my god" or other things which are practically reflexes. I'm focusing here on people who actually believe in fate, or in some kind of force of karma, or that everything happens for a reason. These tend to be the same sorts of people who claim to be "spiritual, but not religious." This means that they like having ridiculous beliefs based on no evidence, but they also want to have the freedom to pick which ridiculous beliefs rather than conform to a preexisting dogma.

Here's the problem with beliefs of this sort: if you say (with complete intellectual honesty) that you believe that certain events are "fated" to happen (or not to happen), then the following things must be true, and by necessity:
  • the universe, or someone/something within the universe, is consciously aware of the existence of every single person within it.
  • the universe, or someone/something within the universe, cares about what happens to each individual and has planned out certain events (which are intertwined with the lives of other individuals).
  • the universe, or someone/something within the universe, has some objective sense of morality (which coincidentally aligns with our own) and is concerned about keeping a balance.
  • the universe, or someone/something within the universe, is sufficiently knowledgeable and capable of simultaneously taking care of every moment of every person's life in the world.
If you do not believe that all of these things are true, then you don't actually believe in fate, or karma, or that everything happens for a reason. There is no way for these things to be true unless there is some sort of sentience somewhere in the universe who is carefully orchestrating these earthly machinations. You'll see quickly that this is akin to believing in God in everything but name.

The most telling way to look at these beliefs is to ask why people hold them, and then it becomes clear why they exist. Ask someone who actually believes in fate or karma why he believes in it, and the answer will either be a blank stare (indicating that this person had never really bothered to think about that question before and has no real answer) or something along the lines of there just has to be something greater out there, something bigger than all of us, you know? Does there? Why? How can you possibly assert that that statement must be true? When you probe further, you will eventually get the person to admit that they believe it to be true simply because they desperately want it to be true, and so therefore it must be. Of course we would all choose to live in a universe that wants justice for everyone, but reality does not conform to our desires. The fact that you wouldn't want to live a life which is simply a string of random, meaningless events doesn't make it any less likely to be true.

Some people may also point to certain events in their lives which are seemingly so coincidental that there could be no possible explanation other than that the universe has guided everything to work out this one particular way. There are (at least) two problems with this line of "proof." First, coincidences are extremely common. Human beings live (on average) for nearly a century, and our lives are constantly intertwined with others' and full of all kinds of happenings and events every waking second of every day. This allows some extremely large number of opportunities for coincidences, and given such a large number of chances, the unexpected will inevitably happen, and happen a lot. We're much more likely to dwell on the one time something coincidental happens than we are the million times when it doesn't. To focus on the interesting to the exclusion of the mundane and assign meaning to the former rather than the latter is an arbitrary act inherent in human consciousness.

The second problem is closely related to the first: humans have an overactive tendency to pattern-match. That is, we see connections between unrelated events simply because they occurred at the same time, or sequentially. This predilection for explaining the world around us through cause-and-effect relationships gives an artificially-inflated sense of causality, which some people interpret as evidence for fate, karma, divine intervention, or whatever. We shouldn't feel bad though, as we're not the only species which is prone to superstition. Pigeons have been famously shown to behave this way as well.

If you actually believe that the universe or someone/something in it is sufficiently interested and capable of guiding events, you are obligated to explain why you believe this to be true. If you are unable to articulate the most basic information about this entity, such as where it is, what it's made of, how it works, where it came from, and why it's bothering to do all of these things, then how could anyone possibly believe you? How could you even believe it yourself?

There's nothing wrong with living in a universe that doesn't care about you. Really, it's ok. When something good happens, just be happy that something good happened. You don't need to thank anyone or call yourself blessed. Enjoy it and move on. When something bad happens, don't take it personally. Don't look up for help; do what you can to make it better.

Above all, as always, own your beliefs. Think about these things (I mean really think about them) and work it all out for yourself. Then stand up and be confident in what you've come up with, and be happy to talk about it with others. If you have questions you can't answer, go back and think again. Rinse and repeat.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Free Will and the Concept of Sin

Fair warning from the onset: this one is a bit of a mind-bender. I've recently heard and read some of my hero Sam Harris' work on free will, and I'd like to explore further one consequence of his work which he surprisingly touches on very little, namely the relationship between freewill and the concept of Biblical sin. Sin is of course a central part of the Abrahamic religions. The word appears 441 times in the King James Bible, for example, but all of these can be summarized simply with Romans 6:23, which states that "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." This clearly lays out a central tenet of the Christian faith, which is that all people are guilty of sin, and unless you ask for salvation through Jesus, your punishment is eternal damnation. The entire idea of sin is predicated on the assumption that human beings have free will and have the power to make choices. Since we can choose to be good or evil, God brings due rewards or punishment to each person upon death, based on the choices he has made. If it could somehow be demonstrated that human beings do not actually have free will, the entire idea of sin would be fundamentally undermined.

This is precisely what Sam Harris demonstrates in his latest book, Free Will. I would encourage you to read the book or watch one of his lectures on the topic. I'll try to summarize a few of his observations and reasons for asserting that free will is an illusion. Some of these thought experiments get a little crazy, but if nothing else they should provide some very interesting food for thought.

First, try a simple experiment, an obvious act of total free will, of total volition: think of a movie. Any movie at all, even if it's a movie that you haven't even seen but are aware of. What movie did you choose? Now, the important question, why did you choose that movie? If you thought of a few different movies and then ultimately selected one and not the others, can you explain why you didn't pick them? In actual clinical experiments of this sort, people generally give explanations about their choices which turn out to be wrong in reality; a movie pops into their mind, and they try to rationalize why that particular movie occurred to them, and even construct explanations for their choices. Did you pick "The Wizard of Oz?" If you didn't, why not? It's probably because that particular movie didn't even occur to you (if it did, that's a pretty creepy coincidence, and you are probably a sorcerer of some sort.) Are you free to choose a movie which doesn't occur to you? If you can't even really explain why you chose the movie you did, and just as importantly why you decided against other choices which occurred to you, in what sense was your choice actually one of your conscious volition?

Harris is ultimately talking about a kind of determinism, which is not a new idea by any means. The ancient Greeks were all over this, especially the thought that all actions have causes; nothing happens at random, or without cause. This is completely different, however, from the popular Christian sentiment that "everything happens for a reason," which implies that the reason is some sort of divine master-plan. Rather, the idea behind determinism is that every action is the necessary consequence of every action which preceded it; you thought of whatever movie you thought of because of a long string of prior events, such that you actually had no choice but to think of whatever movie you thought of.

Ideas of this sort are actually observable in a lab setting. It is possible to monitor the neural activity of a person and notice the exact moment in the brain when a decision is made. There is inevitably a time lag between the decision at the neural level and the manifestation of the decision as an action by the individual. That is to say, there is a time period in which the brain has made a choice, but the individual isn't actually aware of what that choice is on the conscious level. Sometimes this delay can even be a few seconds, which makes it possible to tell people what they've chosen before they're consciously aware of it themselves.

If you need another example, just consider your thoughts. I mean the random thoughts that just pop into your head throughout the day, for no apparent reason. We all space out sometimes and just start thinking about completely unrelated things, and it is pretty obvious that we aren't in control of this. While we seem to be able to choose to think about whatever we'd like whenever we'd like, we apparently are not the authors of the thoughts which occur to us without our conscious intention.

Another aspect to consider is the role that our genes and upbringing play in shaping who we are, which has a profound effect on our actions. Biologists have discovered various genetic markers which predispose people to certain behaviors as well as certain diseases, and these things are obviously beyond our control. There is a gene linked to psychopathy, for example; people who have this gene are much more likely to engage in violent behavior than those who do not. It is not true, however, that everyone who has this gene becomes a psychopath; environmental factors play an important role as well. So, someone who is genetically predisposed to psychopathic behavior and is brought up in an environment which allows those behaviors to manifest themselves has no choice but to become a violent psychopath. This is simply a result of many prior causes, none of which is the fault of the individual.

This idea is extremely troubling to most people, as our entire justice system is founded on the basic idea that people are responsible for their actions, and it is just to punish people who choose to behave in unacceptable ways. The same statement is true for Christianity and the Biblical notion of sin; if it is not the case that we are the conscious author of our actions, then it is unreasonable that we ultimately be held responsible for them. Thus, the entire idea of "sin" is undermined by the reality that we are not actually in control of our actions. Note equally that this is true of positive actions as well, not simply negative - those who do good deeds are no more the authors of their actions than those who do evil. In light of this observation, it becomes completely unreasonable for God to reward the saved with paradise and punish the sinners with hell, as the individual in either case did nothing except that which had to be done as a consequence of every cause which had preceded, many of which were beyond the individual's control.

Obviously this notion is so completely at odds with our culture that it becomes difficult to believe that it could be true. One is tempted to get carried away with the consequences of it as well, and start wondering if we should release all criminals from prison and stop giving awards to extraordinary people.

This would be utter insanity, of course. Rather, there is a more productive way to use this information as you interact with other people. As you realize that someone who seemingly does intentional harm to you had no choice but to do it, it becomes easier to understand the action and not feel the need for immediate and swift revenge. This does not mean that bad deeds should go unpunished and good deeds uncelebrated. We should not, however, attribute the clearest of conscious intentions to the people who do these things. We should, on the other hand, definitely recognize the completely faulty basis for the concept of sin as a justification for eternal damnation. If God does exist and the Bible is His Word, He has a fundamental misunderstanding of causality and is extremely unjust.

Hopefully this sort of thought process raises a lot of questions; I'd encourage you to watch or read Sam's thoughts on this subject in detail, as he does a better job of explaining and addressing problems with it than I ever could.