Free will and good writing

I’m probably more interested in free will than you are, presumably for reasons I have no control over.

I don’t believe in free will.  Or, more precisely, I can figure out how it could possibly work.  I read Daniel Dennett’s pro-free-will book Freedom Evolves, and I couldn’t really follow his arguments.  I read Sam Harris’s anti-free-will book Free Will, and it seemed admirably clear.  Is it clearer because Harris is a better writer, or because the case against free will is simply easier to make?

Now Dennett has published a rejoinder to Harris’s book, and Harris has published a rejoinder to Dennett’s rejoinder. Yikes!  The heart of Dennett’s argument, I think, is that of course the naive folk interpretation of free will is wrong, but there is this other kind of free will that’s really real.  This seems to me to be the kind of move that sophisticated religious people like Karen Armstrong make.  Of course the Bible isn’t literally true; everyone knows that.  Instead, atheists need to grapple with my own numinous, apophatic, transcendent view of God.  Except this ends up being so numinous that there’s nothing to grapple with.

Similarly, Dennett’s view of the pernicious effects of an anti-free-will stance remind me of the “belief in belief” point of view that some smart people have about religion.  Of course you and I know better than to take religion seriously, but we have to be quiet about this, because religion is necessary to keep the great unwashed from losing their morality.

Anyway, here is a taste of Harris’s prose:

Holding people responsible for their past actions makes no sense apart from the effects that doing so will have on them and the rest of society in the future (e.g. deterrence, rehabilitation, keeping dangerous people off our streets). The notion of moral responsibility, therefore, is forward-looking. But it is also paradoxical. People who have the most ability (self-control, opportunity, knowledge, etc.) would seem to be the most blameworthy when they fail or misbehave. For instance, when Tiger Woods misses a three-foot putt, there is a much greater temptation to say that he really should have made it than there is in the case of an average golfer. But Woods’s failure is actually more anomalous. Something must have gone wrong if a person of his ability missed so easy a putt. And he wouldn’t stand to benefit (much) from being admonished to try harder in the future. So in some ways, holding a person responsible for his failures seems to make even less sense the more worthy of responsibility he becomes in the conventional sense.

Jerry Coyne is another clear writer who is not afraid to speak his mind.  Here is his utterly expected view of the debate.  (He could not have written otherwise.)

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The usual suspects weigh in on heaven and miracles and Newsweek

Here are my initial thoughts on the “Proof of Heaven” cover story.  Of course, all sorts of people are now commenting on the article. The deepest dive I’ve encountered is by Sam Harris.  But, one might argue, Sam Harris has a dog in this race — he wrote a book called The End of Faith!  True, but he’s also a neuroscientist.  And he’s also very sympathetic to “spiritual” experiences — he’s had them himself.  Further he’s agnostic on the relationship of consciousness to the physical world:

There are, of course, very good reasons to believe that it is an emergent property of brain activity, just as the rest of the human mind obviously is. But we know nothing about how such a miracle of emergence might occur. And if consciousness were, in fact, irreducible—or even separable from the brain in a way that would give comfort to Saint Augustine—my worldview would not be overturned. I know that we do not understand consciousness, and nothing that I think I know about the cosmos, or about the patent falsity of most religious beliefs, requires that I deny this. So, although I am an atheist who can be expected to be unforgiving of religious dogma, I am not reflexively hostile to claims of the sort Alexander has made. In principle, my mind is open. (It really is.)

He then proceeds to rip Dr. Alexander’s article to shreds as science.

Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science.

Harris wants to make sure he has the science right, so he corresponds with his PhD advisor, who (from all I can tell) doesn’t have a dog in the race.  The guy says:

As is obvious to you, this is truth by authority. Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them. “There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness …” True, science cannot explain brain-free consciousness. Of course, science cannot explain consciousness anyway. In this case, however, it would be parsimonious to reject the whole idea of consciousness in the absence of brain activity. Either his brain was active when he had these dreams, or they are a confabulation of whatever took place in his state of minimally conscious coma.

There are many reports of people remembering dream-like states while in medical coma. They lack consistency, of course, but there is nothing particularly unique in Dr. Alexander’s unfortunate episode.

Harris then goes on to make the case that Alexander’s vision was not something uniquely “hyper-real” and “crisp”:

His assertion that psychedelics like DMT and ketamine “do not explain the kind of clarity, the rich interactivity, the layer upon layer of understanding” he experienced is perhaps the most amazing thing he has said since he returned from heaven. Such compounds are universally understood to do the job. And most scientists believe that the reliable effects of psychedelics indicate that the brain is at the very least involved in the production of visionary states of the sort Alexander is talking about.

Harris concludes by saying this:

Let me suggest that, whether or not heaven exists, Alexander sounds precisely how a scientist should not sound when he doesn’t know what he is talking about. And his article is not the sort of thing that the editors of a once-important magazine should publish if they hope to reclaim some measure of respect for their battered brand.

Alexander’s claim to being a scientist is probably what is most irksome to me.  He is a smart guy who has obviously had to study science to learn how to cut brains.  But he doesn’t know (or choose to know) how science works.

Here is a post from an academic clinical neurologist at Yale Medical School:

Of course his brain did not go instantly from completely inactive to normal or near normal waking consciousness. That transition must have taken at least hours, if not a day or more. During that time his neurological exam would not have changed significantly, if at all. The coma exam looks mainly at basic brainstem function and reflexes, and can only dimly examine cortical function (through response to pain) and cannot examine higher cortical functions at all. His recovery would have become apparent, then, when his brain recovered sufficiently for him to show signs of consciousness….

Alexander, in my opinion, has failed to be true to the scientist he claims that he is. He did not step back from his powerful experience and ask dispassionate questions. Instead he concluded that his experience was  unique, that it is proof of heaven, and that it defies any possible scientific explanation. He then goes on to give a hand-waving quantum mechanics, the universe is all unity, explanation for the supernatural. This is a failure of scientific and critical thinking.

Addressing his one major unstated premise, that the experienced occurred while his cortex was inactive, demolishes his claims and his interpretation of his experience.

Jerry Coyne points out the mercenary aspect to all this:

 I’m sure he thinks he saw heaven, and the public is so hungry to hear that their deaths aren’t the end that they’ll enrich Alexander far beyond his (heaven-envisioning) dreams.

This is the way to get rich in America: have a medical emergency in which you see visions that correspond to the Christian mythology.

(Not even available yet, Alexander’s book is already #1 in the science, medicine, and religion categories on Amazon.) This reminds me of Drew Gilpin Faust’s great book This Republic of Suffering, where she talks about the hunger for just this sort of book after the unimaginable losses America suffered during the Civil War.  But the popular books that fed that hunger were novels and theology (like My Dream of Heaven); they didn’t pretend to be science.  The yearning is always the same; the way we satisfy the yearning has changed.

Ebook Originals

It appears that major publishers are thinking about entering the world of ebook originals — books that are sold only in digital editions.

One such book that I’m aware of is The Rent Is Too Damn High by Matthew Yglesias, published by Simon & Schuster.  It’s just too short (about 64 pages) to be worth printing and distributing.  On the other hand, Sam Harris’s Free Will (which I will report on before long) is just slightly longer, and it is available as a paperback for $9.99.  Pretty expensive for the amount of content!  His essay Lying, which I talked about here, is available as a Kindle single, which is a very interesting model for making short-form content like that available. (By the way, some authors do quite well with their Kindle singles.)

I can see the attraction to publishers of putting out their authors’ shorter content as ebook originals — it makes the authors happy, keeps their names in the public’s consciousness, and eliminates most production costs.  But now my friend Craig Shaw Gardner reports that he may soon be signing a deal with Ace to write one of his trademarked funny-fantasy trilogies as ebook originals.  That’s a model I’m still puzzling over.

For the publisher, I guess the advantage is that it’s low risk.  Their costs go way down if they don’t have to print, warehouse, and ship hardcopy books.  Publishing becomes mostly a marketing effort (although they still have to create a cover and do their usual editorial work).  If the ebooks become really successful, they can always come out with a print edition.  But they’re giving up their major asset — their access to shelf space in bookstores.

For the author, I guess the advantage is that you get some money up front, and you don’t have to spend your own money on covers and other production costs.  And conceivably the publisher can do a better job of marketing your book than you can on your own (although I have my doubts).  But in return you’re giving up a large chunk of the royalties you’d get if you went the ebook self-publishing route.

Is it worth it?  Ace and Craig seem to think so.  So I wish them luck!  Also, prepare to be entertained!  I have read a chunk of the first book in manuscript, and I can say that, once you meet Bob the Horse, you will never forget him!

Lying — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t

Dunno why I’ve gotten so interested in lying lately.  But it keeps popping up in the news.  Here we see the ex-Yahoo CEO landing on his feet at some new high tech company.  He was the guy who lied on his resume by claiming an extra minor degree from an obscure college instead of going for broke with a bogus Oxford Ph.D. or something.  And now we see Fareed Zakaria getting himself in hot water by copying text from a New Yorker writer on his blog.

So I went and read Sam Harris’s free book on lying.  But he doesn’t really doesn’t have much of interest to say about the subject.

If you leave religion out of the picture (which, of course, Harris does), you generally have two ways of approaching lying (and other moral issues): the utilitarian way or the Kantian way.   If you go the utilitarian route, you can ask whether a particular lie adds to or subtracts from human happiness.  If you go the Kantian route, you can ask whether there is a categorical imperative not to lie, because that’s the way people should behave.  Harris dismisses Kant rather breezily, so we’re left with a utilitarian discussion, in which he brings up various cases where it might seem that lying would be a good idea, but it turns out not to be.  People lie to grandma about her terminal cancer, and everyone is worse off.  Harris tells a friend that his screenplay sucks, and the friend turns out to be grateful.  That sort of thing.  So, the world is better off if we don’t lie.

But that’s too easy!  Because obviously there are cases where lying works.  The Yahoo CEO lied on his resume, and eventually it tripped him up, but not so much that it ruined his career.  Mitt Romney is setting Olympic and world records for lying, and for all I know it may get him elected president.

One can, of course, make the case that lying is (at least in general) bad for society, even if it helps the individual.  So it comes out behind in the utilitarian equation.  And I’ll buy that–I don’t want Mitt Romney to become president!  But that’s uncontroversial.  The interesting thing, for me as a writer anyway, is the moral dilemma that lying presents to the individual.  In Senator, I present the protagonist as a presumably moral guy who ends up lying throughout the entire novel.  But he feels bad about it–it worries him, not just because he might get caught, but because it’s wrong.  Did it worry the Yahoo CEO?  Does it worry Romney?  Is Romney making utilitarian arguments to himself about the greater good that his lying is supposed to achieve?  Or is this just another business decision for him?

I wish Harris had spent more time looking at issues like that.  But I suppose this is why some people write novels instead of philosophy.

While I’m here, I’d like to recommend Rick Gervais’s weird little movie The Invention of Lying, which treats the issue of lying in an amiably subversive way.

Sam Harris is opposed to lying — go read his free ebook about it

I find that Sam Harris is always interesting, even when I disagree with him (and lots of people disagree with him about lots of things).  He has a post up on his site about Jonah Lehrer. In response to the Lehrer scandal, he has made his short ebook Lying available for free as a PDF for the rest of the week.  You’ll find a link to it in the Lehrer post.  I have started reading it, and his position on lying is pretty clear — he’s agin it.  My sense is that Harris is not an especially deep thinker, but he is a clear and graceful writer, so you may want to check out his book — it’s only about 60 pages.

I also have Harris’s book Free Will on my e-queue. He’s not necessarily agin free will, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think it exists.