Thinking, Fast and Slow; and Other Summer Readings

This summer’s reading list was a bit unusual, and the following books all have something in common:

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
  • The Stuff of Thought, by Steven Pinker
  • When Genius Failed, by Roger Lowenstein
  • Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer
  • Against the Gods, by Peter Bernstein
  • Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes

Positive expectancy to whoever can state it first in the comments below (also, the people who would be able to state this know I mean).

Thinking, Fast and Slow

thinking-fast-and-slow

Very good book, recommended for anyone. It presents the existence of two modes of thinking: one that is fast and intuitive, and the other which is slow and methodical. It then goes through many cognitive biases that can affect making rational decisions.

The Stuff of Thought

See this post.

When Genius Failed

when-genius-failed

A fascinating tale of how a company went from riches to rags, based on miscalculated risk. I think it is worth reading even for a non finance fan.

Moonwalking With Einstein

moonwalking-with-einstein

A book on memory. I actually read this one in the spirit of the book: I would go through some pages on the subway and then, without using a bookmark, remember the page I was on. This probably doesn’t sound impressive, but without bookmarks I am terrible at remembering how far into a book I am. The experiment worked out pretty well: I often remembered exactly the sentence on which I left off. Recommended for those interested in remembering things.

Against the Gods

against-the-gods

This was my least favorite among the least, though perhaps it has to do with my previous knowledge of mathematical history. It felt too much like a history textbook most of the time, and when it attempted to do math, the explanation was very rudimentary. I think one is better off reading the wikipedia page on the history of math.

Coolidge

coolidge

It was a surprisingly interesting book, at least for the first half or so. Learning about Calvin’s struggles earlier on in life was awesome, but once it got to real politics, it became much again like a history textbook.

There are a few more books that I am going through (by Pinker, Harris, and Dennett), and I will post about these once I am done.

The Stuff of Thought

My blurb on Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought (2007).

the-stuff-of-thought

For me, this book was a brilliant journey through linguistics and how language shapes the mind. It is the third book in a trilogy, but it is completely readable on its own.

The book starts strong with a very captivating introduction, which does a good job at convincing somebody why linguistics matters. But, the second chapter, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” seemed very much like a textbook. It felt like I was in Intro to Linguistics again. Of course, I found it interesting that many words can only be used with certain phrasings, for example, “fill the glass with water” is fine whereas “fill water into the glass” is not; however, the treatment seemed a bit too drawn out for a general audience. In addition, the vast majority of technical terms introduced in this chapter were not used again for the rest of the book, nor was there much immediate followup. But after this, the book skillfully takes off, and in fact I went from chapter 3 to finish in one run.

The most interesting chapter to me was number 4: “Cleaving the Air.” This chapter deals with how our perception of space and time is shaped by our language. Due to the subject matter, the chapter includes a (masterful) mix of linguistics, philosophy, and physics. Referring to grammatical time, as opposed to physical time (190):

Sometimes the past and future are subdivided into recent and  remote intervals, similar to the dichotomy between here and there or near or far. But no grammatical system reckons time from some fixed beginning point… or uses constant numerical units like seconds or minutes. This makes the location of events in time highly vague, as when Groucho told a hostess, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.”

In Chapter 6, “What’s in a Name?”, Pinker analyzes the art of naming, including his own (279):

…I repeatedly found myself surrounded by Steves. In school I was always addressed by an initial as well as a name, since every class had two or three of us, and as I furthered my education the concentration of Steveness just kept increasing. My graduate school roommate was a Steve, as was my advisor and another of his students (resulting in a three-Steve paper), and when I started my own lab, I hired two Steves in a row to run it.

Chapter 7, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television,” is one that is both amusing and amazing. It is a short treatment of profanity in language, dealing with words that are considered obscene or taboo. Quite carefully, Pinker uses euphemisms even when discussing the use of euphemisms (345):

The dread of effluvia, of course, can also be modulated, as it must be in sex, medicine, nursing, and the care of animals and babies. As we shall see, this desensitization is sometimes helped along with the use of euphemisms that play down the repellence of the effluvia.

That paragraph is gold.

Finally, Pinker explores some game theory in Chapter 8: “Games People Play.” Namely, when does one say things directly vs indirectly, truthfully vs politely? When does one offer (or conceal) a bribe? When does one take a bribe? This and many more questions are explored. Not surprisingly, the results fit what an economic intuition would imply, but it is interesting to see such games from the perspective of linguistics.

Overall, this is a brilliant book. It reminded me of Gödel, Escher, Bach, which also was multi-disciplinary and made extensive use of humor.

Hitchens: How Religion Poisons Everything

This was my first Christopher Hitchens reading, so it took a few pages to get adjusted to his style of prose.

god-is-not-great

It is interesting to compare God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006). Hitchens’ style is far more direct. Here is cool chart that I linked to in my previous post (click to expand):

intp-intj-dawkins-hitchens

While Dawkins constantly hedges his arguments and states the caveats, Hitchens explicitly makes clear his disapproval and wastes no time in getting there. The following excerpt is from as early as page 6.  Pardon the lengthy quotes, but Hitchens writes in long form:

There is no need for us to gather every day, or every seven days, or on any high and auspicious day, to proclaim our rectitude or to grovel and wallow in our unworthiness. We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine. Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects (even including objects in the form of one of man’s most useful innovations: the bound book). To us no spot on earth is or could be “holier” than another: to the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty…. We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.

Hitchens is also wanting to provide large amounts of detail to counter even simple claims. Whereas Dawkins, whose arguments are mostly logical, appeals to the logos, Hitchens appeals to the pathos. Whereas Dawkins attacks the biological improbability of the virgin birth, Hitchens ridicules it by comparing it to other instances of it in other cultures. Dawkins says it was more or less impossible, while Hitchens says if it did happen, then it was not very impressive:

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this wise. When his mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” Yes, and the Greek demigod Perseus was born when the god Jupiter visited the virgin Danaë as a shower of gold and got her with child. The god Buddha was born through an opening in his mother’s flank. Catlicus the serpent-skirted caught a little ball of feathers from the sky and hid it in her bosom, and the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli was thus conceived. The virgin Nana took a pomegranate from the tree watered by the blood of the slain Agdestris, and laid it in her bosom, and gave birth to the god Attis. The virgin daughter of a Mongol king awoke one night and found herself bathed in a great light, which caused her to give birth to Genghis Khan. Krishna was born of the virgin Devaka. Horus was born of the virgin Isis. Mercury was born of the virgin Maia. Romulus was born of the virgin Rhea Sylvia. For some reason, many religions force themselves to think of the birth canal as a one-way street, and even the Koran treats the Virgin Mary with reverence. However, this made no difference during the Crusades, when a papal army set out to recapture Bethlehem and Jerusalem from the Muslims, incidentally destroying many Jewish communities and sacking heretical Christian Byzantium along the way, and inflicted a massacre in the narrow streets of Jerusalem, where, according to the hysterical and gleeful chroniclers, the spilled blood reached up to the bridles of the horses. (22)

He is not afraid to call aspects of religion outright stupid.

The other man-made stupidities and cruelties of the religious are easy to detect as well…. Nothing proves the man-made character of religion as obviously as the sick mind that designed hell, unless it is the sorely limited mind that has failed to describe heaven—except as a place of either worldly comfort, eternal tedium, or (as Tertullian thought) continual relish in the torture of others. (218)

And on the “issue” of contraception:

Every single step toward the clarification of this argument has been opposed root and branch by the clergy. The attempt even to educate people in the possibility of “family planning” was anathematized from the first, and its early advocates and teachers were arrested (like John Stuart Mill) or put in jail or thrown out of their jobs. Only a few years ago, Mother Teresa denounced contraception as the moral equivalent of abortion, which “logically” meant (since she regarded abortion as murder) that a sheath or a pill was a murder weapon also. She was a little more fanatical even than her church, but here again we can see that the strenuous and dogmatic is the moral enemy of the good. It demands that we believe the impossible, and practice the unfeasible. The whole case for extending protection to the unborn, and to expressing a bias in favor of life, has been wrecked by those who use unborn children, as well as born ones, as mere manipulable objects of their doctrine.

The main takeaway point of this book is similar in spirit to that of Dawkins’ book. Dawkins argues that religion does not deserve special treatment and that the belief in gods is logically absurd, while Hitchens takes the taboo part of religion for granted and attacks the social consequences of it. Their books overlap in that they both view religion as a negative, but they are otherwise two totally separate books that complement each other well.

Survival of the Selfish Gene

After reading The God Delusion, I decided to study some of Richard Dawkins’ earlier works. For this post, I read The Selfish Gene (and among the books on my queue are The Blind Watchmaker and The Greatest Show on Earth).

the-selfish-gene

Published in 1976, The Selfish Gene explores the phenomena at play regarding the behavior of replicators, namely genes and memes. I was expecting to see lots of biological arguments, and while there are many, I was shocked at what I found was the main tool used in the book: game theory.

Of course, once you think about it, it makes perfect sense that game theory is extremely important when talking about genes and how they spread from one generation to the next. And by game theory, I do not mean board games or video games, but economic game theory, applied to biology in what is now known as evolutionary game theory. In fact, this book would be an excellent read for people interested in mathematics or economics, in addition to the obvious group of those interested in biology. Dawkins uses concepts like Nash equilibria, though the term is not explicitly stated (consider the date of the book), and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, just for a couple examples, to explain many biological behaviors found in various animals, including humans. This kind of game-theoretic analysis followed largely from the work of John Maynard Smith.

In addition to having studied a bit of game theory, I have also studied dynamical systems, though from the perspective of pure math and not biology. Even so, the concepts in the book were very familiar. I do not think The Selfish Gene is controversial from an academic standpoint. The now 40-year old ideas are still relevant today, and the ideas are really not that difficult to understand, given a sufficient mathematical and scientific background.

Instead, the controversy around the book seems to come solely from the title itself, and perhaps the attached stigma to writing anything about evolution, which seems to be more of an issue today than it was in 1976. Dawkins notes this years later in the preface to the second edition:

This is paradoxical, but not in the obvious way. It is not one of those books that was reviled as revolutionary when published, then steadily won converts until it ended up so orthodox that we now wonder what the fuss was about. Quite the contrary. From the outset the reviews were gratifyingly favourable and it was not seen, initially, as a controversial book. Its reputation for contentiousness took years to grow until, by now, it is widely regarded as a work of radical extremism.

I do find this amusing. It seems to have not to do specifically with the theory of evolution itself, but with the unfortunate anti-intellectual sector of the US. (Of course, Dawkins is from the UK, but I am talking about American opinion of these kinds of books.)

In current society it seems like a fad to wear one’s ignorance on one’s sleeve, as if boastfully declaring, “My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Of course I am not advocating that we should go the opposite direction and be ashamed for not learning, but we should be able to come together and agree that ignorance is not a virtue, especially not in the most scientifically advanced country in the world. I am not really sure how the United States is supposed to recover from this, other than that we become more reasonable over time. And that will take education, not ignorance.

The title of the book is somewhat misleading, only if one does not understand what the word “selfish” is describing. The “selfish gene” is not so much talking about a gene that causes selfishness in individuals (this is an ambiguous notion in itself), but rather, it describes the word “gene” directly, that genes themselves propagate themselves in a manner that appears selfish. The individual is merely a “survival machine” for the gene. There is a critical difference here between the two notions.

The selfish gene is merely a gene that, for practical reasons, has a higher chance of being passed on. It does not really contradict any current notion of evolution, and in fact, at the time of publication, it became the new and improved theory of evolution that is now the textbook standard. In any case, the message is that evolution works not by the survival of the fittest individuals, but by the survival of the fittest, or most selfish, genes.

When we look at the selfish gene, there are situations (as demonstrated in the book) where the intrinsically selfish thought appears on the outside as altruistic. Mutual back-scratching benefits both individuals, and moreover, benefits the gene for it, thus making the gene more likely to spread. So while the behavior of back-scratching seems altruistic, it may be nothing more than concealed selfishness. This idea can be extrapolated to many phenomena. Often people put on acts and fake displays of kindness only for the selfish benefit of “seeming” nice. Or they are so “humble” that they announce their humbleness everywhere they please and make you feel bad for not being as humble as they are. The list goes on. However, I will not comment too much on this as this goes under cultural behavior and not strictly genetic behavior, although they are related.

The controversy around this book also seems to stem from perceived personal offense. Included in The Selfish Gene is an interesting quote from Simpson regarding historical developments in explaining how the current species on Earth came to be:

Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus: ‘The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.’

While this statement is perfectly true in trying to understanding biology, I can see how religious people might take offense. To declare that all mythological ideas in this area before Darwin’s The Origin of Species are worthless is a bold claim, even when it is correct.

Regarding the actual content of the book, I have already mentioned that Dawkins makes extensive use of game theory. There are many numbers in some of the more technical chapters, making the book possibly difficult to read in real-time unless the reader is versed in mental mathematics. Though, with some deliberate thought on these chapters, any reader should be able to get through them.

The Selfish Gene is a remarkable book, giving clear explanations of basic biology and evolutionary game theory for the layman. It is a shame that such educational material is viewed as controversial. I wish I could succinctly summarize the fascinating interplay of evolutionary game theory in a single post, but it would be better to leave it to you to pick up this book and think about it for yourself. If you do not like evolution, however, you have been warned.

For Science: Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Death by Black Hole”

Death By Black Hole

Death by Black Hole is an epic read. What makes this stand out from the average science essay collection is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s unwavering expertise in combination with his remarkably down-to-Earth explanations of not only how things happen, but also of how we discovered how things happen.

For instance, everyone today knows there is a constant speed of light, and we actually encounter it, sometimes in latency in the Internet. But as far as our intuition goes, light moves infinitely fast, i.e. it is instantaneous. In fact, I still remember Bill Nye the Science Guy trying to outrun a beam of light in his show. After many tries, he was never able to succeed.

Tyson reveals to us that even Galileo, in 1638, thought that light was instantaneous, when his lantern experiment failed to yield a measurable delay. It was not until Ole Rømer who first saw and interpreted correctly the evidence that light is not instant. In “Speed Limits”:

Years of observations had shown that, for Io, the average duration of one orbit—an easily timed interval from the moon’s disappearance behind Jupiter, through its re-emergence, to the beginning of its next disappearance—was just about forty-two and a half hours. What Rømer discovered was that when Earth was closest to Jupiter, Io disappeared about eleven minutes earlier than expected, and when Earth was farthest from Jupiter, Io disappeared about eleven minutes later.

Rømer reasoned that Io’s orbital behavior was not likely to be influenced by the position of Earth relative to Jupiter, and so surely the speed of light was to blame for any unexpected variations. The twenty-two-minute range must correspond to the time needed for light to travel across the diameter of Earth’s orbit. From that assumption, Rømer derived a speed of light of about 130,000 miles a second. That’s within 30 percent of the correct answer—not bad for a first-ever estimate…. (p. 120)

That someone deduced the speed of light with 1600’s technology is remarkable.

In addition, Tyson enlightens us with the exciting information we all want to know. Antimatter, for instance, annihilates on contact with normal matter, releasing tremendous amount s of energy. In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, a tiny vial of antimatter explodes with the violence of a nuclear bomb. But what if a Sun made out of antimatter collided with our own Sun? How big would the blast be? According to Tyson in “Antimatter Matters,” the explosion would be frighteningly large:

If a single antistar annihilated with a single ordinary star, then the conversion of matter to gamma-ray energy would be swift and total. Two stars with masses similar to that of the Sun (each with about 1057 particles) would be so luminous that the colliding system would temporarily outproduce all the energy of all the stars of a hundred million galaxies. (p. 106)

While this anthology is comprised of essays which are all distinct and divided into categories, it is still possible enough to read it like a normal book from start to finish if you are a science enthusiast.

However, given the sheer variety of different topics, there are wide jumps of topics and some overlap of subject material between essays that might alienate a some readers. This was not too much of an issue for me, but I did find the lack of an overall thesis sort of strange, and this this forced me to read it in a different manner than for most books. For someone interested in a popular book on astrophysics that was originally intended as a book, I would highly recommend Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible, which is more coherent and packs more punch than Death by Black Hole.

This is not to say that Death by Black Hole is without merit. It is one of the few books to explain not just the contents of scientific discoveries, but also the discovery process itself, which can oftentimes be more fascinating to learn about than the results. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the finest communicators of science in our time, and I always find his talks on YouTube fascinating. As an essay collection on science, Death by Black Hole is unmatched.

Why I Approve of Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion”

I have heard a variety of reports on this book, ranging from brilliant to demonic. As one who realizes the social and political importance of the secular movement in the years to come, I had to pick up The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, to examine the book myself.

The-God-Delusion

This may be one of the most influential books to contemporary society. Contrary to my expectation, Dawkins’ overarching thesis is not a single argument or even a set of arguments against the existence of God (or gods). Though he does make many strongly supported biological arguments and includes many other types of arguments that have been echoed over the centuries, the main point, I could tell, was not to provide other atheists with arguments against the existence of God. A plethora of such arguments can be found on the Internet, at your local library, in your classroom, or even in the thoughts of your brain.

The Special Treatment of Religion

The real point, which makes this book stand out from others on atheism and religion, is the argument that, whether religion is right or wrong, we as a society need to change our special treatment of religion.

There is an undeserved respect of religion in our culture. In daily life it is considered perfectly okay to argue about our favorite sports teams, our differences of taste in food and music, and even our political beliefs. But the moment religion is brought up, it suddenly becomes “rude” or “offensive” to disagree with a believer or to even slightly question his or her beliefs. This, of course, is prime hypocrisy as many religions downright treat agnostics and atheists as subhuman or fools: “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” (Psalm 14:1). Imagine the public outcry that would occur if, in some atheist meeting, the members called all religious believers “fools.” Yet when religious people call all atheists “fools,” it’s perfectly okay, because you got to respect their religious beliefs. I suppose when religious people call blacks or women inferior, you’re supposed to respect that too? Does the religiosity of a belief make it immune to criticism?

Dawkins argues that the discussion of religion, like any other topic, should not be taboo, and that when a religious person makes an absurd proclamation (all 3 examples in the last half-year), you have every right in the world to criticize it, and moreover you should be able to criticize it without ever having to worry about “offending” them or their religion or anyone else’s religion.

Christianity and Islam

While Dawkins primarily targets Christianity, since it is the dominant religion in Western culture, he also mentions the even more undeserved respect for Islam that arises simply because it is is a minority in places like the US and the UK. In response to a Danish newspaper in 2006 which satirized the Islamic prophet Muhammad, demonstrators burned Danish flags, trashed embassies and consulates, boycotted Danish products, physically threatened Westerners, burned Christian churches (with no Danish or European connections at all), and killed 9 at the Italian consulate in Benghazi. This series of events would be tragically repeated in 2012. From Dawkins, on the 2006 incident:

A bounty of $1 million was placed on the head of ‘the Danish cartoonist’ by a Pakistani imam – who was apparently unaware that there were twelve different Danish cartoonists, and almost certainly unaware that the three most offensive pictures had never appeared in Denmark at all (and, by the way, where was that million going to come from?). In Nigeria, Muslim protesters against the Danish cartoons burned down several Christian churches, and used machetes to attack and kill (black Nigerian) Christians in the streets. One Christian was put inside a rubber tyre, doused with petrol and set alight. Demonstrators were photographed in Britain bearing banners saying ‘Slay those who insult Islam’, ‘Butcher those who mock Islam’, ‘Europe you will pay: Demolition is on its way’ and, apparently without irony, ‘Behead those who say Islam is a violent religion’. Fortunately, our political leaders were on hand to remind us that Islam is a religion of peace and mercy. (p. 47-48)

Dawkins doesn’t explicitly say it, but I think the message is pretty clear. He sympathized with the Christians in the larger religious conflict. Similar sentiments are echoed by Sam Harris, who has stated, quite explicitly, that of these two Abrahamic religions, Christianity is the lesser of the two evils.

Again, the political refrain from criticizing the response of Islamic extremists demonstrates undeserving respect of religion in our society. Politicians, always fearful of losing their constituency, feel to afraid denounce such violence. As a result, we let it go on. Until we as a society allow ourselves to discuss religion openly, we will always be at the hands of its extremists who thrive on the inability of our leaders to take meaningful action.

Faith is Not a Virtue

Another undeserved respect we give to religion is accepting its dogma that faith is a virtue. Faith, by definition, is believing in something with insufficient evidence, and oftentimes in practice, it means believing in something without a shred of evidence. Dawkins argues that faith is in fact the opposite of virtuous:

…what is really pernicious is the practice of teaching children that faith itself is a virtue. Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument. Teaching children that unquestioned faith is a virtue primes them—given certain other ingredients that are not too hard to come by—to grow up into potentially lethal weapons for future jihads or crusades. Immunized against fear by the promise of a martyr’s paradise, the authentic faith-head deserves a high place in the history of armaments, alongside the longbow, the warhorse, the tank and the cluster bomb. If children were taught to question and think through their beliefs, instead of being taught the superior virtue of faith without question, it is a good bet that there would be no suicide bombers. Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools: that duty to God exceeds all other priorities, and that martyrdom in his service will be rewarded in the gardens of Paradise. And they were taught that lesson not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent, gentile, mainstream religious instructors, who lined them up in their madrasas, sitting in rows, rhythmically nodding their innocent little heads up and down while they learned every word of the holy book like demented parrots. Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong. (p. 347-348)

This is an important point to make. What can be more dangerous than people who have the capacity to do great harm, who have been taught that doing so is justified, but without the capacity to question their thoughts? What is more dangerous than one who destroys the lives of others while believing without question that they are doing the right thing? Intriguingly, Dawkins also brings up the fact that many extremists were not raised by extremists, but by well-meaning parents or perhaps even a well-meaning community, but whose individual determination went too far. This is an important point for “liberal” and “moderate” religious people to consider. It is the majority of otherwise non-fundamentalists that enable the extremists.

Group Selection

In addition to the social commentary, which to me is the most important point of this book, Dawkins uses his expertise as an evolutionary biologist to explain the origin and early persistence of religion in some of the middle chapters. The main thesis here is that evolution early on favored brains who would unquestioningly accept what their parents or their elders spoke. For instance, the child who obeyed “Don’t punch a sleeping bear” probably had a higher chance of survival than the one who didn’t obey. Hence, the unquestioning acceptance of dogmatic belief and passing on that dogmatic belief could actually be hardwired in our brains.

But, as Dawkins points out, it is not that simple. If an elder said “Don’t punch a sleeping bear, and every month we must sacrifice a goat,” a child is not able to process that one statement is sensible and the other is absurd, and hence accepts both of them. Since it works (or at least seems to work), the child later passes on the knowledge to his or her own children, and the cycle repeats. The useless monthly sacrificing of a goat is a freeloader that is passed on into the next society without helping it at all. This is not unlike how many useless DNA mutations arise in genetic drift.

Some religious ideas survive because they are compatible with other memes that are already numerous in the meme pool—as part of a memeplex. (p. 231)

After all, Richard Dawkins is the originator of the term “meme.”

Overall

Indeed, religion has been unjustly immune to criticism for far too long. Even by claiming that we should be allowed to openly discuss religion, Dawkins has been denounced as offensive to religious belief, when the unquestioning belief itself is what should offend a modern society. Many say that it is the extremists who are harmful and that most moderates don’t do any harm—and while this is true in that they don’t cause any damage directly, the religious moderates and even liberals comprise the enormous base of support who enable the extremists. When 46% of the United States, the most technologically and scientifically advanced country in the world, believes in creationism and 73% of our population is Christian, it is difficult to criticize the democratically elected Rep. Paul Broun’s statement that “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.” (This guy is a part of the congressional science advisory board.) Instead, many religious “moderates” and “liberals” don’t denounce Broun’s ideology at all, and merely state that he is too literally interpreting the Bible or something, as if they know how to interpret the Bible better than he does. They play this interpretation game instead of dealing with the actual problem, the religion itself, because in the end they are on the same side as Rep. Broun. Until we address this root cause, we cannot move forward as a society.

The God Delusion, published in 2006, is likely to be the most important book of its decade. This timing is especially crucial because the 2000’s is the same decade in which the Internet engulfed everything and people became closer together through social networks. With the increasing interconnections and intercultural frictions that have arisen, it more important than ever that we stand by reason and not by superstition, that we stand by tolerance and not by dogma, and that we stand by progress towards the future and not by ancient myths of the past.

Free Will

When I choose a book to read, am I really making a choice, or do the events that led up to my choosing a book already determine which book I am about to read? According to the book that I ended up reading, Free Will (2012) by neuroscientist Sam Harris, the answer is the second one.

Free Will

Sam Harris argues that free will is simply an illusion. Our decisions arise from background causes which our conscience often does not notice. For instance, he asks if the presence of brain tumors in criminals affects our perception of their crimes, then what about other neurological disorders? And even non-neurological ones?

If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is “free”? (3)

In fact, the strength of this book is that its argument is based on a well-researched neuroscience. Granted, Harris brings up the more speculative conjectures of philosophy, but only after discussing research of the brain at length.

The physiologist Benjamin Libet famously used EEG to show that activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected some 300 milliseconds before a person feels that he has decided to move…. More recently, direct recordings from the cortex showed that the activity of merely 256 neurons was sufficient to predict with 80 percent accuracy a person’s decision to move 700 milliseconds before he became aware of it. (8)

In fact, the science seems very well established, and it is the public perception that needs to catch up. Before reading this book and subsequently researching what neuroscientists and philosophers think of free will and determinism, I expected there be serious debate and the sides roughly equally sized. But as it turns out, only 14.9% of philosophers did not lean towards one of compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will. The majority of them actually know what is going on. Neuroscience is even more strongly against free will, as its experiments directly contradict it.

It kind of reminds of me a post I wrote called On Giving Too Much Legitimacy to the Inferior Position, where I argued that on certain issues, even trying to point out that there is “debate” over something sometimes distracts or even draws people away from the truth. This is a case in point, as I had always thought I was in the minority when I argued determinism instead of free will, but it turns out I was in the academic majority.

In addition, as an atheist and humanist, I must applaud Harris for the following passage:

Despite our attachment to the notion of free will, most of us know that disorders of the brain can trump the best intentions of the mind. This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity—and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics. Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin—which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next. And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us. (55)

Indeed, the concept of free will is very related to religion and its morally abhorrent idea of sin. Dispelling mythological concepts such as the soul or sin is a necessary step in the advancement of the human species. And at some point, free will too must go.