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.

Quote Mismatched

Can you correctly match the following quotes with their authors?

  1. Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.
  2. The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.
  3. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
  4. All art is quite useless.
  5. Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason.
  6. If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.
  7. Capitalism has worked very well. Anyone who wants to move to North Korea is welcome.
  8. You can tell more about a person by what he says about others than you can by what others say about him.
  9. The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.
  10. Men are moved by two levers only: fear and self interest.

The choices, each used exactly once, are:

  • Albert Einstein
  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Bill Gates
  • Barack Obama
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Ayn Rand
  • Voltaire
  • Audrey Hepburn
  • Winston Churchill

The answer key is found here, but try it yourself first! If you really are bold, I dare you to write down your guesses in the comments and then check the solution.

Black Friday

Does anyone else find it weird that one day people appreciate everything they have down to the little things, and the next day they try to buy as much as they can?

—James Feng

This was the first year that I bought anything on Black Friday. As I mentioned in the previous post, I made an online purchase of the PC game World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King for $10 (down from $39.99). With a month of college left, I do not plan to play this expansion anytime soon; however, I do plan to try leveling from 70 to 85 at some point within the next year.

James’s quote captures the contradiction between the amiability of Thanksgiving and the materialism of Black Friday. Humans are usually consistent creatures. We don’t honestly believe one thing and then suddenly believe the opposite. So either we are not truly thankful on turkey day or we are not truly greedy on shopping day. I think it’s a bit of both.

Change, the Change of Change, and the Change Thereof

In the fall of 1972 President Nixon announced that the rate of increase of inflation was decreasing. This was the first time a sitting president used the third derivative to advance his case for reelection.

—Hugo Rossi

Change we can believe in.

—2008 campaign slogan for Barack Obama

Change we can find in everything—especially a soda machine. Change comes in many denominations, and some people carry more of it in their pockets; others refuse it. Change is an ancient necessity, and absolutely a modern one. Change is the soul of existence.

Sometimes, even the lack of change is in itself a change. For example, every sentence so far has contained the word “change.” If the next sentence does not contain the sacred word, would it thereby be a change? Indeed.

And if this post is on change, then why have I included an epigram about the third derivative—a scary calculus term—in a post about change? Answer: Calculus is the study of change.

First Derivative: Change

If you heard from a stock analyst, “Google went up $24 yesterday,” then you have heard a statement about the first derivative. If—and it is a very likely possibility—you have not, then don’t worry; consider instead the subtly edited statement: “Google went up $27 yesterday.” You clearly see a change between the two sentences. This is also a first derivative.

But in any case—and this is an even more likely possibility—you should ignore the two examples above and consider the following car example, which is probably quite unbelievable, for in such examples, cars always drive on perfectly straight roads with speeds and accelerations that match formulas exactly.

Suppose a car is moving on a perfectly straight road from New York City to London, with a velocity of exactly 100 km per hour. Furthermore, suppose that someone were to ask you for the first derivative. If you answered, “100 km per hour,” congratulations. The first derivative is the change of something. In this case, the position of the car changes. By how much? The first derivative.

But this car example is a bit unbelievable, so I would like to present what I believe is a more reasonable situation, which in this case involves two groups of angry monkeys on an alien planet. The first group of angry monkeys we’ll call the Lazies, and the second group the Angries. Furthermore, suppose that the two groups are incompatible, and that for some reason, both groups are evolving more limbs over time.

At year 0, both the Lazies and the Angries have two arms per member. Due to evolution, the Lazies gain an extra arm every 100 years, and the Angries gain two extra arms every 100 years. When the difference in arm count reaches three, the group whose monkeys have more arms can defeat the other group. Suppose no human politician intervenes. Who will win, and when?

The Angries will win. They’re gaining limbs twice as fast as the Lazies: every 100 years, the Angries gain two limbs while the Lazies only gain one. After the first 100 years, the Lazies have 3 arms while the Angries have 4. After 100 more years, the score will be 4 to 6. And after another 100 years, it will be 5 to 8, and the Angries win. This occurs at year 300.

Second Derivative: The Change of Change

The second derivative is important when not only the original thing is changing, but the change itself is changing. For example, if Google’s stock rose $24 the first day, $27 the second day, $30 the next day, the second derivative is $3 per day per day. That’s not a typo: the first derivative is “per day,” the second is “per day per day.” The amount the stock changes per day is changing—per day.

For the car, acceleration is the second derivative. Let’s say the car is accelerating at 20 km per hour per hour. That is, after each hour, the car is moving 20 km per hour faster than it was before. In the first hour the car is moving at 100 km per hour, in the second it is at 120 km per hour, in the third, 140 km per hour, etc. Actually these are only approximations: in the first hour, the car is actually moving somewhere between 100 and 120, because it starts at 100 and accelerates to 120 in the span of an hour.

What if every time a monkey group gained an arm, it would gain arms faster? The actual term is rather awkward to say: “1 arm per century per century.” For example, the Lazies start out with 2, but then increase by 1 for a total of 3. The next time, they increase by 2 for a total of 5, then increase by 3 for a total of 8, and so on. The Angries also start with 2, and at first increase by 2 for a total of 4. They then increase by 3 for a total of 7, then increase by 4 for a total of 11. At this point, the Lazies only have 8, so the Angries win again at year 300.

Now what if the Angries evolved as above but the Lazies reverted back to the rule in the first section? That is, the Lazies will gain 1 limb in the first century, 1 limb in the second, and 1 limb in the third. The Angries will gain 2 limbs in the first century, 3 limbs in the second, and 4 limbs in the third. By the second century, the Angries have already won: the Angries have 2+2+3 = 7 limbs while the Lazies only have 2+1+1 = 4. The Angries win at year 200.

The Red Queen’s quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is a classic demonstration:

“Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

If two things are moving at the same rate, it is as if neither one is moving. To go twice as fast, one must accelerate, i.e., use the second derivative. Of course I’m taking the quotation out of context.

Third Derivative: The Change of Change of Change

The third derivative is one step up from the second. It is the change of the second derivative, which is in turn the change of the first.

This level is out of the human comfort zone. It is difficult to explain the third derivative with the stock market or evolutionary examples, so we’ll go to the car once again. We examine the pressing of the gas pedal.

Suppose a fully pressed gas pedal causes the car to accelerate at 20 km per hour per hour. This is sluggishly unrealistic, but it’s for example. To go from zero acceleration to the max, the driver can step on the pedal gradually or suddenly. Now the acceleration itself is the second derivative, so the change of acceleration—the pressing of the gas pedal—is the third derivative. Pressed slowly, it exemplifies a low third derivative, and quickly, a high third derivative. The latter case doesn’t feel good.

Numerically, if the pedal is completely pushed down in 1 second, we have the third derivative as 20 km per hour per hour per second. If it’s done in 5 seconds, the third derivative is just 4 km per hour per hour per second. If “the third derivative” sounds tedious, there is a scientific name for this: jerk. I’m not kidding. Jerk is the change in acceleration, which is in turn the change in velocity, in turn the change in position.

Let us now return to Rossi’s quote: “In the fall of 1972 President Nixon announced that the rate of increase of inflation was decreasing. This was the first time a sitting president used the third derivative to advance his case for reelection.”

Inflation is the first derivative, i.e. the change in prices. The “rate of increase of inflation” is the second derivative. Then to say that the “rate of increase of inflation was decreasing” is to say that the third derivative was negative, as it caused the second derivative to decrease.

Concluding Remarks

Next time somebody says, “Spare some change,” be more willing to share some first derivatives. After all, to restock on the first derivative, try a soda machine. You never know what you’ll find in them.

Writing with Style — John R. Trimble

Edit (5/31/11): I received a pleasant email from Professor Trimble himself for this review!

Someone just alerted me to your delightful blog review of Writing with Style.  Many thanks for those kind words–and for articulating them in such a credible, writerly fashion.

Writing with Style

I chanced to pick up this book for a dollar at a book sale, and it  turned out to be one of the most useful writing guides I have seen. Trimble’s writing is vigorous, concise, and a joy to read.

First, Trimble keeps his example quotations to the point and, when citing longer passages, makes sure to pick ones that are both readable and very relevant. In other writing books I often skipped such expository quotations, reading the lines before and after, which usually gave me precisely the needed information but without my having to decipher sometimes multiple pages of abstruseness. But when reading Trimble’s book, I never felt the need to skip a quotation. The one exception is the essay “The Character and Purpose of Caesar,” which Trimble included in full to demonstrate several good points (Chapter 5). In fact, he had explained the points so well before the quotation that I was already convinced, and I felt no desire to read second-rate material—I wanted to see what else Trimble himself had to say. Other than this one long passage, every quotation is kept at a reasonable length.

Second, Trimble writes with a genuine voice: “Books on writing tend to be windy, boring, and impractical. I intend this one to be different—short, fun, and genuinely useful.”

Third, the book is creative and has no text-book feel. The most extreme—as well as humorous—example is chapter 10, “The art of revising.” It is a one-page chapter in which Trimble doesn’t say anything. He merely quotes a Paris Review interview:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.


That’s it. That’s the entire chapter. No explanation. It is unnecessary.

Now what is Trimble’s chief advice? It is very simple: write so that the reader can understand you. This certainly doesn’t equate with removing all complex ideas. Rather, it is to write in a way that the reader can follow your ideas and be interested in what you have to say. As Trimble put it:

Basically, I require two things of an author. The first is that he have something interesting to say—something that will either teach me or amuse me. If he doesn’t, I stop reading. The second requirement is that he not waste my time getting out what he has to say. If he idles, I conclude that I can be taught quicker elsewhere.

(p. 69)

Trimble also demolishes the creed of the cult of Formal English, which regards English as more a totalitarian law system and less a language. Very amusing are the Seven Nevers, which include statements like “Never begin a sentence with and or but” and “Never use contractions.” The fifth such statement is “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” The author’s remark:

Perhaps it was Winston Churchill . . . who delivered the coup de grâce to this superstition. When the old statesman had his attention called to a final preposition lurking in his prose, he exploded with: “This is the type of arrant pedantry, up with which I shall not put.”

(p. 91)

Side fact: The book’s author John R. Trimble published this in 1975 while teaching at The University of Texas at Austin.

Side fact 2: Just for fun, I ran WordPress’s grammar and style checker on this blog post. It made 12 marks: three on me, one on Churchill, and EIGHT on Trimble. It shows again that good authors are the ones who break the rules.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a beautiful work of art, and it tells us—according to the book’s epigram and preface—that “all art is quite useless.” Therefore, I shall try not to dig far into the meaning, but rather, present some of the most funny and quotable material from the book.

The following passage comes from the very beginning of the book, where the painter Basil Hallward refuses to send his portrait of Dorian Gray anywhere. Lord Henry Wotton is of the opposite opinion:

“Not send it anywhere! My dear fellow, why? Have you any reason? What odd chaps you painters are! You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away. It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. A portrait like this would set you far above all the young men in England, and make the old men quite jealous, if old men are ever capable of emotion.” (page 4)

Basil is an eccentric artist in other respects as well, for example, on secrecy:

“Dorian Gray? Is that his name?” asked Lord Henry, walking across the studio toward Basil Hallward.

“Yes, that is his name. I didn’t intend to tell it to you.”

“But why not?”

“Oh, I can’t explain. When I like people immensely I never tell their names to any one. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it. When I leave town now I never tell my people where I am going. If I did, I would lose all my pleasure. IT is a silly habit, I dare say, but somehow it seems to bring a great deal of romance into one’s life. I suppose you think me awfully foolish about it?” (page 6)

This starts a chain of witty remarks:

“Not at all,” answered Lord Henry, “not at all, my dear Basil.” You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. I never know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing. When we meet—we do meet occasionally, when we dine out together, or go down to the Duke’s—we tell each other the most absurd stories with the most serious faces. My wife is very good at it—much better, in fact, than I am. She never gets confused over her dates, and I always do. But when she does find me out, she makes no row at all. I sometimes wish she would; but she merely laughs at me.”

“I hate the way you talk about your married life, Harry,” said Basil Hallward, strolling toward the door that led into the garden. “I believe that you are really a very good husband, but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never to a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.

Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know,” cried Lord Henry, laughing. (page 6)

Some more amusing lines:

The whole thing was a fiasco. The last act was played to almost empty benches. The curtain went down on a titter, and some groans.

As soon as it was over, Dorian Gray rushed behind the scenes into the greenroom. The girl was standing there alone, with a look of triumph on her face. Her eyes were lit with an exquisite fire. There was a radiance about her. Her parted lips were smiling over some secret of their own.

When he entered she looked at him, and an expression of infinite joy came over her. “How badly I acted to-night, Dorian!” she cried.

“Horribly!” he answered, gazing at her in amazement—”horribly! It was dreadful. Are you ill? You have no idea what it was. You have no idea what I suffered!” (page 89)

“I should think it was, Harry. But according to your category I must be merely an acquaintance.”

“My dear old Basil, you are much more than an acquaintance.”

“And much less than a friend. A sort of brother, I suppose?”

Oh, brothers! I don’t care for brothers. My elder brother won’t die, and my younger brothers seem never to do anything else.” (page 10)

To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self,” he replied, touching the thin stem of his glass with his pale, fine pointed fingers. “Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others. One’s own life—that is the most important thing. As for the lives of one’s neighbors, if one wishes to be a prig or a Puritan, one can flaunt one’s moral views about them, but they are not one’s concern. Besides, Individualism has really the higher aim. Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.”

“But, surely, if one lives merely for one’s self, Harry, one pays a terribly price for doing so?” suggested the painter.

“Yes, we are overcharged for everything nowadays. I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.” (page 82)

Anyway, the novel was quite unlike anything I had ever read. I’m not exactly sure I liked it, but it is certainly an amusing read.

Lady Windermere’s Fan

Lady Windermere's Fan

A typical Oscar Wilde play, this is one of the wittiest works imaginable, and is the origin of many famous quotes such as “I can resist everything except temptation” and “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.” Although this play might not be as famous as The Importance of Being Earnest, and it might not have as sophisticated a plot, it is most certainly as witty, and has also more social commentary.

LORD WINDERMERE: Ah, Margaret, only trust me! A wife should trust her husband!

LADY WINDERMERE: London is full of women who trust their husbands. One can always recognise them. They look so thoroughly unhappy. I am not going to be one of them.

Here is another awesome passage, this time on superficiality:

LADY WINDERMERE: Lord Darlington, you annoyed me last night at the Foreign Office. I am afraid you are going to annoy me again.

LORD DARLINGTON: I, Lady Windermere? […] I am quite miserable, Lady Windermere. You must tell me what I did.

LADY WINDERMERE: Well, you kept paying me elaborate compliments the whole evening.

LORD DARLINGTON: Ah, nowadays we are all of us so hard up, that the only pleasant things to pay are compliments. They’re the only things we can pay.

LADY WINDERMERE: No, I am talking very seriously. You mustn’t laugh, I am quite serious. I don’t like compliments, and I don’t see why a man should think he is pleasing a woman enormously when he says to her a whole heap of things he doesn’t mean.

LORD DARLINGTON: Ah, but I did mean them.

LADY WINDERMERE: I hope not. I should be sorry to have to quarrel with you, Lord Darlington. I like you very much, you know that. But I shouldn’t like you at all if I thought you were what most other men are. Believe me, you are better than most other men, and I sometimes think you pretend to be worse.

LORD DARLINGTON: We all have our little vanities, Lady Windermere.

LADY WINDERMERE: Why do you make that your special one?

LORD DARLINGTON: Oh, nowadays so many conceited people go about Society pretending to be good, that I think it shows rather a sweet and modest disposition to pretend to be bad. Besides, there is this to be said. If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.

It is Lady Windermere’s very dislike of compliments that leads to the farcical temptation quote:

LORD DARLINGTON: Ah. what a fascinating Puritan you are, Lady Windermere!

LADY WINDERMERE: The adjective was unnecessary, Lord Darlington.

LORD DARLINGTON: I couldn’t help it. I can resist everything except temptation.

Another charming line is Lord Darlington’s speech on good and bad:

LORD DARLINGTON: Do you know I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in the world. Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance. It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious. I take the side of charming, and you, Lady Windermere, can’t help belonging to them.

Also, near the end of Act 3 are three now-very-famous quotes, quite close together:

DUMBY: I congratulate you, my dear fellow. In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst; the last is a real tragedy! But I am interested to hear she does not love you,. How long could you love a woman who didn’t love you, Cecil?

CECIL GRAHAM: A woman who didn’t love me? Oh, all my life!

DUMBY: So could I. But it’s so much different to meet one.

LORD DARLINGTON: How can you be so conceited, Dumby?

DUMBY: I didn’t say it was a matter of conceit. I said it as a matter of regret. I have been wildly, madly adored. I am sorry I have. It has been an immense nuisance. I should like to be allowed a little time to myself now and then.

LORD AUGUSTUS: Time to educate yourself, I suppose.

DUMBY: No, time to forget all I have learned. That is much more important, dear Tuppy.

LORD DARLINGTON: What cynics you fellows are!

CECIL GRAHAM: What is a cynic?

LORD DARLINGTON: A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

CECIL GRAHAM: And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.

LORD DARLINGTON: You always amuse me, Cecil. You talk as if you were a man of experience.


LORD DARLINGTON: You are far too young!

CECIL GRAHAM: That is a great error. Experience is a question of instinct about life. I have got it. Tuppy hasn’t. Experience is the name Tuppy gives to his mistakes. That is all.

DUMBY: Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.

I had certainly known of all three quotes before, but I never thought they were all located within a page of one another. Now, here are two more Wilde quotes, both located on the page before the previous passage:

DUMBY: Good heavens! how marriage ruins a man! It’s just as demoralising as cigarettes, and far more expensive.


LORD DARLINGTON: No, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

That makes for five infamous quotes in the span of two pages.

By the way, the title Lady Windermere’s Fan is actually a sort of pun, as the fan could refer to both her physical fan, which Lord Windermere gave to her as a present, and Lord Darlington, who likes her. Again, it is maybe not as funny a pun as The Importance of Being Earnest, but the content is just as clever.