Category Archives: essays

Free Will (2012)

Concepts, theories, ideas, and studies that rattle us to the core are something of an enjoyment for me. And it’s not a love of conspiracy theories or the metaphysical, it’s a love for the skeptical and challenged sciences/tradition. The Earth orbits the sun, the Milky Way is one of billions of other galaxies, Earth life has evolved over billions of years, our Universe is expanding, we are made up of molecules and DNA, and so much more has shattered long-held beliefs and led to incredible observations. Sam Harris’ Free Will posits itself in the same vein.

I never thought to challenge Free Will, indoctrinated with the Catholic mentality that we are solely responsible for the choices we make (this life is a test for heaven) and in the end it matters not your class, upbringing, genetics, or racial identity. Sam Harris’ assertions are otherwise and offer a powerful phrase/thought: “The illusion of free will is an illusion.” In Harris’ latest work he largely pulls together blog postings and new writings into 66 pages. He challenges the religious and philosophic concepts of free will, wherein a dictionary definition fits: the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.

“Criminals… cannot know why they are as they are. Nor can we account for why we are not like them.” (p. 4)

At first I disagreed with this reasoning. We do make attempts in accounting for criminal behaviour. And we make attempts in understanding our own decisions, trying to piece together our parents’ actions on us, our economic status, personal goals, etc. But on further thought Harris’ point makes perfect sense. Harris is taking into account the total of a human: chemical, social, hereditary, environmental, neurological, experience, etc. The sum of which we may never be able to tally. The immensity of these factors beginning before birth negates free will. There is no freedom in our situation or choices. We are the products of our environment and genetics, as are our actions. Choices before us and the events surrounding them are often conscripted without our knowledge or access. While Harris’ argument is nothing new, each generation needs to wage their reason against the handed down philosophies and scientific theories.

His overall message leaves much to chew on and is clearly outlined in 66 pages. However, his stabs at the US Legal System leave much to be desired. Harris doesn’t explain with exactness just what needs to be remedied (other than capital punishment). Harris offers up one singular quote from Supreme Court case U.S. v Grayson, finding that free will is paramount to our sense of justice. (p.48) Yet, Sam Harris does not delve into the Federal & State Court’s reliance on criminal history, historical mental/physical abuse, and other evidence pertaining to the convicted. I believe judges and juries for the most part accept the environmental and genetic conditions that play into criminal acts. Sam Harris bears the burden in expounding on better legal systems and ways to rehabilitate.

The scary thought for many is that since free will doesn’t exist, then we are left with less. In essence we become mindless molecules, made up of tissue, responding to stimuli, and interacting without control. Luckily we are more complex than space-rocks obeying whatever gravitational pull is strongest– and Harris ends on a positive note. We register pain, happiness, love, success, enjoyment, anger, and consciousness. Our empathy often guides our actions and we recognize the cause and effect of our actions. Effect, cause, effect, and cause are continual and our proper exercise allows us to progress decent human behaviour and the objective benefits of love, success, happiness, etc. Illusory free will or not, irrefutably, what we do matters to the world around us. More importantly perhaps is our unraveling of the factors that play-out in life, making reality more intelligible, and leading us to greater decent human actions.

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Jesus Camp (2006)

Depressing, down right depressing. Raising children to deny science, believe in the unfounded, and worship antiquated ideals and traditions holds back humanity and progress. The efforts to deny children access to models of the world and universe that are supported by evidence and create free-thinkers is a travesty. Children should be given the tools to assess the world around them and challenge any and all ideas freely and with support from their elders.

One of the most heart-wrenching moments in this documentary involved a young kid, maybe 9 or 10, who legitimately questioned the bible and the the existence of god. His inability to be like everyone else made him cry and pray with great pain. He felt like there was something fundamentally wrong within his-self. If only religious instruction waited to proselytize and convert people who were adults. Instead of the ingenious plan of consistent brainwashing beginning at birth. As a commentary against the Evangelical plot is a radio announcer, and Christian Religious moderate, that is baffled by the rise of militant Christianity that denies science and demands a theocratic government.

I grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school, attended prayer meetings, and went to church every week and on holy days. In short, it was mostly a waste of time. If I would have been given extra science/math classes or any class for that matter that wasn’t religion I’d have been better off. We can raise ethical and happy children without a boogeyman or promises of heaven. Rather, raising them to respect humanity, the world, knowledge, and each-other for its own sake. Studies support that the most happy and prosperous countries are the least religious. Religious teaching should be confined to history courses, english literature, and sections of philosophy. Its place as a moral guide is sickening when you see the effect on children. Parents deny their kids access to real medicine because it comes from the devil or isn’t in god’s plan. When religion becomes relegated to the sidelines it often enters a militaristic survival mode. Jesus Camp displays this to the umpteenth degree. And it’s not some small-sect of Americana at work here, this is millions of people who vote in large numbers and who were proud of George Bush Jr’s Presidency. Separation of church and State is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately it doesn’t extend to protect children from mental abuse at the hands of their pastors/parents.

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Mass Effect 3 in Light of Skyrim

This is a rather nerd-centric post but I’m trying to figure out if I need to get Mass Effect 3. Not need in the sense of a colonoscopy at age 40 but close. As of late Skyrim has turned the video game world upside down. It offers a nearly endless and expansive world set in the times of mages, dragons, murder, and kings. The sheer amount of quests, missions, and guilds you can join is insane. Want to be a thief go for it. Want to murder people for money, sure why not. Want to hunt down dragons and destroy some rebels, you got it.

Mass Effect 3 won’t be like this. It’s a fairly linear game where working on the main quest is essential. Wandering around from planet to planet isn’t rewarding even in the sense of discovery. I loved the hell out of ME2 but I waited a year saved $50 and was fine. Skyrim I am glad to have had so soon.  ME’s multi-player doesn’t seem that fantastic and “better with kinect” isn’t going to sell the game. Essentially it’d be $60 for more of the same as ME1 and ME2 but with cleaned up graphics and streamlined game-play. I played through the ME3 demo and found myself fast-forwarding through the cut-scenes and not too engaged with the action. It was actually kind of boring after playing Skyrim for a zillion hours.

I’m wrapping up some things in Skyrim and will probably put the game down after this week to focus on Batman Arkham Asylum before ME3 comes out. Maybe I’ll give the demo another shot but I just can’t imagine picking up ME3 right away. Batman definitely will eat up the hours and by that time I may want to visit Skyrim again or check-out Fallout for the first time.

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Tortilla Flat (1935)

John Steinbeck, that more than clever author, kindles the embers of emotion, igniting a varied hue and color. Tortilla Flat manages to blend an all too simple framework into a complex web that as unraveled gives us the best of life’s necessities: friendship, love, humanitarianism, selflessness, contemplation, and a perdurable wine supply.

Taking place in Monterrey, CA affords a two-fold motif and setting: the new and the old. The old being the Native and the Spanish. The new being the American and the Immigrant. This dichotomy lends itself to classical literary elements in the rise of a modern/post-modern Western-American form. A country, a people really, defining who they are and their purpose. Tortilla Flat is at times lively, in other moments steeped in deep reverie, yet never failing to engage its audience. A work with such literary force imparts valuable interpretation in the chambers of the English tradition. Of particular note is the language used by our Paisanos. A language that remains absolutely unforgettable and distinctly pointed. A language that resembles older forms of English complete with: thee, thou, dost, goest, knewest, keepest, etc. The dialect accentuates the tale’s opening and impending developments, beckoning to Arthurian Legend (prose and all). Tortilla Flat is part of  a noble historic mystic human tradition. In many facets it is our Beowulf. The story stretches itself into a romantic adventure tale wherein camaraderie materializes at the heart.

This place, this time, these people, and their stories are open to nearly any level of reader. In it we find a short novel that is clearly accessible and utterly satisfying.

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Subjective Truth

A few weeks ago I listened to a Catholic school Professor wax religious about jesus and god. The conversation informed me of little and led nowhere,  bible interpretation with a play for art history and shock. Not so bad if offered as literature analysis, but so bad when offered as a way to live one’s life.  It comes as no surprise that people will believe in anything. I’m not even sure why I went, actually, it was the pizza and beer.

What had me really thinking after the event was a conversation I had with someone who considered himself quite the philosophical sort. His biggest point regarded facts, truth, evidence, religion, science, and nearly all things as being equal: no one knows what is real so it all goes. I have a tremendous problem with this outlook. Not only does it guarantee selfishness, it prevents humans from discovering what works. Medicine, air travel, countless amounts of modern technology, and the like work because of diligent scientific study and application. Satellites in orbit keep time with us thanks to Einstein’s theories and teams of engineers/scientists. Should this be scrapped because we can never be certain that we aren’t just figments in the dreams of an alien creature living on the back of a turtle? These aren’t just harmless beliefs. Recent stories of parents performing prayers and exorcisms over their children, instead of seeking a Doctor, has led to murder. Churches repeatedly tell their congregation to avoid blood transfusions, life saving medicines, and other preventative measures. We know what it means to cause someone pain and suffering, we know what it means to help and assist someone, what we continually refuse is proper application.

His argument that religion and science are one in the same made no sense. He tried to justify the view but when asked to define religion and define science he couldn’t. It’s easy enough to claim them the same but the proof was never offered. Science has tons to work out, and therein lies the fun. The questions continue and the answers amaze. It has less to do with the answers and more with the questions of discovery.

The uphill struggle continues when mainstream voices like Deepak Chopra rally against reality, usurp quantum mechanics for fluff, and say empty things like:

..the mind may influence the flow of energy and information in living things, and beyond that to the universe as a whole.

I’m not sure what mind is being referenced, the human-mind is a blip in the history of the universe as are earthly living creatures in general. He needs to subject his studies to peer-review and see where it stands. Chopra’s junk often sounds nice but means nothing. We have the option of accepting products and statements that actually improve our lives and interactions with each other (products/statements that are open to challenge and change) or we can accept unfounded statements and costly (monetary as well as moral/ethical) practices that take us backwards and nowhere.

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The Great American Novel Repeats Itself

Seattle has its own brand of the “Occupy” movement. I noticed it on my way to Chipotle, seeing several  signs for Occupy Seattle plastered on lamp-posts and the other day my bus route home was briefly interrupted (a blessing in disguise since I chose to walk home on what turned out to be a nice day). The media doesn’t exactly say what their message is and unfortunately the movement itself isn’t too clear.

The “About Us” page for OccupyWallSt bills itself with:

Occupy Wall Street is a horizontally organized resistance movement employing the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to restore democracy in America. We use a tool known as a people’s assembly to facilitate open, participatory and horizontal organizing between members of the public…. Our nation, our species and our world are in crisis. The US has an important role to play in the solution, but we can no longer afford to let corporate greed and corrupt politics set the policies if our nation.

I understand the desire to associate your cause with something as contemporary and changing as “Arab Spring”. Unfortunately the parallels don’t work. Arab Spring is for a whole set of different problems and tyranny, in a very different part of the world. And it remains to be seen if Arab Spring will lead to beautiful freedoms for men and women or lead to a whole new set of theocratic and tyrannical practices. More to the point, violence continues to play a big part in Arab uprisings. As US Citizens, why not champion Martin Luther King, Jr?

The message also involves restoring democracy. As if democracy has gone on vacation for the last few years and forgot to leave a forwarding address. The rise of business tycoons, monopolies, corporations, and fat banks (in America) began in the late 1800s / early 1900s. The “gilded age” really defined the moment that Capitalism was here to stay. Twain, Sinclair, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and others have written oodles of stories on the subject. I think what today’s protesters mean to say is that they want to inherently change America and redefine her politics. From what I gather,  this isn’t about getting back to our good-ole brand of US democracy but to change it entirely. Corruption, greed, corporate politics, and the like are pretty much timeless. My complaint here is the lack of solutions and the massive amount of complaint. I’m as guilty as the next person, but my generation is a generation of complainers and solipsistic children. Blaming mom and dad only gets us so far.

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Reasoning Murder

Current dilemmas facing the US are the death penalty (see Troy Davis) and the killing of Anwar al Awlaki. In light of these events and when considering our laws, Government stances, and public discourse I can’t help but turn to Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”.

In my younger and more impressionable days I sided with the use of death penalty as justified punishment: detestable human-beings deserved to forfeit their lives. Looking a bit further I found that States often convict criminals who are later found innocent, witnesses lie, evidence is faked, new evidence is found, trial processes have flaws, and so much more. Criminal court cases can prove tenuous and confusing. Given inherent error with rebuilding the past, the death penalty is hard to stand-by and the associated monetary costs are abhorrent.

Yet, there are times when we can say with 99.98% certainty that this criminal committed a most heinous crime and evidence proves it beyond a shadow of the doubt. Locked up, tried, and found guilty: is it then OK to kill? Perhaps, if the risk of escape is high and the opportunity for the criminal to commit further human harm is also high. In US society though, in maximum security prison, that chance is extremely low.  The purpose of the death penalty then becomes what, revenge/justice? Does it assuage relatives or friends of the victims? Does it gain justice for the victim? Is it not enough that the convicted is locked up for life? Is blood for blood the right and only answer? At what point must we become murders? Individually, these are questions we need to ask ourselves. My preference stands with, what I’d like to believe, the moral high-ground. Namely that murdering the incarcerated is plainly wrong. Attempts to reason superfluous killing of another human-being falls short, reasons for capital punishment do nothing to improve society but rather damage our integrity and humanity.

Then there is the murder of Anwar al Awlaki, taking shape in a more muddy and shoddy form.  International law, The Constitution, Rules of War, Government secrecy, and conspiracy blend to create a confusing episode.  Not entirely obvious are the facts Obama and his defense (really offense)  staff had at their disposal. At many points it feels like Bush-era we’re going into Iraq cause we know they have WMDs. In Awlakis case  it doesn’t sound like a third-party arbitrator or judge/judicial panel was consulted (just legal professionals).  Certainly, Awlaki was denied legal representation. Awlaki’s death, on top of Guantanamo and CIA prison-cells in Somalia, make for patriotic discomfort and bad-taste nonpareil. When the facts come to light I bet we won’t be comfy and cozy with the truth, rather it will rival Cambodia bombings, Iran-Contra, and the like. Or maybe, Awlaki was a treasonous war-criminal, plain and simple.  Unfortunately, secrecy keeps us in the dark and many US citizens could care less.

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