“I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.”  ~Clarence S. Darrow

 

“Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.”  ~Bertrand Russell

 

“The educated in [the critical habit of thought] . . . are slow to believe.  They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain.”  ~William Graham Sumner

 

“What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”  ~Christopher Hitchens

 

“Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.”  ~Voltaire

 

“It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”  ~William K. Clifford

 

“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it”  ~Terry Pratchett

 

“A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.”  ~José Bergamín

Red flags go up for me whenever I’m faced with absolute certainty from somebody.  My experience tells me that such a person is probably either a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim or is a didactic pedagogue who feels that anybody who disagrees is obviously wrong.  Among us atheists, of course, religious fundamentalism is ruled out, so it always turns out (so far) that absolute certainty, in atheists, conceals over-confidence or intransigence or (more likely) both.

I used to feel certain that no entity, all-powerful or not, could possibly produce the unimaginable mass/energy of the entire universe.  But as it turns out, cosmologists now believe the universe has a grand sum of zero energy (thanks to "negative energy", like gravity).  I used to feel certain that consciousness was entirely subjective and abstract.  But observation explicitly factors into quantum theory.  And certain phenomena, like quantum entanglement, reveal that data is inherent to subatomic particles.  That seems a bit strange for a universe that existed for billions of years without intelligence of any kind (if you assume God does not exist).  And, of course, there's the favorite argument of Intelligent Design: our universe, fine-tuned to life on Earth.

I know that there's arguments for and against all these strange things.  The point is that, although we have theories that attempt to explain everything, they are only working models that fit observations.  They aren't the actual reality or "truth".  There were many scientific paradigms preceding modern ones and there will be many more to come.  Are there really 11 dimensions?  Is life limited to 3 dimensions plus time?  What if life existed in higher dimensions?  According to the math, if an entity existed in the highest dimension (the 11th?) he would have god-like powers, such as omnipresence.

I know that's a bunch of wild speculation.  The point is that there is too much we don't know.  So much, in fact, that certainty is an unjustified pretense.  The ineffable mystery of existence may never be solved.  I reject any certainty where the big questions are concerned.

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Tags: Christian, Design, Intelligent, Muslim, atheist, certainty, dimensions, fundamentalist, hubris, pedagogue, More…pretense, quantum, theory

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Comment by Glen Rosenberg on July 22, 2011 at 10:53pm

John,

I understand what you are saying. But you are like a philosophical fundamentalist who acts in accordance with his beliefs. The rest of the philosophical dilettantes live their lives like they have free will, or choice or self determinism. The fundamentalist believe their sacred texts are the inerrant word of god. You on the other hand embrace uncertainty. So why marry a philosophy or understanding of the universe when the universe is so damn abstruse and you recognize its uncertainty. It is incongruous.

It aint working. I give.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on July 22, 2011 at 10:38pm

Exile,

If you find the blog I refered to earlier you will read how these issues have been covered ad nauseum.

If I understand, you see humans as more than matter in motion. Self-determined.  How about chimpanzees? Lemurs? Chipmunks? Ants? You have said that if you can anticipate and prepare for causality in the future then you are self determined. We are not the only species on earth which anticipates and prepares for the future. Does instinct negate self determinism? Presumably it is the human's greater complexity which enables us to combine instinct, heredity, memory and intelligence to make decisions which draw on all of the aforementioned and forsee the probable outcomes of our options. We can thereby choose intelligently. And you want me to believe that this capability leads to self determinism.

If you are always going to act in the way you are going to act, if there is no possibility of a different outcome, if events unfold inexorably, then you are not self determined. And no matter how pretty your sophistry self determinism is an illusion.

I do not pretend to know the answer. The universe is strange and science is in its infancy.  I know that religious notions of free will are bullshit. You quite rightly incorporate causality in your ideas. But it is clear to me that a mechanical universe, one which only allows one effect or series of effects for every cause or series of causes lacks choice or self-determinism.

Comment by John Camilli on July 22, 2011 at 3:45pm

Glen, great word - tendentious. I had no idea that word existed, so thanks for the vocab expansion. Love that. Tendentious, lol.

 

Uncertainty is kind of the whole game plan of Pyrrhonists. If I were to feel certain about a point of view, I would be operating under a different philosophy. And I don't know why it tortures me so much. That part is definitely not pyrrhonic, since one is supposed to achieve ataraxia - or peace of the mind - by discarding hopes of certainty, but I don't find that happening to me. I don't know of Pyrrhon was a determinist though, which is the part of my philosophy that bugs me, since it makes me feel enslaved to existence. I don't like not having any choices. If my life happened to be more pleasurable I might not have a problem with it, but I'm stuck with the life I have, and there's nothing I can do about any of it, even my thoughts about it. It's not that I allow it to hijack my psyche, it's that I can't help it. Whether I'm content with my lot isn't even up to me, and that's the real kicker. People are wont to say that happiness is a state of mind, as if one could will one's self to be happy. But while I agree that it is a state of mind, the mind is just chemistry, which is governed by causality, and no matter how complex or temporally isolated it gets, I just don't see how it can escape that trap.

 

If I do decide to change, I believe it will be because that's what I was caused to do. And man, I'd love it if that happened. Maybe I'll find me a pretty girl, or a sack full of money or something that puts more pleasure in my life, but it wouldn't be because I willed it to happen, it would be because that's how causality unfolded, if it does. It's not about "choice" to me. That notion doesn't fit into my logic circuits. Does not compute, lol.

 

I don't think the glass experiement has been concluded and analyzed just yet, but there were similar experiements with different physical objects that were successful. They were smaller and the distance of separation was less, so the results were not all that convincing, but the experiment with glass is expected to be a clear success, pun intended.

Comment by Atheist Exile on July 22, 2011 at 2:24pm
It occurs to me that I've been busy trying to explain self-determinism and haven't appreciated how alien it must be to others.  I'm so used to the idea but it seems everybody else is stuck on the traditional, standard, notions of free will.  I'm familiar with all the traditional, standard, arguments.  But self-determinism isn't the traditional, standard, free will.

What I want is arguments that specifically target my major points.  It's 3:00 a.m. here in the Philippines and I don't want to retype what I've already written.  I have made many assertions explaining my thesis and not one has been addressed head-on.  If you disagree with a point, explain what it is about the point that is wrong -- not what's wrong with what you see as an implication or consequence of the point . . . but the point itself.
Comment by Atheist Exile on July 22, 2011 at 1:24pm
John and Glen,

I think it's telling that you speak in generalities instead of addressing specific points of self-determinism, as I've expressed them.  What's the matter?  It's all laid out in black and white.  Speak to my written words . . . not to your pre-existing ideas.  Anybody can see that you're both evading my points . . . and there's MANY points to choose from.

Or maybe specifics aren't part of your (hard) deterministic scheme of things . . .
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on July 22, 2011 at 10:14am

John,

I still think you are floating on a dingy rather than going first class on the SS Pyrrhonic. You express uncertainty in so many areas. You do not even think knowledge is reliable. You point to quantum mechanics which utterly defy our understanding and our knowledge. Inspite of these underpinnings you base your fundamental world view on a notion that is like that picture in black and red and straight from some devil movie.

Why be tortured? Why allow your psyche to be hijacked when reality is that your decision to change can and will result in change. Whether that change is a result of free will, choice, self-determinism or a continuation of the causal web is insignificant.  

By the way, what were the results of the glass experiment?

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on July 22, 2011 at 10:05am

Exile,

How does one define who? A link in the chain or a bloom of self-determinism. I once had a teacher in my face screaming, "Who do you think you are?" Saying my name three times consecutively resulted in three detentions. I can not recall the blog's title but it is long and it should be and used to be listed under most popular blogs. John may remember. Michael Tricoci is the Doc and Alice Carr is the then protege. It may read like dialogue from a bad philosophical novel.

It is true that we disagree. But I have not formed an opinion. The burden of proof is on you. You are making the extraordinary claim. Billions of years of causation and a little grey matter changes the chain. As for your temporal notions I believe those are a matter of perspective and not something truly different. John's comments on this issue are logical.

I mostly agree with your ideas regarding the assumption of free will in human behavior. I also think it can be personally destructive to lack the free will assumption. That's why I believe that your notions of self-determinism while clever, are tendentious.

Comment by John Camilli on July 22, 2011 at 9:13am

Here's an interesting article that pertains to our discussion of mistaken and changing concepts. Scientists have been able to demonstrate quantum super-positioning in physical bodies, causing a fermionic object to exist in multiple locations at the same time. I don't understand how shit like this doesn't rock the world. The experiment blatantly contradicts the principals of locality and identity, two of the three foundational assumptions of all knowledge, causality being the third. That people aren't remarking more on this tells me that they just don't understand anything about what they think they understand. Sigh.

Comment by John Camilli on July 22, 2011 at 9:01am

Exile,

I have to disagree that I accept the implications of free will, or of self-determinism. I definititely used to, but over the last decade, I have undergone a fundamental alteration of vocabulary that is symptomatic of my non-acceptance of this idea. When people ask me if I'll do something, for example, I now tell them that I suspect I will or will not, rather than telling them I will or will not. This reflects that I do not feel in control of my actions, and that I am only estimating what they will be in the future because I am not what causes them. I also have almost entirely stopped feeling any guilt or shame, or any pride or sense of accomplishement. There are still vestiges of those concepts left bouncing around in my mind and you will sometimes find evidence of them in my speech, like an atheist who still says 'oh my god,' but they are slowly disappearing as they are replaced with more robotic notions. I think of myself simply as a machine, one for which I do not know all of the operating parameters. I feel no responsibility for anything I do, and can often be heard making such comments as 'it's impossible to make mistakes' or 'it couldn't have happened any other way.' I also have mostly stopped feeling actively involved in life. I don't hope for or fear things like I used to, but just allow them to happen to me (or me to them) because I believe that what's going to happen is going to happen regardless of, and inclusive of, my feelings about it.

 

I've actually been trying to have myself declared insane because of this. I have found my beliefs to be extremely incapacitating with regards to survival, and yet I cannot simply stop believing what I believe. I am slowly withering away, and have endured a declining quality of life as I become more and more convinced of the entirely causal and determined nature of existence. Without the interference of other people in my life, I would probably already be dead from apathy. I often wish that I had been caused to suicide already, but it just hasn't been in the cards, so to speak. I'm not looking for sympathy here, I'm just indicating that some people do actually live in a way that reflects my view...but they probably don't live very long, which I suspect is why 'choice' is such a pervasive idea. I think that people whose systems result in a belief of the concept 'choice' are also people whose systems tend to survive better. People like me have existed before; hard-determinism as a concept is at least several thousand years old, and yet it has died out over and over, I think because it does not coincide with a machine that tends toward surviving. But 'god' is a popular idea too. Doesn't make it correct.

Comment by John Camilli on July 22, 2011 at 8:59am

I'll start with Glen's comment after my last one, then work my way up to the current ones.

 

Glen, I think that ideas like freedom, value and meaning are our understanding of existence. I suspect that those ideas and many others, "choice" among them, will someday be discarded as it is found that they don't describe anything that actually exists. And, yeah, I think it's the personal perpsective of a human that allows them to seem real now and that, removed to a broader point of view, they would disappear from our vocabulary. Like the luminiferous ether, before we conceived of waves, or Santa before we grew up.

 

Exile, isn't it frustrating that no one else in the world seems to share every intricacy of your point of view? I don't know why it's so frustrating, but I get the same feeling about my ideas. Something about us wants other people to agree, even when it makes no tangible difference to our lives. Perhaps because all we have is doubt, and we keep looking for something we can stop doubting, as if others agreeing makes it true. Who knows. I do think that memory feedback is an interresting capacity on which to focus, but I don't see how it changes a completely causal universe from being just that. To me, it's analogous to the light in a diamond. Because of its lattice structure, light takes a relatively long time to escape a diamond once it has entered, resulting in the shimmering appearance that is a big part of its appeal to many people. How are memories different than something like that? They are just interactions conserved by a structure that causes them to emerge more slowly and/or in multiplicity. For that matter, how is it different than what goes on inside a star. Light generated in the core can literally take thousands of years to escape the surface of a star because it is continually absorbed and re-emitted along the way. That's a type of accrued causality, as you describe it, and there are lots of other inanimate structures that alter the temporal influence of events. What about a blackhole? Sure, with brains we're talking about more than just photons, but we're still talking about matter and energy, which are still bound by causality. I guess the key question I have is 'how can any interactions within a completely causal and deterministic system, no matter how complex, result in something a-causal and un-determined?'

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