Free willy

Some time back I talked about the power of tradition, and why it even has this power. Now, as I approach a topic that’s been stewing in my head for a while, I recognize that this same power is one of the things that seems to be working directly against our understanding and use of a simple subject, so much so that scientific and philosophical debate are actually taking place.

That subject is free will. We all know what that is, right? Just like we know what consciousness is – until we’re asked to define it in a functional way. Then things start to get a bit fuzzy. So pause here, give it a shot now, and define “free will” in a way that you’re satisfied with, then forge on. Let’s see if we’re on the same page.

Merriam Webster says:

1: voluntary choice or decision <I do this of my own free will>;
2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

…while Wikipedia says:

Free will is the putative ability of agents to make choices free from certain kinds of constraints. Historically, the constraint of dominant concern has been the metaphysical constraint of determinism.

… and goes on from there, as Wiki does (did you ever see a short Wiki article?) Both hint at the historical source, which is basically scriptural; free will is what separates us from “the animals,” and is defined as the ability to purposefully choose between good and evil, or even know what those are. Chances are, your own definition included at least portions of these, and perhaps favored one in particular over the others. I put “the animals” in quotes, by the way, because it’s another concept that we still fall prey to, and it’s simplistic in nature: we are animals ourselves, by any definition of the word. Anyone doubting this just needs to watch me eat…

So, the original idea was really, “capable of sin,” the aspect that distinguished us from other species, the ones without souls. In working parlance now, it still distinguishes us, but in much vaguer ways. It amounts to capriciousness, the concept that we can do whatever we want, and engage in behavior on a whim, as opposed to merely responding to instinct and/or conditioning. It also implies, explicitly, that what we do is not governed by specific physical constraints such as a predetermined destiny or predictable chemical interactions. The other side of this, the idea that physical (or metaphysical) laws can account for everything we do, is referred to as determinism.

If you read that Wiki article, you can see that this is a deeply philosophized idea, with much debate over whether our minds are really as open to variation as we’d like to believe, or whether, given our particular individual backgrounds, our brains must arrive at specific conclusions or actions because that’s simply how they work – predictable electrochemical reactions. In other words, if I know enough about any particular brain, I could predict what someone’s reaction to specific questions would be, every time, because their reaction is guided by their past experiences and is not, for instance, random. Even if they consciously decide to be random, crazy, impetuous, this is only an aspect of their brain that called for departing from a first choice at that particular time, maybe simply to try and thwart my prediction and demonstrate their own free will.

All this is particularly pointless, however. Why we actually concern ourselves over free will doesn’t have anything to do with blindly following instinct, or with whether our past experience guides us irrevocably. The clue to this is when you think of phrases such as “against our will” – obviously, we have very limited functions within us that are truly involuntary, such as responding to pain or something getting in our eye. With a bit of effort, we can often overcome these, and exert our free will even over our own bodies.

No, the point really is whether or not we’re happy with our decisions, whether or not the behavior we engage in is, not voluntary, that’s not even necessary, but simply acceptable to us. That’s what we really want to have, isn’t it? Our past experience may tell us that a certain intersection is prone to idiots jumping the light, and this conditions us to be cautious when approaching it again. We don’t concern ourselves with whether this is an automatic function of our brains, nor with whether or not we can consciously overcome this if we wanted – instead, it’s obviously to our benefit to be wary. Or we may see a new restaurant, and impetuously decide to try it out – perhaps governed entirely by our hunger, desire for a better eating experience, time constraints, knowledge of that type of food, and so on. The impetuousness that we thought we had relies on a large number of factors, all of which may be dictated very specifically by the composition of our synapses – there was only one decision we were possibly going to make at that period in time, so we made it. This only bothers us if we feel that we don’t have control, because that lack of control may lead us someplace we don’t want to go. But the very nature of this determinism is that we approve of our decisions – it’s not involuntary, or at least not perceived as such.

This is where it becomes downright silly. We’ve got this concept, traditionally, in our culture now, and have a certain investment in it – “free will” is our ability to do as we please, not beholden to involuntary actions or reactions. It’s simply nonsense, a holdover from a time when we didn’t understand how our minds and bodies work, rooted in the fear of being unhappy – as well as being a feeble attempt to explain why a designed world seemed so random and callous to us, the Chosen Folk™. We had to have free will so we could choose, or not, to follow the deity’s rules. Why this was even necessary, why any such deity would base mankind’s entire mortal existence on whether or not we had the opportunity to be bad, still hasn’t been answered, and I suspect will continue that way as long as religion is viewed as useful. If you want to ponder it, you can also take a stab at whether one choice being punished with eternal torment constitutes anything remotely resembling “free.” When practiced across numerous cultures throughout history, it was considered “slavery,” but then again, no one could manage perpetual punishment, so maybe that’s the crucial difference?

All that has nothing to do with the plain fact that we function on past experience, for exceptionally good reasons, and act based on that experience. Would you have it any other way? We may jerk our hands away from a hot surface, or dodge a flying object. Does that bother us? Free will might be said to be the ability to plunge a sharp nail through our arm; survival and pain instincts, plus past experience, prevents us from doing it – do we have a problem with such self-preservation? We would have a much greater problem with having no such instincts, as well as engaging in truly random actions, even occasionally. Swerving in our traffic lane, for instance, or eating something unknown, just because we can. “Ha ha, look! I’m exercising free will!” Yes, perhaps very briefly.

It seems highly likely, given what we know about the makeup of our bodies and chemical reactions and so on, that our decisions really are deterministic. Given enough knowledge of brain synapses, for example, may mean we could predict the thoughts and actions of any individual. But so what? The amount of information that this would require, including the factors of the constant sensory input of experience, of merely living, is so far beyond our ability to capture, much less comprehend in real time, that such theoretical pursuits will likely remain forever theoretical. We could concern ourselves with the idea that it all has an inevitable conclusion, but so does every movie we watch, already committed as it is to celluloid (polycarbonate, silicon, whatever.) The places we plan to visit have a fixed set of properties, too: buildings here, oceans there, all distinctly determined – they don’t jump about at random. The appearance of a heron when I’m out pursuing photos might be deterministic as well, but I don’t know that. What we seek is the experience, the building of knowledge within that very organ that guides our actions, the brain. And these experiences provide different, and much greater, factors to build our actions upon – everything we learn colors our actions from that point on. That’s what interests and excites us, and always has (regardless of how you felt then or now about free will.) That’s all that’s really important.

Or is it Memorex?

I know I just did a comic, but this one was in progress beforehand. Regardless, I think Randall Munroe at xkcd understands:

I’m not much of a fan of philosophy, for several reasons, not the least of which that it can devote considerable time and effort into suppositions or posits that have little bearing on anything at all.

Plato’s Cave refers to a philosophical concept of how nature would be perceived by someone who could only see the shadows of people on the walls of the cave he was within, not the people themselves. It supposes that he would be happy with this, until he found out that the actual world held much more information and detail than he believed, whereupon he would find his former knowledge of mere shadows to be pitiable.

The comic also plays on a related concept, that of solipsism, which states that the only thing we can be sure of is that we exist; all else is perceptions. This is the idea expressed by Descartes when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” as well as the “brain in a vat” scenario: how do we know that we are really human beings experiencing the world, and not simply brains in a vat being fed simulated experiences by wire? How could we prove this?

Now that I’ve impressed everyone with name-dropping and conceptual knowledge, I can proceed to my standpoint on such: whoop de fucking shit. How can we tell? We can’t. So why bother?

The various “Matrix” (or “The Thirteenth Floor“) scenarios, where reality is something much removed from our perception, are fun to watch and contemplate, but they really don’t lead anywhere – they cannot, by nature. We’re a species set apart by our curiosity, our drive to figure out the puzzles and the causes, but scenarios like these can only deny this drive, ultimately petering out in frustration or confusion.

One of the more interesting aspects of philosophy, most especially in Plato’s time, is that it operates on the premise that truth can be divined by meticulous thought and logical debate; experimentation was actually eschewed. This attitude remains today in the occasional denigration of “materialism” and “methodological naturalism,” which underlie what we typical consider the scientific method. The emphasis was on how our minds could tease out the nature of the world without resorting to the physical limitations of the senses – an interesting (and, to my limited knowledge, unintentional) paradox since it failed to recognize the physical limitations of the brain itself. This may have been the fault of either the belief systems of the time, or simply conceit, by thinking that humans held a special place in the hierarchy of life – which also continues today to some extent.

This philosophical concept has been around for 2,500 years or so, and hasn’t really added a whole lot in all that time. Meanwhile, once observation and experimentation caught on, especially the parts where perception was required to be supported independently, our knowledge base expanded hugely. The past 100 years has been incredibly productive, starting to fathom even the workings of the very brain that is supposed to be contemplating the nature of reality. Medicine, astronomy, quantum physics, electromagnetic theory, biology, cosmology, evolution… all owe little to the idea of logical proof.

True, mathematics underlies much of experimentation, and mathematical/logical proof has been around for roughly the same amount of time. But mathematics is a bit hard to consider philosophy, unless you bend the definition to make it indistinguishable from much of anything else. Math, really just relationships between values, isn’t up for discussion and needs no appeal to reason. It’s also an abstract, and its applications to the natural world only approximations.

Science does not rely on proof and cannot – there is no amount of evidence or postulates that can demonstrate the irrevocable nature of something physical. Science relies instead on the weight of the evidence, probability rather than axioms. There are no absolutes. Even so, it still works amazingly well.

It almost certainly bothers some people that we cannot establish any facet of our knowledge beyond all doubt, but this is simply the nature of perception; beyond reasonable doubt, however, is attainable. Seeking perfection or absolutes is a pointless pursuit, but going with what functions dependably works just fine.

As for being a brain in a vat? Well, it’s likely that the beings inducing sensory input that we interpret as the real world get a real kick out of us wasting time contemplating “reality,” so I wouldn’t give them the pleasure, if I were you.

Meanwhile, you still have to relish the phrase, “There’s meat everywhere!”

Some changes a brewin’

Up until this point, this blog has been largely a singular effort, all posts but one guest book review being written by yours truly (what the hell does that even mean? I can barely call myself “mine truly.”) But now it appears this may be changing, because I’ve invited a few people to do some guest posts, or even become semi-regular contributors, and that offer may soon get taken advantage of.

This is great, as far as I’m concerned – there is no reason for me to hog all this adulation, and this space isn’t dedicated to any particular set of pursuits. We all have our own personalities and interests, and now you may get the opportunity to sample some more without the effort of clicking more links.

So watch the bylines now, and welcome the new facets that appear!

Is it faith?

I’m sorry, I’ve been doing a string of religious posts recently, and it’s because every time I turn around something else stirs some thoughts that I want to pass along. I’m trying to space them out with items of other interest, but because I know not everyone here necessarily wants to see me pick on religion all the time, I will break the post up between the teaser and the meat. Below, I’m going to approach the question of, basically, “Isn’t trusting science a form of faith?”

Continue reading “Is it faith?”

Yeah, that’s about right

Scenes From A Multiverse shows how parallelism works:
prayers to the same deity that initially caused the catastrophe are the most effective powerwise

Of course, the deity in an alternate universe like Aetherea IV might actually have a history of answering prayer, in which case such advice might be worth something. But in this one, even if anyone really believes in their deity, are they fulfilling their requirements for good works by chanting? I’m just wondering.

Yeah, I’m sure the whole mind-meld-with-the-maker thing is real convincing, but no one can argue that money (and hard work if there’s the opportunity) are effective, can they?

Ask me, and tell me

Two quick notes here. The first: I added a new standing page at top, “Ask An Atheist,” dedicated to fielding any questions anyone wants to throw specifically at an atheist. Credit to Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist for the idea. I’m game to just about anything – fire away!

Second, I noticed that my spam filter had improperly tagged a comment, and I’m not sure how often this happens. This site still gets plenty of spam, so I’ve been leaving the task to a common program, but it’s as dumb as most programs are. I only exclude spam or obvious trolls – I don’t censor comments, and feel that open exchange is very important. If your comment doesn’t appear within a day, let me know. If it was intentional, I’ll explain why – chances are it wasn’t. I honestly don’t like the idea that someone may be commenting, regardless of agreement or lack thereof, and not showing up.

Get familiar with it!

While I mentioned this before, people might still be surprised to know how often I turn the autofocus off when shooting pics. There are a couple of reasons for that. Mostly, it’s when I’m trying something like catching birds in midair, where they represent too small a target for the autofocus area within the camera to obtain enough contrast, so the focus winds the entire length of its travel and back again, throwing everything in the viewfinder so far out of focus that following a moving bird becomes impossible, and when it finally returns to a point that’s close enough to try and re-center the bird, the bird is nowhere to be seen. I can certainly miss the mark with manual focus, especially when (like my subjects above) the birds are changing altitude constantly and thus require perpetual corrections. But it still remains better than losing them entirely.

Then there’s the fact that autofocus is not always precise, and may be missing the subject I’m really after or simply not locking in tight enough. Autofocus works on contrast within the selected focus point, and requires a certain amount of light. Without enough light or adequate contrast, it can be balky or simply wrong.

The point is, know what your camera can do, and when it is unlikely to produce the results you want with automatic settings. I mentioned overriding the exposure settings and the color balance in previous posts, and to do these when your subject presents itself, you need to be familiar with just how to do it – preferably, by feel without even taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Digging out your manual simply means you’re not going to get the shot, so by all means, sit down with it ahead of time and go through it. It might seem tedious, but once you use some setting to your advantage, you’ll get the value of it immediately.

Another good habit is to check your settings routinely. Most especially when you turn the camera on, but also periodically when shooting. It’s very easy to change a setting accidentally, or on purpose and forget that you’ve done so. The time to find out is not after you’ve uploaded a busy photo session to your computer. Check mode switch, ISO, exposure settings, color settings, contrast settings – whatever you actually mess with. And one I was reminded of today: the diopter correction on the viewfinder, if you have one. This is often a little dial or slide switch right alongside the viewfinder window, which changes the focus distance in the viewfinder for your eyesight. Manual focus is really hard when the viewfinder isn’t showing you the clearest image.

Can you instantly shut off the autofocus and find the manual focus ring on your lens? If not, learn how now. When the subject is too crowded or too low in contrast for the autofocus to snag, or the light too low to produce decent results, or the teleconverter or extension tube reduces the light so that the autofocus doesn’t receive enough to work, you need to take over, and quickly, while your subject and composition are as you want them. It should be second-nature to you if you’re serious about getting the best shots that you can. It’s such a simple thing, not something to miss pics over.

And the same goes for exposure compensation. Against a bright sky, the camera will almost certainly select the wrong exposure, making things too dark because it’s programmed to expose for a midtone. And in fact, two of the cameras I’ve used have been slightly off for ideal exposure anyway, so my “neutral” setting is actually 1/3 stop overexposed anyway – with sky colors like above and below, I add an additional 2/3 to one full stop, and with overcast I often go as much as two stops over. While this blows the clouds out unnaturally white, it brightens a bird subject that is receiving too little ambient light because the clouds aren’t letting through enough to bounce from the surrounding air and surfaces.

So get that manual out, memorize those controls, close your eyes and practice. When the moment comes, it might just be that edge that you need. The pic below, while not as sharp as it could be, is also better than missing the shot entirely as these two red-shouldered hawks dueled over mating rights.

Missing the forest: religious violence

In the latest issue of Skeptic magazine (Vol 16 No 2), there’s an article by Benjamin Grant Purzycki and Kyle Gibson regarding religious violence, which raises the question: does religion cause violence, or are we mistaking correlation for causation? This is an exceptionally intriguing question. Confusing correlation for causation is one of the fallacies with which skeptics are usually quite familiar, having to correct it all the time when discussing such subjects as alternative medicine. Skeptics are not immune to blind spots, however, and pointing out where such exists is a valuable lesson and a great example of holding honesty and fairness above agendas. Moreover, I have argued myself that religious wars can often be shown to have the same motives as any other wars, such as resource control and power structure. So I read the article eagerly to see just what kind of study had been done.

Continue reading “Missing the forest: religious violence”


I’m quick to tell anyone who wants to listen that the key to decent photography is composition. Technical proficiency certainly helps, but no one ever looks at a photo and says, “Wow, what a great use of exposure!” It’s what is in the photo that counts, and this can actually excuse some technical faults.

But when the question is finding good nature and wildlife subjects to photograph, the key is to observe. And this doesn’t mean simply looking carefully around you, nor only at what makes a good image. It also includes noting and interpreting behavior, such as seeing signs that wildlife might use this area at other times, or knowing that the bird call you’re hearing is an alarm call in response to some threat – maybe you, in which case other wildlife in the area may now be alerted to your presence; or maybe something else, indicating that you may have an opportunity to catch the sudden appearance of a hawk or fox. It can also mean knowing what type of animal favors the particular habitat that you’re within, so you know what you’re even looking for. This can take a bit of practice, mostly to attune yourself to the sights and sounds that we rarely pay attention to, but it will almost certainly pay off.

This recent post is a good example, as is this much older one. And so is the photo at left. Busy looking for insect subjects, I would have missed this well-camouflaged green anole (Anolis carolinensis) if it hadn’t made an incautious move and attracted my attention. Both peripheral vision and the very quiet rustle changed my focus, allowing me to get several poses as it alternated between staying motionless and darting to a safer spot. And as I talked about here, a small shift in my own position caused the paler, brightly-lit leaves in the background to fall behind its head, providing a significant amount of contrast to highlight the lizard’s presence in the frame.

I make a point about macro (closeup) work: you can always find a subject, and usually it takes nothing more than sitting on the ground and paying attention. So much goes on around us at a level we don’t see unless we try, but it’s only through habit that we tune out other levels of activity. And it also applies to other forms of wildlife too. Animals are usually very symmetrical in shape, far more so than foliage and rocks, so being aware of patterns can help you spot critters quickly. Simply taking the time to try this can work well by itself, too. Remaining still and quiet means you don’t alert anything else to your presence, and it may feel safe to venture out where you can see it. Find a nice spot, get comfortable, and wait. What might have initially appeared to be a quiet landscape will usually reveal itself to be a world of activity.

At right, a peek at the critter that was hinted at. The strange position of the common clearwing, or hummingbird, moth (Hemaris thysbe) was indication of something amiss, since these are active moths and aren’t ever seen alighting on a surface during the day, much less hanging down from flowers. Leaning around the edge provided me an obscured view of the culprit, which appears to be a goldenrod crab spider (Misumena vatia) – that’s the bulbous white blob alongside the lavender flower’s petals, with a few legs just barely visible gripping the moth. Whether the spider captured the moth on its visit to the flower or not, I can’t say – it’s typical behavior for the spider, but the moths don’t generally get that close to the flower, so I suspect an ambush at night, when the moths probably hide under leaves for shelter. Either way, it’s an impressive catch for the spider – less so for me, since this was the only angle I could achieve.

A decent knowledge of habits, calls, and habitats certainly takes time, though it can help a lot. Most of my own knowledge, however, came from the interest (meaning reading) and the time I’ve spent observing. So as spring approaches and while we’re in National Wildlife Week, get out there! It’s also a great way to forget about the petty human influences with which we concern ourselves too damn much.

Hummer cam!

Did I excite the wrong kind of people with that title? Ah, well, too bad. Courtesy yet again of Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True comes this live hummingbird webcam, and she has zeh babbies right now! That makes a nice subject for me to kick off National Wildlife Week.

You can get more of the details at the host website right here, including clips and stills, and details about the birds, which are Allen’s hummingbirds (Selasphorus sasin).

Live TV : Ustream

Last summer I did a lot of photography of the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) locally, both at my own basic feeder and at the nearby botanical garden, which produced the photo at right, probably the best shot all year, because it’s perfectly natural (I really don’t like feeder shots; they have less marketability.) If you’re going to tell me you can’t get shots like this, guess again. This one was taken with the camera handheld, a Canon Digital Rebel (300D) with a Canon 75-300 f4.5-5.6 Image-Stabilized lens, at a distance of about 5-6 meters. I had been seeing the hummers visiting in the past few trips, and waited until the day was right for light angle and brightness, to allow the fastest shutter speeds. The camera was set for TV mode (shutter priority, Canon still uses the outmoded abbreviations, but with your camera it may simply be “S” mode) and I chose 1/800 second shutter speed – in this mode, the camera then sets the appropriate aperture. I also selected ISO 400 to achieve a decent balance between light sensitivity and detail. Any higher and the image quality would have dropped too far for a decent enlargement. The lens was manually focused, believe it or not – hummers move too fast to trust the autofocus staying locked, and it doesn’t take but a fraction of a second to get the hummer away from the focus-sensitive area in the viewfinder and cause the lens to start racking back and forth along its full travel, making it impossible to find the bird again (because, of course, it’s moved on while this was happening.) This image is a tighter crop on the original, and I produced lots of images where focus wasn’t bang on, so this is where digital helps a lot – I can throw out dozens of images without grumbling about wasted slide film.

Naturally, I got much closer shots at the feeder, too. Hummingbirds get used to human presence very quickly, and you can usually take a seat quite close to the feeder and just be patient – they’ll get used to you. It helps to keep the camera raised close to your face, which may get tiring, but means you have only minimal movement to get the shot, which spooks them less. This particular frame was one of the few where my friend stayed put. I had many opportunities where the bird was perched on the feeder, but took off at the sound of the camera, and it’s truly astonishing just how fast they can move. When you trip the shutter on an SLR camera, a couple of things happen first. The reflex mirror, which lets you see the image in the viewfinder, flips out of the way (that’s why the viewfinder goes black) and the aperture closes down from maximum – these produce the first aspect of that double-click. Then the shutter opens, but in that fraction of a second, the birds were alerted by the noise and had almost always lifted off the perch, giving me a pose I hadn’t expected. This is potentially why they get used to people so fast: we’re far too slow and clumsy for them to care.

So get out there and at the very least, spot some wildlife behavior, observe something new that you never have before, and even get a few pics. I’ll keep posting some tips and observations as we go along.

Yes, okay, even though none of my readers ever clue me in to good subjects to feature, I’ll still let you have a closer look at my patient model. I’m that kind of guy…