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Entries for November 2010

November 30, 2010

The history of 200 countries over 200 years in just four minutes

Hans Rosling has a knack for making statistics come alive. (via Pharyngula)

"Please lie to us and keep us in the dark!"

Glenn Greenwald has another great article on the strange desire of much of the mainstream US media and its public to be kept in the dark by their government, and their resulting hostility to the WikiLeaks release for telling them the truth.

It is pathetic to see how desperate the New York Times is to be viewed with approval by the US government that they treat the White House as if it were the editor-in-chief of the newspaper. It is no wonder that WikiLeaks did not give them the original documents this time around.

The true spirit of Christmas

tistheseason.jpg

As a fun extra, try and identify the five atheist Santas and post them in the comments.

(Thanks to Randy from CFI for the cartoon.)

WikiLeaks takes on the oligarchy

In a fascinating interview, WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange tells Andy Greenberg of Forbes that early next year, WikiLeaks will release documents that will reveal the corrupt practices of a major US bank.

Early next year, Julian Assange says, a major American bank will suddenly find itself turned inside out. Tens of thousands of its internal documents will be exposed on Wikileaks.org with no polite requests for executives' response or other forewarnings. The data dump will lay bare the finance firm's secrets on the Web for every customer, every competitor, every regulator to examine and pass judgment on.

Sitting for a rare interview in a London garden flat on a rainy November day, he compares what he is ready to unleash to the damning e-mails that poured out of the Enron trial: a comprehensive vivisection of corporate bad behavior. "You could call it the ecosystem of corruption," he says, refusing to characterize the coming release in more detail. "But it's also all the regular decision making that turns a blind eye to and supports unethical practices: the oversight that's not done, the priorities of executives, how they think they're fulfilling their own self-interest."

This is serious. It is one thing to challenge the US and other governments. They are merely the second tier of global leadership. Although it has targeted big business before, the oligarchy in the US, especially the financial sector, is the top tier and they will not like being in the crosshairs of WikiLeaks. You can be sure that they will tell their clients (Obama, the Democratic and Republican leaderships, and the corporate US media) to take whatever action is necessary to thwart WikiLeaks's efforts.

The article also has a great deal of interesting information on plans for a huge growth in WikiLeaks-type services all over the world.

On free will-14: Misuse of the insanity defense

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Many people are suspicious of the insanity defense, suspecting that it is abused by unscrupulous criminals and their lawyers. The fact that psychiatrists and other experts can be found to argue both sides of the case adds weight to the suspicion that there is no objective basis to many of the claims of insanity.

This problem arose when the grounds for the insanity defense was loosened from the strict M'Naghten rule. In a 1954 court decision Durham vs. United States, a US Appeals Court extended the reach of the insanity defense beyond cognitive incapacity and said that "The rule we now hold is simply that the accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect." (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, p. 184) As a result of the Durham precedent, there was a proliferation of expert testimony on both sides to argue the question of whether the accused did in fact have a mental disease or defect and whether the act that was committed was the product of that defective mental state, and thus not truly 'free'.

The Durham standard is grounded in the idea of free will and assumes that in general everyone has free will to choose between right and wrong but for some people their brain defects prevent them from being able to make such choices. If it can be shown that someone's actions are due to compulsions beyond their control, then they should not be held responsible for their actions since their will was not free. For example, lawyers in defense cases may sometimes concede that their clients did commit the crime and were aware that it was wrong (thus failing to meet the M'Naghten threshold), but they should not be held responsible because the ultimate cause of their action lay in childhood abuse or addiction to drugs or alcohol or violence in the media or rock music or pornography or the pressures of society at large, resulting in them having a defective mental state. Since it was this defective mental state that caused them to act in this way, it is argued that they were not acting freely and thus should not be held responsible for their actions.

One consequence of the understanding that there is no such thing as free will and that the purpose of punishment is deterrence and not moral judgment is that mental 'defects' by themselves (whatever their cause) are not sufficient to absolve people of responsibility for their actions, because every criminal act is always due to that person's brain being different from the norm, and thus defective in some way. As Pinker says (p. 184), "Unless one believes that ordinary acts are chosen by a ghost in the machine, all acts are products of cognitive and emotional systems in the brain. Criminal acts are relatively rare - if everyone in a defendant's shoes acted as he did, the law against what he did would be repealed - so heinous acts will often be products of a brain system that is in some way different from the norm, and the behavior can be construed as "a product of mental disease or mental defect:'" Hence the mere fact of a brain defect being the cause of an act should not be a defense.

The problem with the Durham rule is that, as a result of belief in free will, it mixes up explanation with exculpation. If we give up on the idea of free will, the legal process actually gets simpler. As Anthony Cashmore says, "psychiatrists and other experts on human behavior should be eliminated from the initial judicial proceedings—the role of the jury would be to simply determine whether or not the defendant was guilty of committing the crime; the mental state of the defendant would play no part in this decision. However, if a defendant were found guilty, then a court-appointed panel of experts would play a role in advising on matters of punishment and treatment." Pinker adds:

And this explains why the usual exemptions from responsibility should not be granted to all males or all abuse victims or all of humanity, even when we think we can explain what led them to act as they did. The explanations may help us understand the parts of the brain that made a behavior tempting, but they say nothing about the other parts of the brain (primarily in the prefrontal cortex) that could have inhibited the behavior by anticipating how the community would respond to it. We are that community, and our major lever of influence consists in appealing to that inhibitory brain system. Why should we discard our lever on the system for inhibition just because we are coming to understand the system for temptation? If you believe we shouldn't, that is enough to hold people responsible for their actions - without appealing to a will, a soul, a self, or any other ghost in the machine. (p. 183)

When we punish people for crimes, it should be solely for the purpose of deterring them and others from committing those same crimes in the future. The idea of punishment as a deterrent to crime makes sense even in the absence of free will but to be effective as such, punishments must be applied consistently. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said (Pinker, p. 181), "If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, 'I don't doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises.' " Note that while this example deals with capital punishment (which I oppose), the general sentiment of punishment as a deterrence applies to any form of it.

So giving up on the idea of free will, rather than making crimes less punishable as people fear, actually makes it harder to escape punishment because it applies it more uniformly and consistently. "The devil (or god) made me do it" would not be a defense unless the perpetrator's brain was such that he or she did not know the difference between right and wrong.

So what would we do with people who commit crimes but who, under the M'Naghten rule, are deemed to have a cognitive capacity that is so impaired that they cannot judge the difference between right and wrong and so the sole purpose of punishment, that of deterrence, will not work? "Even for those who are completely undeterrable, because of frontal-lobe damage, genes for psychopathy, or any other putative cause, we do not have to allow lawyers to loose them on the rest of us. We already have a mechanism for those likely to harm themselves or others but who do not respond to the carrots and sticks of the criminal justice system: involuntary civil commitment, in which we trade off some guarantees of civil liberties against the security of being protected from likely predators." (Pinker, p. 185)

In the next post in this series, I will look at the broader implications for the lack of free will. But for the moment, the following clip has an interesting discussion involving cognitive scientists and lawyers on the implications of neuroscience and the new understanding of the lack of free will for the law (via Machines Like Us).

November 29, 2010

The brutal torturing of an innocent man

I am surprised that some are treating the latest WikiLeaks documents as containing mere gossip. It is always a mistake to listen to what the mainstream US media analysts say because they seek to minimize US culpability in order to preserve their access. It is far too early to say what all the documents reveal and it will have to await the slow examination by people who seek the truth and not to protect governments. As these independent analysts start to pore over them, new revelations will emerge.

Scott Horton discusses one such cable that reveals how the US government put pressure on Germany to help cover up the barbaric treatment meted out to Khaled El-Masri, a German grocer who, because of mistaken identity, was abducted and tortured by the CIA.

Over the Christmas-New Year's holiday in 2003, Khaled El-Masri traveled by bus to Skopje, Macedonia. There he was apprehended by border guards who noted the similarity of his name to that of Khalid al-Masri, an Al Qaeda agent linked to the Hamburg cell where the 9/11 attacks were plotted. Despite El-Masri's protests that he was not al-Masri, he was beaten, stripped naked, shot full of drugs, given an enema and a diaper, and flown first to Baghdad and then to the notorious "salt pit," the CIA's secret interrogation facility in Afghanistan. At the salt pit, he was repeatedly beaten, drugged, and subjected to a strange food regime that he supposed was part of an experiment that his captors were performing on him. Throughout this time, El-Masri insisted that he had been falsely imprisoned, and the CIA slowly established that he was who he claimed to be. Over many further weeks of bickering over what to do, a number of CIA figures apparently argued that, though innocent, the best course was to continue to hold him incommunicado because he "knew too much."

Thanks to Wikileaks, the names of the agents who tortured him are now known and they can face prosecution (not in the US of course, which excuses and protects its torturers) if they happen to go a country that has independent, human-rights respecting prosecutors, a species that seems to have gone extinct here.

Freezing the pay of federal workers

President Obama is proposing a two-year freeze on the salaries of all civilian federal employees. This is a purely symbolic gesture that will do little to address the deficit, although it will hurt the people at the receiving end of the freeze. He of course panders to the military by exempting them from the freeze. When this move is coupled with Obama's inevitable capitulation on extending the tax breaks for the wealthy (which actually does impact the deficit considerably) it will just add to the overwhelming evidence that both parties exist to serve the oligarchy.

It looks like Obama has given up even pretending that he cares about anyone other than the rich.

Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010)

The first three decades of his career were as a serious actor until his appearance in the zany Airplane! (along with other serious actors such as Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Peter Graves all playing against type) gave him a second career as a comic whose deadpan delivery made his slapstick so much funnier, putting him in a class with the great Peter Sellers.

Thanks, Leslie, for giving all of us so much innocent pleasure.

The Nation apologizes

The editor Katrina vanden Heuvel steps up and does the right thing by apologizing for her magazine publishing the smear of John Tyner.

More on the latest WikiLeaks document dump

One of the things that I find amusing about the reaction of the US government to the latest WikiLeaks release is its outrage that its private communications have been expropriated. How dare people read what Washington and its ambassadors abroad say to each other! This is rich coming from a government whose massive eavesdropping on everybody's private lives and communications without legal warrant is the least of its assaults on individual liberties and privacy. Those who justify these actions by saying that "If you have done nothing wrong, then you should have nothing to hide" should apply that rule to everyone.

Here are the some sources for the WIkiLeaks documents and analysis:

WIkiLeaks
The Guardian
Der Spiegel

The always readable Justin Raimondo comments on the leaks.

An interesting sidelight is that WikiLeaks did not give the source documents to the New York Times this time. They had to get it from the Guardian. This is not surprising since the NYT is so subservient to the US government and went out of its way to smear Assange and disparage WikiLeaks. What a comedown from its heyday of the Pentagon Papers as the vehicle of choice for leakers. It now has to beg others to avoid getting scooped.

On free will-13: Dealing with the consequences of not having free will

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is time to examine the consequences if we are forced to conclude, as seems likely, that there is no such thing as free will and that our actions are determined by the unconscious neural activity of a physical brain that was itself the creation of the genes, environment, and stochastic processes that make up our personal and evolutionary history.

The most obvious implications lie in the areas of crime and punishment and personal morality. Does the absence of free will mean that we are condemned to an amoral anarchy, in which people can claim that they are not responsible for any and every action because they did not freely choose to do so, and thus should bear no consequences?

Actually, no. In chapter 10 The Fear of Determinism in his book The Blank State: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker argues that we need not perpetuate the fiction that there is free will when there is none simply because of fears of such an outcome. Apart from the fact that it is almost always better to base our policies on what is true than on illusions, the lack of free will can actually be more effective than having it because it enables us to see more clearly when and how to assign responsibility for actions.

Take first the question of crime and punishment. Even in the absence of free will, punishment for committing a crime still makes sense because it has the effect of deterring future crimes by both the perpetrator of the crime and by other aspiring criminals who observe the culprit being punished and know that they will be punished similarly. Whether this deterrence is achieved via the product of unconscious neural network activity or a free will making a conscious decision is of no practical consequence. What the elimination of free will does is remove the element of moral judgment from punishment. The sole reason for punishing people is to deter the commission of future crimes, not to make moral statements about the culprit's character or to seek retribution and vengeance.

The only reason for the mitigation of punishment is if the perpetrator's brain system is incapable of responding to deterrence. As Pinker says (p. 183), "We don't punish those who were unaware that their acts would lead to harm, because such a policy would do nothing to prevent similar acts by them or by others in the future… We don't apply criminal punishment to the delirious, the insane, small children, animals, or inanimate objects, because we judge that they - and entities similar to them - lack the cognitive apparatus that could be informed of the policy and could inhibit behavior accordingly. We exempt these entities from responsibility not because they follow predictable laws of biology while everyone else follows mysterious not-laws of free will. We exempt them because, unlike most adults, they lack a functioning brain system that can respond to public contingencies of punishment."

Right now we assume that people are responsible for their actions unless they are considered incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, which is why we do not make moral judgments on the actions of infants, animals, etc. In the legal arena, the guidelines for absolving someone for responsibility were for a long time largely based on the M'Naghten rule, named after Daniel M'Naghten who, in 1843, wanted to kill the British prime minister but killed his secretary instead. He seemed to be what we would now call a paranoid schizophrenic and he was found not guilty of murder on the grounds of insanity.

This verdict caused general concern that people might invoke this kind of plea too freely as a means of escaping punishment, and in response the House of Lords drafted the following rule named after him to standardize the grounds for future claims of insanity: "Every man is to be presumed to be sane, and ... that to establish a defense on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of mind, and not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong."

The M'Naghten rule focuses on the cognitive awareness of right and wrong and is quite a stringent test. The only reason to not punish a wrong action is if the person could not have been deterred by the thought of punishment in the first place because their brain was incapable of making the kinds of judgments involved. As Pinker says (p. 184), "If someone is too addled to know that an act would harm someone, he cannot be inhibited by the injunction "Don't harm people, or else!" The M'Naghten rule aims to forgo spiteful punishment-retribution that harms the perpetrator with no hope of deterring him or people similar to him." If everyone knows that that the lack of cognitive awareness is the sole reason for exculpation, then the deterrent effect of punishment is still strong. The only people who would not be deterred are those whose brains are similarly addled.

The rules for mitigation have sometimes been expanded to include cases where the person did know the difference between right and wrong but was unable to control their impulses or was coerced. For example, we believe that the instinct to survive is so strong that if we are faced with a deadly threat we may kill the attacker before they can kill us, even though we know that killing is wrong and that we may face punishment. The law recognizes that in such cases, we are not really making a free choice, but that we are acting on instinct, and so we have the self-defense argument. The cases of coercion are somewhat easier to adjudicate. If someone is forced to do something at the point of a gun, we view the action with leniency.

More complicated are the so-called 'crimes of passion' in which some acts occur because of emotions so strong that even if the perpetrator knows the action is wrong, they carry it out anyway. The 'police officer at the elbow' test (i.e., would the person still have committed the act even if a police officer was in the immediate vicinity) could be used to make such discriminations.

Where we run into problems is when too broad a view of brain science is taken in adjudicating crimes. Belief in free will actually creates more problems in determining who should be punished and for what, as I will discuss in the next post.

November 28, 2010

New WikiLeaks release

As rumored, WikiLeaks has released a new batch of documents. The Guardian has probably the best coverage of what is in the documents.

A small sample:

The cables published today reveal how the US uses its embassies as part of a global espionage network, with diplomats tasked to obtain not just information from the people they meet, but personal details, such as frequent flyer numbers, credit card details and even DNA material.

Classified "human intelligence directives" issued in the name of Clinton or her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, instruct officials to gather information on military installations, weapons markings, vehicle details of political leaders as well as iris scans, fingerprints and DNA.

The most controversial target was the UN leadership. That directive requested the specification of telecoms and IT systems used by top officials and their staff and details of "private VIP networks used for official communication, to include upgrades, security measures, passwords, personal encryption keys".

PJ Crowley, the state department spokesman in Washington, said: "Let me assure you: our diplomats are just that, diplomats. They do not engage in intelligence activities. They represent our country around the world, maintain open and transparent contact with other governments as well as public and private figures, and report home. That's what diplomats have done for hundreds of years."

November 27, 2010

"One two three, what're we fighting for?"

In a survey of those regions of Afghanistan where the NATO troops are having the heaviest fighting, a survey finds that 92% of those Afghans don't know about the events of 9/11.

This has staggering consequences for the battle for hearts and minds of the population. It is one thing for people to see foreign troops as being in their country to ferret out rogue elements among them that attacked other countries, which is the stated mission of the US and NATO, though one has to suspect that there are always covert goals behind the overt ones. Then there is some chance that they will support your endeavors and join with you in eliminating the threat.

But if the local population is oblivious to this history, they will see the foreign troops as simply invaders trying to take over their country and will naturally resist.

But not to worry! We totally know how to deal with the hearts-and-minds thing. As the Washington Post reports:

In another recent operation in the Zhari district, U.S. soldiers fired more than a dozen mine-clearing line charges in a day. Each one creates a clear path that is 100 yards long and wide enough for a truck. Anything that is in the way - trees, crops, huts - is demolished.

"Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?" a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.

Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, "in effect, you're connecting the government to the people," the senior officer said.

Because it is of course well known that nothing inspires warmer feelings towards the government than having your home destroyed by its troops and then making a long trek to a government office to try and get compensation. After all, wasn't 'destroying the village in order to save it' a phenomenally successful strategy for the US in Vietnam?

Country Joe McDonald's song at Woodstock seems depressingly apropos. (Language advisory)

November 26, 2010

Heathen's Greeting!

Yes, boys and girls, Thanksgiving is over and you know what that means. It's time to start the War on Christmas! So let the games begin!

First off, the New York Times reports on the unveiling of a new billboard ad campaign by four different secular groups to encourage atheists and even just doubters to realize that there are a lot of unbelievers out there and that it is safe to come out and join them.

Right on cue, we have religious believers begin to whine about how atheists are being mean to believers by spreading such messages during the Christmas season. In my local paper the Plain Dealer, columnist Regina Brett gets the ball rolling, criticizing the ad campaign. To be fair to her, she tries to be even-handed, also decrying the demonization of atheists. Hers is a "Why can't we all be nice to each other during this holiday season?" kind of column.

This is fair enough but her message is confused. As with most believers, she sees statements about disbelief as aggressive while statements of belief are taken as the norm. So being nice to one another means that atheists should either shut up or use gentle humor or word things carefully so as not to cause cognitive dissonance among believers.

For example, Brett condemns as 'just mean' one billboard which has an image of Santa saying "Yes Virginia ... there is no God". She does not seem to get the humor of one imaginary entity parodying a well-known quote to assert that another imaginary entity does not exist.

She also puzzlingly says that "God is love. It says that in the Bible. But I doubt that will end up on a billboard to recruit atheists." She's right, it won't, but what's her point? Why would an atheist campaign even consider advertising that god is love when we don't believe that god exists in the first place? Religious people are the ones who, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, claim that god is love, and they put that message up all over the place

What believers don't seem to get is that many atheists enjoy Christmas as a secular holiday (which is its actual origin), a good excuse to relax with friends and family. If religious people want to overlay the holiday with all kinds of god messages, they are welcome to do so. What we don't enjoy is being told that we have to accept the whole god package as well.

If we want to secularize the holiday and greet each other with "Seasons' Greetings" or "Happy Holidays" or even "Heathen's Greetings" or "Reason's Greetings", then religious people will just have to learn to live with it, just the way we atheists and non-Christians live with overtly religious symbolism all around us, especially during December. Many of us even say "Merry Christmas" and refer to it as the Christmas season. It really does not bother us because Christmas has, thanks to the relentless merchandizing of businesses, become a secular holiday.

November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving gift from WikiLeaks?

The AP reports that WikiLeaks may release a new batch of documents this weekend.

Bye, bye, Ernie?

Quick, do you know what the official terror alert level color is right now? You should because it hasn't changed since 2006. The official color scale is on the left and the much more memorable one is on the right.

terroralertcolors.jpg terroralertsesame.jpg

The system was a joke because it did not tell people anything useful. If the color changed, what implications did it have for the average person? How should their behavior change? No one knew. Furthermore, it quickly became reduced to only two colors, Bert and Ernie, but Ernie has been the sole possessor of the title for four years now, despite the failed Christmas bombing and Times Square plots that occurred during his reign.

The authorities must have been in a quandary because they were never going to lower the threat to Cookie Monster because that would not serve the purpose of keeping people in fear. Oscar was simply out of the question, dangled in front of people purely for window dressing, to give them the illusion that there would come a time when the war on terror was over. They could not also raise the level to Elmo because people might freak out thinking that the Armageddon had arrived.

Well, it looks like that system is on the way out. It not only will not be missed, its disappearance will not even be noticed.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I hope everyone who celebrates this really nice holiday has the opportunity to spend the day with family and friends.

This article provides some of the facts and debunks some myths about the origins and traditions of this holiday.

I have been disturbed by the creeping commercialism that is threatening to overtake this holiday. In order to lure customers to come to their stores first, they are scheduling sales that begin at midnight. What this means is that their employees are forced to work on Thanksgiving day, getting ready for the hordes of people camped out in front eager to get their hands on the few loss leaders that the stores put out. I hope we do not have a repetition of 2008:

A Wal-Mart worker died early Friday after an "out-of-control" mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the Long Island store's front doors and trampled him, police said.

The Black Friday stampede plunged the Valley Stream outlet into chaos, knocking several employees to the ground and sending others scurrying atop vending machines to avoid the horde.

On a passing note, this week my bank sent me a 'Happy Thanksgiving' card from its vice president. Do these big corporations think that people are pleased to receive formal greetings churned out by a computer? This not only seems like an absurd waste of money, I fear it might be the start of a new marketing trend to inflict the same cards-and-gifts consumer binge that afflicts Christmas.

November 24, 2010

Left-liberal smearing of John Tyner

Glenn Greenwald defends John Tyner against the attempt by The Nation to smear him for his protest against the TSA's porno scanners and groping methods.

What is it with some people that they cannot form a united front with others on civil liberties issues unless the people protesting as well as who are being protested against fit with their broader agenda?

I myself do not care one whit if the protests against methods of the TSA are being fuelled and funded by right-wing ideologues and are meant to embarrass Obama. What has that got to do with whether the methods being used are good or not?

Oh, good grief!

Further evidence that when it comes to religion, people can be so easily suckered to believe what they want to believe.

The Simpsons hits the mark

The opening segment from last week's show nails the media.

Are the porno scanners safe?

The claims by the government that the scanners deliver harmless amounts of radiation are being challenged by some scientists.

On free will-12: How about quick decisions?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The 2008 research findings of Soon et. al., gave the surprising result that when we are allowed time to make decisions, our subconscious neural networks make the decisions up to ten seconds before we are consciously aware of it.

Of course, there are many situations in which we act without seeming to make any conscious decisions at all. If an object is suddenly thrown at us, we may duck, dodge, deflect, hit, or catch it, the 'choice' seemingly being made in much less than a second. In such cases, the action seems involuntary and we assign it to instinct, which is just another name for the unconscious neural activity of our brains. The instinct to duck when an object is directed at our head or to withdraw our hands from a hot object is due to the neural system having developed shortcuts because of its obvious survival value and has been selected for over a long time in our evolutionary history. The part of the brain that codes instincts must necessarily act very quickly to give commands to the motor brain in response to stimuli from the environment. Certain stimuli trigger a stimulus-action connection that bypasses those sections of the brain that indulge in time-consuming activities such as processing information and making judgments.

It is almost impossible to avoid, for example, even flinching when an object comes close to our eyes. Some people can do so after much practice, suggesting that they have over time developed new neural networks that can override their original instinct to create a new instinct that responds this way to specific stimuli.

But what about the case of (say) a tennis player who, seeing the ball come directly towards her over the net, seems to consciously choose in an instant whether to hit a forehand or backhand, return the ball cross-court or down the line, hit it short or deep? In this case, there seems to be a conscious decision being made and carried out, though the time available is a fraction of a second. It is such things that give us such a firm conviction that there is some part of us that is freely and consciously deciding things. How can we explain such decisions in the absence of free will?

I have not yet been able to track down studies on this particular question of brain activity for quick responses, so what I am going to suggest is pure speculation on my part, starting from the assumption that there is no free will.

The only way I can think of to explain how the tennis player's responds is that when the ball is hit to her, the E (environment) part of the Genetics (G)-Environment (E)-Stochastic (S) model of the brain is triggered, which sets in motion a predetermined response. The unconscious neural network that decides what command to give the motor brain also sends a signal to our conscious thoughts/will that arrives there a fraction of an instant before the motor action is carried out. The fact that the conscious thought occurs before the action gives us the sense that the former caused the latter, when in actual fact both are the products of unconscious neural network activity in response to external stimuli.

This model might suggest that a tennis player will do the same thing in each situation, making their play highly predictable. In fact, there is considerable predictability in the way that athletes respond to game situations. There is a huge industry in professional sports devoted to analyzing individual players to detect patterns of their play so that their opponents can predict what the player will do in a response to a given situation and devise countermeasures.

But an expert tennis player does seem on occasion to be able to vary her shots to catch her opponent off-guard by doing the unexpected. This could be due to the fact that the stimuli they are responding to, though they may appear to be identical at a coarse level of observation, are not really exactly the same and thus cause different responses due to tiny variations. It may also be the case that there is a unpredictable element in the workings of the neural network (what I have referred to as stochastic processes) that sometimes cause her to go cross-court one time, and down the line the next, with the appropriate conscious thought being created just before the act takes place.

If this is the case, then that means that all the time when we think we are making quick decisions and acting on them, such as when we are driving, making conversation, playing sports, and so on, we are actually responding instinctively, the only difference from pure instinct (such as ducking to avoid an object coming towards our head) is that there is enough elapsed time between the decision made by our subconscious brain and the action for the subconscious brain to send a signal to our conscious brain just before the action is taken, giving us the illusion of being in control and consciously making decisions.

The part of the brain that makes quick decisions acts very much like instinct in terms of both the speed of the response and the involuntary nature of the act, except that 'true' instinctive responses have been hardwired into our brains over a long period of evolutionary time and we acquire them via our genes, while these quick decision responses are due to neural networks that we create over our own lifetimes and are unique to us.

Studies show that to become really competent at any skill or profession or sport (such as tennis), it takes about ten years of sustained practice. Perhaps that is how long it takes for a brain to develop the full range of synapses that enables it to respond with a range of subtle and sophisticated reactions to a wide variety of external stimuli. It is this variety of responses that gives us the illusion that we are making deliberate choices about how to respond to the current situation, rather than simply reacting based on our past experiences.

For example, when we learn to drive, we have to pay attention to road signs, to other cars and pedestrians, and be aware of the need, before changing lanes, to check the read view mirror, the side mirror, look over the shoulder for the blind spot, signal, then turn the wheel, and so on. For the novice driver, keeping all these things in the conscious mind makes driving nerve wracking, and every decision seems to take ages. I remember when learning to drive that I was mentally exhausted at the end of even a short practice session. But after much experience, we do all these things quickly and 'without thinking' which means that we have developed the appropriate neural networks that spring into action and provides the appropriate pre-determined response depending on the need.

It is not that we are not thinking about driving (or playing tennis) but have developed our own neural networks that enable us to think at a higher conceptual level, rather than at the level of the individual steps. So when we drive, the higher conceptual category of 'change lanes' triggers those neural networks that carry out all the required actions automatically. This may also explain why it is so hard to change the way we are used to doing things and the importance of developing good habits early.

Next in the series: Dealing with the consequences of not having free will

November 23, 2010

Gas Guzzling

For those too young to be aware of what this parody is based on, or for those who are nostalgic, here's the original Greased Lightning from the film Grease (1978).

Are we safer now?

Adam Savage (of the TV show Mythbusters) describes how the TSA put him through the porno scanner but later once on the plane he realized that he had in his jacket two twelve inch long steel razor blades that he had brought home from work and forgotten about. (via Balloon Juice.)

Spam insults

Recently, I have been receiving highly critical spam comments. Here is one typical example:

What a waste of time. You're [sic] poor english [sic] made this article hard to read. Learn to write.

I have to admit I am puzzled by the psychology of this. One form that spam comments take is to give an effusive but generic compliment ("Your blog is great!"), presumably to flatter me so that I won't delete it. It never works but I can understand the strategy.

But I am totally baffled by what the spammer hopes to achieve with an insult.

On free will-11: Recent fMRI studies of the brain

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In a recent paper (Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain, Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze, & John-Dylan Haynes, Nature Neuroscience, vol. 11, no. 5, May 2008, 543-545), researchers used the more sophisticated modern technique of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to measure brain activity. The paper is not available online without a subscription but you can read a news report on the results of their paper here.

This experiment was designed to meet two key concerns about the Libet studies: that the time interval between act and the precursor unconscious brain activity prior to act was too small to definitively rule out measurement errors, and that Libet's team had not shown that the early brain activity was a predictor of a specific decision.

The fMRI studies find that our decisions as to what actions we will take originate in our unconscious neural activity and only later informs our conscious mind of it, thus providing strong evidence against the existence of free will. The paper describes what the researchers asked their test subjects to do while they were hooked up to fMRI measuring devices.

The subjects were asked to relax while fixating on the center of the screen where a stream of letters was presented. At some point, when they felt the urge to do so, they were to freely decide between one of two buttons, operated by the left and right index fingers, and press it immediately. In parallel, they should remember the letter presented when their motor decision was consciously made. After subjects pressed their freely chosen response button, a ‘response mapping’ screen with four choices appeared. The subjects indicated when they had made their motor decision by selecting the corresponding letter with a second button press. After a delay, the letter stream started again and a new trial began.

Each letter was shown on the screen for 500 ms before switching to a new one and this was the time marker used by the researchers to determine when the decision to push a button was made. Note that in this experiment there are two decisions involved: when to push a button and which button to push. The fMRI data enabled the researchers to use sophisticated decoding computer programs to detect predictive signal patterns in brain activity, even in the absence of an overall increased signal strength, the latter being what the earlier experiments had depended upon. This enabled the detection of far more subtle effects.

In the trials it turned out that patients pushed both left and right buttons equally often and they were conscious of the decision to press within a time interval of one second before actually pressing a button.

But it is the other results of the experiment that are dramatic. Soon et. al. found that there was precursor activity in regions of the brain other than the SMA regions probed by Libet, and that this activity occurred much earlier than the SMA activity. Furthermore, this activity also predicted which button was going to be pushed.

[T]wo specific regions in the frontal and parietal cortex of the human brain had considerable information that predicted the outcome of a motor decision the subject had not yet consciously made. This suggests that when the subject’s decision reached awareness it had been influenced by unconscious brain activity for up to 10 s. (my italics)

Notably, the lead times are too long to be explained by any timing inaccuracies in reporting the onset of awareness, which was a major criticism of previous studies. The temporal ordering of information suggests a tentative causal model of information flow, where the earliest unconscious precursors of the motor decision originated in frontopolar cortex, from where they influenced the buildup of decision-related information in the precuneus and later in SMA, where it remained unconscious for up to a few seconds.

This figure shows the time sequence of events that the study revealed.

mind_decision_630px.jpg

The earliest precursors of an action lie in regions of the brain other than the SMA, which is the region that caused the electrophysiological effects that Libet was measuring, which explains why Libet (and Grey Walter before him) got just a half-second lead time while now it is a whopping 10 seconds. The new fMRI studies also enabled the researchers to determine that the leading brain activity selectively predicted the outcome of the subject's choice of which button to push, and was not simply indicative of some nonspecific preparatory processes, which was the criticism made by Trevenna and Miller of the Libet team's experiments.

They also found that the decision to push a button could be predicted up to five seconds before the act, and this information was present in the SMA and pre-SMA regions of the brain.

In this video clip, Marcus Du Sautoy records his experience of participating in this same experiment. (Incidentally, Du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, is the successor to Richard Dawkins as holder of the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science.)

Note that the predictions of which button to push were not perfect, with only around 60% accuracy. The absence of 100% accuracy is probably due to the lack of precision of the detecting apparatus and inadequacies of the pattern-recognition software, both of which are bound to get more sophisticated with time, thus increasing the accuracy of predictions. But the fact that the result is better than chance means that, as lead author Haynes says, "there's not very much space for operation of free will" because "[t]he outcome of a decision is shaped very strongly by brain activity much earlier than the point in time when you feel to be making a decision." Other researchers concur.

Dick Passingham, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Oxford in the U.K., says the paper clears up one of the major concerns about the original Libet experiment. "This activity that occurs earlier is ... not just general preparation, it really is a proper decision," he says.

Neurologist Mark Hallett of the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, says the study confirms his understanding of free will as a perception rather than a driving force.

This seems to pretty much kill the idea of free will as traditionally understood. As biologist Anthony Cashmore says, "The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar. The laws of nature are uniform throughout, and these laws do not accommodate the concept of free will."

The Ghost in the Machine seems to be well and truly exorcised.

Next: What about quick decisions?

November 22, 2010

Feeling lonely? The TSA wants to reach out and touch you

And if you think that it is an exaggeration, read this description by Ted Rall about what people are going through.

Chalmers Johnson dead at age 79

One of the major thinkers on US foreign policy whose pre-9/11 book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire made the concept of 'blowback' a key element in understanding why the US is in such a predicament, died on Saturday.

Steve Clemons reflects on his legacy. He says that Johnson started out as an establishment figure and strong supporter of the Vietnam war but later became on of the biggest and most influential critics of the drive towards creating and sustaining the American empire. As Clemons says, "Many of Johnson's followers and Chal himself think that American democracy is lost, that the republic has been destroyed by an embrace of empire and that the American public is unaware and unconscious of the fix."

On free will-10: Ethical and legal implications of free will as simply a veto power

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The idea suggested by Benjamin Libet that what we call free will is not the popularly assumed ability to decide all our seemingly deliberate (as opposed to instinctive) actions but consists of the more limited ability to either let the predetermined action be completed or to veto it may be unsatisfying to some but its implications are worth exploring in case it turns out to be true. What this model says is that I have no control over what I decide to do in any given situation but I do have control over whether that decision is actually carried out. In other words, I cannot control my thoughts and decisions but I can control (within a limited range) my actions.

Libet suggests that if, as he believes, our decisions to act are involuntary but the decision on whether to allow that act to be carried out or to veto it is freely arrived at, that should influence how our justice and moral systems should work.

How do our findings relate to the questions of when one may be regarded as guilty or sinful, in various religious and philosophical systems? If one experiences a conscious wish or urge to perform a socially unacceptable act, should that be regarded as a sinful event even if the urge has been vetoed and no act has occurred? Some religious systems answer ‘yes’. President Jimmy Carter admitted to having had urges to perform a lustful act. Although he did not act, he apparently still felt sinful for having experienced a lustful urge. But any such urges would be initiated and developed in the brain unconsciously, according to our findings. The mere appearance of an intention to act could not be controlled consciously; only its final consummation in a motor act could be consciously controlled. Therefore, a religious system that castigates an individual for simply having a mental intention or impulse to do something unacceptable, even when this is not acted out, would create a physiologically insurmountable moral and psychological difficulty.

Religious systems like Christianity punish people for even thought crimes, because god is apparently monitoring everyone's thoughts all the time to check for any transgressions. But this makes no sense if we have no control over our thoughts (granting for the sake of argument that the idea of a god who can read everyone's thoughts makes any sense at all). I am sure that if this understanding of the brain ever becomes firmly established, the ever amenable and highly flexible theologians will come up with new interpretations of their holy books to say that how they interpreted them earlier was wrong and that the correct interpretation is that thoughts alone are not sinful. This kind of theological flexibility to accommodate the latest science has been the pattern so far.

Libet argues that secular ethical systems will also have to adjust, though not as much.

Ethical systems deal with moral codes or conventions that govern how one behaves toward or interacts with other individuals; they are presumably dealing with actions, not simply with urges or intentions. Only a motor act by one person can directly impinge on the welfare of another. Since it is the performance of an act that can be consciously controlled, it should be legitimate to hold individuals guilty of and responsible for their acts.

The idea that we should only punish people for their actions and not their thoughts has implications for so-called 'hate crimes' legislation whereby people are punished more harshly for the same act if their actions are deemed to arise from intent to harm someone because of animosity towards their victim's race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation. If what people think is beyond their control, it does not make sense to factor it in when determining punishment. (Since I already oppose hate crime legislation for other reasons, I would not be sorry to have a scientific reason to eliminate them.)

Libet makes a final plaintive plea for retaining the idea of free will by suggesting that according to the evidence, at least at the time he wrote it in 1999, believing in free will is at least as good an option as determinism, and so we should hold on to it until more conclusive evidence against it turns up.

My conclusion about free will, one genuinely free in the non-determined sense, is then that its existence is at least as good, if not a better, scientific option than is its denial by determinist theory. Given the speculative nature of both determinist and non-determinist theories, why not adopt the view that we do have free will (until some real contradictory evidence may appear, if it ever does). Such a view would at least allow us to proceed in a way that accepts and accommodates our own deep feeling that we do have free will. We would not need to view ourselves as machines that act in a manner completely controlled by the known physical laws.

Benjamin Libet died in 2007 and thus did not have to confront the results of experiments carried out the very next year that seem to provide just the kind of evidence contradicting free will that he clearly hoped would not materialize. I will discuss these in the next post in this series.

Next: Recent fMRI studies of the time sequence of decisions and actions.

November 21, 2010

Torturing for Christ

Jerry Coyne has a post with photographs describing the devices used by the Catholic Church in Colombia to torture heretics into making confessions during the inquisition that lasted from 1610 to 1821. It is sickening what they did and the article is not for the squeamish.

But of course, all this was done in the service of a loving and merciful god, so it must be good, no?

Religious cruelty to animals

There is no question that factory farming treats animals inhumanely. Yet Johann Hari points out that in Britain at least, there is one redeeming feature in that system in that the animals are required to be stunned before they are slaughtered, thus making them numb and presumably sparing them considerable pain as they are killed.

Yet there is an exemption for even this minimal requirement, granted for (surprise!) religion:

You are allowed to skip all this and slash the throats of un-numbed, screaming animals if you say God told you to. If you are Muslim, you call it "halal", and if you are Jewish you call it "kosher".

Atheists who criticise religion are constantly being told we have missed the point and religion is really about compassion and kindness. It is only a handful of extremists and fundamentalists who "misunderstand" faith and use it for cruel ends, we are told with a wagging finger. But here's an example where most members of a religion choose to do something pointlessly cruel, and even the moderates demand "respect" for their "views". Their faith makes them prioritise pleasing an invisible supernatural being over the screaming of actual living creatures. Doesn't this suggest that faith itself – the choice to believe something in the total absence of evidence – is a danger that can lead you up needlessly nasty paths?

As has been said by many people many times, it takes religion to make otherwise good and reasonable people do bad things.

November 20, 2010

And now, roving porno scanners

It turns out that machines similar to the TSA's porno scanners are being used in mobile vans by private companies. So these private companies are taking these images of people on the streets and in their vehicles without the victims being aware of them. These devices can also apparently penetrate walls so it may now be possible for total strangers to peer into people's homes.

Porno scanner rap video

Via Juan Cole, I came across this rap video inspired by John Tyner's memorable phrase "Don't touch my junk!"

This text will be replaced by the player

Now everyone is a terrorist

Governments use the threats of defending against outside forces (such as terrorists) to pass laws and regulations that are oppressive and the public willingly goes along with them thinking that this will never affect them. But the real goal of governments is to have those laws available to use against its own citizens if they need to. A perfect example of this is the law permitting the government to detain indefinitely without trial any person they merely suspect, without evidence, to be a terrorist. This is an extraordinary power to give the government but people did so because they thought it would only be used against 'the other', such as foreigners.

But in the wake of the protests against the TSA's porno scanners and groping methods, the TSA now says that anyone refusing to submit to either of these two intrusive procedures can be detained indefinitely and questioned until the government decides to release them.

The TSA procedures are not governed by law but are internal polices of the Department of Homeland Security, which has become like the infamous 'secret police' in authoritarian countries, given almost unlimited powers to harass its own citizens in the name of national security.

The ACLU has provided information on your rights and what you can do under the law. But it is limited. Only widespread protests and outrage can roll back the national security state.

November 19, 2010

Screening pilots

Of all the absurd things associated with the TSA's porno scans and groping security measures, the most absurd is that pilots are subjected to the same things. If they wanted to kill everyone on board, why would they even need a bomb or other weapon to hijack a plane? After all, the fact that are given control of the plane, are armed, and are inside the locked cockpit where no one can get at them suggests that they can do whatever damage they want without having to bring anything in from outside.

As a result of the recent outcry, it appears that even the TSA has realized that this is silly and pilots will no longer be subjected to such intrusive screening.

Euphemisms for torture

The US establishment media such as the New York Times becomes very coy about using the word torture to describe acts by its own government (such as waterboarding) that it did not hesitate to use when those same acts were used by other governments, preferring convoluted locutions such as 'enhanced interrogation techniques'.

Simon Owens at TNW Media points to an enterprising person who has decided to help the NYT out of the difficulty of finding new euphemisms by creating a 'New York Times Torture Euphemism Generator'.

Now anyone can be as solicitous to the sensitivities of the US government as the New York Times!

Backhanded recommendations

This website highlights ambiguous sentences from letters of recommendation.

  • You will be lucky to get this person to work for you
  • I cannot recommend this person too highly
  • I recommend this candidate with no qualifications
  • Waste no time hiring this person
  • He was fired with enthusiasm
  • Nobody is better than this man
  • I found myself frequently raving about her work
  • I would place his research on the cutting edge
  • I would place this student in a class by herself
  • He has made immeasurable contributions to our firm

On free will-9: Attempts to salvage free will

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

People who are determined to keep the Ghost in the Machine alive still have a few options. Ironically, although it was Libet's early experiments that cast doubt on the idea that we have free will, he himself was disturbed by that implication and has sought to find ways to salvage it. In his many publications, he repeats his belief that his experiments did not rule out free will and suggests ways in which it could still operate.

The source of his belief in free will is similar to the reasons that we all cling on to, that we strongly feel that we act freely and that it is not desirable to abandon belief in it. As he says, (Do we have free will?, Benjamin Libet, Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 6, No. 8–9, 1999, pp. 47–57):

However, we must recognize that the almost universal experience that we can act with a free, independent choice provides a kind of prima facie evidence that conscious mental processes can causatively control some brain processes (Libet, 1994). As an experimental scientist, this creates more difficulty for a determinist than for a non-determinist option. The phenomenal fact is that most of us feel that we do have free will, at least for some of our actions and within certain limits that may be imposed by our brain’s status and by our environment. The intuitive feelings about the phenomenon of free will form a fundamental basis for views of our human nature, and great care should be taken not to believe allegedly scientific conclusions about them which actually depend upon hidden ad hoc assumptions. A theory that simply interprets the phenomenon of free will as illusory and denies the validity of this phenomenal fact is less attractive than a theory that accepts or accommodates the phenomenal fact.

Of course, the idea that we should retain belief in free will simply because everyone believes in it and the alternative is unpalatable is hardly persuasive as a scientific argument. So in a later paper published in 2002 (Consciousness and Cognition, vol. 11, 291–299, 2002), Libet goes further and suggests that we are not entirely the slaves of our subconscious decisions to act because we retain the power to veto a decision at the last minute. He argues that veto decisions may not follow the same pattern of arising from prior unconscious neural activity because the decision to veto an act may arise from a different source than the decision to take a specific act and thus not follow the pattern of precursor behavior that he observed about the decision itself. It is thus possible that a veto decision could be freely made. He says (referring to himself in the third person):

However, Libet noted that the conscious function still had enough time to affect the outcome of the process; that is, it could allow the volitional initiative to go to completion, it could provide a necessary trigger for the completion, or it could block or veto the process and prevent the act’s appearance. There is no doubt that a veto function can occur. The argument has been made that the conscious veto process would itself require preceding developmental processes, just like a conscious sensory awareness. But Libet (1999) argued that the conscious veto in a control function, different from awareness per se, need not be a direct product of the preceding processes, as is the case for simple awareness.

Libet suggests that although our decisions to carry out an act may be involuntary, the veto is different, and thus provides a new understanding of the role of free will.

I propose, instead, that the conscious veto may not require or be the direct result of preceding unconscious processes. The conscious veto is a control function, different from simply becoming aware of the wish to act. There is no logical imperative in any mind–brain theory, even identity theory, that requires specific neural activity to precede and determine the nature of a conscious control function. And, there is no experimental evidence against the possibility that the control process may appear without development by prior unconscious processes.

The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place.

Free will that can only act to veto an involuntary decision seems a rather weak substitute for the real thing. Those who want a bigger role for free will can, if they wish, can go beyond Libet's limited concept and postulate that a ghostly free will does decide and is the cause of the early unconscious neural activity but that for some reason it does not produce any brain activity and also hides its early decisions from us, perhaps by wiping out that initial memory and creating our conscious thoughts only much later. In other words, when we become consciously aware of making a decision, that awareness is merely an echo of the same decision that was made earlier prior to the unconscious neural activity, but of which we are not aware. Daniel Dennett's theory of consciousness (Consciousness Explained, 1991) says the brain is constantly writing and rewriting our personal narratives of what we experience in order to create a coherent narrative so this kind of mental revisionism could explain why we are not conscious of our early conscious decisions.

But why would the brain bother to go to this level of subterfuge? It is hard to think of an evolutionary advantage that is conferred to the organism by the brain covering its tracks in this way. These kinds of explanations for free will soon start to look suspiciously like the pseudo-explanations religious believers give for why we cannot see any evidence for their peripatetic god even though he is supposedly always busy doing stuff.

But even allowing for the possibility that our brain somehow hides the existence of free will, this would not seem to offer much consolation. What would be the point of decisions that are made before we are conscious of making them? The idea of free will gets its power from the fact that we consciously make the decisions that trigger motor activity.

Next: Ethical and legal implications of free will as a veto power

November 18, 2010

How much indignity are people willing to suffer for supposed security?

John Tyner, the person who opposed having the TSA either porno scan him or grope him has been fielding questions from people who say things like "So if next time a terrorist successfully hides "devices" to kill Americans on a plane, because you seem to think TSA or airport security is over-excessive...What will you say?"

The questioner usually thinks this is a killer argument and that anyone who speaks up for freedom from this kind of government abuse will backpedal when confronted with the question: what if we do as you say and a terrorist exploits this very feature to kill people?

My answer would be: That's tough. People die tragic deaths all the time. We have to learn to live with this risk just the way we live with the many and much greater risks that we face every day. We cannot avoid all risks to people. It is never a question of zero risk versus maximum risk. Risk lies on a continuum and we have to decide on the level of risk that is acceptable, and not focus on the kind of risk. Why is it worse to die in an airplane crash caused by a terrorist act than an airplane crash caused by pilot fatigue or engine failure? Why is it worse to be killed by a bomb than it is to die in a car crash or be hit by lightning or be killed by a deranged killer on a murder spree?

If we decide, against all reason, that airplane terrorists have to be foiled whatever the cost, then we are doomed because we are at the mercy of whatever crazy scheme they come up with next. For example, the TSA's porno scanners cannot detect devices that are stored inside body cavities. Suppose yet another stupid suicide terrorist is discovered with a bomb secreted inside his rectum. Does that mean that we should submit to body cavity searches? Why not?

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) speaks out against the absurdity and introduces legislation that would make the TSA subject to the same laws as everybody else.

Why the terrorists are winning

The goal of terrorists is not to kill people. Their goal is to terrorize people and killing people is just one means to that end. If they can terrorize without even killing, so much the better. And here they seem to have succeeded. By deploying incompetent people to attempt half-baked plans to blow up planes (the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, etc.), they have managed to get this country to spend vast amounts of money to harass perfectly ordinary law-abiding people.

Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that all these harassing security precautions are pure theater to give the public an impression that the government is doing something and being careful when the methods are totally ineffective. He gives a shocking account of all the deliberately suspicious acts he has committed and all the forbidden things he has managed to get through airport security (many of which were deliberately chosen to arouse suspicion) without setting off alarm bells. He quotes security analyst Bruce Schneier as saying that any half-way intelligent terrorist plot can foil these security devices. "The whole system is designed to catch stupid terrorists…. Counterterrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better. Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers."

Michael Chertoff and the porno scanners

It turns out that former Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, who has been going around promoting the porno scanners as a so-called expert on this topic by virtue of his former post in government, is the head of a consulting company has as one of its clients the company that makes the porno scanners.

The controversy over TSA airport groping and porno scanners

It looks like trouble is brewing over the so-called 'porno scanners', the new full-body scanning devices at airports that provide screeners with naked images of people. John Tyner, a resident of Oceanside, California near San Diego, refused to go through the machine or submit to the groping alternative. He was not only not allowed to get on the plane, he is now being investigated by the TSA because you are apparently not allowed to leave the airport if you refuse to be scanned, although he was initially escorted out. He could face a $10,000 fine. He has written about the encounter and posted the video on his blog and has now become something of a folk-hero.

November 24 has been declared National Opt Out day when travelers are being urged to refuse to undergo the full-body scans. Pilot associations are urging opposition, civil liberties groups are taking legal action, and petitions against them are being circulated. There are suspicions that the groping pat downs that are the alternative to those not wanting to submit to the full-body scanners are being used as a way to coerce people to use the porno scanners as the less humiliating option.

The promise that the images will be kept confidential have been shown to be false when the website Gizmodo released 100 images that they had been able to obtain. These images are of lower quality resolution than the new x-ray backscatter machines being used at airports. There are also concerns about the health effects of the radiation. A new site called Fly With Dignity has been started to collect horror stories about the TSA's actions.

Ivan Eland describes another security measure that even I was not aware of.

Another bizarre security addition that I have recently experienced is the plastic cage. Last week I was flying and was randomly selected for the dreaded “secondary screening” (it sounds ancillary but is just annoying). The security woman put me in the cage (fortunately it had air holes), locked it, and told me that I wasn’t getting out until she swabbed my hands (presumably for potential chemical residues from bomb making).

Art Carden at Forbes calls for the abolition of the TSA. Carden also makes a point that has been known for a long time but which only now is being widely voiced, that the threat from dying in an airplane terrorist attack is far less than the threat of dying on the drive to and from the airport, so why are we so freaked out about airport security? Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, in this interview with Stephen Colbert, gets really worked up over the porno scanners.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
TSA Full-Body Scanners - Jeffrey Goldberg
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

The American people have for a long time ignored blatant abuses by their government of the constitution and basic human and civil rights. They have condoned wars started on false pretences, torture, denial of habeas corpus, indefinite detention without trial or access to lawyers and family, kangaroo courts rigged to produce guilty verdicts, killing of civilians in other countries by predatory drones, murder of American citizens merely on the president's say so, and so on. Truly horrendous crimes have been greeted with a shrug that 'they' probably deserve it and that these actions make us safer.

Could it be that intrusive airport security, of all things, is the issue that awakens people from their stupor and make them finally realize that the national security state is out of control, and that this groping and porno scanning is merely a symptom of a government drunk with coercive power that thinks they can do anything to anyone with impunity? Will people from all over the political spectrum seize this opportunity to join with others and pull on this thread and begin the unraveling of the national security state? Or is it that they are upset because in this case the professional classes are being directly imposed upon and they will become meek and docile again if this particular intrusion is removed and the government goes back to abusing the powerless?

This protest may also fizzle out with the usual sniping based on party labels. Republicans seemed to be just fine with the Bush-Cheney regime violating their rights but now that Obama is in the White House they are starting to grumble. Will the Democrats who protested loudly against Bush-Cheney now meekly support the Obama regime on this issue?

I hold out a slim hope that this is the beginning of a new valuing of personal liberty and privacy and the rule of law.

November 17, 2010

On free will-8: The 1983 and later experiments of Benjamin Libet

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In 1983, Benjamin Libet and his associates did some experiments that were similar to the 1963 Grey Walter experiment but with the added feature that the patients could observe the equivalent of a clock and thus note when they made the decision to act. This enabled a more objective determination of the time when they first had the conscious thought to carry out the action and not depend upon a possibly misleading feeling of surprise to infer the ordering of events.

One of the key original papers was published in the journal Brain (Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential): The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act, vol.106, p. 623-642, 1983) which does not seem to be available online but you can read online a later review published by Libet in 1999 (Do we have free will?, Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 6, No. 8–9, 1999, pp. 47–57) where he summarizes his findings and its implications for free will.

Using electrophysiological measurements of something called the readiness potential (RP) in the brain to detect unconscious brain activity, Libet and his co-workers asked people to move a finger (M) and also to indicate when they made a conscious decision to want to move the finger (W) by observing a clocklike device. The part of the brain where the readiness potential originates is called the supplementary motor area (SMA) and is the part involved in motor preparation, i.e., prior to taking an action. According to the free will model (D), there should be a definite temporal sequence in which an act of will (which cannot be detected experimentally) should occur first, followed by the conscious thought to do so (W, determined by the clock reading as noted by the patient), then unconscious brain activity (RP, measured using an EEG device), and behavior (M) last.

What they found was that while the RP time did precede M by an average of about 550 milliseconds (i.e., a little more than half a second), it also preceded W by about 350 milliseconds. The brain seemed to have made the unconscious decision to move the finger before the subject was aware of having made the decision to do so, suggesting that the actual temporal sequence of events was unconscious neural activity, followed by conscious decision to take an action, followed by the action. This was the same result as the Grey Walter experiment except for the crucial additional features that the Libet experiment was able to quantify the time intervals involved, had a more objective measure of when the conscious decision was made, and was able to locate the part of the brain where the precursor activity was occurring.

In other words, what we think of as our will (as manifested by our conscious thoughts) may be just an afterthought. What may be happening is that our unconscious neural activity makes a decision and then sends two signals out, one to create a conscious thought that we have decided to take an action and the other to actually take the action. Rather than the thought being the cause of our actions, our conscious thoughts are merely a passive recognition, after the fact, of decisions made unconsciously without a deliberate act of will.

In his 1999 paper, Libet spelled out what he thought was at stake in the question of whether we have free will or not.

The question of free will goes to the root of our views about human nature and how we relate to the universe and to natural laws. Are we completely defined by the deterministic nature of physical laws? Theologically imposed fateful destiny ironically produces a similar end-effect. In either case, we would be essentially sophisticated automatons, with our conscious feelings and intentions tacked on as epiphenomena with no causal power. Or, do we have some independence in making choices and actions, not completely determined by the known physical laws?

For example, actions by a person during a psychomotor epileptic seizure, or by one with Tourette’s syndrome, etc., are not regarded as actions of free will. Why then should an act unconsciously developed by a normal individual, a process over which he also has no conscious control, be regarded as an act of free will?

As one might expect with such a controversial result, others attempted to replicate Libet's results and while there seemed to be a general consensus that there was nothing faulty about his data or his methods, their inferences were challenged. Judy Trevena and Jeff Miller were the chief skeptics who have had an ongoing back-and-forth with Libet. In their recent 2010 paper, Trevena and Miller do not dispute the finding that brain activity occurs before an awareness of the decision to move the finger. (Brain preparation before a voluntary action: Evidence against unconscious movement initiation, Judy Trevena and Jeff Miller, Consciousness and Cognition, vol.19, Issue 1, March 2010, Pages 447-456.)

What they find is that the strength of the brain activity is independent of whether a decision is made to move the finger or to not move the finger. They argue that hence one cannot take the RP signal as an unconscious decision to move the finger but that it must signify something else. To quote their own words:

We tested that assumption by comparing the electrophysiological signs before a decision to move with signs present before a decision not to move. There was no evidence of stronger electrophysiological signs before a decision to move than before a decision not to move, so these signs clearly are not specific to movement preparation. We conclude that Libet’s results do not provide evidence that voluntary movements are initiated unconsciously.

Furthermore, they say,

As with the movement-preceding negativity, we found no evidence that prevailing conditions in the brain just before a spontaneous decision can predict the outcome of that decision—namely, the spontaneously selected response hand. Thus, our results appear to contradict the idea that our spontaneous conscious decisions merely consist of "going along" with whatever our brains were going to do anyway.

But Trevena and Miller did not give believers in free will much to cheer about. They were careful to say that, "nothing in our results suggests that conscious decisions are produced by anything other than neural activity", thus throwing cold water on the idea that there is an entity called the will that exists independently of the physical brain and makes the decisions. All they are saying is that the RP signal experiments of Libet only provide evidence of unspecific neural activity prior to an action and are not predictive of the actual action, and are hence not evidence of a decision.

Given the results of his experiments on free will, one might reasonably conclude that Libet is not a believer in it. What is interesting, as I will discuss in the next post in this series, is that it is Libet himself who, despite the evidence of his own experiments, defends the idea of free will and tries to find ways to retain it in the face of his own data.

Next: Trying to salvage free will

November 16, 2010

The Despicable John McCain

His disgusting weasel-worded campaign against giving gays their rights deservedly gets hammered on The Daily Show. The last bit It Gets Worse, based on Dan Savage's It Gets Better campaign, is a thing of beauty because it is absolutely true. People who are on the wrong side of the fight for equal rights for marginalized groups always, always end up being despised.

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What is it with people's obsession with giant Jesus statues?

Do religious people really think that their god is impressed with such absurdities?

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New Tom Tomorrow cartoon

As usual, he nails it.

On free will-7: How reliable a historian is the brain?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In post #6 in this series, I discussed the 1963 Grey Walter experiment in which patients who had electrodes implanted in their brain's motor cortex that could send a signal to advance a slide were surprised that the projector seemed to anticipate their decision to advance the slide. Does this mean that their unconscious neural activity had decided to advance the slide before telling the conscious brain that it had decided to do so? If so, it seriously undermines the idea of free will. In his book Consciousness Explained (1991, p. 167) which discusses the experiment, Daniel Dennett warns that it is premature to accept this conclusion because it is based on the articulated sense of surprise reported by the patients, and the brain is not the most reliable of historians.

In the 'multiple drafts' model that Dennett suggests of how our brain works, the brain is not a recording and playback device that faithfully captures all that is going on around us. Instead, it is constantly creating different narratives to make sense of our experiences. These narratives are rapidly thrown into our consciousness and then disappear, to be replaced by new ones. The version that 'sticks' in our consciousness and become retained as the 'true' memory of what happened may not necessarily be the one that is the most faithful to the events as they actually happened.

The freedom to construct stories is not absolute, however, since our brain imposes some rules that restrict which narrative is selected as the 'final' one. For example, major sensory events have to be retained. If you definitely saw your friend Joan entered the room before your friend George, then the narratives will retain that order. But if you did not carefully note Joan's facial expression as she entered, your narratives might vary with her looking happy or sad or angry depending on the need of the narrative.

The narratives that our brain constructs will also conform to our strong expectations (based on our prior experiences and learning) of how the world works and will not produce narratives in which, for example, people fly around because that would be going against what we strongly believe. If you stubbed your toe and felt pain, the narrative will not replace the pain with pleasure. However when we sleep, the brain enforcer also relaxes and so our dreams can be much wilder, though even there our senses impose some constraints. We have all experienced times when we were asleep and some sound that happened in our surroundings (a siren or telephone or door bell) seemed to be seamlessly woven into the narrative of our dreams. This is because of our brain's ability to rapidly produce a narrative that incorporates any external reality.

We can think of the brain not as a scrupulous historian but as more like a highly imaginative, quick, and prolific writer of historical fiction. As with such authors, certain rules apply. There are certain anchoring events that cannot be changed (World War II must come after World War I, for example) but there are many things that are open for speculation because they are not firmly anchored by our senses or records or our memories or our understanding of how the world works, and the writer has great freedom to invent narratives that are plausible that connect the events that we are sure about. The version that is finally chosen to be published could well be based on idiosyncratic factors that have nothing to do with how accurate the story is about all these unanchored details.

This model of the brain also explains why our memories are so unreliable about some things and why we have the phenomenon of 'false memory'. Witnesses to a crime turn out to be extraordinarily unreliable when reporting from memory on things that happened right before their eyes, which is why it is desirable to jot down notes at once for any thing that we want an accurate record of later.

I think all of us have experienced instances when something that we were sure happened in the past is challenged by someone who was also there (a relative or an old friend) who has a different recollection. What likely happened in such cases is that when we recounted that event, our brain picked out from all the narratives one that filled in all kinds of details that may not have happened but which made the story make sense or more interesting, and the repeated verbal recounting of these false events then became anchored so that all future narrative constructions treated these as incontrovertible facts, cementing them even further. Robert and Tamar Krulwich tell Ira Glass of This American Life an amusing story that perfectly illustrates how false memories can arise.

In the Grey Walter experiment, the brain expects to receive visual feedback (the slide advancing) on the successful execution of an act (pushing the button). The patients experience surprise when the feedback arrives earlier than expected. But does the feeling of surprise necessarily arise from the fact that (as the patients reported) the conscious thought to advance the slide came after the slide actually advanced?

The multiple drafts model gives us an alternative possibility. Because of our prior experiences, our unconscious brain is conditioned to know that effects do not occur instantaneously after causes. There is always a small time lapse involved in signals being sent and received though this may be so small that our conscious brain may see things as instantaneous. Because of this the unconscious brain expects feedback to occur after a certain minimal short time interval (say 300 ms) has elapsed after the decision to act. Any feedback that arrives before that time interval has elapsed may cause the unconscious brain to react in surprise, even though the cause may still precede the effect.

So it is quite possible that even if the slide advanced after the patient pushed the button and there was no seeming denial of free will or violation of causality, the unconscious brain still reacted with surprise because the time interval between the push and the slide advancing was less than expected. It is possible that the brain, always constructing narratives to make sense of things, might be 'explaining' its own sense of surprise by creating a fictional storyline in which the patient is made to think that the slide advanced before the decision was made, when in actual fact it is possible that the conscious thought did precede the act (thus maintaining the idea of free will) but by a time interval less than the expected one (thus causing the sense of surprise).

Grey Walter did not carry out follow up studies to investigate this question and it had to await the 1983 studies of Benjamin Libet.

Next: The famous and controversial Libet studies.

November 15, 2010

The missile that wasn't

Because I do not watch TV news, these crazy scares often come and go before I am even aware of them.

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On free will-6: The 1963 Grey Walter experiment

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, I provided a schematic description of two models of how the brain works, one with free will and the other without it. The traditional brain model with free will is given by

(D)                                    GES
                                        ↓
will → conscious thoughts → unconscious neural activity → action

Our genes (G), environment (E), and the inherent randomness in the laws of nature (S) all contribute right up to the present instant to the brain's structure and unconscious neural activity. But in this model, there is a separate branch in which our (uncaused) free will makes decisions first which manifests itself as a conscious thought. In this model there should be a definite temporal sequence in which the act of will occurs first, followed by conscious thoughts, then unconscious brain activity caused by that conscious thought, and finally the action.

The model without free will is given by

(G)                                GES
                                    ↓
conscious thoughts/will ↔ unconscious neural activity → action

In this model, since conscious thoughts and what we think of as free will are not prior to unconscious neural activity but instead are the products of it, they need not temporally precede it.

The way that researchers investigate whether the idea of free will is tenable is by looking at the time sequence of events. One of the earliest experiments that threw the traditional model of (D) into doubt was done by neurosurgeon W. Grey Walter in 1963. Daniel Dennett, (Consciousness Explained, 1991, p. 167) describes the experiment.

Grey Walter performed his experiment with patients in whose motor cortex he had implanted electrodes. He wanted to test the hypothesis that certain bursts of recorded activity were the initiators of intentional actions. So he arranged for each patient to look at slides from a carousel projector. The patient could advance the carousel at will, by pressing the button on the controller. (Note the similarity to Libet's experiment: This was a "free" decision, timed only by an endogenous rise in boredom, or curiosity about the next slide, or distraction, or whatever.) Unbeknownst to the patient, however, the controller button was a dummy, not attached to the slide projector at all! What actually advanced the slides was the amplified signal from the electrode implanted in the patient's motor cortex. (My italics)

As far as the patient was concerned, and according to the model (D) that has free will, the temporal sequence the patients expect should be conscious thought → button push → slide advance. But the direct measurement of motor cortex brain activity introduces a new time step that is unknown to the patient but can be measured by the researchers. As a result, if free will exists, the patient should first become aware of making a decision, then send a command to the motor cortex, which produces both the amplified signal (which causes the slide to advance) and sends a signal to the finger to push the button. If the slide advanced after the patient was conscious of making a decision to push the button but before the button was actually pushed, that would definitely puzzle the patients because they were under the impression that it was their pushing of the button that advanced the slide. But all it would really imply to the researchers is that the speed with which the motor neuron activity sends an electrical signal to the slide projector is greater than the speed with which the motor neuron sends the push signal to the finger.

So what happened? Dennett continues the story:

One might suppose that the patients would notice nothing out of the ordinary, but in fact they were startled by the effect, because it seemed to them as if the slide projector was anticipating their decisions. They reported that just as they were "about to" push the button, but before they had actually decided to do so, the projector would advance the slide - and they would find themselves pressing the button with the worry that it was going to advance the slide twice! (My italics)

In other words, the motor cortex activity that triggered the slide advance seemed to occur not only before the finger pushed the button but even before the patients said they were conscious of making the decision to push the button. This experiment could be interpreted as an early indication that there was a spike in brain activity about half a second before the person was conscious of making a decision to carry out an action.

At first glance, this experimental result might seem to be a devastating blow to the idea of free will. If the brain's unconscious neural activity makes and executes a decision before a person is conscious of making that same decision, then that refutes the expected temporal sequence that is at the heart of the model (D) that has free will in it.

But we have to be careful of jumping to that conclusion. There is a danger of over-interpreting these results because the experimenter is dependent on the patients' reporting of when they had the conscious thought and Dennett argues that the brain is not a reliable source of information about its own workings, for reasons to be outlined in the next post in this series.

Next: How reliable a historian is the brain?

November 12, 2010

On free will-5: Models of how the brain works

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is time to look at specific models of how the brain works.

In the previous post, I pointed to a paper by biologist Anthony Cashmore which argues that our brains are the product of genes (G), environment (E), and stochastic (i.e., random) processes (S). This GES combination influences the unconscious neural activity in our brains, which in turn gives instructions to the motor neurons that control our actions. So the causal and completely physiological chain goes like (A):

(A) GES → unconscious neural activity → action

The directions of the arrows signify the causal relationships. Our bodies are in a state of constant activity, with hearts beating, blood flowing, digesting food, breathing, secreting chemicals, producing new cells and disposing of old one, and so on, all of which take place without us being aware of it. I think everyone (except those religious people who can't bear to see god not taking part in every single activity) will accept that our brains control and moderate all this unconscious behavior. What is in dispute is what gets added on to this basic model.

The prevailing assumption is that in addition our unconscious neural activity, there is another part of us where we have conscious thoughts, that gives instructions to our unconscious brains to produce specific actions. So when I choose to pick up my pen, this conscious decision is transmitted to my unconscious neural network activity which somehow, in ways that are opaque to my conscious mind, tells the motor neurons what to do in order to execute the order. This leads to model (B):

(B) conscious thoughts → unconscious neural activity → action

These conscious thoughts are obviously products of the brain too. After all, when we die, our bodies cease to have conscious thoughts. The question is what causes these conscious thoughts to arise? Believers in free will assume the existence of yet another entity called the 'will' that acts on our conscious thoughts driving it in the directions that 'we' (i.e., our will) want it to go. Thus another element is added to the causal chain (B), with the will driving behavior via conscious thoughts and unconscious neural activity, resulting in the causal chain (C):

(C) will → conscious thoughts → unconscious neural activity → action

Note that chain (A), in which GES created the brain where the unconscious neural activity takes place, is still operational so (A) and (C) are both acting simultaneously and can be combined to give (D):

(D)                                    GES
                                        ↓
will → conscious thoughts → unconscious neural activity → action

This is the schematic model of human behavior that has free will embedded in it and to which many subscribe, or would like to subscribe. The 'will' is the Ghost in the Machine. It is the 'I' that we like to believe represents the 'real' us, that makes decisions and is responsible for our actions. Model (D) represents Cartesian dualism is a schematic form. The will acts in the Cartesian Theater.

But now we have to deal with the problem of what caused or created the will and what it is made of. One has the problem of infinite regress unless one arbitrarily asserts that the will is not a product of the brain but somehow magically came into being at some point in our existence (like the 'soul'), somehow has the ability to direct our conscious thoughts, and is subject to no further causal explanation. This is remarkably similar to the way that religious people think of god and try to elide the question of who created god, what god is made of, and how he interacts with the world, which likely explains why believers in god are also strong believers in free will. Once you are willing to ignore all the difficulties and believe in the unlikely existence of god, believing in free will becomes not only necessary but easy.

It is possible to eliminate this causality problem by saying that what we think of as the will is not a free-standing entity but is also simply a creation of the brain, another product of unconscious neural activity. If so, we would now have a closed causal loop described by (E), that begins and ends with the brain and thus has a purely material basis.

(E) unconscious neural activity → will → conscious thoughts → unconscious neural activity

In (E), will and conscious thoughts are both products of the brain and operationally indistinguishable and thus can be combined into one entity. Thus unconscious neural activity gives rise to conscious thoughts/will that in turn transmits decisions back to the unconscious neural activity, thus eliminating the need for the problematic autonomous, non-material, self-creating, independently existing will. In this model, conscious thoughts/will is an emergent property of the brain, so that (E) can be simplified to (F) where,

(F) conscious thoughts/will ↔ unconscious neural activity → action

Note the causal arrow going in both directions. The first sequence (A) of GES → unconscious neural activity → behavior continues to be still present, so that the final model then becomes a completely causal one, consisting of (A) and (F) combined to give (G):

(G)                                GES
                                    ↓
conscious thoughts/will ↔ unconscious neural activity → action

According to model (G), our behavior and all our thoughts and consciousness and perceptions of free will are all caused by our unconscious neural networks that are the products of our genes, environment, and the random (stochastic) events that constitute our personal history.

In this model, there is no need to insert a mysterious non-material entity at any point. The Ghost in the Machine has been exorcised.

But while models are all well and good, we need experiments and evidence to distinguish between the ones that are close to reality and those that are wishful thinking.

Next: What does the evidence tell us?

November 11, 2010

On free will-4: The implications of modern physics for determinism

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The possibility of the existence of Lucretian random swerves that destroy determinism received a boost in the early twentieth century with the advent of quantum mechanics and its associated uncertainty principle that eliminated strict classical determinism.

Believers in free will seized on the inherent randomness built into these newly discovered laws of nature to argue that free will could exist and manifest itself at the quantum level. However, as our understanding of quantum mechanics has increased, few scientists seriously accept this possibility anymore because of the many problems such a model has. After all, random processes are, well, random, meaning that they are not subject to being controlled. If indeterminancy at the quantum level is what undermines determinism, what we would have is not free will but what we might call 'random will', in the sense that we would be acting according to the random outcomes of quantum level phenomena over which we have no control. Furthermore, while individual quantum events may be completely indeterminate, they do obey laws that enable us to accurately predict statistical outcomes, so these events cannot be truly free. Free will as popularly conceived does not consist of random or statistically predictable behavior but of the ability to deliberate and determine specific outcomes. No mechanism has been proposed to suggest how that might occur.

Another feature of modern physics that has been floated as an escape route for free will is chaos theory. But chaos theory is strictly deterministic. What it says is that certain systems are so sensitive to the specification of their initial state, that the initial state can never be specified with sufficient accuracy to enable the prediction of final outcomes. So chaotic system are deterministic (hence do not allow for free will) but unpredictable. Furthermore, not all complicated systems are chaotic. Systems that are chaotic have to obey certain types of laws and it is not clear that the brain is a chaotic system.

The idea that free will can manifest itself by taking advantage of quantum uncertainty or chaos theory is an argument phrased in a vague form that currently only theologians and religious apologists take seriously, a desperate clasping at straws.

Biologist Anthony Cashmore summarizes the modern view that each one of us is a product of our genes (G), our environment (E), and a stochastic (random) component (S). (The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 9, 2010, vol. 107, no. 10, 4499-4504.) The stochastic part comes from the randomness of events at the quantum level as well as those involved in things like genetic recombination, synapse formation, and so on. In other words, even identical twins (i.e., having the same G) reared in identical environments (E) will still have neuronal networks that differ due to this unpredictable stochastic contribution (S).

Cashmore points to the failure of advocates of free will to provide a mechanism to substantiate their belief.

Whereas much is written claiming to provide an explanation for free will, such writings are invariably lacking any hint of molecular details concerning mechanisms. Also, it is often suggested that individuals are free to choose and modify their environment and that, in this respect, they control their destiny. This argument misses the simple but crucial point that any action, as "free" as it may appear, simply reflects the genetics of the organism and the environmental history, right up to some fraction of a microsecond before any action.

To understand more deeply the issues involved, we need to understand the structure of the brain and how it works. An infant begins life with about 100 billion neurons (these are specialized nerve cells) in the brain, each with about 1000 links (called synapses) connecting it to other neurons, creating a complex interlocking web of neurons. The initial state of the brain is largely the product of our genes, though the environment in the form of the conditions in the womb undoubtedly plays a formative role as well. As the child grows, its life experiences result in a pruning of the number of neurons, the elimination of some synapses and the creation of new ones, resulting in each one of us having brains that have a unique neural network, shaped by genes and environment and the inherent randomness of the laws of nature. Even allowing for some attrition on the way to adulthood, the number of neurons and synapses we are left with is enormous, resulting in brains of immense power and complexity that dwarf even the most sophisticated computers of our age. It should not be surprising that the workings of the brain can be so subtle that it can create the illusion that it has powers in the form of a ghostly mind.

Given our modern understanding of the brain as a purely material entity, the widespread persistence of the strong belief in the existence of free will demands an explanation. It cannot be due entirely to social reasons such as needing the concept in order to assign responsibility for people's actions. Like almost any feature that is ubiquitous among diverse populations (like the desire to believe in god), it is likely that susceptibility to belief in free will originated early in our evolutionary history and is hardwired in our brains because it has considerable survival value that has resulted in it being strongly selected for by natural selection. People who believe they have free will (even if this belief is false) are more likely to feel a sense of responsibility for their own actions and therefore less likely to do foolish and dangerous things, and thus more likely to survive and reproduce.

But while our powerful brains may be pre-disposed to believe in free will, it is also powerful enough to turn its analytical capacity to study its own workings. And as it does so, and our awareness of the power and complexity of the brain rises, it has started to undermine the notion of free will. But there is strong resistance to this trend, even among non-religious scientists. Cashmore says that while scientists are fairly open about their disbelief in a god, they tend to hedge their bets concerning free will, or at least are less reluctant to speak openly about the growing evidence that it likely does not exist. It is thought to be too explosive a topic, one that the general public might not be able to handle. Darwin himself seemed to feel that while there was likely no such thing as free will, it was better to keep this knowledge within the province of highly educated people who could deal with all its implications and not panic and go berserk.

Resistance to the idea that we do not have free will is likely to be far greater than the resistance Darwin encountered to his idea that human beings are, like any other species, just one of the products of evolution, nothing more. The idea of free will is not going to be given up except in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Next: Models of free will and the brain.

November 10, 2010

On free will-3: Free will and determinism

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Defining what is meant by free will is not easy. In a loose sense it implies a denial of strict determinism, in which all our actions are completely determined by the past and the immediate environment we find ourselves in. The philosopher John Searle describes free will as the belief "that we could often have done otherwise than we in fact did." In other words, although I am currently sitting at my desk typing, I think I could just as easily stand up and sing or hop around the room or do any other seemingly spontaneous act. My decision to not do so and continue typing seems like a conscious, freely chosen decision that is not entirely pre-ordained. The catch is that it is hard to reject the alternative hypothesis that all the options I considered were already determined by my history and the external stimuli of the moment, as was also my decision as to which option to choose.

Biologist Anthony Cashmore, in a recent paper (The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 9, 2010, vol. 107, no. 10, 4499-4504) that provided the Searle definition above, suggests a better definition of free will and is what I will use. He says that, "free will is better defined as a belief that there is a component to biological behavior that is something more than the unavoidable consequences of the genetic and environmental history of the individual and the possible stochastic laws of nature." The reason I like this better is because it focuses on the crucial question of the actual mechanism by which free will acts, rather than on our subjective perceptions about the inevitability or otherwise of our actions.

The idea that we may not have free will in the classical sense, of being able to make decisions that are not entirely determined by our personal history and external factors, is very difficult to accept. Even biologists, who would have little trouble agreeing with the statement that all biological systems are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry, and indeed depend upon that belief for their research, tend to resist the necessary conclusion that this likely eliminates the possibility of an autonomous, independent non-biological free will.

Rejecting free will is harder than rejecting the idea of god because the idea that we are free and autonomous agents is so deeply ingrained into our psyche. Apart from the emotional impact that abandoning this idea entails, there are those who worry about the consequences of that realization. Would the rejection of free will mean that we can have no morality? If our decisions are not freely made, then how can we speak of right and wrong decisions? How can we assign responsibility for people's actions? How can society punish people for breaking laws if their actions are not freely chosen? Would it not be like punishing someone who was forced to do something because of a gun pointed at his head?

My position is that in the long run it is better to know the truth than believe in fictions. If there is no free will, it is better to face up to it and devise social and legal systems that deal with the consequences than pretend otherwise. It is the same reasoning that causes me to reject the arguments that even if there is no god, it is better to maintain the fiction of god in order to frighten people into behaving better.

We need to look at what evidence there is for the existence of free will and also at how to deal with the consequences if we can show conclusively that it is a fiction. This is not a hypothetical philosophical exercise. There is already considerable evidence that free will as we know it does not exist and I think it is only a matter of time before it is conclusively shown to be the case. This realization will first occur in the scientific community as they are the ones more familiar with the evidence, and it will take longer for the general public to come to terms with it.

The early Greek philosophers were troubled by the implications for free will of the atomistic and mechanistic ideas that were current at that time. If everything in nature consisted (as they believed) of atoms in motion obeying unchanging laws, then everything that happened was just the playing out of pre-determined events. Cashmore quotes philosopher Daniel Dennett on what troubled the Epicureans:

If all movement is always interconnected, the new arising from the old in a determinate order—if the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect—what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?

Note the assumption (by the Epicureans and perhaps also Dennett) that free will must obviously exist. The problem for the Greeks was how to reconcile this with their atomistic model of nature in which all actions were determined by past events. To overcome this strict determinism, Lucretius proposed that what might happen is that occasionally atoms might execute 'random swerves', caused by the gods, and that was what broke the deterministic pattern of events.

To this day, most people who have an understanding of the science of the brain and appreciate the strong evidence that everything has a materialist basis, look for the modern equivalent of the 'Lucretian swerve' in order to salvage the notion of free will. Some still assign the cause of the swerve to the gods, others (as I will discuss in the next post in the series) to causes that have some kind of scientific veneer. But both seek some way of holding on to the idea of an entity that controls my material body on the basis of decisions that are freely made, and that this entity is the real me.

Next: Can physics rescue free will?

November 09, 2010

Government abuse of power

Another Glenn Greenwald must-read post about how the government is trying to intimidate and harass people who have supported WikiLeaks or Bradley Manning.

We are slowly but surely sliding towards an authoritarian national security state where people exercising their freedoms in ways that the government does not like will be labeled 'enemies of the state' and subject to all manner of harsh treatment.

Why does god hate the faithful?

Anyone who has followed god's career knows that he seems to get pleasure from killing off some of his most devoted followers.

Here are some more examples and some thoughts on whether religious people really believe the words of their holy books that god cares for his flock and will protect them from harm.

On free will-2: The Ghost in the Machine

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) didn't think much of Rene Descartes' idea of a disembodied mind, using its free will, acting as some kind of captain of the body, and coined the derogatory term 'the Ghost in the Machine' for it.

There is a doctrine about the nature and place of minds which is so prevalent among theorists and even among laymen that it deserves to be described as the official theory… The official doctrine, which hails chiefly from Descartes, is something like this. With the doubtful exception of idiots and infants in arms every human being has both a body and a mind. Some would prefer to say that every human being is both a body and a mind. His body and his mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body his mind may continue to exist and function. Human bodies are in space and are subject to mechanical laws which govern all other bodies in space… But minds are not in space, nor are their operations subject to mechanical laws…

…Such in outline is the official theory. I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as "the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine." (quoted by Stephen Pinker, The Blank Slate, p. 9)

Ryle's skepticism about the Cartesian dualistic model is being validated as our understanding of the brain increases. The idea of some centralized information gathering and decision-making location in the brain has become increasingly untenable. We now know that the brain is a material entity, consisting of specialized cells (called neurons) connected to each other (by things called synapses), with the entire system serviced by blood vessels and glands that secrete chemicals. While there are some localized regions dealing with specific functions (such as sight and smell), the brain activity that we are aware of, such as thoughts and feelings, consist of patterns of complex neutral activity that are spread over large parts of the brain, with individual neurons firing in response to stimuli received from other neurons and the external environment. There does not seem to be any evidence of some kind of command center where decisions are made.

And yet we have a strong sense of the existence of things like the 'will' and 'consciousness', which are the attributes we assign to the Ghost in the Machine. The challenge is to understand them in terms of the workings of the material substrate of the brain.

In the first post in this series, I said that belief in an independently existing mind shares many similarities with the belief in god. One important difference between the mind and god is that each one of us is assumed to possess our own mind with its own identity, while god is a single universal entity. A second difference is that our personal entity can only interact with our own neurons and thus control our own thinking and actions and not those of others while god supposedly can control everyone's thinking and even move physical objects like mountains if he wants to. (I am going to ignore the weak evidentiary claims for the existence of telekinesis, extra-sensory perception, mind control, and the like)

But those differences are not the ones that are most relevant to the problem of free will. The key problem is the implausibility of the idea that there exists a dualism, a mind-body distinction in which an independently existing non-material mind can influence the body.

I find the idea of a personal, independently existing, conscious, non-material, entity that I can call my 'mind' as hard to accept as the existence of god, and for all the same reasons. Assuming that such a thing exists causes far more problems than it solves. It seems so much more likely that what I call my mind or my will, rather than controlling my body, is actually the product of my body, caused by the firing of the neutrons in my brain, and the firing of any one of those neurons is in response to the stimuli it receives either from other neurons or, if it is a neuron that is directly connected to a sensory organ such as the eye or nose, the sensations my body receives from the external world.

All of my brain's workings arise from my personal life history that has made my body what it is and created my brain and its neural networks. In other words, 'I' am a unitary system, not a dualistic one, made up of material objects obeying the laws of nature. This process, acting over the duration of my personal life history as well as the longer term evolutionary history, has created a brain that in turn makes decisions that influence my body, leading to new experiences that further shape my brain, and so on. It is a self-contained and closed system that does not require some external non-material entity that interacts mysteriously with it.

But the implication of this unitary view of the body is that any decision I make is completely determined by the facts of my personal history and the external stimuli that I experience at any moment. Although I may think that there is another 'I' within my body making decisions freely using my 'free will', this perception is an illusion and the reality is that the decisions are the consequences of the laws of nature simply working their way through my material body.

Next: To what extent are we strictly deterministic animals?

November 08, 2010

Federal judge says OK is not ok

On election day, the state of Oklahoma passed by a whopping margin of 70-30 a referendum that amended the state constitution to prohibit courts from the consideration of Sharia or international law in their verdicts.

Stephen Colbert applauds this action.

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But now a federal judge has placed a temporary restraining order preventing the amendment from taking effect pending a hearing on November 22.

The only conclusion that I can come to is that the devious jihadists have infiltrated the federal judiciary in Oklahoma as a first step in their plan to impose Sharia law on the entire US.

Bye, Bye, Andrew

The infamous Andrew Shirvell, who seemed to be obsessed with the president of the University of Michigan Student Government, has been fired as Michigan's assistant attorney general.

He will likely soon find a new home in some rabid, Christian, anti-gay group.

And so the Tea Party revolution begins …

After all, how can we call this a democracy if we don't even have the freedom to choose who collects our trash?

Surely this must be one of the inalienable rights that the founding fathers meant to protect?

On free will-1: Cartesian dualism and the Cartesian Theater

It's been awhile since I inflicted on this blog's readers a long multi-part series of posts but I have decided to look at the question of free will, something that I have not addressed before, and this is such a weighty and controversial subject that it requires a somewhat lengthy discussion.

It used to be thought that what distinguished living things from inanimate matter was the presence of some mysterious life force, an élan vital. Modern biology has dispelled that myth of a vital essence, replacing it with the understanding that biological systems are nothing more than the working out of the laws of physics and chemistry on atoms and molecules. But there are some forms of vitalistic thinking that are still extant because people tend to want to cling on to the idea that there is something special about living things, especially human beings.

Religious people give the name the 'soul' to the feature that supposedly distinguishes them from non-human animals. They believe it enters and becomes part of the body at some point in its development from its start as a fertilized egg. The pope says that god inserts the soul at the moment of conception but others may allow for the soul to make its mysterious appearance later, as an emergent property that arises along with other things like consciousness once the neural system has reached a suitably advanced state. But, whenever and however it makes its appearance, people seem to believe that it has an autonomous existence, independent of the body. The soul supposedly lives on after the body has dispersed into its constituent atoms.

Belief in god and belief in free will have an obvious connection. Religious people need to believe in free will because there is no virtue in having faith in god if we have no control over our decisions. Of course, religious people seem to think that there is no problem with god coercing people to believe, on pain of eternal damnation and torments in hell. You would think that such belief would be just as tainted and useless as (say) confessions obtained under torture, which we rightly exclude from evidence in legal trials, or at least used to until this horror known as the 'war on terror' was unleashed. But religious people determinedly cling to the idea that their faith is freely given.

While the idea of a soul and its associated concept of god still continue to exert a powerful attraction for religious people, most scientists have given up on those ideas. But that does not mean that vitalistic thinking has entirely disappeared among the non-religious. Where it still lurks is in beliefs about the existence of free will.

There is an important similarity between god and free will. For most people, god is some independently existing conscious entity that is non-material and not subject to the laws of nature and yet is capable of interacting with the world, to the extent of knowing everything that happens everywhere at every moment and influencing events whenever he wants to. To achieve this requires this non-material entity to be able to interact with matter (in order to move objects) and to trigger the firing of neurons in brains (in order to influence people's thinking). Religious people rarely probe their beliefs to this level of detail and if they do, the mechanisms by which those things occur is never elaborated on. It is all part of god's mysterious ways.

The idea of free will is quite similar. To say I have free will implies that I can first freely make a decision (to pick up a pen, say) and then impose that decision on my body, forcing it to carry out that action. But who is this 'I' that is making this decision and how does it do it? At the most straightforward level, it implies a dualism that is similar in many respects to what we think of as god. It implies that there is an independently existing conscious entity that is non-material that we refer to as the 'mind' (or soul if you are religious) and which can make decisions and make my body comply with them.

The scientist, mathematician, and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is credited with being the founder of such a dualistic model. He started out by questioning the nature of this thing we call 'I', arriving at the conclusion that there could not be any doubt about the existence of such an independent entity, writing, "But what, then am I? And what is that? A thing which doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, does not will, which also imagines and senses… For the fact that it is I who doubt, who understand, who will, is so obvious that there is nothing which could make it more evident." (Rene Descartes, Second Meditation, Translated by Desmond M. Clarke, Penguin Classics 1998, p. 26)

He went on to say that it was fairly obvious to show that we must have such an independent mind:

I perceive that there is a big difference between the mind and the body insofar as the body, by its nature, is always divisible whereas the mind is evidently indivisible. When I reflect on the mind (or on myself insofar as I am simply a thinking thing), I certainly cannot distinguish any parts in myself; instead I understand myself to be a completely unified and integral thing. And even though the whole mind seems to be united with the whole body, if however a foot, an arm, or any other part of the body is cut off, I know that nothing is thereby taken away from the mind. Nor can the faculties of willing, sensing, understanding, etc., be said to be parts of the mind, because it is one and the same mind that wills, senses and understands. In contrast, I cannot think of any physical or extended body that I cannot divide easily in my thought; for that reason alone, I understand that it is divisible. That would be enough to teach me that the mind is completely different from the body if I did not already know it adequately from other considerations. (Sixth Meditation, p. 67)

We are all deeply influenced by this Cartesian dualistic model, tending to think that somewhere inside our brain is some kind of sophisticated control room where information streams in from everywhere via our senses and from the prior knowledge stored in our brains, and that in this room is some disembodied entity, the real 'I', who is a kind of commander-in-chief that views all this data, makes judgments, decides what to do, and then sends out commands that are executed by the body. This image of a command center, which Daniel Dennett calls the Cartesian Theater, is very powerful and hard to shake off.

As this series develops, we will see this traditional idea of dualism and its associated concept of free will take quite a beating. This does not mean that people will abandon the idea. We know in the case of religion that the desire to believe in god is so strong that people cling tenaciously to that idea, creating all manner of convoluted theories to explain the absence of any evidence in its favor. The idea of free will is even more deeply engrained in us and thus harder to let go, so one should expect similar attempts at countering any evidence that free will may well turn out to be an illusion.

Next: The problems with the Cartesian model.

November 07, 2010

Talk about ingratitude

Apparently there is this church in Spain that has been under construction since 1882 and is not due to be finished until at least 2026. It looks to me like they are way overdue to find a new construction firm. Pope Ratzinger consecrated the church on his recent trip so now they can at least hold masses there.

Architect Antoni Gaudi was a devout Catholic and believed that the new church would be an expression of "the divine history of the salvation of man through Christ incarnate, given to the world by the Virgin Mary". He was so dedicated to this project that he began work on it in 1883 and from 1911 onwards made it his only occupation, spending "the next 15 years living and working on site as a virtual recluse, supervising work".

In return for all this selfless devotion, god caused a tram to run over and kill Gaudi in 1926.

We should not be surprised. God has a funny way of showing gratitude for the unquestioning faith he says he wants, like when he caused the deaths of all of Job's ten children just for the hell of it, even though Job was even more faithful to him than Gaudi.

For those not familiar with the Job story, here's a nice summary.

November 06, 2010

Pope on the run

One positive sign about the impact of the rise of atheism is that pope Ratzinger feels the need to constantly warn against it on his travels. After doing so in England, he has felt obliged to do so in Spain as well, saying, "The clash between faith and modernity is happening again, and it is very strong today." I love the fact that uses the word 'modernity' to contrast to faith, thus reinforcing the idea that religious faith is a medieval relic.

Spain is a country in which 73% identify themselves as Catholic although only about 14% attend mass regularly, has a socialist government that has pushed through some reforms such as ending obligatory religious education in state schools and legalizing abortion, divorce, and gay marriage.

One positive sign about the impact of the rise of atheism is that pope Ratzinger feels the need to constantly warn against it on his travels. After doing so in England, he has felt obliged to do so in Spain as well, saying, "The clash between faith and modernity is happening again, and it is very strong today." I love the fact that uses the word 'modernity' to contrast to faith, thus reinforcing the idea that religious faith is a medieval relic.

November 05, 2010

What to expect in the next few months

Now that the mid-term elections are over, what can we expect to see in the next few months? As I said in yesterday's post, the advantage to the leadership of the two parties of so-called 'divided' government, where one party controls one part and the other party another part, is that they can blame lack of action on the issues their core supporters care about to this gridlock while they can be 'bipartisan' when it comes to serving the needs of the oligarchy.

When it comes to issues that the oligarchy does not care about (gays, guns, abortions, etc.), it is hard to predict what will happen, though there may be noisy and acrimonious debates. These issues serve to create the illusion that we still have a democracy. What is predictable is the outcome on those issues that the oligarchy (by which I mean the very wealthy, and the upper echelons of the corporate and financial sectors) cares about. There the debate is often, though not always, subdued and we have lots of pious rhetoric about needing to come together in the spirit of bipartisanship for the good of the country. The massive bailout of Wall Street financial powerhouses that was rammed through by both parties working together at lightning speed with little or no debate in the fall of 2008 is a good example of what I mean.

Based on this oligarchic model, here are my predictions for the next few months.

One area is taxes. It is likely that the Bush-era tax cuts will be extended even for the top 2% and that the estate tax will be repealed, key agenda items for the oligarchy. These two issues must be dealt with by the end of 2010 and will give us the first hint of what is to come. This will be interesting to watch because of the early deadline involved. If nothing at all is done, all the Bush tax cuts expire because of the sunset provisions in the original bill. As a result, it does not take a political genius to map out the political strategy for the Democrats to get what they say they want. The script practically writes itself. All they have to do is sit tight and refuse to compromise with the Republicans, essentially playing a game of chicken, saying that if the Republicans don't give in and all the tax cuts expire, that the Republicans sacrificed the middle-class tax cuts because their real desire is to reward their Wall Street millionaire friends. Since even the tea partiers dislike Wall Street bankers, this message should be an easy sell.

But the Democrats won't pursue this seemingly obvious strategy because it is against the interests of their oligarchic overlords. Obama is already talking of 'compromising' on this issue and 'simplifying' the tax code, a word that in the past has been code for giving more breaks to the rich. The Democratic Party will cave and all those pro-Democratic commentators who wonder why their party's leadership seems to be so politically dense that they do not take their sound advice on what should be done are missing the central point: when it comes to their public espousal of policies that might harm the interests of the oligarchy, the Democratic party leadership does not want a winning strategy, they seek a losing one. Once you adopt this model, the seeming political ineptness of Democrats once they attain positions of power becomes easy to understand.

Another issue to watch is social security. Kevin Drum highlights a chart from the social security trustees report that shows that the cost of Social Security is projected to remain flat all the way from 2030 through 2080. There is no explosive growth and hence no problem with the social security system that cannot be fixed with minor tinkering. (The real problem is rising health care costs in Medicare and Medicaid.) But the oligarchy on Wall Street has long had its sights on raiding the social security funds and siphoning some of it towards themselves. The 'Catfood Commission' that is due to present its report in December seems anxious to gut this program and now may feel more emboldened to do so.

A third issue will arise early next year around February when it will become necessary to pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling or risk sending the government into default. Despite Republican rhetoric about opposing the rising national debt, the oligarchy needs the government spigots to be kept open and so I predict the Republican Party will agree to raise the debt ceiling, all the while hypocritically wailing and gnashing their teeth at what a bad thing it is. It will be interesting to see how well their supporters respond to such a blatant betrayal of what they were promised.

I predict that there will be no repeal of the major elements of the health care reforms that were passed, although symbolic attempts will be made such as public hearings and bombastic speeches. The health care reforms legislation, despite all the absurd rhetoric, was crafted to satisfy the interests of the health insurance and drug industries and is a big bonanza to them. The Republicans in the House may pass a repeal vote to pacify the tea partiers, knowing that the Democratic Senate will kill it or that Obama will veto it, and everyone (i.e., everyone who matters, which consists of the oligarchy and their clients in both party leaderships) will be happy.

Meanwhile, unemployment will remain high and may get even higher as the states cut services and lay off more public sector employees in order to meet their growing deficits without raising taxes, the two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the two minor wars in Yemen and Pakistan will continue and may even be expanded, and the infrastructure will continue to crumble as parks, roads, libraries, schools, and other services are starved of funding.

I predict that one area of major growth will be in rhetoric proclaiming that the US has always been, is, and always will be the greatest country on Earth, both in what it does and in the character of its people, even as it continues its slide into mediocrity. Because that is what political leaders always do to distract people from the disaster that stares them in the face.

Abraham Lincoln said that you can fool all of the people for some of the time. We are in that phase of national political life.

November 04, 2010

Abortion is causing the US to go bankrupt?

It is very easy to find bizarre stuff on the web. I usually don't read the comments sections on the more popular political blogs because they quickly veer into incoherent rants. But once in a while my eye catches something that is so quirky that I become curious as to how any rational mind can think like that.

Take this comment in response to a Politico post about raising the debt ceiling:

END ABORTION NATIONALLY OR FACE NATIONAL BANKRUPTCY. The most recent increase in the U.S. debt ceiling to $14.3 trillion by H.J.Res. 45 was signed into law on February 12, 2010. The amount of national debt accumulated from 1791 until Roe V. Wade made abortion legal on January 22, 1973 was about $444 billion. Do the math to find the % of the total national debt prior abortion being made legal nationally. I predict that US Congress will raise the debt ceiling again. We will go bankrupt as a nation because of the national sin of legal abortion. There is a solution. Abortionility, A plague from sea to sea. To Christ our knees must bend, Then Roe V. Wade will end. 2 Chronicles 7:14

In case you are curious what the Chronicles reference is and don't carry your Bible around with you all the time, here is the verse: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."

The person who wrote this is educated enough to write grammatically and is knowledgeable enough to marshall some fairly esoteric facts to buttress his argument. But then the neurons seem to suddenly start firing randomly, leading to a chain of reasoning that is bizarre, to say the least. Basically the author seems to be saying that god started rapidly increasing the US national debt as punishment for legalizing abortion and will erase the debt if we stop the practice. Who knew?

Not only is it a textbook example of confusing correlation with causation, it is also an example of how religion subverts people's reasoning skills.

A good election night for the Democratic Party

As predicted the Democratic Party lost control of the House of Representatives, have a smaller majority in the Senate, and lost many governorships. The election results are widely viewed as a major setback for that party, with even President Obama calling it a 'shellacking', so why do I think it was a good night for them? For reasons that I outline below and elaborated on in a post at the beginning of this year, this post-election situation will be less embarrassing for them than one in which they control both houses of Congress and the White House.

As I have said repeatedly, the US is a one-party system with two factions, labeled Republican and Democratic. This one party serves the interests of an increasingly rapacious elite that seeks to divert more and more wealth from the public good for their private benefit, and the leadership of both the Republican and Democratic factions seeks to accommodate them. This agenda is profoundly anti-democratic and thus must be covert and is never publicly articulated. One has to infer the existence of this agenda from the fact that since 1980, there has been a steady and massive shift in the income and wealth distribution of this country towards a small elite, irrespective of which party controlled the branches of government, and this could only occur because of policies that both parties collude to create.

The two factions differ on some social issues (abortion, gays, religion, guns, immigration, race, etc.) and it tends to be these issues that are publicly discussed, often at great volume. Each faction also talks in vague terms about jobs and taxes and trade and cutting spending, but never in terms specific enough that one can pin them down to any specific policy proposal. Each party leadership feeds their factional base with rhetoric they do not really support just in order to keep them in line and voting for them, but hopes that they will not have to actually implement them. They try to meet their party supporters' demands as minimally as possible, but for this strategy to work, they need plausible excuses for why they keep failing to follow through on their promises.

For the Democrats, winning the presidency and big majorities in the House and Senate in 2008 was embarrassing because their supporters now expected them to actually carry out their promises for major health care reform such as a single payer system, wind down the two wars, close down Guantanamo, reverse the trend towards a national security state with all its concomitant violations of the constitutional protections of basic liberties, and so on. The Democratic leadership clearly had no intention of doing any of these things and had to try and deflect blame by pointing to the Republican use of the Senate filibuster rules to explain their failure. But their supporters were not impressed, rightly suspecting that appealing to this arcane and self-imposed rule of the Senate was merely an excuse for a lack of will, and that a forceful president and party would have been able to find ways to circumvent it. After all, George W. Bush never had such control of Congress and yet he managed to get his favored policies passed.

Obama and the Democratic Party, rather than being apologetic about their lack of progress, then deliberately and publicly denigrated their core supporters, the very people who put them into power in 2008, as being ungrateful and having unrealistic expectations, thus further dampening their enthusiasm. Is it any wonder that there was a so-called 'enthusiasm gap' between supporters of the two parties when it came to voting? Ted Rall calls this Democratic Party strategy 'political suicide'.

My main regret with the elections was the defeat of Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the sole Senator to vote against the infamous USA PATRIOT Act, passed in the wake of 9/11, that is responsible for many of the abuses of basic rights and liberties that we now see. That was an act of political courage and history will place him alongside Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, who were the only senators who resisted being steamrolled into approving the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 that President Lyndon Johnson then exploited to expand the Vietnam war.

Now that the Democrats have lost control of the House, they can more comfortably repudiate their supporters and capitulate to the oligarchy's agenda, all the while saying that now they truly lack the power to carry out their supporters' wishes and thus must compromise with their Republican opponents. This is exactly what Bill Clinton did in 1994, selling out his party's supporters after losing control of both houses of Congress. Clinton handily won re-election in 1996 and I expect Obama to do the same in 2012, because he can blame the Republican-led house for his inability to achieve anything meaningful.

The Republican Party leadership also faces a similar challenge. They don't really care about cutting spending or balancing the budget or paring down the debt or increasing jobs, the things they sold to their supporters as key issues. What they want to do, like the Democrats, is cater to the very wealthy even if the country goes broke in the process. They will try and sell their tea party supporters the idea that it was because they do not control the Senate and the presidency that they could not carry out their wishes. How well the tea partiers react to this inevitable betrayal will be interesting to observe.

The main difference between Republican Party rule and Democratic Party rule is that the former will bring the country to fiscal ruin faster and is more openly callous about the harm they inflict on the poor and middle class in their desire to serve the rich. The Democrats do it more slowly and with more hand wringing about how sad it all is. Although the Democrats can stop Republican House initiatives either in the Senate or with a presidential veto, I suspect that they won't do that with issues that benefit the oligarchy, so the only achievements of the next Congress will be those things that serve the interests of the oligarchy, and these will be done quietly and with little fuss.

Next: So what should we watch for in the coming months?

November 03, 2010

What's going on at Elsevier?

Elsevier is a commercial publishing house that publishes scientific journals. Lat year there was a scandal when it was revealed that it had allowed the drug company Merck to fund a new and phony journal titled Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine under its name that essentially pushed Merck drugs to unsuspecting physicians by quoting the 'journal' in support of the claims for their drugs' efficacy.

Now comes another story (via Jerry Coyne) that a real Elsevier journal called the International Journal of Cardiology has published an article that claims that the Koran and the Hadith were prescient in their knowledge of how the heart works. Reviews of the article were scathing. The article consists of taking parts of the religious texts and interpreting them as metaphors that are congruent with modern understandings of the heart. While this may be of interest to a journal of religion or religious textual analysis, it is not science.

But what caught my eye was that the article was received by the journal on May 7, 2009 and accepted just five days later, on May 12, 2009. This is highly unusual. The review process for scientific articles takes many months and can stretch to more than a year as the manuscripts are sent out to reviewers who send them back with comments which then go to the authors for revisions, then back to the reviewers, etc. before the journal editor finally makes a decision. What happened here is that the editor must have bypassed any outside review and summarily accepted it. But given the obviously controversial nature of the claims, you would have thought that such a paper would have merited more careful scrutiny, not less.

So why did the editor of the journal and Elsevier go out on a limb by publishing this pseudoscience?

The Daily Show on Andrew Shirvell

Some time ago, I posted about this creepy guy who is the assistant attorney general of the state of Michigan who seems obsessed with the gay president of the University of Michigan student government, to the point of stalking him. Now Jason Jones of The Daily Show has done a segment on him and he seems to be, unbelievably, even creepier than I thought.

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What intrigues me is how he got his job in the first place. I have interviewed many people for jobs and if some guy like this had turned up before me, red flags would have been flying immediately. His whole shifty-eyed, evasive manner just screams that he has serious personality issues that would make him abrasive to his co-workers or to the public he deals with, quite apart from his views on gays.

There must have been plenty of applicants for a desirable job like his so what made people select him?

The slippery arguments of religious people

Maybe I am getting old and cranky but I must say that my patience is wearing thin with religious fundamentalists and the shifty way they argue.

Recently I had an extended email exchange with someone (let's call him Henry) from Sri Lanka whom I did not know before but who had heard about my switch to atheism from an old friend of mine. My friend is a religious fundamentalist member of a charismatic church with a sweet and gentle nature of whom I am very fond. For her sake, I showed more patience and spent more time responding to Henry than I would with a total stranger.

Henry clearly wanted to try and persuade me to change my mind and show me that his belief in god was based on science and reason. He wanted to argue that so-called 'intelligent design' (ID) and its associated 'specified complexity' were arguments for the existence of god. I have, of course, heard all these arguments before and they are nothing but the tired old 'god of the gaps', where people look for things that science has not explained yet or things that seem highly improbable, and insert god as an ad hoc solution. It is Paley's watch repeated yet again. It seems like this same argument gets resurrected repeatedly, the only 'new' features being that they keep looking for new gaps as the old gaps get explained by science. It is quite extraordinary how believers can never come up with actual evidence but are very imaginative when it comes to inventing new metaphors to say the same old thing.

Usually at some point in such discussions I ask such people what they believe because religious people like to keep things vague so that when you corner them on one point, they will say, "Oh, but I don't really believe that." It is usually a good strategy to ask them right at the beginning what things in the Bible (or whatever their holy book is) they think are true. I usually do this early in the conversation but did not do so with Henry because he sounded like he was a sophisticated religious apologist who took almost everything in the Bible as a metaphor.

At some point in the ensuing correspondence, I began to suspect that I was mistaken and asked him flat out about specific beliefs. It turns out that Henry believes in the historicity of the Bible such as the stories of Adam and Eve, that Jesus was born of a virgin and was resurrected from the dead, and so on. At that point I told Henry that the discussion was over, that anyone who believed in such absurdities had essentially abandoned science and there was no use having a discussion about science with him.

Henry could not seem to understand my point. He kept saying that what he believed about Adam and Eve etc., was immaterial to whether ID was true or not. He could not see that what he believes about god is relevant to whether or not it is worth arguing the matter with him. He would have been right if his other beliefs were about cooking or films or politics. But the question of whether Adam and Eve and the resurrection are historical events is very relevant to the question of whether his version of god exists.

It seems to me that one can have a reasonable discussion with someone only if the parties share certain premises within which the debate can proceed. In discussions on science, one has to value evidence, the rules of logic, and accept the basic laws of science. If one is willing to accept all the ridiculous other things that Henry believes in, then one is saying that one is willing to jettison science whenever it contradicts your particular dogma and are using it only when and where you think it suits your purpose. As an analogy, when scientists discuss superconductivity, they use quantum mechanics as a basic framework of analysis. There is no point discussing superconductivity with someone who rejects quantum mechanics as not being valid.

I have seen Henry's kind of argumentation before. It is the same 'wedge strategy' that the ID people used in their attempt to foist god on us. Their idea was that if you can find some narrow, esoteric, isolated phenomenon and argue that god must have acted there, then therefore god exists. Once you have established that beachhead, then since god is a Magic Man who can do anything, you can believe any nonsense you want because god could have done it.

This is the opposite of how we think and argue in any other area, science or otherwise. If there are huge and glaring contradictions with a theory that stare us in the face, then we need to address and solve those before we even think of applying that theory to some esoteric event. It would be like using quantum mechanics in a highly technical field like superconductivity when it does not explain basic things like atomic structure. The reason that we nowadays use quantum mechanics to explore highly esoteric and difficult areas of knowledge is because it has been able to successfully address more straightforward problems. If it had failed to do so, we would have abandoned it long ago. Similarly, the reason that Newton's laws of motion and gravity were taken seriously was because they enabled us to successfully address the major problem of the motion of the planets in the solar system. Over time, as the theory's ability to successfully address problems became apparent and confidence in it rose, it was used to investigate more esoteric problems.

This is why when people tell me that they believe in Adam and Eve and the resurrection and all that kind of stuff, I insist that they provide evidence to reconcile those with science before I will even bother to discuss things like ID. Of course, the only way they can explain such events is by postulating a Magic Man who can do anything. Once they say their Magic Man can create complete human beings out of nothing and even raise people from the dead, then it becomes pointless to discuss ID because creating a bacterial flagellum would be a piece of cake for their Magic Man.

The greatest success of the new/unapologetic atheism movement has been in making reason and evidence and compatibility with modern science the measure of whether any idea is worth taking seriously. People may not realize what a huge shift this is. This has made it embarrassing for people who believe their religious myths. What people like Henry try to do is to shift attention away from their embarrassing and obviously implausible anti-science beliefs like Adam and Eve and the resurrection to what they think sounds intellectually plausible. They try to limit the debate to a very narrow spectrum of knowledge where they think science does not obviously contradict their pre-determined religious beliefs.

The new atheists are having none of that. If you want to debate the existence of god, be prepared to defend the full spectrum of your beliefs about god, not just the ones you think are defensible.

November 02, 2010

A silver lining

The plot to blow up a bomb packed in laser printer cartridges and sent via an airmail package fortunately failed. Because the trigger may have been a cell phone, this incident may result in the cancellation of plans to provide Wi-Fi and cell phone access to people on planes.

While the lack of Wi-Fi access is a minor inconvenience, not allowing cell phones on planes is a great relief. I had always viewed with horror the thought of being trapped next to a passenger who yakked loudly on a cell phone for the duration of a flight.

Why do so many birds die by flying into power lines?

This was a puzzle and attempts to make the power lines more visible failed. Apparently the answer is that birds have blind spots in their field of vision that make the power lines 'invisible' to them, due to the way they have evolved to become successful foragers.

Although the heavy bustard differs greatly in general body shape from the delicate crane and stork, the birds share a foraging technique - visually guiding their bill to take food items.

This technique requires excellent vision at the end of the bill, resulting in a narrow field of vision and wide "blind spots".

"Once we saw the wisdom of looking at the problem through birds' eyes rather than human eyes, it all made sense," says Professor Graham Martin.

"These birds can see straight ahead in flight but they only need to pitch their heads forward by a small amount and they will be blind in the direction of travel."

Many species of bird have been observed looking down during flight, possibly to locate fellow birds and suitable foraging and nesting sites.

Narrow binocular fields combined with birds' tendencies to look down effectively means certain species cannot see power lines until it is too late.

It is sad that there seems to be nothing we can do about it.

We're #1!

Once again, an American team has won the World Series, which means that, apart from 1992 and 1993, a US team has been world champions every single year, a truly impressive achievement.

Foolish spending as a survival strategy

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell argues that it would actually not be a good idea for the poor to budget carefully to eat healthily because if they did and actually started to look healthy, the government would think they were getting too much aid and would reduce it. He writes:

I doubt, however, whether the unemployed would ultimately benefit if they learned to spend their money more economically. For it is only the fact that they are not economical that keeps their allowances so high. An Englishman on the P.A.C. gets fifteen shillings a week because fifteen shillings is the smallest sum on which he can conceivably keep alive. If he were, say, an Indian or Japanese coolie, who can live on rice and onions, he wouldn't get fifteen shillings a week--he would be lucky if he got fifteen shillings a month. Our unemployment allowances, miserable though they are, are framed to suit a population with very high standards and not much notion of economy. If the unemployed learned to be better managers they would be visibly better off, and I fancy it would not be long before the dole was docked correspondingly.

It is not always simply the case that lazy people become poor but that poor people need to be 'lazy' in order to survive. Examples of this abound. We all know that despite his idealistic rhetoric, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. He was also a scientific thinker and innovator and constantly devising ways to do things better. Some time ago I read (though I cannot track down the source now) that he once devised a scheme by which his slaves on his estate could more efficiently harvest his crops. But he was frustrated by the seeming inability of his slaves to understand and implement his new system and abandoned it in frustration, blaming it on the incapacity of the slaves to understand his modern methods or to change their ways of doing things. But in actual fact, the slaves quickly realized that if the male slaves adopted his new methods, the female slaves (often their wives) would have to haul much more stuff each day, making them more exhausted. So the slaves essentially sabotaged the project by acting dumb and uncomprehending. It does not surprise me in the least to find that people in mindless, low-paying, dead-end, physically exhausting jobs find ways to make sure that less is expected of them, even if it means that their bosses think they are stupid.

Some readers may think that Orwell is being somewhat too cynical here in thinking that if the poor did take the lectures about their allegedly thriftless behavior seriously and acted strictly according to those prescriptions and lived better lives, this would be used to cut their benefits. If you think that the desire to cut the benefits of the poor in this way existed only in the past, think again. Unlike in the case of wars or tax cuts or corporate bailouts, when it comes to providing benefits to ordinary people, the administration and Congress become very frugal about spending, demanding that spending increases in one area be balanced by cuts ("offsets") in others.

In a recent interview, retiring congressman David Obey, one of the few decent people in that institution, had this revelation about how the Obama administration doesn't really give a damn about poor people:

We were told we have to offset every damn dime of [new teacher spending]. Well, it ain’t easy to find offsets, and with all due respect to the administration their first suggestion for offsets was to cut food stamps. Now they were careful not to make an official budget request, because they didn’t want to take the political heat for it, but that was the first trial balloon they sent down here… Their line of argument was, well, the cost of food relative to what we thought it would be has come down, so people on food stamps are getting a pretty good deal in comparison to what we thought they were going to get. Well isn’t that nice. Some poor bastard is going to get a break for a change. (My emphasis)

In the end, $12 billion was cut from the food stamps allocation, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), to fund teacher jobs and Medicaid, and more cuts in SNAP are being demanded to offset funding Michelle Obama's child nutrition proposal. As I have written before, it is when the Democrats are in power that the oligarchy can cut holes in the safety nets for the poor.

It is a curious fact that the government and well-to-do people seem to want the poor to be visibly poor and miserable. Even now, observe the annoyance with which some people criticize poor people for owning 'luxuries'. In days gone by, people would point to the ownership of color TVs to argue that the poor were not really poor. Since you can only get color TVs now, cell-phones have become the new symbol of profligacy. In actual fact, cell phones make much more sense for people who are constantly at risk of being evicted from their homes or have to move regularly in search of scarce jobs. In Sri Lanka, for example, cell phones have been a boon to the poor. It is the working poor, the street vendors and shade-tree mechanics and handymen and taxi drivers who all own cell phones because it provides them the means to better conduct their businesses. Landlines are luxury items, reserved for people who have stable places of work and residence. This recent Associated Press article says that in the slums of Mumbai, India, people have more access to cell phones than to toilets. While there is not a single toilet or latrine for 10,000 people, each household has at least one cell phone.

It is truly disgusting when rich people resent any small benefit that poor people get. It is bad enough to be poor. Why do we demand that they must also be permanently miserable? Why do we resent poor people getting whatever small pleasures that life affords them? There is a nice quote in James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson about Johnson's attitude towards the poor:

Dr. Johnson… was not contented with giving them relief, he wished to add also indulgence. He loved the poor… as I never yet saw any one else do, with an earnest desire to make them happy. What signifies, says some one, giving halfpence to common beggars? they only lay it out in gin and tobacco. "And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence (says Johnson)? it is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our own acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer, and are not ashamed to show even visible displeasure, if ever the bitter taste is taken from their mouths." (My italics)

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan (1651) spoke of the life of humans as being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." This is why religion, with its fiction of a happy afterlife, has such a seductive appeal for those who live miserable lives here. But those of us who realize that there is no afterlife to redress the balance need to pursue policies that ensure that the lives of people in this world, the only life they have, affords them at least some pleasures, not just survival.

My late mother was an inveterate do-gooder. At Christmas time she would organize a party for the poor children from the neighborhood, with gifts of toys and nice clothes and cake and other fancy foods. It could be argued that the same money could have been better spent providing the malnourished children with more nutritious meals for a longer time. But my mother had a good instinct for what people needed and, like Samuel Johnson, realized that we all benefit from some luxuries as we go through life.

November 01, 2010

A morally bankrupt pundit class

David Broder, the so-called 'dean' of the US pundit class, suggests that Barack Obama should go to war with Iran in order to boost the economy and his re-election chances. Stephen Walt provides the required dissection of this insanity.

Jonah Goldberg wonders why Julian Assange of WikiLeaks has not already been murdered by US security forces. He even specifies that Assange should be 'garroted'. Goldberg's barbaric nature is, of course, well documented. It does not matter how many times people like Juan Cole slap him down, he resurfaces.

Our keyboard commandos are always willing to send other people to their deaths to compensate for some weird sense of personal inadequacy. And our major media continue to publish them.

Alcohol more harmful to society than heroin?

The former chief drug advisor to the UK government, who was sacked from that post in 2009, has published a study that examines the harm to the individual and to society of various drugs.

alcohol.gif

Heroin, crack cocaine, and crystal meth are the most harmful to individual users but the widespread use (and abuse) of alcohol is what makes it the most harmful to society, followed by heroin and crack cocaine.

Understanding the 'bad' choices of poor people

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell writes in chapter 6 about how government and social service agencies calculate carefully how much money should be given as public assistance to be sufficient, with careful budgeting, to purchase enough wholesome food to meet their nutritional needs. However, the actual choices of the poor, with its outlays on alcohol, tobacco and sweets, would appall social workers. These better-off people would scold the miners and their families for wasting their money on what should be considered luxuries, when their basic nutritional needs were not being taken care of first.

Orwell writes that there is something unseemly about well-fed, well-to-do people calculating with such zeal so precisely the absolute minimum amount that people need to eat to stay alive.

When the dispute over the Means Test was in progress there was a disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human being could keep alive. So far as I remember, one school of dietitians worked it out at five [shillings] and ninepence, while another school, more generous, put it at five and ninepence halfpenny. After this there were letters to the papers from a number of people who claimed to be feeding themselves on four shillings a week.

Orwell examined the food budget of one exemplar of frugality who claimed that he could eat nutritiously on just four shillings, even less that the public assistance allowance.

Please notice that this budget contains nothing for fuel. In fact, the writer explicitly stated that he could not afford to buy fuel and ate all his food raw. Whether the letter was genuine or a hoax does not matter at the moment. What I think will be admitted is that this list represents about as wise an expenditure as could be contrived; if you had to live on three and elevenpence halfpenny a week, you could hardly extract more food-value from it than that. So perhaps it is possible to feed yourself adequately on the P.A.C. allowance if you concentrate on essential foodstuffs; but not otherwise.

Orwell points out that how the poor people that he lived with actually spend their money bears little resemblance to this budget.

Now compare this list with the unemployed miner's budget that I gave earlier. The miner's family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes--an appalling diet.

Orwell then gets to the crux of the matter of why people behave like this and it is not because they are stupid or ignorant or lack character, which are the usual reasons that well-to-do people assign to this seemingly inexplicable self-destructive behavior.

Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have threepennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we'll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the Englishman's opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread. (my italics)

But there are yet more factors at play that push poor people into making 'bad' choices. In the next (and last) post in this series, Orwell argues that the very act of calculating how much people need to live on in order to give them the minimum required to subsist, actually makes it a good strategy for the poor to be somewhat thriftless in the behavior.