I find it odd that religion advertises their humility, while in the same breath claims to know the mysteries of the universe based on a voice in their head or a feeling in their heart.
I am in the process of writing a three part blog which addresses what I believe to be the most important ideals to have or work towards to find the most happiness and peace of mind in one’s life. These three ideals are beyond the obvious values we hold such as be kind to others, or treat others as you wish to be treated. They are more specific. I have found in my life that the more I work towards these ideals, the happier I have become. I am unsure if these three pieces will be posted back to back to back, but I do plan to have them close together and I will try to make it clear when the post is part of the series. As a preamble to this series to come, I invite you to watch this video of Sam Harris talking about the most important value, without a doubt in my mind, which is living in the present moment. I personally think that one cannot do this to the fullest without the attributes I will present; but above all, to put into words the most important key to happiness and peace of mind, it is to live in the present moment. Enjoy.
Is pain an illusion? Keeping with the theme of illusions in reality, Lorimer asks and answers this question. Now this isn’t the same kind of illusion as I propose free will is; however, he points out that when we feel pain, on our arm for instance, the pain is not actually in our arm. It’s in our mind. I’ll let Lorimer explain.
Found this very entertaining and thought provoking.
by Guest blogger Jesse Hendrix
Bill: I’d like to report a crime! I was just carjacked at gunpoint!
Officer: Certainly sir. Do you have insurance?
Bill: Yes, I have car insurance.
Officer: No, not car insurance. Crime insurance.
Bill: Crime insurance?
Officer: Yes, crime insurance. To pay for the cost of the investigation. You should get it from your employer.
Bill: I work for Walmart.
Officer: So, no insurance then. Right. That will be one hundred dollars to start the investigation, sir.
Bill: One hundred dollars!
Officer: It would only be fifteen if you had insurance.
Bill: But there’s a dangerous maniac on the loose! In my car!
Officer: Dangerous maniacs are expensive to deal with, sir.
Bill: You’re the police! You’re supposed to help everyone!
Officer: We don’t go in for any of that socialist un-American clap-trap in here, sir.
Officer: (Stands, patriotic music swells) It’s is…
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Free will is not a topic I discuss often, outside of a small circle of people. Not because I am ashamed of this view or unsure of my position, but simply because the topic does not arise too often. It is also not the most appealing subject to discuss with people. Granted it is very interesting since the verdict in the discussion plays a major role in how we view our actions, other people’s actions, how we view justice, compassion, forgiveness, and so on. But the reason that this topic isn’t appealing is because many are vehemently against the idea that we may not have free will. As an atheist (I must state here that I am not a fan of the word. I prefer to say that I am an advocate for evidence and reason. People too often apply too much meaning to the term atheist. For the sake of this post, it simply means what it should, that I don’t believe in the existence of a God.), I am consistently reminded of the reaction I will get from many theists when they here of my stance on God. A mixture of offense, and anger, with a glass of confusion. But as someone that believes we do not have free will, I find the same reaction expands out to many atheists as well. I am inclined to think that this stems from fear. Many people who have contemplated free will, and do not like the idea of not having it, typically show signs of fear, despair, and/or anger. What people seem to fear most is the loss of meaning to their lives. So in many ways, it is what atheists experience when talking to theists about God. Only for me, this subject applies when talking to fellow atheists as well. Diminishing my audience that much more.
For this post however, I am not here to debate whether or not we have free will. That may happen in another post depending on the reaction I get. What my intentions are with this post are to attempt to show that there is no reason to fear a life without free will. As a theist fears a life without God, many people of all belief systems, including atheism, fear a life without free will. What I plan to show my readers here is that everything, or at least the majority, that is meaningful in your life, you have not having free will to thank.
Within the small circle that I have discussed free will with, I have experienced a wide range of reactions. I have talked with some people that, at length, I came to the belief that they could not handle the idea of not having free will if they came to believe it were true. I have seen people completely out of their element; almost so unaware of the idea that not having free will was a possibility that they weren’t affected by the idea at all, but what I saw more of was it was not clicking throughout their being that it was worth even considering. I myself took upon the idea rather smoothly. I try not to hold on to beliefs because I want something to be true. I have a desire to know what is. Whatever the truth about reality happens to be, I try my best to be ready to accept that. When I was first confronted about the idea of not having free will by a close friend, I had not considered the possible ramifications of it’s truth, so I was not too affected by it, and certainly didn’t buy into it at the time. As time progressed and I researched the idea, I kind of baby stepped my way into it. By the time I was convinced that we don’t have free will, the shock was minimal.
Not to tangent too much from the discussion but there is something that I want to mention here. People when confronted by new information tend to push it away. This is okay if you are simply being a critical thinker, but if you are afraid to find out that you are wrong, that is when bad things can occur. The problem with the stance of wanting, or even needing, what you believe to be true is that we confuse ourselves of what the ramifications are if we are in fact incorrect. For instance, theists typically fear the idea of God not existing. They say things like, “I just couldn’t imagine a world without God.” What is wrong with this statement is that they seem to be implying that if you were to prove that God didn’t exist, that from that point on God doesn’t exist. Almost as though you daggered God in the heart. This is incorrect. What they don’t realize is that if they discover God doesn’t exist, then God hasn’t ever existed. The world that you thought you could never live in, you have in fact been living in your entire life. Now of course their is that feeling like God did leave the day you came to the realization. But it is in a small way the result of clinging to an idea that you want to be true, rather than simply discovering what is actually true.
I remember the conversation I had with my close friend the night that he realized free will was an illusion. I saw the fear arise. That moment that he didn’t feel in control. He was realizing the ramifications of this truth. And these thoughts, in their immediacy, were not very comforting. I later learned that this was the catalyst to a spiral downward into a very dark depression. He felt as though he had lost all meaning to life. It took quite some time before he finally recovered from the depression. For those of you wondering, he is better than ever, and still believes free will is an illusion. This is not an uncommon reaction however. Many people that are in the conversation about free will attest to this reaction. Sam Harris has even posted a couple of times on his blog on this point to try to help people coping with these emotions.
I myself being aware of this, did begin to think about whether or not meaning was lost when free will was stripped away. I didn’t search for half truths so that I could sleep at night, but I just took the time to ponder the real consequences of this reality. Like I will say many more times in my life, it’s about what is, not what I want. I am happy to say however that I am in fact very happy with what I have come to believe.
There are typically three positions that people hold on the subject of free will. There is the first stance which believes that absolutely everything about you, such as your actions and thoughts, is of your own choosing. You are the author of your thoughts and nothing that has your fingerprint on it was not of your choosing. If you hold this position, the points I will soon bring to the forefront will challenge this belief to the fullest. The second position is in the middle. You believe that we have moments such as Freudian slips which aren’t really of our control, we also have many thoughts that aren’t really of our penmanship, and some emotions can go out of control, but when it comes down to the real choices in our life, that is where our free will is most observable. If you hold this stance, I believe that what I am soon to talk about will fit into your system of belief, and I hope that it will actually bring you even more happiness. Lastly, we have the third position. This is the position that I in fact hold. The belief that one has absolutely no free will. We are merely the result of causes which influence a chain of causes, nothing of which we can claim true ownership of to the level which free will suggests. If you have this belief system, I hope that from where you emotionally are today, you will leave with more happiness, true peace of mind, and a feeling that life couldn’t have more meaning any other way. So let me finally get to my point.
I remember one day looking at my wife. I can’t remember exactly what she was doing, perhaps she was folding some laundry, but that’s not relevant. What is relevant however is the rush of emotions that I felt. Love, happiness, excitement, peace, and so on. In that moment I took the time to appreciate these feelings. I was so overwhelmed with how strong these feelings were. These feelings were so true, so real. If anyone questioned whether I had meaning in my life, the answer was not clearer than in that moment. Then a thought came to me.
Believing in the illusoriness of free will, but not closed off to the idea that I might be wrong, I considered the question; What would this mean if I had free will? It was then that I slowly began to realize how sad this moment would become. Assuming I had free will, suddenly that beautiful moment that I will always cherish began to feel so… fake. If these feelings of love and joy were just a choice, how important could they possibly be? To really bring this point home, I would ask; How important, or how real, is love when you could simply choose to stop loving that person in a moment. If your first thought is, “that’s impossible.” Then you are beginning to see why free will in fact takes away meaning in life.
This is worth repeating many times and in different ways, in my opinion. How important is someones love for you; how strong is that drive for someone to love you, if that love can be taken away in an instant? Just one simple choice, and it’s gone. This may seem far fetched, but it isn’t. Just think about it. If you actually have free will, then think about the one thing that you care about most in the world. If you have true free will, you can choose to not care about that thing immediately. If your initial response, which we know would be true in this experiment, would be to not quit caring for that thing, your are seeing something which you are not in control of. If you truly have control of everything, then your emotions can be controlled as well. You could then quit caring for the most important thing in your life, and most importantly, not care that you quit caring! This brings me to my next point.
If you are in the second and third positions that I stated above, you are hopefully coming to realize that everything in your life that gives you meaning owes a thank you to the fact that you do not have control (or free will) over it. These emotions that would fight you, possibly to the death, are emotions so real in you, that you cannot deny them no matter how hard you try. So when you feel love. When you feel joy, happiness, peace. When you feel that driving force that pushes you to be better. When you feel these things that give your life meaning, they only have meaning in a reality without free will. They only have that truth, that truth that packs a real punch, because you cannot simply choose to not feel that way. Emotions are the most real, most important things to us. And those are the things which are most clearly not in our control (and at the very least not in our complete control).
So if you believe that you don’t have free will to some degree, or to every degree, look at all of your emotions. Look at the people or the things that make you happy. Look at the ones you love. really allow yourself to feel these emotions, because thanks to no free will, it is the most real and most meaningful thing in your life.
One of the most common facts said to console someone who fears flying is; “you are more likely be in a car accident on the way to the airport than be in a plane crash.” This is obviously true. The odds of being in a car accident is roughly 1/84 while the odds of being in a plane crash is in the ballpark of 1/500,000.
My mom has a relatively significant fear of flying. The times which she was forced to fly, I remember her trying to fall asleep before lift off while today she tries her hardest to avoid ever flying– I would say she hasn’t flown in the last 15 years or so. Well one day I was pondering to myself about this irrational fear (shortly before I was to be flying to Atlanta) when a thought arose. I wondered; maybe their fears aren’t completely irrational. Maybe the question that is being asked isn’t properly answering what they really fear. Clearly you are more likely to be in a car accident than a plane accident. But you are much more likely to die if you are in a plane crash rather than if you are in a car crash– By roughly 66 times. I think that what aerophobics fear most is dying by plane crash. So I decided to see if this question had any weight to it. Using my mathematical background, I knew which mathematical model could answer this question. The model is known as conditional probability.
When first taking a course on probability, conditional probability is one of the first things one begins to learn. It is actually very simple to grasp at first, though the questions can become relatively complex and most universities are aware of all of the harder questions. Lucky for us, the question we are asking today is pretty easy. First however, I need to give a quick introduction to probability.
When determining the probability of an event, questions can be quite elementary. For instance, suppose you have a bag with 4 green balls and 12 red balls. If you put your hand in the bag (and you can’t see inside) and choose a ball at random, what is the probability that you choose a green ball? The answer is simple, there are 16 balls in the bag, 4 of which are green. Therefore the probability you choose a green ball is 4/16 which reduces to 1/4. Conditional probability is just a little more complex.
The easiest way to look at conditional probability is to understand that there are just a few more variables. One of the most basic ways that conditional probability can be stated is this; given two events, A and B, with the probability of B not equal to zero. What is the conditional probability of A, given B? This may sound confusing but I believe an example will help.
Suppose you have 2 bags. Suppose bag 1 contains 4 red balls and 2 green balls, while bag 2 contains 3 red balls and 5 green balls. Suppose you are given a bag and you randomly select a ball out of the bag and it is a red ball. The question can then be asked, given that you selected a red ball, what is the probability it was from bag 2?
Now we need to know some terminology.
P(R) means: Probability of selecting a red ball. Similarly, P(G) would be “math” for “the probability of selecting a green ball”. Now the next one may be difficult if you are not mathematically savvy.
To “say” the question stated above which was; given that you selected a red ball, what is the probability you selected it from bag 2? We would write in “math” language, P(B2|R).
You can almost read that across. what is the (P)robability that you selected from B2 (bag 2) given (think of the vertical line as the word, given, here) that you selected a (R)ed ball.
Now I won’t go into why this is so since this is just a blog post and not a class, but there is a given formula that will answer this question for us which is,
Looking at this equation, I know which values that I need to determine. I need to find the probability of picking a red ball given that I have selected bag 2, I need the probability of selecting bag 2, and then I need to do the same thing, but this time, for bag 1. The solutions respectively are,
Now we Just need to plug these values into the equation above and we get,
And there we have it! We have solved a conditional probability question. Now onto the question that matters.
For more on conditional probability, Wikipedia should suffice.
The Real Question
Like I said at the beginning of this post, it’s about asking the right question. I think what those who fear flying the most are truly afraid of is death. So, to ask the question in terms of conditional probability, the question we are answering is;
Given that you die, what is the probability that you were in a plane crash versus a car crash. Written out mathematically, the question appears as follows,
Let F = fatal, A = car crash, B = plane crash. Then,
is “math” language for the question above.
We know how to answer this. We can simply follow the example above in order to solve. Now the numbers I found were from reputable sources, but if they were incorrect, that would change the results. For simplicity, we see that answering one of these questions will solve the other. So we can re-ask the question as;
Given that you die, what is the probability it was in a plane crash?
We know from our example above that,
Answering each piece of the formula in order, again by research, I found that the probability of dying given that you are in a plane crash is about 33%, the probability of being in a plane crash is 1/500,000. The probability of dying given that you are in a car accident is about 0.62%, and the probability of being in a car accident is about 1/84. Using these values, we find that…
The probability of being in a plane crash, rather than a car crash, given that you died, is…
This means that if you take 111 people from a pool of people that died in either a car accident or a plane accident, 110 of them will have died in a car crash. So yes, the answer is very underwhelming, but this should be just another fact that lets all those who have a fear of flying take a breath and relax while looking at the numbers that reassure us even more to the safeties of flying.
A quick story to share with you now that I have finished. I worked on this about a month or two ago and had found a couple different statistics, which I later discovered to be incorrect. But before I knew this, I was given chilling results that suggested the probability in dying in a plane crash versus dying in a car crash was 47.2%. Much more concerning than the unintimidating 0.9%. So lastly, breathe easy, relax, and enjoy your safe flight.
The link at the end of this post will direct you to Dan Pallotta’s talk on charity. I have confidence that many will find this very interesting. I myself had never thought about the possible flaws in our intuitions about how charities should run, especially with respect to nonprofit organizations. This really opens up a discussion on how we can make an even greater impact on the world when we leave our ego’s at the door and look at the facts for what they are.
Pallotta’s argument, all wrapped up, I guess, is that if we ran nonprofit organizations with the same tactics and for profit organizations, we would actually be able to attack some of the worlds biggest problems, such as cancer research, hunger, etc. in a much more proficient way. But with history acting as the catalyst to the way we view how charity should be, these ideas never seemed to have been considered until now. Attacking the discrimination on the nonprofit sector, he raises questions that, in my opinion, lead to clear and more beneficial solutions for the world.
One of the best points he makes in this talk is that we find it repulsive the idea of someone making money helping other people, but in the same breath we do not react to the idea of someone making a lot of money not helping other people.
Pallotta also makes a case about the problems with asking one of the most common questions that we have all heard, and maybe even said, when discussing the dignity of a charity organization which is; what percentage of my donation goes to the cause?
There is much more to his argument than I have presented here but I don’t intend on making all of his points here, as I believe he delivers a much more compelling argument than any way I could write it here. So enjoy, let me know your thoughts. Do you agree? Disagree?