Sunday, June 3, 2012

Free Will

Victor Stenger is a physicist, and a grand old intellect in the scientific and atheist communities. I don't generally pay much attention to the ongoing scientific/atheist dialogue, but Victor is occasionally published in the Huffpost. He often discusses what he sees as a conflict between science and religion. I always enjoy his columns. In his latest, he confronts the idea of free will.

Stenger argues, taking a cue from Sam Harris' recent book, that free will is an illusion, that scans show, all the decisions we make have antecedent material action in the brain, implying all our decisions originate in the unconscious, and so our conscious selves are not truly responsible for our actions. If that sounds a little odd, it is more or less in keeping with the idea of the ego. Victor is going a little further, suggesting the ego doesn't have any say in what we do or how we act. He ends the piece by suggesting that because we are not entirely aware of the origin of our actions, our justice system needs to change: “Given that we don't have libertarian free will that sets us above causal laws, it would seem that our largely retributive moral and justice systems need to be re-evaluated, and maybe even drastically revamped.” If that sounds like an honest but tortured argument to you, it is entirely in keeping with logic. Logic being not necessarily on unfriendly terms with torture. If you don't believe that, then you don't know anything about the battle between determinism and indeterminism.

If that battle has a ring of fascism to it, well, you might then wonder too, about the vision of Sam Harris and Victor Stenger. Not that they are fascists, not at all. Good men, I have no doubt. But their vision orphans us in a very cold, hard, empty universe, and not only that, it makes us hapless actors directed by unknowable forces, and not just unknowable forces, entirely material (as if it wasn't bad enough when the gods controlled our actions.) And if you know anything about science, then maybe you know, as science as an institution teaches, this material universe originated accidentally, for no reason, without meaning. And so, material is basically dead matter, open to manipulation. And then you just might ask yourself, if that is the case, then that would make this culture one vast manipulation, wouldn't it? People capitalizing on the manipulation of consumers...unto...ecological...oblivion.

As if it wasn't bad enough that science separated mind from body, now they've gone and separated us even from mind (with no spirit to cling to). It's like the final preparation for total enslavement. The lobotomy before the final fall; to become gristle, for techno-fascist mills.

If it seems like I'm being a little harsh on Victor Stenger, and Sam Harris, it's only that I don't see much of a difference between scientific atheism and religion, both equally separating us from our bodies, and the earth we inhabit. As if we are only mind, or spirit, as if the body hardly mattered. That, and reading Sam, I can't help feel like he embraces Hobbes conception of the brutality of nature, and the mythology of Progress without question, and so he is blind to how well science and institutional religion, and fiat currency and empire and militarism, have co-existed. And I have the sense that Scientists have betrayed quantum physics, not being able to conceive of the true implications, and so dismissing them.

Quantum physics has taught us many things, but most of what it has to offer, after one hundred years, has not yet trickled down to the general consciousness. Imagine for a moment: the atoms that are the fundamental structure of your bones, making them as hard as they are – if you inflated one of the quadrillions of atoms in your bones, to the size of an apple, the next bone-atom closest to it, would be a couple of city blocks away. Everything in between is empty space – as is most of the interior of the atom. We conceive of matter as dense. Matter is energy, at it's core. Quantum physics tells us, the void, empty space, is denser energetically than matter, by an infinitude. Ponder that for a moment - energy vastly denser than what you are, flowing through you now, in every moment...and now read Victor Stenger's conception of the quantum interaction at the core of your being: “It is easy to demonstrate quantitatively that quantum effects in the brain are not significant.” If that has a ring of autocratic command and control, you would not be mistaken.

Science has not yet accounted for angular momentum. Which is to say, we do not know why the earth spins, or the sun, or the motion of the earth and all the planets revolving around the sun, or the galaxy spinning, or any of the spiral phenomena throughout the universe. Circles, spirals, a fundamental construct of cosmic, material forces - look to the DNA! - and science cannot account for it, effectively dismissing it as unimportant. That is the square world you live in.

You are profoundly more energetic than either science or religion as institutions dictating, would allow. Because science, and religion, as institutions, depend on debt bondage and wage slavery to exist. A truly free people, alive and awake to the world they inhabit, would put up with neither. So I guess the question is, how can we keep hold of what science has wrought, that we might live well on this earth, without putting up with institutional debt bondage and wage slavery? As for religion as an institution, I could pretty well dispense with it. Monotheism especially is inherently tyrannical. Call it extinct.

P.S. You know you've struck a chord, when this comment on Huffpost, on Stenger's article,


With due respect to you and Sam Harris, your vision leaves us orphaned in a cold, hard, dead universe, and not only that, hapless actors defined by unconscious forces, entirely material. Existential, fertile thought, for the devious actors you allude to. And, if what you say is true, then that would make this culture fundamentally manipulated. People capitalizing on the manipulation of consumers...unto...ecological...oblivion.

results in this:

Search "The God Trick" on youtube

"With due respect" always precedes an insult, don't you find?

And with due respect to you, William, if you cannot contemplate the spiritual thrill of the understanding of the truth and would rather marinade yourself in a sad little saccharine of lies, do us all a favour and keep your poisonous views to yourself. Don't try and infect other people with the dysfunction that's eroding your spiritual nature. It's not nice, it's not big, and when you make every effort to make it look clever by weaving a lot of big words in to your little injection of poison to the zeitgeist, it's not just not clever, it's a little bit evil. [the emphasis in italics is mine]


Justin said...

Wow! That comment back to you reads like a made up and intentionally over the top example of projection.

He is calling you out for using big words to put on airs. I guess 'hapless' is a $4 word these days? That's inflation for you. Meanwhile, you are marinating in a "sad little saccharine of lies". lol!

when you make every effort to make it look clever by weaving a lot of big words in to your little injection of poison to the zeitgeist

This, taken with the last line, is shithouse rat crazy. The responder seems to believe he protecting the zeitgeist from your evil influence!

William Hunter Duncan said...


Yeah, this is the sort of response I get from atheists every time I discuss science on the Huffpost. More adults should be familiar with the word projection, but few are. And ya know, I always thought the word zeitgeist had a little fascist ring to it too. "Spirit of the times," indeed.

William Hunter Duncan said...

Here's what Kunstler had to say about the zeitgeist this morning :

For all the epic volume of blather on the Internet and elsewhere, few have even remarked on extraordinary passivity of the vulgar masses in the face of having their future looted out from under them. The ethos of the penitentiary must have saturated the zeitgeist wherein you are expected to just bend over and take it good and hard where the sun don't shine and then you are rewarded with a baloney sandwich. At least that's been the theme since 2008.

Luciddreams said...

your explanation of reality is grist for the intellect mill. This was an outstanding presentation of the true boundlessness that is reality. The only response to the contrary will sound like the comfy incantations that JMG is so found of talking about. He'll fight back with a dose of self righteous incantation and then hide behind his truly benevolent intentions for humanity. Truly bull shit is what I think he splattered as a response to you.

I gotta say that your latest blog reminded me that contemplating wonderment should be embraced on principle. Why would one chose a cold and dead reality with no purpose in the name of intellect? Humanity is very sick.

Great blog WHD...thanks for your contribution to sanity and hope.

William Hunter Duncan said...


For a moment there, I thought you were referring to JMG referring to me. He never has, as far as I know. Most reflexive responses, in defense of any ideology, institution, or dogma, are like incantation, a collection of specific words to call up a specific kind of energy, and those words do not in any way have to grasp, or respond directly to the argument of the other. It's like a broken kind of thinking, but very effective, as a means to manipulate the actions of people, by the purveyors of ideology, institution and dogma.

John D. Wheeler said...

Thank you for pointing out that excellent article. I especially like the concluding 3 paragraphs, as they are what I concluded long ago.

I am amazed at the vitriol in the response to your comment. That is part of the reason I stay away from the Huffington Post unless someone else points me there....

Jeff Z said...

To a certain extent, it seems that you were fishing for a response, and got one, albeit one that was pretty over the top. Permit me to defend atheists for a moment- not because they're always right, although I tend to agree with them more often than not- but because they're kind of like the nerdy kids that get bullied on the playground and develop really defensive attitudes. Like the fat guy in 'Full Metal Jacket'.

The response is that of a hurt and defensive person, not someone full of love or wisdom, necessarily, but someone who is accustomed to being bullied and who seems to have reacted reflexively, rather than logically, as he might like it to appear.

This country is very pro-theist, and the public discourse doesn't leave much room for those outside of that space. You can believe in Scientology or Branch Davidianism or Zoroastrianism, and be tolerated in the public sphere, but to announce that you don't believe in any 'ism' is to make yourself a lonely person or worse.

Not that that invalidates their point. If you're going to contemplate the origin of the universe, or the question of why people should be good to each other, I think it's important to be open to any conclusion that you may come upon. Otherwise, what's the point? If you've already decided that you know how the universe was made, or who it was made for, than why bother contemplating, if you might be uncomfortable with what you may find.

The universe may be hard and cold. That might just be what it is. People aren't, or at least at our best, we are not. It may be that our interactions with each other and kindness to our fellow homo sapiens and other animals creates what is divine in the universe.

That said- I agree with almost all you say in the blog, with some reservations about the divine universe. He was being an ass in his response. He needs to grow up. This isn't the playground anymore.

Oh, and I really like the word zeitgeist by the way. Just being German doesn't make it fascist.

William Hunter Duncan said...


I'm not fishin as much as huntin. And I think atheists and monotheists alike can feel the joy and wonder and mysteriousness of felt experience, to the degree that they allow.

As for being German, I'm at least half. Germanic, I like to say. Celtic, otherwise.

William Hunter Duncan said...


You're welcome, and thanks. That was the harshest of at least four responses that comment received, all negative. I've been called more ugly names than I can recall, commenting on scientific materialism on the Huffpost. But I had never been called evil.

dltrammel said...

Interesting article and your reply, given the good reception the community had over on the ArchDruid Report about JMG's posts on spirituality and post peak living.

William Hunter Duncan said...


Thanks. I much admire the work of JMG.