Freedom, responsibility, and higher-level laws

In this post, I present an argument for the following thesis: When determinism holds, a person’s action is free and the person is responsible for the action if determinism does not hold on the relevant higher level on which the action is being described.

Let’s start by unpacking what that means: Continue reading


The imperfect universe and the idea of a perfect being

All things sick and cancerous
All evil great and small
All things foul and dangerous
The Lord God made them all

Monty Python’s version of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”


I’m far from the first to question the idea that god as the perfect being fits together with our world as it is. The problem of evil has been used as an argument against the existence of god: how could there be a perfectly good and all-powerful being and there still be evil in the world? Wouldn’t the perfectly good want to fix it and the all-powerful be able to? (Personally, I don’t need an argument against when we haven’t got an argument for.) There have been attempts to argue against this, but they’re all dodging the issue: the argument proves that there can’t be a god that’s perfectly good and all-powerful in the sense assumed in the argument, and it’s not easy to come up with a sense for both that’s satisfactory but doesn’t run afoul of this argument. Honestly, I think theists should just see reason on this point and admit that god doesn’t have both attributes, but it seems as if surprisingly few do.

But that’s an old thing. I want to go a step further. Not only is god’s “perfection” incompatible with the imperfect world without selectiveness and doublethink — the whole idea of a perfect being barely makes sense at all, and especially not in conjunction with the imperfect supposedly created world. Existence in this world is based on happening and striving towards something, and both imply imperfection. Continue reading

A synthesis of religious belief and naturalism?

A vague sketch of an idea, but might be significant.

I’ve been reading and thinking about the nature of religion and its relation to belief and to the supernatural. What ideas I get depends on what I focus on or what I read. If I read Daniel Dennett, it seems religion really is built around the supernatural. If I read Karen Armstrong, it seems that it’s not. This idea comes from the latter way of looking at it.

So, this idea is that religion was not originally supposed to be about beliefs, that this is only something we think because we’re confusing it with science. On the other hand, I’ve also read that science has been made too much about knowledge only. And that religion — and myth — used to have an important function that we’re partly missing now.

This makes me think: Do a naturalistic world view — belief in only verifiable things, nothing supernatural — and religion need to contradict in any way? From this perspective, it seems that not. Here’s a sketch of different ways they could be closer and closer to each other as they come to involve a better understanding of the world and people. Continue reading

Can you be the ultimate origin of your own choices?

It is common to think that determinism contradicts free will. One way to put this is that if everything that will happen has been determined by past events, then you cannot change what happens. Another way it could be put is that if past events are the causes of your actions, then you cannot be the author of them.

When I discuss free will and determinism with people, I constantly run into the problem that some people cannot really think about what they mean by it. As I argued last week, every event is either deterministically caused or not, and there’s no third option. Yet people will insist, by either explicitly saying it or unknowingly assuming it, that something can be neither determined nor random (undetermined) but instead be a free choice. From this, we can get the idea of ultimate self-determination: that a choice is not random because it is under the person’s control, but is also not determined because the person could have chosen otherwise and prior events in the universe do not determine what they choose.

This is already proven impossible by the fact that any action is either deterministic or not and indeterminism can only mean (some degree of) randomness. But let’s look at it from a different point of view: what would it mean for a choice to be grounded only in the person themselves and not, even at a greater distance in time, in any prior events? Continue reading

Review: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

Consider the woven integrated complexity of a living cell after 3.8 billion years of evolution. Is it more awesome to suppose that a transcendent God fashioned the cell at a stroke, or to realize the truth: the living cell evolved with no Creator, no Almighty Hand, but arose on its own, created by the evolving biosphere? The truth is much more magnificent, much more worthy of awe and wonder, than our ancient creation myths.

Reinventing the Sacred proposes a new understanding of a natural divinity based on an emerging, scientifically based world view. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman does not propose somehow to insert “god” into a cold, lifeless universe. Instead he argues that the qualities of divinity that we hold sacred — creativity, meaning, purposeful action — are in fact properties of the universe that can be investigated scientifically. (…)

-From the cover blurb

Reinventing the Sacred coverLast week, I reviewed Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos and criticised it for answering the human world/physical universe problem in a way that effectively rejected current science. Fittingly enough, this review features one of the books I think successfully integrates science with humanity, even spirituality.

Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion actually has much more scientific content than one would expect from its descriptions. Certainly, it offers a view of how we could see sacredness as a property of the evolving universe rather than a god outside of it. Continue reading


By S. Harris

What does it mean to explain something? To do it, you have to give some new information about it — how it works, how it came about, what it’s for, etc. To explain how a computer works, you might talk about, say, microchips or information processing — both explanations though different ones. To explain what a computer is, to someone who’d never seen one, you’d probably tell them what it does and what one looks like. These would also overlap with explaining where it came from (humans made them) and what it’s for.

Computers were made by people who more or less knew how they would work, and of course what they were for. If we’re explaining a natural phenomenon, or something done by a foreign people, we’ll have to find an explanation before we can give it. It will still have the same requirements: if we see something (say, that the sun radiates lots of energy), then we have to tell something new to explain what we see (that the sun is full of nuclear reactions).

What has been called the virtus dormitiva fallacy involves explaining something without really explaining anything. Continue reading

Dr. Manhattan: Time, causality, and freedom

“Everything is preordained. Even my responses.”

“And you just go through the motions, acting them out? Is that what you are? The most powerful thing in the universe and you’re just a puppet following a script?”

“We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”


Dr. ManhattanThe graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is rightly considered a masterpiece. It explores the question of what it would really be like if there were “superheroes”, and does this as well as many other things with thought-provoking depth.

One of the characters in Watchmen is Dr. Jonathan Osterman, who becomes the only “superhero” to gain actual superpowers — the ability to manipulate matter at will and observe its microscopic structure as well as to see the future — and whose new identity is called “Dr. Manhattan”. The comic explores his alienation from humanity as his powers and altered perception of reality move him away from the world as seen by everyone else.

In this article, I want to look at some of the philosophical questions around Dr. Manhattan in more detail. I will focus on questions posed by his non-linear experience of time and its implications for freedom of the will. I will write a second post about his view of physics and life as a phenomenon later. Continue reading