Friday, November 21, 2008

Free Will, part 1.

Ok, so I'm responding again to a friend's blog, who argues against free will as a Christian concept. I'm going to argue against his view. I am not, however, going to base the majority of this discussion on Biblical references, simply because at this very moment I don't have the resources at hand to do so. Obviously, this means that this is only a partial argument since I believe the Bible to be the only perfectly reliable source of truth. The majority of my argument therefore, is going to be about the definition of 'free will'. My actual conclusion is going to be rather nuanced, so bear with me and I hope it makes sense.

My friend defines free will as a "fact concerning a human's being, which states that he can make a decision by himself, totally free of any control by God." I'm going to sort of take a Reductio ad absurdum approach. In order to do this, I'm going to expand the definition slightly, and remove the "by God". Free will, is therefore:
A fact concerning a human's being, which states that he can make a decision by himself, totally free of any control.

Now, as John Donne famously penned, "no man is an island". It is obvious that a person is not completely free to outside influences. If a person is hanged by the neck for more than a few seconds, he will die, regardless of all the will in the world he might have to live. A lot of what happens in our life is completely outside of our control. We are all agreed then, that there is no such thing as absolute free will.

There are, however, many instances where we do have a choice as to the outcome of some event. Please note that choice is not the same thing as free will; it is simply having more than one option available to a given situation. The choice that we make may well be, and often is, determined. Now, here is an important part of my argument: the consequences of having free will and not having free will are often the same thing. Here is an example. Bob is hungry. There is a sandwich in front of him. He has two options: he can eat the sandwich, or he can leave it. Most of us agree that, if no other factors came into play (the flavour, whether Bob is wheat intolerant, whether he only eats white bread, etc.), he would eat the sandwich. But does Bob have any choice in the matter? As we can see, Bob acts in the way that, according to all visible factors, is most beneficial to him. We can summarise as thus:

Bob is hungry --> Bob eats

To a given stimulus, there is a given response. There are plenty of examples for this. If Bob is tired, the logical response is for him to sleep. Therefore, for any given stimulus (S) we get a given response (R). S --> R. Now, the response does not need to temporally follow the stimulus, it can precede it. If we believe something might happen, we might act in a particular way. For example, you might go to the toilet before going on a long car journey. Or you might lock the front door when you go to work to prevent your house being burgled. Most of our life works in this way. When given alternative courses of actions, we choose, save ignorance or impediment, to act in a way which is most productive. But does this mean we have free will?

In short, the answer is, we don't know. Either we have a true and genuine choice to decide between different options, in which we will most likely choose the better, or we have no choice, and we are determined to choose the option which has the most likely benefits. Of course, if we didn't have free will, we could be just as likely forced to choose the least beneficial option, but this isn't the case, and if it were, it would be obvious that we don't have free will.

Now, my friend argues that, "If free-will exists, then we are all like the massive amount of keys, in Harry Potter, flying around the chamber at random." Although I like the reference to J.K. Rowling's works, I have to disagree. As demonstrated, free will does not mean random will. A given stimulus does not produce an unrelated response. For example:

I am hungry: I go swimming
I am tired: I cut off my foot

is not free will. In fact, when a person behaves in a way where their response does not match the stimulus, this is often a sign of mental illness, and as stated above, demonstrates that we do not have free will. Of course, there's the argument of whether we can rely on our perception of stimuli, but I might come back to that later.

Therefore, arguing that people have free will is not "the deification of man". To choose to come to God does not mean that "we are glorious". Are we glorious in choosing to eat when we are hungry, or to drink when we have thirst? I think not. Nor do I think that we deserve any particular praise in making a perfectly logical decision when coming to God, since it is simply making the decision which is most beneficial to us. This is even more the case when it is God who granted us logic. In choosing God, I do not in any way believe that we are responsible for our salvation. Let us take the example of Paul. His conversion was rather dramatic, so much so, that any sudden paradigm shift is often referred to as a Damascus experience, or a version thereof. We can summarise his conversion as thus:

Paul witnesses God: Paul is converted.

We can see that his witnessing God is the stimulus for his conversion. Now, did Paul have any choice in the matter? We can clearly see that Paul had no choice in the stimulus. He did not choose for God to come down and blind him. But with his conversion, this is a different question. Did Paul, in witnessing God, make what would generally be considered the logical choice in converting to Christianity? Or did Paul have no choice: simply through witnessing God, he had no choice but to convert. The answer, which is simple, is, we don't know, and nor does it matter much.

So, if I believe that our choices would be no different if we had free will or if we didn't, why am I opposed to Nathan's argument? Surely, I shouldn't really care about whether we have free will if this is what I believe. Well, you're going to have to wait for the rest of that, since I've been writing this for a rather long time and can't be bothered to finish it at the moment. So, till next time, adieu.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Boredom and freak accidents

Today I have been having a lazy day. I decided that today I would do admin. So far today, I have done some washing, completed step 1 of sorting out my CAF, did some washing up and had lunch. Which, seeing as it's nearly 5 o'clock, isn't massively productive. I have spent most of my day doing a lot of nothing on the internet; watching random YouTube videos, reading articles on Wikipedia, going onto BBC News...

It's amazing what you do when you're bored. Today I've found out, someone called C. D. Fisher defined 'boredom' as "an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.” The etymological origins of the word 'bore' (as in the feeling, not a hole) are unkown. People just seemed to use the word around 1760 to denote the feeling of ennui. In fact, the phrase was often 'a French bore'. The first recorded use of the word 'boredom' is in Bleak House, penned by Charles Dickens.

I found the YouTube videos I watched to be incredibly depressing. That's to say, the videos themselves were rarely the problem, but the multitude of highly depressing comments which went with them. On a video created by the EU Commission on Aids, there were so many comments about how HIV (along with Ebola, red tide and bird flu) were created by American new-world-order/zionist government agencies, how HIV doesn't actually cause Aids, it's just the side effects from amyl nitrates or anti-retroviral drugs, and on another EU video on equality, the fascist comments were just tragic. I know that I shouldn't put my hopes in human kind, and I know that the internet, with its anonymity, its lack of consequences and its deindividualisation, fuels extreme, hateful or plain stupid comments, and that often only people with the most... marginal... opinions would see the point in posting comments, but still, I found it rather surprising.

In a rather tragic freak accident, a Brazilian widow was killed by the coffin of her late husband.

I hope this entry hasn't left you all depressed and reaching for the amyl nitrates...

Blogs in code?

I was just browsing blogs on blogspot, and I noticed a series of blogs which were updated within a couple of seconds, all of them similar in several ways:
  • All were written in incomprehensible English.
  • All had the same layout.
  • All of them seemed to be posted in Germany, although they had different user names (the dates and standard text were in German).
  • Each of the blog entries within one blog all had the same title, which was the same as the blog and each referenced a place name (two had Durham in, one had Los Angeles City Hospital).

To give you an example of the text:

"You told me you his shoulder for her mask of cold indifference the crest, a good become her protector. This is a quick the landing, he motioned there when she deliberately had only just realized with them. He approached and embraced CATHOLIC FAMILY SERVICES OF DURHAM she was doing hit protest with a long on the table."

Do you think I've uncovered something?

Cluster Bombs

To everyone who reads this, please sign this petition against cluster munitions. They cause terrible and unacceptable injury and damage. And like land mines, the bomblets can stay active for months, if not longer, and cause injury long after the conflict has ended.

Several arguments have been used to support cluster bombs. They're effective ways of killing terrorists, and why should we care about civilians in those countries, because they don't care about ours, or that China won't ban cluster bombs so why should we? Both of these miss a huge point. We're not terrorists, and we're not in a corrupt authoritarian country who has an atrocious human rights record. If we talk about democracy and freedom and human rights, maybe we should walk the walk first.

Here's a video showing tests for cluster munitions.

And here's a slightly more positive video from the Cluster Munitions Coalition.

Please sign this petition, we have a moral obligation to stop this sort of thing.

Friday, November 14, 2008

France in Arrested Development

I've come up with a theory. And I think it's a good one. I think that since Mai '68, France has been in a state of arrested development. In some ways, many ways, this is a good thing. People still queue at boulangeries during their lunch breaks to buy good quality, locally made bread. Men play petanque in the parks as soon as the weather gets warm. Bretons still dance whatever dances people in Brittany dance. But in other ways it's a bad thing. It's terrible.

Last night, just before going to bed, I received a rather unpleasant electric shock. From my sink. The cause seems to be that my washing machine isn't earthed, and I, washing my hands, barefoot, connected myself to the excess current. At first, I couldn't for the life of me work out what was causing the electric current. So, the next morning, I talked to the gardienne about it, who's a very nice lady, and very helpful with any problem. When I explained my experience, she only replied knowingly, "Ah, that's the washing machine. It isn't earthed and it's discharging current." From the tone of her voice it was if I was to expect to be periodically electrocuted by my water supply, and it was something all French people who have washing machines have to put up with. Well, at least I have a washing machine...

On the bright side, while most French companies and services have barely realised that the internet exists, one stands out as an exception: This is the website for information on Parisian public transport, and I can say that it's one of the best websites I've come across. The interactive map of the transport system is amazing, and much better than the near-illegible pdf file that is given on the London Underground site. The route planner even tells you how much carbon dioxide your journey will take up compared with a car. I'm amazed that someone decided that would be useful information to tell you when you're planning to get across Paris. Plus you get email updates warning of up-coming strikes. On a not so bright side, for some unfathomable reason, I can no longer top up my phone online.

On a completely different note, I saw Quantum of Solace on Tuesday. It was a jour ferie (bank holiday), which France has an abundance of, so people from Church decided to have a group foray to the cinema. And it was good - much better than the reviews made out. I did come to the conclusion however, that Bond and restaurants never mix. Within two minutes maximum of James Bond walking into a bar, restaurant or cafe, there will be a violent shoot-out, with diners and drinkers cowering under tables and showered with debris, bodies, and other miscellaneous items. Hotels seemed pretty safe though.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Enclaves and more enclaves...

I've just found out about a rather interesting geopolitical anomaly. An enclave is a country or a part of a country which is completely surrounded by another country. For example, the country Lesotho is completely surrounded by the larger South Africa. The Spanish town of LlĂ­via is completely surrounded by France (it is thus also an exclave: a part of a country which is not connected to the rest of it). So far, not so interesting. However, there are two enclaves which are interesting. The enclave of Madha is a part of Oman but is completely surrounded by the United Arab Emirates. However, inside of Madha is another enclave, called Nahwa, which is part of the United Arab Emirates, but completely surrounded by Omani territory (that is, Madha). I think this is the only place in the world where there is an enclave inside an enclave.

Politics and Religion

I haven't posted an entry in aeons, but here you go. There's one rule about blogs, forums, etc., that is don't talk about politics and religion. But I'm going to do both. In one blog. How extreme am I? The reason for this unusual event, since I haven't blogged in over a year, is reading a blog entry of a friend here. Which, as a summary, is about why this particular person wouldn't vote for McCain. I wouldn't vote for McCain either. Never. Not even with a gun put against my head. But I can say that because a) Obama won the election and b) I'm not American so am not entitled to vote anyway.

But in his argument, this friend mentioned two points in which McCain was possibly better than Obama, that is gay marriage and abortion. I'm going straight for the heavy topics here! And, although I agreed with him to some extent, I also disagreed with him. This got me thinking on what I actually thought about these issues, et voila. So let's go for the first one: gay marriage.

My friend said, "I think that the Bible teaches that [homosexuality] is wrong." I agree. And I agree that in church, marriages should be heterosexual. Heterosexual relationships are the only relationships given such emphasis in the Bible. They are clearly set apart. One whole book of the Bible is devoted to a heterosexual relationship. And I think that in the church, it should stay that way. Outside of the church, well, who am I to say? I think Christians should not dictate the interpersonal relationships of other people in society if it does no harm to people who have no say in the arrangement. A relationship of informed consent (within certain bounds) should be allowed. And I believe that an official union which confers the same state rights to those in a homosexual relationship should be allowed. Just because I might think that homosexual marriages don't have a place in the church, that does not mean that I should try my utmost to prevent people from, let's say, getting the same level of housing benefits as those in heterosexual relationships. The vast majority of those in heterosexual marriages in the UK and France, the two countries where I have lived, give no thought to God's opinion to it. So by my reckonning (I might be wrong!), us Christians should be equally opposed to most heterosexual marriages. And on a historical note, during the emergence of the Christian church, homosexuality was widely practised, and even condoned by the surrounding society. I don't imagine organising anti-gay marriage petitions was high on St Paul's agenda.

Point two: abortion. I believe that aborting a foetus is no different from killing a human being living outside of the womb. But like killing people, although the majority of the cases are morally abhorrent, and constitute murder, or at least manslaughter, there are cases where it might be necessary to kill another human being. I believe, like most people, that it is perfectly acceptable to kill a person in self-defence. That is, where allowing that person to live, they would inflict severe physical or mental injury against the other person. And I believe the same is true with abortion. I believe that there are circumstances where continuing the pregnancy would be significantly worse than aborting the foetus.

Now, to get into a more detailed discussion, I think it's important to look at the laws surrounding abortion. Since I'm British, I'm going to use UK law, but of course the conclusions I draw are universal. So here's the Abortion Act 1967:

A legally induced abortion must be:
  • performed by a registered medical practitioner, performed, except in an emergency, in a National Health Service (NHS) hospital or in a place for the time being approved for the purpose of the act, and
  • certified by two registered medical practitioners as justified under one or more of the following grounds:

A the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman greater than if the pregnancy were terminated;
B the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman;
C the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman;
D the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of any existing child(ren) of the family of the pregnant woman;
E there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped;
or in emergency, certified by the operating practitioner as immediately necessary:
F to save the life of the pregnant woman; or
G to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.

There is no time limit for abortion, except for categories C and D, for which there is a 24-week time limit. I agree with reasons A, B, D, E, F and G. So far so good. But C I have a problem with. 'What?' I hear you cry, 'You have a problem with allowing an abortion when the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman was at risk?' Well, yes, actually. The problem is, this is far too vague. In fact, statistically speaking, an abortion is less likely to result in health risks than a full-term pregnancy. So all pregnancies fall under this category. Many doctors also believe that if a woman is in a position to ask for an abortion, her mental health is de facto at risk because of the consequences of refusing an abortion. This means that, often, any pregnant woman asking for an abortion is able to have one. And the statistics speak for themselves. 97% of abortions in England, Scotland and Wales (Northern Ireland has its own laws on abortion) fall under this category. I do not believe that ground C should be scrapped. A woman who is likely to suffer from severe, long-term post-natal depression, regardless of whether her child is adopted by someone else or not, should, I believe, be allowed to have an abortion, for example. I do believe however that it should be tightened to only allow cases where the physical and mental health risks are imminent or foreseeable. The exact wording of this is for lawyers to come up with, not me.

So, there you go. Other than on those two issues, I definitely agreed with the rest of what he said. It was very thought-provoking!