Magical Thinking  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

"Leadership. Leadership. Personal responsibility. Family values. Leadership. Decency. Fairness. Leadership."

Belief in free will is not merely an abstract idiocy. It has concrete and idiotic practical applications. For example, last night I was talking to someone who likes John Key and National's emphasis on "personal responsibility". It was implied (or explicitly stated - one of the two) that people can "freely choose" whether or not to go to university, whether or not to commit a crime. When I pointed out the overwhelming tendencies of violent criminals coming from lower socio-economic areas and tertiary-educated people coming from wealthier areas, I was met with a kind of blank stare and a repetition of the assertion: people choose whether or not to do these things.

Otherwise rational people adopt this insane stance. It's like some kind of bizarre brainwashing. Their reasoning is something like this. I say, "Decisions are entirely determined by factors outside of a person's control."

They respond: "You're saying that external factors account for 100% of the determinants of decision-making. This is wrong. External factors influence decisions, but not 100%. Something like 70% or something. And the other 30% is made up of KRSHHRSHSTATICSHHSRRHSRH. Therefore, people are to blame for their own actions. They could have acted differently, but they didn't."

Fuck knows what's going on in that part where their reasoning becomes static. If you try to get them to think about that part of their reasoning, their eyes glaze over for a moment, then they fast-forward to their conclusion and start repeating it over and over.

Alan Watts coined a word - "goeswith"/"gowith" - to refer to those things that are flip sides of the same coin. For example, cause and effect. Cause goeswith effect, and it's both confused and confusing to speak of them as separate. One might ask, "How on earth does the cause leap forward in time to interact with the effect?" But it's all one thing, a cause-effect.

That's what we've got here with this free will nonsense. Choices gowith reasons. The 30% of static in the reasoning of the person who believes in free will provides a kind of imaginary space in which the decision is made separate from the reasons. Within this imaginary space, the imaginary agent gazes dispassionately at the surrounding 70% - the fears, hopes, desires that make it possible to evaluate the preferability of the options - and then chooses which ones to give weight to.

And that feels to them like it makes sense, because they're forgetting that choices gowith reasons, and if they're going to choose which reasons to act on, they're going to need reasons for that decision too.

What's another way to put it? The 30% of static is, to them, like a swing vote. It's those voters who are undecided. 35% want to get up and go to work. 35% want to stay in bed and call in sick. 30% are undecided, and it could go either way! That's what the static is. But, in keeping with the analogy, the 35% were compelled by reasons for voting for, and the other 35% were compelled by reasons for voting against, and the 30% swing voters will also be compelled by reasons for or against. But the static obscures the fact that until they decide, undecided voters are no voters at all. To the reasoning of the free-willer, that 30% is a different kind of thing from the decided voters.

And finally, it's the unpredictability of decisions that provides cover for the 30% of static in the reasoning. It's the fact that, unlike obviously determined things like the striking of the match, we don't have the ability to perfectly predict how someone will act. You can tell me everything you know about someone, but I will only ever be able to tell you how they're likely to act. Jenny's fairly mature, she's never given indications of being depressed, she is expecting good things in the future, so it's really unlikely that she'll jump off the bridge as she walks over it. But she might! But she probably won't. But she might! And I can't say for sure.

The unpredictability is not due to some lack of determinism in decision-making, but simply the complexity of the process and the number of factors influencing it. It's analogous to the weather. We can't predict with 100% accuracy whether or not it will rain tomorrow, but that shouldn't stop us from thinking that it's determined - which is to say, if we did know everything about the factors involved in weather, we would be able to predict it with 100% accuracy.


I am increasingly convinced that a LOT of the foolishness in human society is based on the magical thinking at the base of a belief in free will. It affects every aspect of human organisation - economics, government, religion, war, crime and punishment. Sanity needs to spread if things are to get better.

Warrior Codes  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in , ,

Samurai Showdown: vastly superior to Street Fighter.

In 1997, I accepted a tenure-track position in the ethics section of the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the U.S. Naval Academy. My students are intelligent, well-rounded, surprisingly earnest, and extremely likable young people. My six years of teaching philosophy to these future Navy and Marine Corps officers have made it impossible for me to see discussion about the ethics of war as a mere academic exercise. The men and women in my classes have volunteered to be America's warriors. It is important for all of us to understand what that means.


Some of my students reported having trouble understanding how anyone, no matter what his convictions, could agree to take part in terrorist operations that are not limited by moral constraints and that involve intentionally targeting innocent civilians. They wondered: Are the people who can do these things inhuman monsters? How can they create meticulous plans to slaughter unsuspecting civilians without being stopped in their tracks by impossible-to-ignore pangs of conscience?

Ethics professor Shannon French sets her US military students an interesting assignment. When Teaching the Ethics of War is not Academic.

Darfur: God's Eye View  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in , , ,

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have set up a Google Earth tool/collaboration that lets you see what's going on in Darfur - from a safe distance. Zoom in to more than 133,000 homes, schools, mosques and other buildings burned to the ground.

It's the first step of the USHMM's Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative.

The Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative seeks to collect, share and visually present to the world critical information on emerging crises that may lead to genocide or related crimes against humanity.

Beginning with Darfur, we are building an interactive “global crisis map" that will provide citizens, aid workers and foreign policy professionals with a new tool to share and understand information quickly, to "see the situation", enabling more effective prevention and response.

Just Say No  

Posted by Ryan Sproull in

Finally, I have quit smoking. Now, I feel like I can do anything. So I'm going to quit sleeping. You can read about polyphasic sleeping here. I've tried it before and failed miserably, so this will likely be a catalogue of my failure again.

In order to facilitate the schedule...

  • I have quit alcohol.

  • I have quit processed sugar.

  • I have quit caffeine.

  • I have quit any semblance of a social life.

  • I have rerolled on World of Warcraft.

  • First entry

    Last night I slept for five hours, getting up at 6am. I attempted a 30-minute nap at 8am (I'll be sleeping on 4's, 8's and 12's), which was fairly easy, because my workplace has a sickbay with a bed. Eventually I'll get found out, no doubt, but in the meantime I'll keep using it.

    Didn't get to sleep for about 10 minutes. Was awoken by some loud bang 15 minutes later. Going again at 12.

    How about I overhear you talking about firing me, and we'll call it even.  

    Posted by Ryan Sproull

    If you've ever clicked through the webcomics linked to your left (my right) - and you really should have, because they're hilarious - you would hopefully have seen the fantabulously hilarious Mac Hall. I was very sad to see it end last year. But fear not, Matt is back, with the equally brilliant Three Panel Soul.

    News enough in itself. But check this out. At the end of April, Matt was talking about buying a gun. He's in the States, where they do that kind of thing. They buy guns. Anyway, it's perfectly legal, and Matt was talking in his workplace about buying a .22 bolt-action rifle. He was talking about how that's a safer choice, because to really kill someone with it, you'd "practically have to put it in someone's face and pull the trigger". A colleague overheard the conversation, told management, and he was fired.

    So, what the fuck? Sure wouldn't happen in New Zealand. Culture of fear, anyone?

    God, I hate using the word "culture" like that. Everything's a culture these days. Culture of this. Culture of that. Anyway. Culture of fear, anyone?

    "The mainstream media? I trust the Internet more."  

    Posted by Ryan Sproull in ,

    "Ron Paul emerged from last week's GOP debate as completely victorious according to every available benchmark and yet there is still a deliberate ploy to push the Texas Congressman to the sidelines on behalf of a terrified corporate media."

    So says Paul Watson of Prison Planet, in a recent Jones Report. Ever heard of Ron Paul? Here's me guessing you haven't. Ever heard of Rudolph Giuliani? Of course you have. Well, let's hear about Ron Paul.

    He's in Congress for his 10th term. Wikipedia has this to say:

    Paul advocates the limited role of government, low taxes, free markets, and a return to monetary policies based on commodity-backed currency. He has earned the nickname "Dr. No" for voting against any bill he believes violates the Constitution. In the words of former Treasury Secretary William Simon, Paul is the "one exception to the Gang of 535" on Capitol Hill. He has never voted to raise taxes or congressional pay. He has always voted against the USA PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and the Iraq War.

    I'm not generally a fan of libertarians. They like to take functions of society out democratic control by privatising them, and plus "libertarian" was totally our word first. But it sure is interesting listening to him in the debate.

    Spiderman 3 Reviewed - Spoilers  

    Posted by Ryan Sproull in

    Symbiotic suit
    Turning Spiderman emo.
    Bring on the church bell.

    The scene. Sam Raimi is sitting in his study, tapping away at his laptop, trying to work out the details of his script for Spiderman 3. After two excellent movies, he's feeling the pressure and expectation from the fans.

    "An alien symbiote... becomes a suit..." he mutters to himself. On the couch, his teenage daughter texts some cute boys. She has no idea that they're only hitting on her in the hopes of meeting Bruce Campbell.

    "But what does the suit do?" Sam asks himself. Something contemporary. Something hip. Something Sam was those many years ago. He turns to his daughter. "Honey, what do you call that thing that those kids do, with the boys all wearing make-up and looking like they're real sad about being able to afford make-up?"

    Girly Raimi sighs. "Emo, Dad. GOD!" She storms out of the room.

    "Of course!" cries Sam. "The alien symbiote becomes a suit that turns Spiderman emo!"

    He pauses.

    "And it evolved on a planet WHERE THERE WERE NO BELLS!" Sam's on a roll. More cocaine! It's time to finish the script!

    How does Harry learn that Spiderman didn't kill his dad? "The... butler, who we've never seen in the previous two movies! After years of watching Harry turn into a bitter, revenge-driven murderer, the butler finally decides it's time to tell him that knows for a fact that Spiderman didn't kill his dad."

    What about the traditional argument with MJ? "Harry will threaten Peter Parker's life, and it'll never even remotely occur to her that Peter Parker is FUCKING SPIDERMAN and can probably handle himself."

    How to really threaten Spiderman? "Venom will arbitrarily team up with Sandman, who will arbitrarily become a murderous villain, totally out of character, and try to kill Spiderman!"

    And so on.

    And so on.

    But Bruce Campbell was awesome.

    Best Online Documentaries  

    Posted by Ryan Sproull in

    Chomsky umms and ahhs his way through more genius.

    Haven't seen Manufacturing Consent? Well, here it is. In fact, here are many, many online documentaries, at the Best Online Documentaries page. What else is there? Well, there's Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism. The Corporation is there too. Fucking awesome.

    Go. Learn. Whakarongo.

    Closer Than They Appear  

    Posted by Ryan Sproull in ,

    Well, it wasn't Mark replying, I'm sure.

    On Close-Up on TV One last night, there was a discussion panel about the controversial anti-smacking bill repeal of Section 59. It included Sue Bradford, Hone Harawira, some guy who collected a petition against the repeal, and... Promise Keeper Simon Barnett. For some reason I'm certain he's a Promise Keeper, but I can't seem to find any references about it. So maybe he's not. Anyway...

    They asked for feedback, and I gave them some.

    Why on earth is Simon Barnett present in a discussion about legal matters? Does he have any relevant qualification to weigh in, or does having been on television for a while count as some kind of expert degree these days? I look forward to Miss New Zealand's take on our military presence in Afghanistan.

    It didn't occur to me that they might respond, or I would have said something a bit clearer about Simon Barnett's hardcore evangelical Christian views making him unrepresentative of most parents in New Zealand. But, to Close-Up's credit, they did respond:

    Simon Barnett was on the show as a parent not an expert in legal matters. This bill affects many New Zealanders and all parents and he was chosen as a mainstream voice and a parent, not as a lawyer. His "qualification" was that he's a parent of four and has spoken out about the issue over recent weeks.

    I was too shocked by their good manners to say anything intelligent in response, and told them so. They replied that there were another 523 mails about the discussion left to deal with, and even though they declined my offer to reply to a few of them myself, I asked another question:

    If you can spare a moment more, whose decision was it for Mark to call it "the anti-smacking bill"? It's not the name of the legislation, and it sort of immediately frames the discussion in a way that's going to obfuscate what the bill actually does. I know that Close-Up is hardly the first to call it that - in fact, it's hard to find a news or discussion source in New Zealand that calls it anything else. But Bradford, Clark and others have all repeatedly said that it's not a ban on smacking. Anyone trying to clearly put forward arguments in favour of the repeal are immediately on the back foot, having to explain that the bill everyone knows as the "anti-smacking bill" is not, in fact, an anti-smacking bill.

    To which they replied...

    This may interest you. It’s a Green Party Press Release from 2003 in which they labelled it just that themselves.

    And so they did. The stupid bastards. Though the press release does make clear that the concern is that Section 59 has been used to get parents off assault charges that involved hitting their kids with bits of wood, the title is there for all to see: "anti-smacking bill".

    While I hope the legislation goes through, it would appear the Green Party may have brought some of this shit on themselves, through lack of foresight.