WP: Red Strings Extending Past the Sky (feat. Free Will)

Another writing prompt (with responses):

Image may contain: text

Off the bat, I have a little bit of a problem with the premise given it entails fate, but that’s okay, it opens the door to talking about the interplay of free will and fate. I’ll talk about that first. Then I’ll get into the possibilities of what an upward-going string could mean, be it aliens, celestial bodies, or (as I initially read it) the dead.

Fate and Free Will

I don’t imagine I need to spend much time showing how these two at least appear to clash. If you’re fated to something, that just means you’re unfree to avoid that something, at least using a fairly standard meaning of “fate”. Again, I’ll delineate several possibilities and then discuss the interesting options:

  1. You are bound to end up with the person you are fated to. Let’s bring back Ally and Bella and say now rather than twins they’re fated lovers. There’s no way they can go through life without ending up together.
  2. You’re bound to not end up successfully with anyone except whom you are fated to. Ally may date Carly for awhile, but they’ll never work out because Carly isn’t Bella.
  3. Fate influences events to steer you and your fated lover together, but ultimately you are free to choose. Ally and Carly could work out, but the scales are tipped towards her ending up with Bella.
  4. Fate is an impotent prophecy. The string between Ally and Bella does nothing and means only as much as they let it.

My first question here: In which of these possibilities is free will still an option?

What exactly fate is supposed to be is another question, but it doesn’t muddy the waters too much. The three options I see are some sort of divine power, causal determination, and a social story. By divine power I mean anything from what God set up for us to do in advance to a mystical energy that guides the universe. By causal determination, I mean if we live in a world where some sort of deterministic laws govern everything that happens, then in some sense we are fated. While it might sound silly to say when I knock the cup off my desk it’s fated to hit the floor, if complete knowledge of the particles in the universe could let you tell the life story of a newborn, “fate” seems like an alright word to use. These first two options work essentially the same, and fit quite nicely with 1. The third option, a social story, is more along the lines of 4. If your family has sold oranges for seven generations and they hope you continue, in some sense it’s your fate to sell oranges. However, this is totally compatible with you having a real option not to sell oranges.

What kind of fate fits with 2 and 3, then? Well, 2 could go with either of the first two options easily. Just because Ally is fated to not end up with anyone besides Bella doesn’t mean she has a fate to end up with Bella. She might just be forever alone. Looking at 3 requires a bit more because it demands some real possibility. It still works with the first two options if we modify them to be merely probabilistic or “leaning” in nature. On the divine end, God (or the universal spirit or whatever — I’ll say “God” from here on out) may not want to control but merely help you make certain decisions. A salesperson can’t make you buy something, but she can certainly try loading the deck in her favor. Likewise, God might not force Ally and Bella together, but nature may be set up so they’ll have all the best reasons to end up together. Likewise, if deterministic forces govern most of the world but leave freedom for people, those forces may overwhelmingly be lined up for Ally and Bella to have all the best reasons to choose each other. They may in their freedom betray their reasons, but nonetheless, the reasons were setup for them.

The compatibilist may here object that even with 1 Ally and Bella are still free. Even if the laws of nature or preordained story of the world demands they end up together, it is still they who choose to be together. That they are determined in their action does not change the fact that they chose what they did for some reasons. So when I say they have no choice, I’m mistaken. They totally have a choice, and they will choose each other.

I think these options illustrate the divide between libertarianism and compatibilism nicely. The libertarian simply cannot have 1, short of Ally and Bella ending up together by force and every other possible ending being taken away. Short of that, at the very least the two have the option to, say, kill themselves. They may choose to remain single. If the strings of fate only demand some societal role of togetherness be fulfilled, the mob may coerce them together as children, but if any choice of theirs is demanded, it must remain with no fact of the matter until they choose it, and what they choose must have no fact of the matter until they choose. That is, if they aren’t together yet, the statement “They end up together” must be neither true nor false.

I want to return to the loophole enabling the libertarian to have 1. Generally speaking, the libertarian requires free will and multiple actual possibilities for what choices may happen. (Contra the compatibilist who does not have this second requirement.) However, the choices don’t actually have to have any potency. Perhaps Ally and Bella are restrained from birth and end up together in some way not requiring any choice from either one of them. They may choose to reject each other but be physically forced into some bodily actions. In this case, freedom of the libertarian kind is still present.

The Skyward String

For better or worse, which of those four options and how much free will (libertarian, compatibilist, or none) is in play doesn’t really change the question of what it means for the string to be going upwards. The one important difference is that if the strings actually indicate an unavoidable fate, they must be indicating a possible fate. A clear case would be if we all have birthmarks on our chests with the year we die. You could not have the year 1999 birthmarked in this way because obviously you live past 1999. However, even the oddest options still have their possibility open for question.

The first response in the image suggests an alien. This is a pretty straightforward way about it. If fate demands possibility, this string would also demand contact with aliens within the lifespan of the person. (The prompt says “you,” so I’ll say your lifespan.) There’s nothing too outlandish here; there’s a lot of space in the universe, so some other sapient lifeforms being around isn’t out of the question.

The next suggestions are of celestial beings, interesting for being inanimate objects. (Well, unless a really wacky mode of panpsychism is right.) While objectophilia is certainly a thing, it is, to my knowledge, relatively unexplored. Moreover, this poses problems for the idea of a soul mate. Presuming being a soul mate requires a soul, this option is just off the table unless one of those wacky modes of panpsychism is right.

(What’s panpsychism? It’s the theory that everything is perceiving, thinking, experiencing, or otherwise of the same kind of thing a mind is. If you put the basic proto-psychic particles in the right shape, like a brain, you get robust consciousness. I’ve yet to see any literature discussing whether the moon could be conscious, though many physicalist (i.e. everything is physical) definitions of consciousness have to deal with the implication that solar systems or galaxies fit the definition. You would probably have trouble unbuckling Orion’s belt either way.)

The pilot option only makes me question what “beyond the sky” means in the original prompt. It might just mean past the point of visibility, in which case, sure, a pilot works. If it means beyond the Earth’s atmosphere (and pilots merely fly in the sky), then of course a pilot is not an option. Of course, if your lover is a pilot, they will likely be on the ground at some point, giving you a hint that way. If your lover is some faraway celestial body, your string will have some sort of regular rotation, sometimes pointing into the sky, and other times the ground.

Finally I have my original reaction: a dead person. As noted, with some of the freedom options, one of the lovers dying before fate can have its way is an option. Even if Ally and Bella choose to live as long as they can, Bella might be killed in a fatal accident. Say the strings appear when you hit puberty. Unfortunately, fatal accidents do not care about age, so Bella might be hit by a bus while Ally is only five, and then when Ally hits puberty, her string points skyward because it’s unclear which other way it would. Perhaps it points towards Bella’s corpse, though it’s not clear Bella is  her corpse. If Bella survives death, then either she is spatially related to Ally or she is not. If she is, then the string just points in the right direction — that we talk about the afterlife (or at least Heaven) being upward led me to assume skyward string indicated a dead lover, though any direction is in the realm of possibility. If she’s not spatially related, or if she does not survive death, then no direction makes sense, so Ally would be able to conclude her lover is not dead in such a way that she is not spatially related to her. (Or the strings have a special caveat for dead lovers.)

WP: Red Strings Extending Past the Sky (feat. Free Will)

WP: Twin Pain

From the writing-prompt-s tumblr:

You live in an alternate world where twins — fraternal and identical — can feel each other’s physical pain. You are an only child with no siblings. One day, suddenly, you feel a burning pain in your chest.

This prompt brings up a few problems. The first is of identity: what makes a pain yours? The next is an epistemic problem brought up by tumblr user askmissbernadette:

It’s called heartburn, learn to eat slower you hooligans

In a case where you may or may not have a long-lost twin, under what circumstances can you figure out whether or not you do? And if you can figure out that you do, how can you figure out that you can?

Identity

Let’s set aside your circumstances in the prompt and only consider the more usual case in this world of a pair of twins who feel each other’s physical pain. To feel someone else’s pain can take a variety of forms, particularly when the limitations of reality are lifted. Five levels are apparent:

  1. On the tamest end we have real-world recognition-based empathy. For example, if you see someone hurt, you recognize the hurt and are hurt in recognition of their pain.
  2. Next, also from the real-world, we have the sort of empathy where in response to seeing someone else having a feeling, you feel something mirroring that feeling. Of course, this is based on your perception of the feeling.
  3. A non-real level, when someone else feels a pain and it causes you to feel a pain through some mechanism. Maybe it’s magic. Maybe it’s really weird laws of physics. Perhaps a device that records their pain, sends a radio signal to a device
  4. A further non-real level, most easily explained by example. Say Ally and Bella are twins in the WP world. Ally gets hit by a hammer in her stomach and feels a pain in her stomach. At the same time, Bella feels a pain with all of the same properties in her own stomach.
  5. On the farthest level, we have the same pain in Ally and Bella. That is, Bella doesn’t feel the pain in her stomach — she feels the pain in Ally’s stomach. Within this type, she may have her own experience of the pain or, somehow, there is only one experience, though they both experience it.

Whether there are actually two options in 5 is itself another question, though. Is there more to pain than just the experience? The options are either there is some abstract entity of pain that is instantiated in the experiences, and thus one pain can be experienced multiple times or by multiple people or else there is only the experience. Perhaps, though, experiences can be repeated, within or across people. If, however, every experience is unique, then one pain can only be instantiated in two experiences if it’s itself some separate thing.

Are experiences unique? I argue they are. Our experiences do not come in neat, discrete parts, but rather messy wholes. When I see the glass on my desk, I don’t just see the glass. I’m seeing a bunch of things while feeling and hearing and smelling other things. Even with regard to the glass itself, it has a certain focus in my vision at a certain distance, and, most fleetingly, at a certain time. Moreover, I recognize it as a glass because of a certain cultural context. Rather than just seeing a clear cylinder with some color in it, I recognize it as a thing to pick up and drink from if I’m thirsty. My experience of it right now is as something not to drink from at this moment, but probably in a few minutes. Likewise, each pain and every other experience comes with a complex context that cannot be repeated.

If there are abstract entities, perhaps pain is one of them. In this case, if Ally gets hit in the stomach, the stomach pain entity is called upon to spawn itself in Ally. The same stomach pain entity is also called upon to spawn itself in Bella.

If instead pain is just the experience, we get the odd case of Ally getting hit in the stomach and Bella feeling that same pain. Here the difference from 4 is most evident. If 4 is the case, then Bella would feel pain in her own stomach. If 5 is the case, then Bella feels pain in Ally‘s stomach since the experience is of a pain in Ally’s stomach.

Of course, the prompt has you feeling pain in your own chest, so if 5 is the identity involved, you have no reason to suspect you have a twin. If 4 is, then we have to ask how the properties transfer. The most evident property of pain is its ouchiness. That is, pain feels painful. But if Ally feels a pain in her chest that’s six inches from her right side but also in her heart, but Bella’ heart is eight inches from her right side, does she feel the pain six inches from her right side or in her heart?

Epistemology of Pain-Twins

Let’s assume the fourth level is the one involved here, and you feel a pain in your chest. Can you figure out if a twin explains the pain, and if not, can you figure out if you have a long-lost twin?

As askmissbernadette brings up, you might just have heartburn. Now, this assumes you have that kind of pain. Even if you’re not familiar with heartburn, you can probably imagine a difference between simple heartburn and being shot in the chest. Likewise, you can imagine a difference between heartburn and being poked in the chest. If the pain is heartburn-like, odds are probably better you have heartburn than you have a long-lost twin, especially if you haven’t noticed unexplained pains up until this point in your life. If not, maybe there’s something. If you happen to have access to doctors and medical tests, that can further your knowledge of the odds either way. If some known, not-super-rare explanation can explain the pain, it’s again probably more likely that than a mystery twin. If not, you might have some reason to be suspect, though the point remains if you’ve made it more than ten years without noticing anything off, you’re probably fine.

This epistemic point undermines the prompt a bit. Little kids get hurt a lot. Unless they’re living unusually safe lives, they run into things, fall, scrape their knees, and generally exploit how quickly they heal. But if you’re nine years old and start feeling a bleeding pain in your knee while sitting in class or feel like you just ran into a wall while watching television, that’s when you’re going to figure it out.

Say your twin and you both managed to avert this. Can you find each other given the pain sharing? If I were that curious, I’d stab myself with a pen in Morse code to send a message. What if my twin isn’t in a context to understand Morse code? Well, some form of rudimentary message sending might be possible. Making obvious intentional pains would draw attention, if there are such things. Doing something like bashing your arm into a tree would generally be unambiguous enough. Getting a responding pain would be a pretty solid clue, though the question would remain why nothing was noticeable earlier.

Perhaps they were in a very long coma (this is fiction, after all) and after over a decade (or more) have finally woken up. Chest pain may be the first pain they experience upon waking up. Unless they immediately back into a coma, though, they will experience more pains. So while the chest pain alone will not put you on good grounding to conclude you have a twin, the series of pains thereafter that do not match your activities will.

 

WP: Twin Pain

Path to idealism

A friend of mine suggested I should write up how I came to idealism, which I’ll do here. I’ll note up front that I do not think that I came to it through the best philosophical arguments, possible or actual. Nonetheless, the path itself may be elucidatory of rhetorically strong arguments for it. (It may well also just be a generally uninteresting anecdote, but in either case, the request is fulfilled.) I may as well also explain how I came around to agent-causal libertarianism and agnosticism regarding the existence of divine beings. They all tie together, anyway.

At the end of high school I was a generally stereotypical new atheist with a strong inkling of disillusionment coming out of having strong religious beliefs that fell apart (and were probably of a harmful variety, anyway). Along with this came an eternalist theory of time, incompatibilist determinism, and a general scientism. Ultimately, buying into a third-person methodology probably did a lot of this. When still a Christian, I appealed to revelation that couldn’t be verified with a third-person perspective. I was told that if something didn’t qualify as evidence for others, it can’t qualify for me either. This didn’t knock over the dominoes immediately, but once I internalized it, everything else started to fall into place.

My first semester of college I took two seven-week seminars that met daily. Each of the two professors were brilliant, and the latter of the two a theologian as well. At that point I had two contradictory beliefs in mind: (1) religion and theism are completely stupid and (2) these religious people/theists are brilliant and have thought hard about religion and theism. The latter option won given the stronger evidence in its favor (Dawkins and friends have very condescending things to say, but looking back, I don’t see much substance to those things). Of course, this didn’t defeat my atheism, but it certainly made me believe the alternative is plausible.

My third semester I took a course on ancient and medieval philosophy. In the class we talked about some sort of phenomena (either color or feeling or pain; I don’t remember–for the sake of not writing a bunch of disjunctions, I’ll assume pain) and the professor asked us to explain what they are, more or less. I identified pain as a neural state. I.e. pain is just an arrangement of one’s brain and neurons and maybe some other biological stuff. The professor responded that may have some causal or correlatory connection to pain, but is not itself the feeling of pain. I pondered on this for awhile and the distinction became immediately apparent. (This is when the door to first person methodology opened back up.) From this I inferred some sort of “soul” must exist. I used “soul” synonymously with “mind” or “immaterial self”. While now I know physicalists have a response to this, I did not know that at the time, so I was convinced. With this I became a substance dualist.

The next semester I took a class on early modern philosophy. I appreciated philosophers like Descartes giving me further ammo for dualism, but my focus turned more towards whether divine beings exist (or, specifically, God). Descartes’s Meditations persuaded me pretty well, particularly on how we can get around skepticism. In the Meditations he only gives a natural theological argument, so I wasn’t pushed to any religion, but I did take to deism, though with hesitation. In fact, the final for the class had two essay questions of which we had to pick one: argue for or against the existence of God or free will. Being hesitant on God, I picked the free will option, running the “both determinism and indeterminism are bad for free will so we don’t have free will” argument. (Which in the paper I’ll be presenting in April, I argue doesn’t actually work.)

The following semester (fall of my junior year; also my first semester as a philosophy major) I took a class on science fiction and philosophy in which I had plenty of opportunities to apply substance dualism to all sorts of fun problems. The main thrust of it relied on God mapping souls to bodies. The deism obviously was critical. In the sci fi and philosophy class I found the arguments for compatibilism really compelling.

The next semester (spring of junior year) a few important factors came into play. I took an independent study on early modern philosophy and the PSR. Reading more into Leibniz and Spinoza with their basically panpsychist views probably had some effect. Reading Reid fully convinced me of agent-causal libertarianism. I was already starting to see how compatibilist free will has some problems (like not being free will), but had no way around it, not really getting event causal libertarianism (and universal object causal libertarianism being wacky). ACL filled the hole the best and, to my knowledge, indeed is the best explanation. The door being open to first person experience being relevant to an argument was of course needed for Reid’s argument having any force on me.

In the winter months of my junior year I started reading some work found on marxists.org, in fact just plucking anything that looked interesting and giving it a go. At this same time I started paying more attention to continental philosophy (which isn’t covered super well at Valpo). Most notably for this story, I took a liking to Sartre. Moreover, I found his argument for atheism more compelling each time I read it. Once I was fully convinced of libertarianism, the deism fell out to positive atheism. A long conversation I had with another friend in which he tried to convince me of physicalism was the straw that led me to look at all the problems with dualism. Without God to make the whole thing work, dualism was ready to fall out. Of course, the original point that made me move away from physicalism holds, and since then I’ve found more compelling arguments as well.

This past fall, with physicalism and dualism each unappealing, I started to lean to idealism. A few weeks in, I read Peter van Inwagen’s chapter in Metaphysics in which he reconstructs an argument for idealism and then knocks it down. I found the reconstructed argument far more compelling than the knocking down. (While I’d read Berkeley twice before, neither time was I moved. I couldn’t really understand the texts at the time, either.) Since then I’ve been working on a nontheistic account of idealism. At the same time, I took a class on philosophy of religion. There I learned Sartre was wrong; free will and theism are compatible.

At this point, I’ve acquired more compelling arguments for ACL and idealism. The agnosticism on the existence of divine beings stems from no longer having a strong case either way. Traditional idealism demands theism, but I think this is a hasty move. Multiple people have pointed out that the most apparent problems in my current set of beliefs all go away with God in the picture. I’m hesitant to apply such a powerful fix, inclined instead to believe other options should be explored first (which is what I’m doing now, alongside trying to make the case that what I’m doing totally isn’t monism because there are at least two things). Moreover, as the friend who suggested this post put it, I want an ontological argument for every property of God. So even if there is some being keeping our ideas consistent and explaining intersubjective agreement, that being isn’t obviously omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, etc.

Path to idealism

For whatever reason math, science, and pretty much any heavily quantitative study has become the metric on which intelligence is based. Someone who can do calculus mentally must be a genius and someone who struggles with fractions must be dumb. I’m not immune to this oddity–I met one particularly brilliant individual years ago and assumed he must be great at maths. (He’s not bad,  but also not significantly above average.) However, this sort of assumption is just toxic for many people. While some people let the cultural assumption roll off their backs, I have friends who insult themselves for being dumb simply because they’re not skilled with a particular mental skill or two.

I’m generally alright at math; I think it comes more easily to me than many others. I got a 3.8 on a math major and likely to have a coauthored paper published soon. But when I try my hand at writing a compelling story or poetry, I often fall flat on my face. Of course, with practice it improves, but if math abilities were an indicator of intelligence generally, I’d expect to be at least average at these things. Being able to craft a driving story, create art that inspires or comforts people, or say things that somehow improve life for people are themselves incredible intelligences to have. If I could trade my logic skills for those sorts, it’d be quite the tempting offer. Understanding people, feelings, aesthetics, etc. is hard. In my mind, far harder than crunching numbers and symbols.

Ultimately this is just a result of misdirected priorities. The pursuit of money and new technology (for the pursuit of money) has distracted us from the happiness and fulfillment those things were meant to serve in the first place. Certainly a lot of math and science is done for joy, knowledge, beauty, or some other virtuous thing, but the state of cultural supremacy they have taken seems to stem from these misdirected priorities. These misdirected priorities speak nothing of the art-oriented people. Quantitative skills have their place in good living, but it’s not the place that’s given them their current status.

As I can imagine certain complaints will come in, I’ll address them right now. I’m not saying everyone is smart. Some people are dumb. If nobody was, being smart wouldn’t really be anything. (I’m not saying just that it wouldn’t be valuable–it literally doesn’t make sense for there to only be smart people. Of course, there is a wide spectrum, but I don’t foresee anyone trying to make an object on the basis of apparent binaryism.) This isn’t to say they have less value as people. There’s a lot of very good things to be besides smart. Being smart is often only a useful trait in more valuable things. Nonetheless, for people who desire to have that trait but consistently fail because what they do is aimed at knowledge or some sort of mental skill but not one quantitative in nature, this attitude is harmful. (The underlying issue of priorities is an issue with a much larger scope. That there is a problem is simple enough to state, and all that is needed for my point here.)

Response to Evidence for God from Science Part 2: The Cosmological Argument

In Part 1 I addressed some issues with Deem’s rendition of the cosmological argument. He happens to have an entire page dedicated to it, so it bears deeper examination, especially since it’s such a popular one.

From Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” Deem asserts God acted before time when he created the universe. This is a stretch: if God was acting in the beginning, as Genesis says, he’d be acting in time, not before the beginning. He does provide four other verses that explicitly state God acted before time began, so we can still work forward from the claim, ignoring Genesis for now.

Deem asserts because God exists outside of time, cause and effect do not apply. Whether he considers God an uncaused cause is somewhat unclear as a result, but let’s assume God is a cause but does not require a cause. This atemporal God of the standard cosmological argument runs into a standard problem: there’s no reason to think it’s unique.

Deem proposes alternatively that God exists in multiple dimensions of time and can move freely about them. In this case time is prior to God, and time is left as a necessary being, thus either part of God, leaving us with the previous case, or else being a necessary being is not unique, leaving us with the same problem as above. Let us ignore this case, then, as it resolves to the previous case.

If beings can necessarily exist, such as God, we have no initial reason to suspect only one does. In this case, monotheism is at best a guess. More egregiously, the universe itself could be a necessary being (space and time themselves could be necessary with matter and energy properties thereof). In this case no god is needed.

The argument Deem presents again attempts to conclude God from the finite time of the universe. He ignores other possibilities as he has already arrived at the conclusion of God, only looking back to draw a map that could lead to God, but could also lead to any other conclusion involving a necessary being.

Response to Evidence for God from Science Part 2: The Cosmological Argument