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Feb. 13th, 2008

Free Will Doesn't Matter [video]

Transcript follows:

Hello, my name is Al. I’m an atheist. I believe that supernatural gods do not exist.

Have you heard about the concept of free will? Free will is huge philosophical question that everybody has some opinion on because it has implications for morality, and religion, and individuality, and how we can and should live our lives. So people think it’s kind of a big deal. For example, you’re watching this video. But are you watching this video because you chose to watch it of your free will? Or are you watching this video because the laws of physics of every atom in the universe, including the atoms of your body and brain, have played out so that I have come to inevitably watch this video?

On the other hand, it seems that the entire universe follows a set of regular, ordered laws, the laws of physics. The atoms of the universe are bouncing around according to the laws of physics like a massive game of pool. And our bodies and brains are also physical systems, so it seems all our actions and thoughts and decisions are the inevitable playing out of these physical rules.

In that case it seems that we don’t make decisions at all. There’s this concept called Laplace’s Demon that you’ve probably thought of before but didn’t know that someone gave it a name. This is a hypothetical demon or entity or supercomputer that knows the position and velocity of every atom in the universe, and using the laws of physics, can then determine everything in the future. And so you may ask, how can we hold anyone responsible for anything if they could not have possibly done anything else?

Religion steps in and claims to solve this problem with the concept of a “soul”, which is this immortal non-physical thing that floats in your chest or head that you can’t see, but if you could see it it would look like this bluish-whitish ghosty version of yourself. Really, nobody can agree what the soul is or looks like but that’s the common image people come up with. Your soul is conveniently not subject to the rules of physics or rules of anything else. Your soul is completely free to make choices of its own volition, and so you can justifiably be rewarded or punished after your body dies.

Which is good, because religions have a lot of rules about the way you should live along with rewards and punishments. Your free will lets you choose to live by these rules and have an afterlife of heavenly bliss, or you can choose not to follow them and be tortured for eternity in a lake of hell fire. So, you know, do whichever one you want, it’s your free choice.

You could go a step furthur than the soul concept and say there is a spiritual dimension to the universe as well as a physical dimension, and somewhere in there, we get free will. Spirituality is a nice cop out because it is completely untangible and nonfalsifiable. I could love comes from our spirituality, and that sounds poetic and also can’t be proven wrong. Nothing can be proven wrong when you talk about spirituality, you can make any claim you want. So saying free will comes from some arbitrary, invisible dimension of reality isn’t the most concrete of arguments.

Some of you with an unread copy of A Brief History of Time on your coffeetable might say that we don’t live in a deterministic universe, because of quantum physics and heisenburg’s principle and this zombie cat-in-a-box. But then we just replace causal determinism with random probabilities, which doesn’t leave us much room for free will anyway. If you made every decision in your life by tossing a coin, we wouldn’t call that free choice.

But nobody wants to admit that determinism can be true because then we throw a childish, nihilistic tantrum. “Everything is preordained, I have no control over my life, I am just a robot, I can’t change anything in my life.” This is the tinyest violin for them.

Here’s what I have to say about free will. Free will doesn’t matter. No, really. This entire philosophical question of free will is pointless, because it doesn’t matter if free will exists or not, we’re going to live our lives like we have it either way. If free will does exist, great, whoop-de-doo. We continue living our lives normally. If free will doesn’t exist, we’ll still make decisions as we always have and we can’t predict the future anyway. If we don’t have free will, we still have a perfect illusion of it that works exactly just as well.

I’m not saying the truth doesn’t matter or ignorance is bliss, but in this case our behavior is the same either way. The existence or nonexistence of free will doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect our lives if we have it or not. And I’m not ignoring a grand mystery of existence, I mean you could assign just as much importance to the question of “Do we live in the Matrix?”.

Anyway, people think the idea of determinism is horrifying because it makes them feel like they don’t have any control over the course of their life. Because as we all know, we have complete control of our lives now. I could do that, I just don’t wanna.

Really, what I think would be horrible isn’t determinism but knowing the future and being unable to do anything to change it. And that’s only when the future is bad. Nobody becomes depressed at the idea that one is inevitably going to win the lottery.

So when you worry if we have free will or not, don’t worry about it. You’re just as free now as you’ve ever been. Even if the future was predictable, we certainly can’t predict it. And life is still, as it always has been, pretty much what you make of it.

Thanks for watching.

Sep. 2nd, 2007

[video] See, God.

Transcript follows:

So this guy asked me-

Do you believe in God?

No I don't. That was easy. I mean, I can't disprove the existence of Poseidon, but I find all the stories of his miracles and feats to lack credibility. Yes, I know that an entire civilization held the existence of Poseidon to be true, and that his visage is found in numerous works on art and there are ruins of his temple in Greece. But so many of the exploits of Poseidon not only go against our rational observations-

Whoa! Poseidon? I'm talking about God. "God" god. The Christian God. You know, the real one.

Oh. No, I don't believe in him either.

But let me go back to my case against the existence of Poseidon.

First, a belief in Poseidon leads to a belief in the entire Greek pantheon. Poseidon was the brother of Zeus, the king of the gods, and he conceived a child with his goddess sister after she transformed into a mare. You have to believe in the existence of Atlantis, the island that Poseidon created. You have to believe in cyclopses and that the Odyssey is based on historical truth. I mean, if you believe it literally, you have to believe that there was at one time a talking horse.

Okay, so moderates might not believe in the story with the talking horse and say it's just allegory. A really weird allegory. But, they say, the idea of Poseidon who provides for the safe voyages of ships and acts as the patron of horse-racing is a sincere spirtual belief that many people can hold, not just the Greecian extremists.

But how do we tell the difference? The divinity of Poseidon doesn't tell us which parts are simply metaphysical legends and which parts are physical truth. We can't rely on what is "obviously" true or false, because our idea of obviousness is relative to our own culture. And so much of the folklore of Poseidon seems to almost willingly escape scientific verification or refutation.

And Poseidonists don't see any problem with that. When I ask what evidence they have for their sea god, they say, "I just have faith." Or they mention some personal experience they had. Like every time they win at the horse track, they thank Poseidon. But when they lose, they don't think anything of it. It's as if there's no such thing as coincidence.

And why is it that the legends of Poseidon are filled with these fantastic stories, but we don't see any of these miracles today. In an age of cheap and available telecommunication and video recording, we never capture these miracles on tape. Well, there was that cheese sandwich thing that one time. We're only left with some historical documents from thousands of years ago. Sure, some people say he still protects ships at sea, and some of the nuttier people say he caused the 2005 tsunami as punishment against the faithless. But what about the very obviously improbable events: there are no reports of him seducing mortal women today. He doesn't make deals to build walls around modern cities as he did with Troy. He had children that included mermaids, winged horses, cyclopses, and giants; we don't see creatures like this today. Why is it that all these supernatural events were recorded frequently back then, but not now?

Lots of people tell me that I'm just close-minded to the idea that Poseidon exists, that the evidence is there, I just chose to ignore it. But that's not true. If I could see compelling evidence that Poseidon existed, this would the most awesome truth imaginable. But I just think that their godly attributions are conveniently selective and their personal experiences always seem to have this component of wishful thinking. They take a sea voyage and a storm doesn't sink the ship, suddenly it's all because of Poseidon.

They tell me to look with my heart and search my soul. And I sincerely do that, but I don't feel different. Then they'll say, "Poseidon speaks to those who listen." or something vague like that. It's almost as if I have to believe in Poseidon before he'll communicate with me and reaffirm my belief in him. But at that point, I already believe in him, so no matter what I'll say he exists. You can call that faith, but it seems more like a self-inducing prophecy to me. I mean, I could do that with any belief. But if I did that with the Christian God, the Poseidonists which just call me a heathen.

And then there's all the reasoning against his existence on top of it. Let's compare it with any other form of knowledge; if you took a scientist of any field today and sent them back in time to a scientist of that field a thousand years ago, the future scientist could teach the past scientist something new. But if you took a Poseidonist of today and had them talk to a Poseidonist of a thousand years ago, they'd just have an interesting theological argument.

It just doesn't make any sense-

Ha ha, Al, very funny. You're trying to make a comparison between Greek mythology and Christianity. But be honest, the fact that Poseidon is a laughable fairy tale doesn't mean Jesus Christ isn't the Lord and Saviour of mankind.

That's technically true. But that's not the point I want to make.

First, I've seen a number of Christians complain that atheists specifically target Christianity over other religions. But this isn't because atheists are just anti-Christian and give all other belief systems a free ride, but because Christians make up the majority of theists in the English-speaking world. It's less relevant to attack the claims of Hindus, Jains, and Poseidonists because they're a small part of the religious makeup. And there aren't that many Zorastrians trying to impose their religious beliefs into legislation.

Second, sure, you could say I'm being a smartass by comparing Christianity to a belief system that is obviously superstitious hogwash. But what makes our ancient holy books correct and their ancient holy books wrong? Isn't it suspicious that we can so readily believe in the religion of the culture we happened to grow up in, and so readily discredit the religion of some other culture? Are we somehow smarter or more spiritual as a people today? How can we accept divine virgin births and walking on water as valid miracles, but snake-hair and three-headed dogs as myth? What separates dignified spirtuality from bogus heathen fairy tales?

We can't say, "Well everyone believes in the Judeo-Christian God." There are three billion people today that have beliefs outside of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. That isn't some fringe minority.

Or maybe this shows us that human nature has a propensity for religious beliefs, especially from a time when humans lacked knowledge of their physical world.

When you think of God and religion as being the source of humans, all these jarring questions come up because there are so many sincere but mutually exclusive spiritual beliefs, all of them requiring faith because they lack proof. But if you consider humans as being the source of religion and God, the nature of religious beliefs and customs makes much more sense.

Just something to think about. Have a safe voyage, or good luck playing the ponies, and thanks for watching.

Jun. 22nd, 2007

[video] Navy Showers

A navy shower is a method of showering that reduces the amount of water you use.

1) Get wet.
2) Turn off the water.
3) While the water is off, lather up with soap.
4) Rinse off.

You get just as clean, and you help the environment and save money on your utility bills.


May. 16th, 2007

[video] What One Atheist Believes

I was having an argument with someone on the Internet, and they asked me, as an atheist, what exactly do I believe in? (It is a common misconception that atheists have no beliefs, or no moral beliefs, at all.)

So I made this video.

Transcript at:

May. 6th, 2007

[video] This Old Earth (part 1 of 3)

I respond to a young earth creationist's arguments. The first two parts are debunking the arguments for a 6,000 year old earth, and the third part will detail how we know the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

Transcript at:

It's taken a lot of my spare time to research and write this, and I also had some technical difficulties. The audio is out of sync by a little in some places.

Apr. 8th, 2007

[video] Fair and Balanced

Transcript is available on my website ( http://coffeeghost.net ) at:

[video] Why Is Evolution So Unpopular?

Transcript is available on my website ( http://coffeeghost.net ) at:

[video] What Science Isn't

Transcript is available on my website ( http://coffeeghost.net ) at:

[video] An Atheist Response to "The Richard Dawkins Delusion"

Transcript is available on my website ( http://coffeeghost.net ) at:

[video] An Atheist Response

Transcript is available at: