Michael Shermer interviews the Pope

Well, Brian Dalton playing the Pope (instead of God).  Here, as we’re starting to learn, the new Pope is simply a medieval theocrat dressed in hipster’s clothing. At the end, the faux Pope tells us the real changes he’s gonna make in the Church.

p.s. I think that’s a yarmulke that Dalton’s wearing. . .

Spot the platypus!

JAC: Matthew left me this as his final “gift” before his Lake District “hols.” It’s a gift in the same sense that a dead rodent left by your cat on the doorstep is a “gift.”  But based on this post, I’ve removed “seeing a platypus” from my bucket list.

by Matthew Cobb

No nightjars, no crabs, no killdeer. There’s a platypus somewhere in this photo by Dave Pope (@davpope on Tw*tter), who is a political cartoonist for The Canberra Times, and kindly allowed us to use the photo.

To be honest, this isn’t hard, it’s just supposed to show quite how difficult it is to see these elusive creatures. Dave’s Tw**t that accompanied the photo read: “The thrill of spotting a platypus is about 98% the idea of a platypus and 2% what you actually see”.



E. O. Wilson on free will

Ed Wilson has finally decided to wade into the murky hinterlands of Consciousness and Free Will, as seen in a new article in Harpers called “On free will: and how the brain is like a colony of ants.” (Sadly, you can’t read more than a paragraph without paying.)  I’ll quote from the pdf I have, but, in general, the article adds little to the debate about free will, which to me seems largely semantic. The real issue—the one that could substantially affect society—is that of determinism, which most philosophers and scientists agree on (i.e., we can’t make choices outside of those already determined by the laws of physics).

There are two problems with Wilson’s piece: it doesn’t say anything new, its main point being that consciousness and choice are physical phenomena determined by events in the brain, and it doesn’t define the subject of the piece, “free will.” How can you discuss that when you don’t tell people what it means? After all, for religious people (and most others, I suspect) it means one thing (libertarian free will), while for compatibilists like Dennett it means another (no libertarian free will, but something else we can call free will).

So here’s Wilson’s tacit admission of determinism, or at least of the physical basis of consciousness and “free will”:

If consciousness has a material basis, can the same be true for free will? Put another way: What, if anything, in the manifold activities of the brain could possibly pull away from the brain’s machinery to create scenarios and make decisions of its own? The answer is, of course, the self. And what would that be? Where is it? The self does not exist as a paranormal being living on its own within the brain. It is, instead, the central dramatic character of the confabulated scenarios. In these stories, it is always on center stage—if not as participant, then as observer and commentator— because that is where all of the sensory information arrives and is integrated. The stories that compose the conscious mind cannot be taken away from the mind’s physical neurobiological system, which serves as script writer, director, and cast combined. The self, despite the illusion of its independence created in the scenarios, is part of the anatomy and physiology of the body.

And here’s what I take to be Wilson’s tacit admission, though he’s never explicit about it, that “free will” is a mental illusion, since it reflects not conscious choice but unconscious brain processes. There’s a lot more to be said here, but Wilson doesn’t say anything beyond this one sentence:

 A choice is made in the unconscious centers of the brain, recent studies tell us, several seconds before the decision arrives in the conscious part.

But one novel part of his piece is reflected in the subtitle: an analogy between mental activity and colonies of social insects. Each insect is basically a little computer programmed to do a job, with its task sometimes changing with the environment (bee larvae destined to be workers, for instance, can become queens with some special feeding). But if you look at the whole colony, it appears as a well-oiled “superorganism” that works together to keep the colony functioning like a “designed” unit.  Wilson sees the brain in the same way: each “module” or neuron is entrained to behave in a certain way, but the disparate parts come together in a whole that is the “I,” the person who feels she’s the object and (as G.W. Bush might put it) “the decider.” But this analogy isn’t terribly enlightening, and doesn’t point the way forward to a scientific understanding of consciousness. That understanding will come through reductionist analysis, I think, but we already knew that.

Wilson is a physicalist, and says that progress in understanding consciousness and volition (I won’t call it “free will”) will come not from philosophers but from neuroscientists. In the main I agree, though I do think philosophers have a role to play, if only that of holding scientists to some kind of consistency and conceptual rigor. By and large, however, I see compatibilist philosophers as not only having contributed little to the issue, but having sometimes been obfuscatory by sweeping determinism (the truly important issue) under the rug in favor of displaying their own version of compatibilism.

At one point Wilson, though, appears to abandon determinism, but makes the mistake of conflating “chance,” which is simply determined phenomena that we can’t predict, with true unpredictability: that which we see in the realm of quantum physics. Perhaps in the statement below he’s saying that human volition isn’t repeatable or predictable because of such quantum phenomena, which could make decisions differ even if one replayed the tape of one’s life with every molecule starting in the same position. But Wilson could have been much clearer about this.

. . . Then there is the element of chance. The body and brain are made up of legions of communicating cells, which shift in discordant patterns that cannot even be imagined by the conscious minds they compose. The cells are bombarded every instant by outside stimuli unpredictable by human intelligence. Any one of these events can entrain a cascade of changes in local neural patterns, and scenarios of individual minds changed by them are all but infinite in detail. The content is dynamic, changing instant to instant in accordance with the unique history and physiology of the individual.

Well, does that give us “free will” or not? Does it give us truly unpredictable behavior, even in principle? Wilson doesn’t say.

In the end, Wilson bails, floating the common but unsatisfying conclusion that we have free will because we think we have free will, and that the illusion of (libertarian) free will is adaptive.

. . . Because the individual mind cannot be fully described by itself or by any separate researcher, the self—celebrated star player in the scenarios of consciousness—can go on passionately believing in its independence and free will. And that is a very fortunate Darwinian circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it, the conscious mind, at best a fragile, dark window on the real world, would be cursed by fatalism. Like a prisoner serving a life sentence in solitary confinement, deprived of any freedom to explore and starving for surprise, it would deteriorate.

So, does free will exist? Yes, if not in ultimate reality, then at least in the operational sense necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the human species.

Wilson is right in saying that we all act as if we have free will; nobody disputes that. And I’d like to think that he’s right in claiming that our illusion of libertarian free will is adaptive, though I know of no way to test that proposition. (We can, as always, concoct adaptive stories about this. One writer, whose name I can’t remember, argued that knowing whether a “choice” came from your brain versus someone else’s is an adaptive bit of information: it makes a difference if your arm is pumping up and down because you’re doing it yourself or if somebody else has hold of it and is doing it to you.)  I would have liked this conclusion better had Wilson been a bit more tentative in his adaptive storytelling.

But in the main, the piece adds little to the debates about consciousness and free will. In fact, I find that it muddles the debate. In my view, the best popular exposition of the problem of consciousness remains Steve Pinker’s article in Time Magazine in 2007. The reason the Harper’s piece got published was not because Wilson had something particularly new to say, but because the person who wanted to hold forth was E. O. Wilson. As for free will, I still like Anthony Cashmore’s piece in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

An important New York Times correction about bird poop

I can’t resist posting this tw**t from Nick Bilton, a columnist for the New York Times (sent by reader Barry):

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 10.11.27 AM

And a screenshot of the correction in situ:

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 10.08.29 AM

And here’s the original error, appearing in a column called “My life in bicycles,” by Jennifer Finney Boylan:

I prefer exercising at least two miles away from any other human being. For me, biking is a solitary activity. In the Kennebec Highlands, on my mountain bike, I pedal past Kidder Pond, up to the blueberry barrens high atop Vienna Mountain. From there, I watch bald eagles and ospreys, and other birds, whose poop, owing to their diet of berries, stains the gray rocks purple. Sometimes I’ve run into deer and porcupines, and on one memorable occasion, a moose. Another time, I lay with my back against a tree, watching a beaver build a dam in Boody Pond.

In fact, the passage seems ambiguous, for the purple poop might be attributed to the “other birds” rather than the eagles and ospreys.  However, and perhaps a grammarian can weigh in here, the common between “and other birds” and “whose poop” might imply that eagles, ospreys, and “other birds” are a set, all producing purple poop. It would have been less ambiguous without that comma. Where’s Pinker when we need him?


My New Republic piece on the Irish abortion case

I’ve rewritten my August 18 post on the woman in Ireland who was denied an abortion, then strapped to a bed and force-fed until she was given a Caesarian section 25 weeks into her pregnancy (after all, the Catholic country had to claim its baby). The rewritten piece now in The New Republic, and includes a few new facts that surfaced in the last day or so—none of which exculpate the state. There’s also a link to an interview with the woman herself.

The New Republic piece is called “The Catholic Church prefers medieval barbarism to modern abortion,” and you might go over and give it a short read (new facts and all), and proffer a bit of traffic to keep the secular content coming.

And, sure enough, the right-to-lifers are emerging from the woodwork in the comments.  Here’s the first comment:

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 7.03.09 AM

Pity that the sex of the baby hasn’t been reported. And I love the argument that if I had been aborted, I’d be really upset! As a respondent said,

“The author should be glad though that he was not a baby conceived by rape/incest and therefore likely to have been aborted/killed.”

That’s really not a good argument. If I would not have existed, then I wouldn’t have been around to rue my non-existence, and there would have been no “me” to feel sorry about not being.

And think of all those angry sperm who simply didn’t make it to the egg!

Here’s the third comment:

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 7.03.37 AMIs it “mercy” to force a woman to bear a child after she had been raped? Does that “mercy” hold for incest, too? The idea that the Catholic Church is “merciful” on this issue is laughable. Merciful for the fetus, perhaps—although they don’t give a rat’s patootie about it after it’s born—but there’s no mercy for the mother.


Readers’ wildlife photos

I’m cleaning out the backlog here, but we’re approaching a scarcity of good photos. Fortunately, we still have some treehoppers left from reader Mike McDowell, and three stray pictures from Ed Kroc.

First, the treehopper Smilia camelus:


A Widefooted Treehopper, Campylenchia latipes (I can imagine horror movies based on giant versions of these things):


Treehopper,  Glossonotus univittatus.  Mike’s equipment is a Nikon 1 V1 & Tamron 60mm 1:1 Macro Lens.


From reader Ed Kroc in British Columbia, a Glaucous-winged gull and chicks Larus glaucescens) at Tsawwassen, near Vancouver:

GW Gulls at Tsawwassen

And the fluffy chick. Everybody hates gulls, but aren’t they cute when young?

GW Gull nestling

Finally, a black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus). in velvet:

Black-tailed Deer



Two cartoons

First, the Jesus and Mo author comments on the recent crucifixions by ISIS.

2014-08-20On a lighter note, Zippy does interpretive dance on a number of topics, including creationism:



Zippy’s figure of 42%, taken from a new Gallup Poll, is largely correct, but refers not to the age of the earth but to the proportion of Americans who agree with the statement, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so.” And don’t forget that 31% are theistic evolutionists, believing that humans evolved over millions of years, but “God guided the process.” Only 19% of Americans assent to the purely naturalistic view that humans evolved over millions of years “from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”

h/t: Mark



Wednesday: Hili dialogue

Yay—I pwnd that poseur Cyrus!! Look at his chastened expression!

A: What are we posting today in the science section?
Hili: Something by Jerry.
A: We had an article by Jerry yesterday, we can’t post Jerry every day.
Hili: And who would be bothered by that, except possibly Cyrus?

10612697_10204070810037852_1594926602983263783_n In Polish:

Ja: Co dajemy dziś z nauki?
Hili: Coś Jerrego.
Ja: Wczoraj był artykuł Jerrego, nie możemy dawać Jerrego codziennie.
Hili: A komu to przeszkadza, chyba tylko Cyrusowi?

Sic transit gloria mundi

by Greg Mayer

We don’t often note events of general (as opposed to scientific) history here at WEIT, but today, August 19, 2767 AUC, is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, better known as Augustus, arguably the most significant individual in Western and, indeed, world history. The grand nephew and adopted son of Gaius Julius Caesar, through political acumen and military victories he brutally won the civil wars that followed Caesar’s murder, and then set about settling the affairs of the Roman world under the appealing fiction that he was restoring the Republic, while in fact he was founding the Empire.

Statue of Augustus from the villa of Livia, his widow, at Primaporta, Italy, now on display at the Vatican.

Statue of Augustus from the villa of Livia, his widow, at Prima Porta, Italy, now on display at the Vatican.

Ezra Klein’s Vox has a wonderful series of maps and figures depicting the rise and fall of the Roman Empire to commemorate the anniversary.

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Trajan, in 870 AUC.

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Trajan, in 870 AUC.

The first Roman Emperor, Augustus boasted marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset:  “I found Rome built of bricks; I leave her clothed in marble.” His last successor, Constantine XI, died fighting on the walls of Constantinople, the “New Rome”, in 1453 AD, only 561 years ago, and 1439 years after the death of Augustus. Much of the language, culture, laws, and governance of our world today grew out of the empire he established.

For a fictionalized view of his rise and brutal triumph, see Rome; for a take on his more beneficent middle and old age, see I, Claudius.

h/t Paul Krugman

Darwinian humor

Most cartoons about natural selection and evolution aren’t very funny—at least not since Gary Larson went out of the business. But this one, a page of a calendar belonging to reader Howie, is pretty good.



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