Friday, September 27, 2013

Dennett Breakdown

A while back I wrote about a speech given by Daniel Dennett, the popular philosopher, that I found particularly frustrating.  I have been meaning for a long while to respond to his arguments more thoroughly.  The original video was over an hour long, so I found a shorter video on the same topic to address, point by point.  Even so, I have clipped it down to the essentials, as Dennett has a particular knack for not arriving at the point.

INTERVIEWER: People usually think of free will as opposed to determinism -- of course, by determinism, we mean the idea that basically the future of this universe is inevitable [...] and that includes people's brains; they're deterministic and so free will is kind of an illusion because of determinism [...].  That's the tradition argument against free will.  You're saying the two are compatible in some meaningful sense of both terms?

DENNETT: First of all, I want to say: that phrase, "the future is inevitable" just doesn't mean anything.  The future's going to happen, whatever it is, and that's true whether determinism is true or indeterminism it true, there's going be a future.

The statement "the future is inevitable" has (to me) a perfectly obvious meaning and implication.  It certainly doesn't mean the trivial truth that "there will be a future" (as Dennett supposes), because that is simply part of the framework in which we are having this discussion.  But perhaps there is some subtlety that we are not grasping when we make this particular statement?  Or perhaps misunderstanding things and disproving the wrong sense of them is his modus operandi.

Now in what sense could you talk about the future being inevitable?  I don't know, but what we have is particular events being inevitable, or particular types of events, and in order to see what the word inevitable means, you have to take it apart!  And oddly enough, even though the word trips off the tongue of everyone who talks about free will and determinism, hardly anybody's ever looked at it.  But of course what it means is unavoidable, [...] that's all the word means.

Here is the Merriam-Webster definition of inevitable:

Inevitable:  incapable of being avoided or evaded

Thanks for the clarity!

But now, to avoid something, this is something that an agent does, an avoider.  I mean agent in the broad sense of being an actor that has some sensory capacities and some goals, and acts in the world to accomplish its ends.  Now, are there agents that can avoid things?  Sure, tons of them.


But now, that means that the whole concept of inevitability gets its meaning from a perspective in which there are agents, that might want to avoid something, and it might be in their power, or it might not.  Now if we start looking at particular worlds with particular agents and particular circumstances in them, we can now start saying "well, in this world, what things are avoidable, what kinds of things are avoidable by this agent, given its powers and its circumstances?".  The answer might be "well, if you throw a brick at it, it can duck", because there's enough light to see the brick, and its nervous system is good enough, and its reflexes are fast enough 


Now, in order to be able to talk this way, in order to be able to partition the universe into things that are inevitable for that agent, or evitable by that agent, we have to have a way of talking about evitability and inevitability in a deterministic world.  Since there's plenty of evitability in deterministic worlds that we define, the implication that determinism implies inevitability is just false, it's just a mistake.  It's thousands of years old, it's never been pointed out, it's just a mistake.

WAIT.  You're saying that... okay, I get it.

The roundabout conclusion that "determinism does not mean inevitability" suffers from poor definitions; ironic from a man who spends so much time criticizing them.  Strictly speaking, Dennett is not actually wrong; only deeply misleading.  He has re-framed the question as "Can we envision a deterministic world in which agents avoid certain outcomes?".  The answer to his question, as he poses it, is "yes".

But the "agents" Dennett refers to are merely more complicated constructs within the framework of determinism; just arbitrarily elaborate machines.  Dennett has asserted only that deterministic structures do follow the rules of determinism.

The problem comes down to the way he partitions his deterministic world into "agents" and "circumstances".  In this context, agents can be said to "predict" the future and "avoid" some of the possible circumstances.  But the reality is that the agents and the circumstances are fundamentally equivalent, governed by the exact same rules, distinguishable only by some outside bias towards more complicated or discrete machinery.

But by calling these contrivances "agents", Dennett has empowered himself to inflict personal pronouns (and personal motives) upon them.  In effect, has has strongly implied (without saying it) that these "agents" are somehow more than the deterministic constructs that he has shown so elegantly to be deterministic.

He has in effect divided up his mechanical world, placed it into different colored boxes, and is drawing broad conclusions based on the colors of the boxes.

If professor Dennett had meant simply to clarify that the question "does determinism implies inevitability" could be more clearly worded, that would be one thing.  But to select for himself a convoluted vocabulary in which the question becomes trivial and then to make out like "thousands of years" of philosophy has been horribly misguided in answering that question, is simply intellectually dishonest.

What Dennett will not admit directly is that what he calls "free will" is just a backhanded description of the simple phenomenon that machines can be arbitrarily complex.  This, as Chesterton would put it, is a revelation not of thought, but of syntax.

I do not propose here that Daniel Dennett is wrong.  Only that if he is right, he has no business parading about words like "freedom" as if they still meant something to him.  He is singularly adept at speaking for hours about determinism and free will, forcefully shoving words into their awkwardest possible definitions.  Unfortunately, lackadaisical strolls through a morass of bad characterizations will not make determinism any easier to swallow.

Because however eagerly he may connive his way into saying he gets free will, the only bits of free will that are worth having are free, and will.  Determinism plainly gets you neither.

But perhaps determinism could find it in his heart to buy Daniel Dennett a dictionary.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dennet's Determinism

Let me preface this post by reassuring you all of my extraordinary humility.  The primary goal of this endeavor is to clarify my own ideas to myself, and when they are wrong I hope you tell me where and why.

The other night I was having trouble getting to sleep, so I watched a lecture by Daniel Dennet on the topic of free will.  Dennet is an atheist philosopher who Richard Dawkins refers to several dozen times in his book "The God Delusion" -- by the by, I am halfway through another of Dawkins' books, this one on evolution, and I like it very much.

The overwhelming feeling that I got from Dennet's lecture was that he could have explained exactly what he meant in the span of five minutes, but instead took a confusing hour and a half.  For a man to say so little in the span of so much time is an accomplishment in the same sense that golf is a sport: both are just obnoxiously difficult.

Dennet's basic claim is that determinism does imply that everything is determined, but does not imply inevitability.  He shows (or declines to show) this in a roundabout way by refusing to define the sense in which he means inevitability, and to be quite honest I still don't know what he thinks the word is supposed to mean.  For a while he claims that evolutionary biology can explain free will, but he neither explains what he means by free will or what evolutionary biology has to say about it.  For a good five minutes he exchanges the word "avoidable" for the more esoteric "evitable" without explaining what it is that the former means that the latter doesn't.  For another while he goes into an extended analogy about computers playing chess, the purpose of which I cannot hope to divine.

I have come to the conclusion that either Dennet is extraordinarily confused or extraordinarily confusing.  This isn't to say that I do not understand what he meant, only that I did not understand why he meant it.  If strict determinism is true, there can be no escape from the hard narrow groove of our inevitable future.  There might be an overwhelming amount of chaos, which looks like randomness but isn't, or an underwhelming amount of genuine quantum randomness, which only seems like a way out if you prefer losing at roulette to losing at checkers.

I wish Dennet had something more to say, but then if you taken determinism as fact, there is nothing more to say.  There is no free will and there is no free thought, unless we redefine the terms cleverly enough to trick ourselves for a short while into pretending there might be.  It is the only answer to the only question.

The question is "why", and the answer is "because".

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I Love Places

Earlier this semester I missed the bus back home and decided to hop a train.  It only got me home an hour earlier than the next bus, and cost about twice as much, but I needed to feel in charge of my life so I walked two miles in a light drizzle to the Amtrak station and boarded for Chicago.

Union Station is a wonderful place.  The parallel feelings of being totally surrounded by humanity and also being totally anonymous are all wrapped up in one magnificent underground complex of ticket booths, expensive coffee shops, and great roaring beasts of trains.  I had half an hour to kill before boarding the Metra line from Chicago to Aurora, so I wandered into the Great Hall.

This is mostly underground.

The Great Hall at Union Station is a magnificent place.  One must either ignore it or be overwhelmed by it, because the towering ceiling admits no other response.  Like all the old beautiful architecture in Chicago, it does not require anything of you.  Look up, delight in the beauty of the place, and be humbled.  But what I love about great places goes beyond their artistic value: they give the sense of being beyond my ability to destroy.  It doesn't matter whether my homework is late or my hair is unkempt, whether I feel terrible or terrific, beautiful places only require that I exist in them to change my mood for the better.

In the modern wing at the Art Institute of Chicago there is (or was, several years ago) a room, drywalled on every surface and unpainted, containing one giant mass of fluorescent lamps.  One aspect to the exhibit is that, as people wander through, it breaks down.  The floor is for some obscure reason covered by sheets of drywall that are punched through and worn away in places, and wears further as people walk through.

The Institute's description of this piece says so little in so many words that it rivals the work's own bland obscurity.
This exhibit, as for as I can tell, is not art.  It is the very antithesis to art.  It says "I am totally at your mercy to destroy, halfway imbalanced and teetering on the least interesting edge of insanity".  Some might respond that this feeling of unease is exactly what the art was supposed to inspire, and that it is working to that end.  But unease is cheap, and those who have nothing important to say should have the good sense not to speak.  Art tries to get a better angle at beauty, and is often hard to understand, but this modern foolishness merely tries to be hard to understand and misses beauty altogether.

Back to Union Station.  I had just enough time to drool over the Great Hall, grab a rather awful cappuccino at Corner Bakery, and wonder why Chicago makes me so happy before catching the 2:20 to Aurora.  I stayed for barely long enough to remember why I missed living in that wonderful place called home.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Getting Further Away

About a week ago I started listening to Elliott Smith, and immediately fell head-over-heels in love with his music. One of my favorite of his lyrics goes

"I've got a long way to go, getting further away"

And that pretty much sums up how I feel right now.

I have a physics test tomorrow. I haven't really payed attention to the class in about a month, but I'll probably still get at least a 85 on the test, probably higher. After that it's more physics homework, math homework, geography, computer science, physics again, blah, blah, blah. All I want is a cup of strong coffee, a chocolate bar, and the time to read something worthwhile.

Speaking of reading, I've started Richard Dawkins' book "The Greatest Show on Earth", which is his defense of evolution and attack on creationism. I agree with him wholeheartedly on evolution, disagree with him wholeheartedly on atheism, and generally get the sense that he thinks he is much cleverer than he actually is. Then again, I suffer from the same fault so perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to criticize him for that.

I'm getting annoyed at science. No, that's not true. I love science; I'm a physics major for pity's sake. I'm annoyed at the idolization of science, like it is some indestructible tank, bravely waging war on religion, or stupidity, or creationism, or whatever happens to be convenient. Here's the thing: science doesn't give a flying damn about anything, at all, ever. Science can only be beautiful if we acknowledge that there is such a thing as beauty, which can be got at by such a thing as science. But stop pretending science is a philosophy -- or at least acknowledge that if it is, it is the most depressingly boring, deterministic, and meaningless philosophy that it is possible to invent. It may take a scientist to find the smallpox vaccine, but it takes a religion to find that people are worth being vaccinated.

Enough with ranting. I've been on that train of thought too long and I had to get it out of my system.

So anyhow, this has been "Deep Thoughts" with Nate Scheidler. Tune in next time. Meanwhile I'm off to confession, and then start again trying to love my crooked neighbors with all my crooked heart.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Saturday night was a first for me: I went to a club. Now, I know what you're all thinking: "Nate, you seem like such a hip, club-type person! How have you not gone to clubs before?". Well, first of all, I'm not such a hip-o (hippo?) after all, and second, your use of the word "club-type" exposes you as a companion social pariah.

The club was Clybesdoles, or Clydoray, or something, and I went with a few of my cool friends and (luckily) another guy who shares my aversion to exactly everything about clubs. In case you didn't know, a club is a series of dimly lit rooms, filled with different proportions of drinking and loud obnoxious music. There is also a thing called "dancing", which means hopping about in a confined space while your ears bleed. The high point of the night, for me, was when I was half-dared to talk to a random girl, who informed me that her voice had gone out and promptly left. I hope I didn't scare her away, but I think I did. I was just trying to find someone to talk to, but apparently that isn't a thing at clubs.

I think I have a pretty good idea of how to have a good time. I read, I talk to and play games with my friends, I drink copious amounts of tea. But I don't like clubs. That is what I learned last Saturday night. Call me homeschooled.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Probabilities on two d6

I'm sure everyone reading this has rolled a pair of dice. And if you are the kind of person who reads blogs named after 2,000 year old mathematical proofs, you can probably calculate the odds of rolling any particular sum on that pair of dice. If you haven't yet, here's a chart:
If this is a revelation to you, that might explain why you're so terrible at monopoly.

This chart is great and all, but what if we want to know more than simply the outcome of the next roll? What if we want to know the chance of, say, rolling a seven some time in the next three turns? To find the answer, let's turn to... polyhedra.

Yes, I really am going to use polyhedra to analyze probability. Sue me.

Let's take a simple example: rolling a seven in the next two rolls. The chances of rolling a seven in one roll are 1/6, and the chances of rolling a seven twice in a row are (1/6)^2, or 1/36. If you want to verify this for yourself, spend the next three hours rolling dice and drawing charts. Additionally, the chances of NOT rolling a seven are 5/6 in the next roll, and (5/6)^2, or 25/35, in the next two rolls. Here's a chart that shows this:The dark blue shows the chance of rolling a seven twice, the lighter blue shows the chance of rolling a seven once, and the purple shows the chance of not rolling a seven at all. Both colors of blue taken together represent the chance of rolling a seven sometime during the next two turns.

Let's extend this out to three turns (and three dimensions). The chances of rolling three sevens in a row are (1/6)^3, or 1/216. Similarly, the chances of NOT rolling any sevens are 125/216, and the chances of rolling at least ONE seven are 91/216. Here's a sliced cube chart for you:

The dark blue represents the chance of rolling a seven THREE times in the next three turns, the lighter blue represents the chance of rolling a seven TWICE, and the lightest blue represents the chance of rolling a seven just ONCE in the next three turns. The purple represents the chance of not rolling any sevens.

So the chances of rolling a seven in one turn are 1/6, in two turns are 11/36, and in three turns are 91/216. Notice that the denominator of the fraction keeps increasing by powers of six, and the numerator keeps increasing by powers of six minus the corresponding powers of five. This is hardly a rigorous mathematical proof, but it's good enough for me. I'm going to go ahead and put this into a formula:

Probability of rolling a 7 sometime during the next n turns = (6^n - 5^n)/(6^n).

And here's a graph of this function from n=0 to n=15:

Unfortunately my graphing utility has taken it upon itself to measure the number of turns in two and one half turn increments, which are seldom happened upon in most board games. Still, you get the idea. Even after 10 turns, the chances of not rolling a SINGLE seven are about 15%, which might explain why the thief stays on your ore mine for SO CUSSING LONG.

What about the chances of rolling something OTHER than a seven in the next n turns? I won't bother to prove this, but they're equal to

(6^n - (6-k)^n)/6^n

where n is the number of turns and k is the numerator in the chance out of 6 of rolling that number (i.e. solve the equation u/36 = k/6). [EDIT: the much simpler equation at the bottom of this post is easier to use for this] Graphed three-dimensionally, that would look something like this:

Where both n and k are variables. I won't bother to explain this graph. If you understand it, great. If not, ah well.

I really wish I could use the 6 in my equations as a variable and graph that as well, but it would require four dimensions. Poor dear.

So the next time someone is in tears after the dice have refused to cooperate, you can simply explain to them how probability works with some sketches of cubes and a graphing calculator. Of course, the chances that they'll fly into a rage and smack you are fairly high... but can be easily predicted by the equation:

just kidding.


A more general equation for finding the chance x/y occurring at least once over n iterations is

(y^n - (y-x)^n)/y^n

I really should have figured this out before I finished this post, but ah well.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Here's a song I wrote about a month ago. I called it "Adel" for some reason; don't really know why. Anyhow, it's a break from my usual polyhedral ramblings, so think what you will.