‘Beyond Belief’ (BBC R4) debates free will

I’ve been fascinated (obsessed?) by the free will paradox for about 70 years, ever since as the recipient of a Catholic upbringing it occurred to me that it was a serious problem for religion. I seldom bypass any opportunity to scratch the spot, so I made a point of listening to the BBC Beyond Belief discussion broadcast on 22.7.2019. The participants were Rev. Sharon Grenham-Thompson, an Anglican vicar; Prof. Rasjid Skinner, a Muslim consultant clinical psychologist; and Dr Richard Christian, a philosopher.

As usual, the discussion was introduced by Ernie Rea in the chair. He got off on the wrong foot, to my mind, by focusing in the idea that our actions are caused by brain processes and these are deteministic. I agree with the philosopher Galen Strawson that this isn’t the point. Even if brain deteminisn isn’t true, this doesn’t alter the fact that our actions are the result of everything that has gone before.

Sharon, on the other hand, started off well. She said that “we choose what we want, and the question is, what determines what we want?”. This is exactly right. As Schopenhauer said, we can do what we choose but we can’t chose what we choose.

Perhaps predictably, things strted to slip when Sharon brought God into it. Actually, she didn’t like the term ‘God’, preferring ‘Love’ or ‘Divine Mystery’. I didn’t find this helped much.

I also didn’t find much illumination in Prof, Skinner’s contribution. He seemed to be saying simultaneously that predestination was true and freedom was true – the ‘with one bound Jack was free!’ answer to the conundrum.

The secular philosopher, however, got it right, at least for me. As a matter of fact there is no free will but we cannot ad should not escape from the intuitive conviction that there is.  “Free will is a necessary myth.”  This position seems to be quite similar to that of Galen Strawson as set out in his book Freedom and Belief,  which I recommend to anyone who finds this question as intriguing and perplexing as I do.

If our actions are not random, they arise from our mental state and our character. How we are determines what we do. But we cannot choose the sort of people we are. True, we can decide to become better people, as we are constantly urged to do by preachers and moralists, but this only shifts the problem back in time. We can only try to change ourselves according to principles which we have already accepted. So the quest for self-determination lands us in an eternal regression. We can never get beyond our given nature and disposition.

Note that this does not imply fatalism. We can act, Strawson says, and our actions do have important effects. “We can indeed be self-determining in the … sense of being able, by our own action, and in the light of our necessarily non-self-determined characters and desires, to determine to a very considerable extent what happens to us.” What we cannot do is to choose our own character.


Book review: Why Freud Was Wrong, by Richard Webster

The prestige once enjoyed by psychoanalysis may have declined considerably from the level it had attained in the first half of the twentieth century, but it still is practised as a therapy. And in addition, psychoanalytic theory continues to be influential in literary criticism and other cultural activities. Many of Freud’s ideas have seeped into common parlance (‘Freudian slip’) and terms such as ‘complex’ are used by people who may have little if any idea of their provenance. It’s still quite common to find Freud’s name cited alongside those of Galileo and Darwin as one of the thinkers responsible for a series of radical revolutions in how we humans understand our place in the Universe; Galileo showed that the Sun, not the Earth, was the centre of the solar system; Darwin told us we were part of the animal kingdom and descended from apes; and Freud revealed that much of our mental life is unknown to us and takes place in the hidden depths of the Unconscious. But does Freud deserve his place in this pantheon? Yes and no, according to Webster.  Continue reading.


CFS/ME diagnostic test

Researchers at Stanford University, California, have described a blood test for CFS/ME. Mononuclear cells respond differently to hyperosmotic stress in patients with the condition from how they do in normal controls. This, it is hoped, may provide a diagnostic test for the condition, which at present is diagnosed purely on symptoms.

This is encouraging, but Minerva in the BMJ thinks they used the wrong comparison group. “What’s important is not whether the test can tell healthy and ill people apart but if it can distinguish between chronic fatigue syndrome and other conditions in which symptoms of fatigue and tiredness are prominent.” This seems to be a valid comment.

Spectrwm – minor annoyance solved

One of the commonest things I do in Spectrwm is swap two windows (Main to Stack or vice versa).  This is done instantly with Mod+Return. But a minor annoyance is that the focus doesn’t follow the swap.

Suppose you have two windows open, A in Main and B in Stack, and the focus is on A. After the swap the focus is still on A but this is now in the Stack. I usually want it to be in Main, which now contains B. I can achieve this with Mod+m, which alternates the focus back and forth between the two windows. This is OK but can become annoying if I do it a lot since it’s easy to miss-type the m.

For a time I solved this by setting the pointer focus to “follow” instead of the default, but this wasn’t ideal; it required me to keep the pointer always in the left side of the screen and occasionally the display got messed up and needed fixing with Mod+q.

The solution I’ve adopted now is to remap Mod+Space (quick and easy to type) to give me focus_main. By default Mod+Space cycles between vertical, horizontal, and full-screen layouts, but I hardly ever need to do this. I’ve mapped Mod+v and Mod+z to give me vertical and horizontal layouts in case I do need to change them; for full-screen I use Mod+e.

Here are the entries in .spectrwm.conf.

bind[focus_main] = Mod+space
bind[layout_vertical] = Mod+v
bind[layout_horizontal] = Mod+z

Book review: The Diet Myth, by Tim Spector

Spector is professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London, where he specialises in twin studies, genetics and epigenetics, and diet. Readers of his earlier book Identically Different will know that he is also interested in the human microbiome—the innumerable microbes that live on and especially inside us, and this is a central preoccupation in the present book. Spector believes that it is the key to understanding why diets to control our weight nearly always fail in the long run. Continue reading