Monday, April 28, 2008

Great moments in American democracy

You know, there’s political stupidity, and then there’s… Well, this guy:

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (April 23) - A congressional candidate is defending his speech to a group celebrating the anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birth, saying he appeared simply because he was asked.

Tony Zirkle, who is seeking the Republican nomination in northern Indiana's 2nd District, stood in front of a painting of Hitler, next to people wearing swastika armbands and with a swastika flag in the background for the speech to the American National Socialist Workers Party in Chicago on Sunday.

Now, let’s not be too hard on him. I know giving a speech at Hitler’s birthday party “simply because he was asked” looks bad, but it could happen to anyone. A good friend of mine back once attempted to run for vice-president of the college anime club, and ended up being tricked into attending cross burnings on three separate occasions.

Besides, maybe he has some sort of explanation or excuse.

"I'll speak before any group that invites me," Zirkle said Monday. "I've spoken on an African-American radio station in Atlanta."

Yes, that makes perfect sense. Black people, the Nazi Party- pretty much the same thing, right?

You can view Mr. Zirkle’s official campaign site here. There's some profound political insight there. Did you know that Saint Augustine's insufficient hostility to prostitution led directly to the destruction of the Roman Empire? Neither did I until, until Tony Zirkle set me straight!

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Ironically, Laplace's demon foresaw that I would post this

First caught wind of this at Roderick Long’s blog.

There’s been some discussion here and there about a recent study announced by the Max Planck Society on human consciousness. To quote from the press release I’ve linked:

In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. The aim of the experiment was to find out what happens in the brain in the period just before the person felt the decision was made. The researchers found that it was possible to predict from brain signals which option participants would take already seven seconds before they consciously made their decision. Normally researchers look at what happens when the decision is made, but not at what happens several seconds before. The fact that decisions can be predicted so long before they are made is a astonishing finding.

This unprecedented prediction of a free decision was made possible by sophisticated computer programs that were trained to recognize typical brain activity patterns preceding each of the two choices. Micropatterns of activity in the frontopolar cortex were predictive of the choices even before participants knew which option they were going to choose. The decision could not be predicted perfectly, but prediction was clearly above chance. This suggests that the decision is unconsciously prepared ahead of time but the final decision might still be reversible.

This is being heralded as a confirmation of the results of the famous experiments on people’s subjective experience of choice done by Benjamin Libet, which were widely claimed (though not by Libet) as proof that free will was illusory, due to the fact that electrical activity in the motor cortex of the brain (the “readiness potential”) appeared before the subject was conscious of choosing to act. I want to talk about Libet a little, because this study appears to have the same limitations, in terms of what conclusions we can draw about its implications.

First, however, there’s an elementary point of logic that needs to pointed out, which is this: Even accepting for the sake of argument that this research shows all actions are actually decided at the unconscious level and merely rationalized by the conscious mind afterwards, which I’m going to question in a minute, that would not prove determinism. As commenter Laura J. points out in the comments of Long’s post, the claim that this would prove determinism hinges on the unstated assumption that the unconscious processes running in the background of my conscious mind are not really “me,” that the self is only the fully conscious mind, and that unconscious influence on or control of it is an enslaving outside force, rather than an equally true part of my self. If you reject this assumption, the determinist would also need to prove that the unconscious mind is fully determined by something before he could claim to have shown that I- that is, the complete “I”- have no free will.

It should also be noted that, at best, this would refute only incompatiblist free will, and has nothing to say about compatibilism versus incompatibilist determinism. I don’t consider that distinction very meaningful, frankly- I’ve never heard an explanation of compatibilism that didn’t boil down to determinism with some of the terminology of free will thrown in- but many people would consider it important.

So, Libet. The first problem with a determinist interpretation of Libet’s work was, as Benjamin Libet pointed out, that his subjects would occasionally show the usual electrical activity in the motor center, the “readiness potential,” and then choose not to act. So it's a jump to assume that the electrical buildup demonstrates that the act is truly predetermined, and not merely an indication of a strong disposition to act. The press release for the new Planck study says that the accuracy of their predictions was imperfect but “clearly above chance,” with the precise percentage unspecified. The fact that modern scientists can make predictions of people’s movements seven seconds in advance with above-chance accuracy in this situation is extremely cool, but it’s pretty poor as a knockdown argument for determinism. A skilled bookie can predict the winner of a sporting event at a rate well above chance, but that hardly demonstrates that the competition is rigged. (Unless it’s boxing, of course.) It merely shows that the outcome of the game was affected by conditions in place before the game began. Unless, as some people do, you redefine “free will” to mean that choices are just random and completely unaffected by conditions in the physical world, such as electrical activity in the agent’s own brain, this doesn’t demonstrate much philosophically, however intriguing it might be as science.

There are some other problems, which wouldn’t go away even if the prediction in the experiment was never wrong. The actions taken by Libet's subjects were consciously preplanned. In Libet’s work, the subjects watched a timer, and were instructed to choose a random moment to hit a button, then report the time they perceived themselves willing to hit the button. The problem there is that the intention "hit the button" was, in an important sense, already consciously formed and chosen before the clock had even started. The subject had already decided to hit the button, already knew they were going to hit the button, and the only intention not yet consciously formed was the exact moment. In that sort of case, it's hardly surprising that the motor center was lighting up before the actual final decision, regardless of whether the subject actually had free will or not.

Another issue is that the action being taken- hitting the button- is completely random and meaningless, and the decision of what moment to hit the button is thus completely arbitrary. Thus, it is precisely the sort of thing that I would expect to be decided at an unconscious level, since there’s absolutely no reason for the conscious mind to care about the particular moment the button is hit, and thus no reason to deliberate about it at the conscious level, except perhaps to ratify a conclusion already reached unconsciously. We simply don’t know if the results are applicable to all experiences of choice, including those we have more reason to consciously deliberate on, and we have been given no reason to think that they are.

Based on the way the experiment is described, both problems seem to be present here as well. The press release says, “In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind.” So, again, the subject had already decided to hit the button, and he knew that, barring some sudden freak occurrence that forced him to flee the room, he would carry out that decision. So, once again, the brain gearing itself up to act before the final moment of decision is to be expected with or without free will. The only new wrinkle appears to be having a choice of two buttons. The fact that they could predict which would be chosen is neat, but not terribly decisive, since it's not at all hard to imagine a free-willed person starting with a strong predisposition for one button over another without consciously realizing it. As in the choice of timing, the choice of buttons is completely meaningless and thus gives the conscious mind no reason to bother to make the decision itself, though it might will the actual execution of the decision.

Theses sorts of experiments are limited by the limitations of human focus. Since the subject has to concentrate on precisely monitoring and reporting his own mental state, he can’t really engage in any acts that aren’t tainted by a lengthy gap between resolving to act and actually acting, since a situation where he had to make a quick decision in response to something unexpected would occupy too much of his attention. Likewise, he can’t make any decisions that he actually has a reason to care about and consciously think through, while simultaneously closely monitoring and reporting the precise moment he became aware of his choice. If genetic engineering really takes off, we should see if we can crank out some posthumans with huge heads and extra brain lobes who can maintain multiple trains of thought at once. Short of that, the philosophical implications of this are limited.

For maximum effect, you should now reread this post, but this time do so aloud by shrieking out the entire thing in your best Geddy Lee impression. Actually, henceforth, I want everybody to read everything I write that way.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

And I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for your meddling right to a trial!

Radley Balko never fails to disturb. He links to a story at, which informs us:

Defense attorneys would be banned from advertising their expertise with drunken driving cases under a bill advancing in the Senate.

Sen. Rosalind Kurita, a Clarksville Democrat, successfully added the provision to a bill that would create an online registry of repeat DUI offenders in Tennessee

Kurita says officials have a hard enough time convicting drunken drivers without lawyers advertising their expertise in the field and offering discounts to DUI defendants.

It may not pass, or survive Court scrutiny, but the fact that a legislator even suggested it in public is a warning sign. Hysteria over drunk driving in this country has been a dangerous force for years, but this is a new wrinkle. It’s hard to see how the justification, “Officials have a hard enough time convicting drunken drivers without lawyers advertising their expertise in the field” can be read as anything but an explicit statement of Kurita’s desire to deny defendants due process by stopping them from hiring adequate counsel.

I’m especially interested by her hostility to “discounts.” Apparently, poor people with 6th Amendment rights are especially menacing.

If this is a good idea, why limit it to drunk driving? Surely there many crimes- rape, murder, child molestation, armed robbery- that are worse. I can easily imagine the rhetoric used to defend this: “You think protecting the so-called ‘rights’ of drunk drivers matters more than protecting children? You monster!” Replace “drunk drivers” with “murderers” or “drug dealers” or “child molesters” as needed.

On the plus side, this gives us a useful way to measure a society’s political and moral health. If someone who has actually been elected to your legislature feels comfortable saying something like this in public, that’s a cause for concern. If a member of your legislature says something like this in public, and the result is anything other than a hellish gale-force shitstorm of public outrage, you’re in deep, deep trouble.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

THIS is what people finally get outraged over?

This post is angrier and more profane than unusual. The loveably wacky John Markley who writes about hallucinatory spiders and defending a libertarian society from an invasion of malevolent scorpion men is on break for the night.

A few days ago, there was an incident where the Chicago police shot and killed a wild cougar that had wandered into an inhabited area and alarmed residents. Well, to observe the media, or talk to people, or read the reader letters in newspaper around here, you’d think this is the worst thing any police officer in Chicago has ever done. In all my life, I can not recall this much vocal and vociferous condemnation of the Chicago Police Department.

Now, I don’t know if the police did the right by shooting the cougar or not, and I’ve come to take any claim from a cop who claims he feared for his own safety when he used a weapon with several metric tons of salt. Nor do I blame any animals lovers who feel upset about what they believe to be the unnecessary killing of an animal. What rankles me is that it was this, the death of a goddamn animal, that actually got people upset with the behavior of the police.

(Warning: The optional video accompanying the article about Abbate that I’ve linked to in this paragraph has real footage of brutal violence against a woman. For a text-only alternative, try this article instead.) Last February, when Officer Anthony Abbate was caught on tape beating the shit out of an innocent woman, and the Police Department tried to have Abate charged with only a misdemeanor until prosecutors overruled them, people weren’t as worked up as they are now. An important study documenting a staggering amount of sexual extortion of prostitutes by Chicago police was barely even discussed.

And yet, when the police shoot an oversized cat, all hell breaks loose. This whole affair is rather like ignoring Stalin’s responsibility for the millions who died horribly in the Ukrainian Famine, then condemning him as iredemiably evil because you think his mustache is unattractive. I’m an animal lover, too; I adopted a cat from a shelter 8 years ago, and I prefer her company to that of the vast majority of human beings. But for God’s sake, let’s have some moral perspective here.

And this indifference is certainly not a Chicago thing. All over the country, time after time, law enforcement agents behave outrageously, and innocent people suffer, and sometimes die, in all sorts of way. This rarely provokes more than a few prominent complaints, usually in the form of meek suggestions that perhaps the police could do slightly better next time. Apparently murdering an old woman in her home is less offensive to the tender sensibilities of the American people than the possibly unneccary shooting of wildlife. Nothing in the endless parade of horrors, tragedies, outrages, and atrocities documented by Radley Balko, Charles Johnson, William Grigg, or anyone else seem to upset the general public this much.

When I was younger, a new libertarian reading Hayek and Rand and Rothbard for the first time, I remember believing that the basic instincts of Americans were sound; it was just that they had been cowed, their spirits weakened by the atmosphere of dread the government and its lackeys worked to create and maintain. I still like to tell myself that, from time to time. This sort of thing is a brutal reminder that many Americans have not lost their capacity for passion, outrage, and self-assertion; they’ve just been morally warped by statism to such a degree that those qualities no longer have value.

Loss is a curious thing. The pain of loss isn’t always about actually losing something or someone you cared about. Quite often, “loss” is actually gain- a gain of knowledge, when we learn the truth about a treacherous friend, a faithless spouse, a parent or role model who wasn’t who you thought they were, the girl of your dreams who will never love you back. The only thing being lost is delusion.

And it feels no less real for that.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fred Reed column

No sooner have I put up a new article on the war, than someone comes along to casually blow me out of the water. I ran into Fred Reed’s newest column while perusing Strike the Root today. A lot of the writing Reed (who fought in Vietnam as a Marine, and later returned to it as a war correspondent) has done on war has been very powerful, but this one is… just read it.

Warning: Contains written imagery that may be disturbing or upsetting. It sure as Hell should be, at any rate.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

New article at

I’m happy to say that my first article at is now up. I’ve been reading the site since its inception, so this is quite satisfying for me. Hope you like it.

(I just looked it up and realized has been around for 12 years. God, do I suddenly feel old. And sleepy. And slightly gassy. But mostly old.)

For any readers visiting this blog, welcome! I’ve put together a collection of some of my favorite past posts for anyone who’s interested. I also maintain a blog about science fiction and related topics, if that interests you. Here are some previous posts about:

The Illinois public smoking ban and its proponents

Musings on the nature of neoconservatism

The depressing decline of Thomas Sowell, here and here

The failure of torture supporters to understand the meaning of basic ethical terms

The destructive nature of the “vital center”, here and here

The psychology of nations at war

The sheer pettiness of the modern statist

The complicity of the Left in the growth of plutocracy

The encroachments and apologists of the Nanny State, here and here

Or, you can just read about the bizarre minutiae of my life here, here, here, and here.

Hope you’ll stick around a while.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The mother of invention

Faced with an unending flood of nonsense and partisan hackery from Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb, Julian Sanchez has contrived an ingenious labor-saving device: Goldfarb’s hackiest post of the day will be henceforth recognized with a link in the form of a photo of a horse-drawn Hackney cab, sans commentary. I’m tempted to come up with some sort of similar visual shorthand for whenever I link to something involving Sean Hannity, but none of the images that came to mind had the nostalgic charm of the Hackney cab, and most of them would probably violate Blogger's terms of service.

The post Sanchez links to is primarily about Barrack Obama. In criticizing Obama’s domestic agenda, Goldfarb remarks:

Again, Obama believes government can do anything...except secure victory, stability, and democracy in Iraq.

It's amusing how Goldfarb (rightly) faults Obama for his faith in the state to solve all sorts of problems at home, in a peaceful and prosperous country- and then immediately expresses his own faith in that same state to solve all sorts of even bigger problems in an impoverished, violence-wracked foreign culture on the other side of the planet. A lot of ideologies require some degree of doublethink to accept, but it's not usually this blatant. It's a miracle that the cognitive dissonance hasn't caused some sort of Scanners-style cranial explosion yet.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Curse you, Gregory XIII!

I hate April Fool’s Day. I'm absent minded and often have only a vague idea of the current date, and so the same pattern repeats every year. I’ll be wandering the internet, and come across some sort of wonderful news. “Square-Enix announces Final Fantasy VII remake for Playsation 3," “Entire staff of The New Republic devoured by timber wolves,” “Mayo Clinic study proves 87% of foxy brunettes secretly long for introverted, bearded science fiction geeks; Degree of insatiable lust directly correlated with number of Poul Anderson books owned, researchers say,” or whatever. I’ll feel a moment of exhilaration, then confusion as I realize something’s not right here, and then realization dawns and I come crashing back to earth. You’d think I would have learned by now, but no.

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