Free will – some thoughts

immanuel-kantMichael Sandel on Kant:

Acting morally means acting out of duty—for the sake of the moral law. The moral law consists of a categorical imperative, a principle that requires us to treat persons with respect, as ends in themselves. Only when I act in accordance with the categorical imperative am I acting freely. For whenever I act according to a hypothetical imperative, I act for the sake of some interest or end given outside of me. But in that case, I’m not really free; my will is determined not by me, but by outside forces—by the necessities of my circumstance or by the wants and desires I happen to have. I can escape the dictates of nature and circumstance only by acting autonomously, according to a law I give myself. Such a law must be unconditioned by my particular wants and desires. So Kant’s demanding notions of freedom and morality are connected. Acting freely, that is, autonomously, and acting morally, according to the categorical imperative, are one and the same.

Sandel, Michael J. (2009-09-15). Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (pp. 123-124). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

I can’t really agree wholly with what Kant says (according to Sandel’s interpretation.) The problem here is in the phrase “according to a law I give myself.” Since how are we free to give a law to ourselves – and how can we be free from my wants and desires, or the necessities of my circumstances, when we do so? I don’t think we can be free of these things when we “give a law to ourselves” so it’s not clear how we can be free according to this definition.

However, I quite like the idea of adapting this slightly. I think for free will to make sense we have to move away from “acting without constraint” since I don’t think that’s possible – and I think Kant opens up a pathway of thinking toward this.

But first of all here’s the problem. We always have constraints – namely our environment, genes, upbringing, concomitant wants and desires etc. etc. In that sense I am a strict determinist. I can’t see how we can do anything other than we actually do in any given moment – since every atom in our body is already set in a certain way. So to me the traditional, conventional idea of free will doesn’t make sense – since it can’t escape the above – it’s based on a bogus idea of an individual who is somehow completely autonomous who can will something into existence that is not defined and controlled by precursors.

(Side note: OK quantum physics says events at that level can happen without precursors, however, that doesn’t provide the sense of agency required for us to have free will: according to the traditional idea, we have to generate acts ourselves, not be subject to some unknown process that we have no say or control over. And secondly, while there may be events without causes at the quantum level, this doesn’t at all mean that there are therefore events without causes at the level of human activity and implementation – and I’m not aware that physicists have been able to show anything of the sort – so quantum doesn’t satisfy the requirements of traditional free will and hasn’t been shown to have an effect at the human level of implementation.)

The conventional idea, I think, is that we have the capacity to act spontaneously WITHOUT any constraint – but this involves a weirdly unrealistic idea of the self. Our self is already and inevitably embedded in the environment and the universe – it’s not separate or autonomous – there simply is nowhere that a separate or autonomous choice can be generated from. In order to make a choice there has to be an agent – ie ourselves – and our self is made up out of the universe and not sui generis. Therefore as far as we can tell, only one outcome at a time is possible or conceivable for every human act. Therefore I can’t see how this traditional idea of free will makes sense.

But following on from Kant I propose a different definition of free will: to exercise free will is to follow a rational course of behaviour or behaviours.

Yes, following such a course would still be entirely deterministic, but I say (and I’m not of course being hugely original – Daniel Dennett to quote just one has a similar concept) that this is a workable and more useful definition of free will.

There’s a second practical challenge with this definition (though we don’t necessarily have to solve it for my proposal to be true) – how do we know or decide what’s rational? Since this is at the very least very difficult to determine in practice, we’d have to decide it by discussion, consensus and comparison, using the best information we have, and making use of the input of well-informed people.

The Kant article did make me think of things that are NOT determined by physical forces, or in fact the laws of physics – ie the laws of logic for example. And logic can make a contribution to our actions – it can be a factor in our decision-making. Thus it’s true that we are not necessarily entirely physically determined.

However, logic – and rationality based on logic – are still wholly deterministic and still, as I think about it, effectively part of our environment. It’s just that I hadn’t thought about the role of logic and rationality – as non-physical entities that nevertheless influence behaviour – before. This made me more open to the Kantian idea that free will is following a law, and following reason. This doesn’t give us free will in the traditional (and as I argue, flawed) concept of free will – but it does provide an opening for a new definition.

Free will therefore, could be “to follow the laws dictated by reason – or rationality.”

IF we are following the laws dictated by reason – even though we can do no other and are completely subject to a deterministic universe – we are exercising free will.

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Agriculture – humanity’s worst mistake – or not?

jaredJared Diamond’s article, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” written in 1987, has reportedly become a standard discussion point in anthropology classes – and it’s definitely a fascinating and provocative statement. His central thesis is as follows:

Now archaeology is demolishing another sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress. In particular, recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.


I’ve read Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” and found it fascinating and convincing – although I know there are disputes about it – but I have a feeling I should look at it again.

In that book, he at the least raises some very good questions and makes some good points. I remember from “Guns” how certain diseases – especially those that transferred over from animals – only developed after humans adopted agriculture etc. So it’s clearly the case that agriculture produced problems. The question raised by his article is whether on balance agriculture was a good or a bad thing for the human race.

So these are the questions and comments the article provoked in me:

Interestingly, since I would have expected Diamond to go the other way, given his strongly implied critique of modern society in this piece, Diamond agrees with other experts – including Steven Pinker (see link to my other blog post below) – that early, hunter-gatherer societies were considerably more violent than modern societies – based on the evidence we have.


So I would take that to be a significant counter-example to his argument that introducing agriculture (by implication entailing the subsequent development course of the human race) was a mistake – given that presumably one would agree that lower average levels of violence among human beings is a good thing.

A very basic point – in terms of survival and in terms of becoming the dominant form of human existence: hunter-gatherer societies have clearly not been successful comparatively. They are now minuscule by comparison to humans living based on agriculture and its consequences.

I frequently find that Diamond’s evidence is unsatisfying and rather unconvincing. For example – his argument that the average amount of time spent obtaining food appears less IF we compare it (by implication) to people’s average work hours today. But first of all this is based on TWO examples of hunter-gatherer groups. Which begs the question – what is the AVERAGE time spent by hunter-gatherers obtaining food? If Diamond is also including “working” for food (rather than simply “obtaining” – although this is left unclear *see updated note below), then modern-day people do spend considerably more time than 12, 14 or 19 hours a week working (on average), but they are certainly working for more things than just food, many of which wouldn’t have been available to Bushmen – which we can debate the merits of – but it’s certainly not just food. And the reference also leaves out how much time hunter-gatherers spend working for things other than food.

Same point with his reference to ONE study of bushmen’s diets, saying its calorific input was high – what was the average including the OTHER studies?

There seems to me to be a basic undermining retort to his overall argument: even if we allow that conditions for human beings were INITIALLY worse under agriculture, that of course doesn’t mean that it didn’t eventually lead to much better conditions. And remember Diamond is boldly playing the long game in his argument – he’s talking about the last million years of history – so he’s inviting a critique on these terms.

For example – he says that lifestyles of hunter-gatherers weren’t nasty or brutish – but they were definitely short.

Quote, from a study in Illinois:

Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was about twenty-six years,” says Armelagos, “but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years.

Great – but 26 years is supposed to compare favourably to now? Average life expectancy for ALL humans born in 2013, according to WHO, was 71.

More trivially, he comes up with the interesting fact that hunter-gatherers in the region of Turkey and Greece averaged 5ft 9 for men – and was considerably lower in 3000 BC under agriculture. I checked and it has risen above that today – even it took a long time!

But given these considerations above, his following statement,

“Thus with the advent of agriculture an elite became better off, but most people became worse off,” is demonstrably false – in the long-term.

Despite continuing, serious problems, most people – a large majority of the current 7 billion on the planet – are definitely better off today by most of the usual measurements, than they were as hunter-gatherers. (ie the classic health outcome measurements of under five mortality and longevity, and they are much less likely to die violently, not to mention access to things that hunter-gatherers couldn’t have had – like information about far away places, new and different ideas, far away peoples).

See for example “Getting Better” by Economist Charles Kenny. (Though in fact, even the blurb for this is misleadingly pessimistic – the overall trend is for convergence between economies and incomes world wide (yes between the developed and developing world) – even if there’s been increasing inequality recently within the west – see economist Thomas Piketty:

A global convergence process in which emerging countries are catching up with developed countries seems well under way today, even though substantial inequalities between rich and poor countries remain.

Piketty, Thomas (2014-03-10). Capital in the Twenty-First Century (p. 72). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

Lurking behind (or not so behind) much of his argument is a critique of population growth: “Some bands chose the former solution, unable to anticipate the evils of farming, and seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production.”

pikettyBut while population growth is an important issue, most experts expect it to shade off during this century and to level out:

The rate of global population growth peaked in the period 1950– 1970 at nearly 2 percent per year and since then has decreased steadily. Although one can never be sure of anything in this realm, it is likely that this process will continue and that global demographic growth rates will decline to near zero in the second half of the twenty-first century. The shape of the bell curve is quite well defined (see Figure 2.2). Piketty, Thomas (2014-03-10). Capital in the Twenty-First Century (p. 99). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

And according to the World Bank: “In 1960, women worldwide had an average of 5 children. The rate has since halved, and in 2012, women had an average of 2.5 children across all regions.”

Warnings by population alarmists like Paul Ehrlich, who predicted that “hundreds of millions” would die of famine in the 70s and 80s have proven to be wildly off target. (A very generous reading of famines in that period might put it at 4.5 million deaths – meaning that at the very least, Ehrlich was off by a factor of more than 40).

And the average person lives with an abundance of food available to him or her, not to mention safe water (yes, many don’t, but the vast majority do have these things).

And finally, without agriculture we could not have organized or developed our current societies – with its chain of government, education, technical advances, massive developments in healthcare, education, transport, dissemination of information and overall knowledge. We now have the most extraordinary access to an enormous wealth of information and knowledge, literally at our fingertips. For me that is an absolutely stupendous development. We would not have had the transformation provided by the scientific process. We would have no books, internet, the spread of abstract thinking, the intellectual architecture that developed after the Enlightenment – including human rights and international law; and, indeed, no discussions like this; and maybe more trivially we wouldn’t have had comforts like heating, refrigeration, and far greater protection from the elements. Less trivially (I suppose) I wouldn’t have been alive to write this and it’s a fair guess that friends of mine reading this wouldn’t be alive. And while he argues there was art under the hunter-gatherers – of course, beautiful stuff – we have had an unimaginable outpouring of creativity in all the arts for centuries – most of it made possible (not to mention the consumption of said art) by living in settled, organized societies.

So the question remains, on balance, whether agriculture was a good thing or bad thing for humanity – whether agriculture was a “mistake”. It’s a question that’s hard to answer, because you can’t distance yourself to make a disinterested choice, and I don’t think humanity really “chose” its course, in any meaningful sense. I think it’s more of a gut level, emotional question. Does modern society fill me with such despair that I think it would better – let’s say if it was practically feasible – to return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle? I think I definitely come to a different conclusion from Jared Diamond.

And here’s why I’m more of an optimist – another of my blog posts.


Post script – this recent article confirms many of my questions – working time was much longer than the claims above; and leisure time was undercut by the conditions of violence and threat hunter-gatherers usually live under. The claim about working hours had to be radically revised when the original author admitted that he hadn’t included time for food processing, tool making, or general housework.

The threat of disease was actually higher in mobile groups than in more sedentary groups that used horticulture: “Much is made of the increased risk of infectious disease in large, concentrated, sedentary populations, but comparatively little attention has been given to the risk of ‘traveler’s diarrhea’ common among hunter-gatherers. For mobile groups, infants, the elderly, and other vulnerable individuals have little opportunity to develop resistance to local pathogens. This may help explain why infant and child mortality among hunter-gatherers tends to be so high. Across hunter-gatherer societies, only about 57% of children born survive to the age of 15. Sedentary populations of forager-horticulturalists, and acculturated hunter-gatherers, have a greater number of children surviving into adulthood, with 64% and 67%, respectively, surviving to the age of 15.”

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Three recent films – South Sudan, Detroit and the Central African Republic

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After a long period of lesser activity following my head injury (bike accident in Central Park) I can claim to have become more active in recent months.

Three films I’ve created – all for the UN

Defying death in South Sudan

You are an unarmed UN civilian in charge of a compound where 12000 people have fled for safety. You are confronted by 80 armed soldiers and a government minister demanding to enter the compound. You know they will almost certainly kill people if they get in. What do you do?

2  Central African Republic: the path out of violence

A small country and an almost forgotten crisis. It’s a nation submerged in violence, hatred and instability. But human rights campaigners are striving to change that dynamic.

Made for UN TV and distributed to broadcasters worldwide. English and French, with English subtitles.

Detroit: Water not flowing

A bankrupt city needs revenues, so it attempts to force people to pay water bills by shutting off supplies. Is that the best way forward?  The UN gets involved after local groups appeal to the world body for help over the shut-offs.

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Things have never been this good in human history

Happy dogYep. I mean it. Apologies if you were expecting this to be a wry and unoriginal joke.

We – the human race – have never had it so good.

There’s plenty of evidence for this.

The chances of the average global citizen, born today, dying from violent causes are the lowest in human history. Wars are far less frequent today than in all of recorded history. Combat deaths are massively down. Criminal violence is massively down. All this from the long-perspective of the last three millennia. Why? Trade, greater stability and societal control compared to ancient societies, spread of ideas and knowledge leading to changing values and attitudes, international agreements, human rights promotion, diplomatic and peacekeeping interventions, and much more.

References: “Our Better Angels. Why Violence Has Declined” – massively researched, and densely supported by statistics – by the Harvard-based psychologist Steven Pinker.

“Why Nations Fight.” Based on his case-study of 100 conflicts since 1648 Richard Ned Lebow concludes, among other things, that war is on the decline since attitudes, values and motives for violent conflict have changed markedly in that time.

What about health, education and general welfare? An extract from Charles Kenny’s “Getting Better:”

“Fifty years ago, more than half the world’s population struggled with getting enough daily calories. By the 1990s, this figure was below 10 percent. Famine affected less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa from 1990 to 2005. …Virtually everywhere, infant mortality is down and life expectancy is up. In Africa, life expectancy has increased by ten years since 1960, despite the continent’s HIV pandemic. Nearly 90 percent of the world’s children are now enrolled in primary schools, compared with less than half in 1950.”

The numbers of children dying from preventable disease is falling in absolute terms despite the world’s increasing population – and of course in percentage terms – partly as a result of successful medical interventions, especially vaccination. (Source: UNICEF)

For example, measles vaccine has led to a huge drop in global deaths from the disease. In the 1980s, measles killed 2.6 million a year. In 2016, for the first time since records were kept, deaths fell below 100,000.”

Hundreds of millions have escaped absolute poverty in recent decades – largely due to the economic advances of China and India – but other areas, including in South Asia, have also been transformed.

Eighty-nine countries—which represent nearly half the world’s population—are “free,” according to the Freedom House measures, and 116 are electoral democracies (out of 193). Twenty years ago, only 61 and 76 fit those respective categories. (To be sure many of the democracies are very imperfect, but the long-term trend is still encouraging overall.)

And getting a bit more parochial – what about efforts to alleviate poverty? For example, did President Johnson’s War on Poverty succeed? (ie Medicaid, Medicare, housing subsidies, guaranteed income to elderly and disabled, food stamps and other tax benefits – some of which came after but were inspired by Johnson). Largely it did. Adjusting for differing benefits, the poverty level in the US fell by as much as three quarters (roughly 19% to 5%) between 1964 and 2013.

Source: “The War on Poverty: Was it Lost?” by Christopher Jencks. New York Review of Books, April 2015.

Is it all good news? The major bad news I would allow is climate change – an enormous global challenge, though a new climate agreement is likely to be sealed soon in Paris. Not enough, but a beginning. But this threat can’t be discounted. It will have to be dealt with.

I am not saying of course that violence, poverty, ill-health and prejudice don’t still exist – and that things are fairly distributed globally. What I am saying is that, measured against previous human history, almost everything is the best it’s ever been for the human race as a whole.

Why do I say this? Because it’s important to focus on what works. If we keep repeating that things have never been this bad, we will obscure the opportunity to learn from what has helped the human race.

Are these improvements going to inevitably continue? Of course not, that’s why it’s all the more important to learn from our successes.

So let’s celebrate the good – and focus on what works.

Things have never been this good part 2 – very funny but also trenchant Ted talk from Swedish global health expert.

Things have never been this good in history, Part 3

Article from 2017 confirming a great deal of progress – for example:                                         ” On any given day, the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty:

A.) Rises by 5,000, because of climate change, food shortages and endemic corruption.

B.) Stays about the same.

C.) Drops by 250,000.

Polls show that about 9 out of 10 Americans believe that global poverty has worsened or stayed the same. But in fact, the correct answer is C. Every day, an average of about a quarter-million people worldwide graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures.

Or if you need more of a blast of good news, consider this: Just since 1990, more than 100 million children’s lives have been saved through vaccinations, breast-feeding promotion, diarrhea treatment and more. If just about the worst thing that can happen is for a parent to lose a child, that’s only half as likely today as in 1990.

When I began writing about global poverty in the early 1980s, more than 40 percent of all humans were living in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 10 percent are. By 2030 it looks as if just 3 or 4 percent will be. (Extreme poverty is defined as less than $1.90 per person per day, adjusted for inflation.)”



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Science and religion do not get along



I’ve frequently heard and read the opinion that science and religion are compatible – after all there are plenty of religious scientists, and, anyway, isn’t belief in religion ultimately the same as belief in science?

I’ve concluded that they’re not compatible – neither fundamentally nor conceptually. I think when people argue for compatibility they are mostly arguing for social cohesion. After all, most people have religious beliefs, and science and its products are very prevalent in almost every society – so it’s an intolerable situation if the two can’t sit alongside each other. So when people say the two are not opposed, I think it’s mostly a wish for social harmony – a need for social compatibility. While that is (maybe) a laudable aim, I don’t think that the two spheres can be reconciled conceptually.

I’ve often heard the argument – and I’m sure many others have – which goes along the following lines: “Well you believe in science – and I believe in God – so you can’t claim any priority for your belief over mine – we are both in the same boat – you depend on belief just as much as I do.” This is usually accompanied by a smug smile – and an almost audible “Gotcha on that one!” Continue reading

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‘Fire Island’ on its travels

I shot a short drama film last October on Fire Island – unfortunately I didn’t get back to the island this year (probably because I’ve been recovering from concussion for the past seven months). The film is now out being pitched on the (rather expensive) film festival circuit. I suspect – as with pitching for a job – it makes a huge difference if you establish personal contacts with people on that circuit – but so far, it’s been a strictly internet, cold-call approach. Still, I’m enjoying having this small snap-shot of a relationship out there.

This is the film’s website. 

Extract below.

Fire Island: a new short drama by Francis Mead. Duration: 15 minutes.

Mike and Leah have been together for seven years, but they have never made a decision. As their summer rental on Fire Island draws to a close, things are looking bleak. They quickly discover what lengths they are willing to go, both to avoid, and then to force, a choice. Their future depends on the flip of a coin.

Shot on location at Davis Park on Fire Island.

Writer/Director Francis Mead:

“From my personal perspective, having a child and getting married are absolutely terrifying choices. Not very long ago there was very little freedom around these decisions. Of course I prefer to have those choices – but I think one of the most insidious ideas, that I espoused when I was (slightly) younger, was that “settling down” was a death experience, an inescapable trap. It was a no-brainer that settling down as a married couple, especially with children, was the antithesis of happiness. Two Shot CUBut now I’ve come to be much more interested in people in long-term relationships. Of course I like romantic stories about people when they first meet and fall in love – but there’s an enormous wealth of material to be explored in, for example, marriages. And maybe, just maybe, a lot of those long-term married people know more than the rest of us about happiness.

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Concussion thoughts

I was going to say I have become an expert in concussion – but that would be stretching it a bit. But if you get a concussion, and it involves being off work for nine months, you do get more interested.  How the hell did it happen?  The short answer is I don’t know. I woke up in St Luke’s Hospital, just north of Central Park. People were cutting my clothes off. I was in no pain, and immediately realised I’d had some kind of accident. The nurse asked me my name – managed that – my age – managed that – and then the year.  Hmmm. Was it 2011? Like a good boy not wanting to get it wrong, I chose not to answer.

I heard her say I had “come down hard on a corner” and that’s mostly what I know. I was probably cycling down the loop road, past the Lasker Pool at the top of the Park. My bike must have slid over – rapidly – my shoulder and elbow were grazed – and the main impact was on my right forehead – my helmet was cracked and slightly crushed at that point. (The helmet being cracked is good – it’s supposed to do that – to distribute the impact.) I got my medical records later. No one else was involved. I was on a corner. I was unconscious for up to a minute. I can’t remember anything from five minutes before the accident to thirty minutes after – although apparently I was conversing with people, although in a strange, persistent way. (This kind of amnesia is common as well – yes, strange that you can’t remember BEFORE the accident – but as I said, not unusual.)

I saw this video from the Tour de France – while this cyclist is on the level, notice how his back wheel slides out on the road marking – and notice how he hits his right forehead. I must have done something similar:

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