Friday, November 24, 2006

Buy Nothing Day

     I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. As a reminder, today is Buy Nothing Day. Much more than a show of consumer solidarity and conciousness, it is a time for people to reflect on how they live their lives. Many of us, driven by effective advertising, live life always wanting more and more "stuff". This consumerism not only generates extreme waste and hurts the environment, but it also distracts people from the important things in life, from spending time with friends and family to being politically active and wanting to create a better world for our children than we currently live in. It is hoped that by having a day like this, people will alter their habits over the course of the entire year, if only slightly.

Here are some videos for Buy Nothing Day (the first video is from a previous year so the date mentioned is incorrect).

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

On the Nonexistence of Free Will

    If you look up free will in the dictionary, you will get this definition
freedom of self determination and action independent of external causes

Can the definition be any more condemning? Action independent of external causes?! This means that free will is incompatible with the principle of causality. In the physics community, we quickly toss away theories that are non-causal. If events do not have a cause, then you cannot predict them. They are, in effect, supernatural events. In fact, it hard to think of a scenario where one could argue for having free will without believing in some sort of supernatural "spirit" or "soul" that isn't affected by natural events.

    Now someone might say "quantum mechanics has shown us that we cannot always predict what will happen with absolute certainty, perhaps this leaves room for free will?". This is a good try, but it still doesn't cut it. It's true that in modern physics things cannot be predicted with absolute accuracy, but we can predict probabilities of events occuring. So in principle, I could compile all events that happened in your lifetime into a huge computer, complete with all genetic information that may be relevant, and if I knew what events you would later observe I could predict the probabilities of you doing certain actions and of your brain generating certain thoughts. Sure, it would take a huge amount of computing power and a great deal of initial data to compute these probabilities, but they could be computed in principle, and that is all that is necessary to invalidate the idea of free will.

     The ambitious atheist might try to conclude that that absence of free will completely destroys the idea of ChristianTM morality because if humans don't have free will, then they cannot choose their life and it makes no sense to punish nor reward them for their actions as Christian dogma describes. But I have to say, for the sake of intellectual honesty, that I don't believe my argument applies to Christianity in this way, or any other religion for that matter. The reason for this is that Christians, for example, presuppose the existence of a supernatural realm, and who is to say that the principle of causality applies in that realm? Christians actually believe in souls, spirits, angels, and demons. So it's quite easy to see how a Christian might be able to argue that the supernatural realm is non-causal. However, if they do so, some of their ideas of God, particularly those which are related to his anthropomorphic character, are bound to fall apart. For example, if God lives in the supernatural realm, and is a non-causal being, then why should one pray to him? Your prayers don't necessarily cause him to think about your situation, because his processes are not caused by external events! Any story from the Bible where God reacts to earthly events also becomes suspect, since the supernatural world is not causal. The Christian may then argue that some aspects of the supernatural are causal, while others are not. And it's obvious that the things which are causal and those which are non-causal will depend on what it needs to be to be consistent with his worldview. I guess that's the convenience with believing in a magical world where anything goes and one can simply wish it to be true and it is....

     Outside of religious debates, what significance does the absence of free will mean to the normal person? For one, it's something that must be kept in mind when one considers the concept of justice. If people do not actually make choices in a free manner, it makes no sense to punish them for their "wickedness". Instead, one must look for the causes of bad behavior and think about logical ways to prevent it from happening in the future.

     I personally am not concerned with my lack of free will. My choices and thoughts are determined by the experiences I've had in my life, and that's all that I need, not to mention the only thing that makes sense to me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Little Speech on Religion by Little Girl

She's surely reading lines, but still.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Voices of a People's History of the United States

     I just got back from a live reading of excerpts from Howard Zinn's book Voices of a People's History of the United States. Amazon's book description is

For Voices, Zinn and Arnove have selected testimonies to living history-speeches, letters, poems, songs-left by the people who make history happen, but who usually are underrepresented or misrepresented in history books: women, Native Americans, workers, blacks and Latinos. Zinn has written short introductions to the texts, which themselves range in length from letters or poems of less than a page to entire speeches and essays that run several pages and longer. Voices of a People's History is a symphony of our nation's original voices, rich in ideas and actions, an embodiment of the power of civil disobedience and dissent, wherein lies our nation's true spirit of defiance and resilience

     The excerpts were read by a large collection of very good speakers, including Alice Walker, Steve Earle, Mos Def, Melanie Demore, Aya de Leon, Nora el Samahy, Luis Valdez, John Trudell, Anthony Arnove (the book's co-author), and Howard Zinn himself. Despite there being a couple thousand people there, I got a very close seat. Below is a picture I snapped of Zinn towards the end.

     I didn't even know that this was going to happen until lunchtime today, when I was fortunate enough to have to go to the restroom and there discovered this event being discussed in the paper. I'm glad I found out. It was by far the best live event I've ever been to. Two hours straight of extremely powerful and moving material. I believe my favorite part was a reading of an editorial from the abolitionist newspaper North Star called "The War With Mexico". I wish I had the full excerpt, but I'll have to deal with the only part I could find online.

We have no preference for parties, regarding this slaveholding crusade [here he refers to the Mexican-American war (1848)]. The one is as bad as the other. The friends of peace have nothing to hope from either. The Democrats claim the credit of commencing, and the Whigs monopolize the glory of voting supplies and carrying on the war; branding the war as dishonorably commenced, yet boldly persisting in pressing it on

This is the tail end of what was said. But by the end of the bolded part, the entire audience saw that that was exactly the situation we faced today and broke out into applause. If they didn't understand it before, then after this the entire audience must have finally understood why historians say that history repeats itself. It was truly an awesome moment, and similar moments occured throughout the rest of the night as events from the past were almost identical to those today except for changes in names.

     Everyone's readings were great though. Mos Def was absolutely fantastic as Malcolm X! Probably the best part of the night was a contribution from the Vanguard Public Foundation (not in anyway related to the trading company) which paid for 500 high school students to come to the event. The event must have made a large impact on many of them that will shape their outlook on the world for the rest of their life.

    If anyone has the chance to go to this sometime, you really should. I also plan on buying the book. I won't be able to read it for awhile, but it looks like it will be a great reference for my personal library.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Vermont Elects First Socialist to Senate/Ralph Nader's Analysis of Election Results

     Democracy Now! had two good segments on their show today that I thought were worth watching relating to yesterday's election. The first is an interview with Vermont's Bernie Sanders, who yesterday became the first socialist to ever get elected to the Senate. He talks about his campaign and explains what "socialism" means to him. The second part is Ralph Nader giving his analysis of the election results. He talks about the likelihood of the Democrats solving the main problems that our country faces. The video is here. What I'm referring to starts at the 18:18 mark.

    How is everyone feeling about the election yesterday? Are you happy with the results, or were you disappointed? Do you think the Democrats will do much now that they have power? If so, what and how soon?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Get Out and Vote Tomorrow

    Tomorrow is Election Day, that one day that comes around every 2 years when our government is forced, both by tradition and the need to keep up appearances, to give us some sort of input into how our country is run.

    Do I think much comes out of elections? Not really. Looking at the slate of candidates quickly lets one know that the people have already lost. You don't even have to have radical politics to think this. "The lesser of two evils" is sadly a very commonly spoken phrase in our country nowadays. But having said that, I think good things can come out of elections. Firstly, if you can vote directly on propositions then you have a rare opportunity to have your voice heard. In California we have two propositions (87 & 89) that would be worth passing. Prop 87 raises taxes on oil companies to help fund alternative energy, while Prop 89 establishes some sort of public financing of campaigns which will enable third-party candidates to spread their message to a wider group of people. Unfortunately I've heard that due to a large misinformation campaign funded by Chevron that Prop 87 is behind in the
polls. Just goes to show that even when democratic structures are in place, that differences in economic power can easily translate themselves into political power. But at least we have the opportunity to vote on it.

    For the most part I believe that elections are purely symbolic, and basically serve as a poll of public opinion. That is why I vote for candidates whose policies I support (as much as possible), and refuse to vote for the "lesser of two evils". While I'm certain that none of the candidates outside city-wide office that I voted for (I voted early) will win, I look forward to seeing how many like-minded individuals there are out there and to draw some hope for the future from a good showing. In addition, I think voting for parties that are on the left (such as Peace and Freedom, or the Greens) is the best way to prevent the country from right-wing policies. When people vote for the Democrats because they are afraid of Republicans coming into office, it gives the Democratic party little reason to not drift further to the right. And they will, since that's where the money and media power is. But voting to the left of them gives them a reason to remain progressive, in the hopes that they might be able to pick up those leftist votes in the next election. It's like if you have a new puppy that isn't housebroken yet. While you certainly prefer that he shits on the tile kitchen floor (the Democrats) rather than shit on the white carpet (the GOP), you certainly don't give him a treat when he goes to town near the kitchen table.

    Anyway, go out and vote. Tuesday night I might be at a local bar with the Green party candidates for Governor, Secretary of State, and Senator. If I get a picture with them I'll put it up. I didn't vote for all 3 of them (Peace and Freedom instead) but they are all progressive individuals and I hope to meet them.

    Also, the blog has been a little politics heavy as of late. After reporting on the election results I hope to write a post about free will. Have a good week.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The British Hate Us for Our Freedom

America is now seen as a threat to world peace by its closest neighbours and allies, according to an international survey of public opinion published today that reveals just how far the country's reputation has fallen among former supporters since the invasion of Iraq.

Carried out as US voters prepare to go to the polls next week in an election dominated by the war, the research also shows that British voters see George Bush as a greater danger to world peace than either the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, or the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both countries were once cited by the US president as part of an "axis of evil", but it is Mr Bush who now alarms voters in countries with traditionally strong links to the US

Full article here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

We're Not #1? Or Even Top 50?

    It's always good to remind people that we can't live in a wonderful country simply by proclaiming that it is so.