Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Do the Right Thing, Spike

What words can one use to describe Spike Lee, a wealthy filmmaker who, in his hubris, has no concern whatsoever for ordinary people?

In an attempt to avenge the death of Trayvon Martin Mr. Lee tweeted to his followers the address of the man he thought was the shooter, but it turns out he had the wrong address:
It was the address of an elderly Florida couple whose son... William George Zimmerman (no relation to shooter) - lived briefly there in 1995. Now the 70-year-old school cafeteria lunch lady with a heart condition and her 72-year-old husband have been forced to move out of danger into a hotel temporarily after receiving hate mail, threats, harassing visits from reporters and fearful inquiries from neighbors.

The woman’s other son Chip Humble told the Orlando Sentinel, "It's scary because there are people who aren't mentally right and will take this information and run with it. To endanger people who are innocent because people are angry is not the answer. That's not how we're going to heal. It's not [going] to help the Martin family for someone else to be hurt."

The O’Reilly Factor contacted Spike Lee’s production company “40 Acres and a Mule.” Instead of issuing a statement or an apology, the executive office told Factor producer Jesse Watters that Spike Lee had “no comment.” That’s it.
Apologize? When you're Spike Lee there's no need to apologize. If your irresponsible actions cause innocent people to have to flee their home why, that's just collateral damage in the war against white injustice. Lee's decision to tweet their address was reckless and unconscionable, and his subsequent refusal to apologize is odious.

Meanwhile, no word yet if any charges will be brought by the Department of Justice or the Florida State Attorney General against the New Black Panthers for offering a reward for the kidnapping of the real George Zimmerman and the forcible transfer of the man to the leaders of the NBP Party. How this cannot be illegal is beyond my ability to comprehend. That the Obama DOJ refuses to take action against the NBP despite their threat to Zimmerman's civil rights is deplorable.

UPDATE: Lee finally did the right thing and apologized to the elderly couple he made refugees from their own home.

Nothing New about Global Warming

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has argued that a period of warming that occurred between 500 and 1000 years ago, called the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), was a local phenomenon confined to Europe, and that the global temperature increases we’re experiencing now are man-made.

A new study just released throws all of that into question, however, by producing compelling evidence that the MWP was actually a world-wide event. The Daily Mail has the story. Here's an excerpt:
A team of scientists led by geochemist Zunli Lu from Syracuse University in New York state, has found that contrary to the ‘consensus’, the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ approximately 500 to 1,000 years ago wasn’t just confined to Europe. In fact, it extended all the way down to Antarctica – which means that the Earth has already experienced global warming without the aid of human CO2 emissions.

At present the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that the Medieval Warm Period was confined to Europe – and that therefore the warming we’re experiencing now is a man-made phenomenon. However, Professor Lu has shown that this isn’t true – and the evidence lies with a rare mineral called ikaite, which forms in cold waters.
The article goes on to describe how Lu and his team used ikaite to ascertain the temperatures which prevailed in Antarctica during the MWP. You can find the technical details at the link. The take home message, though, is that a severe period of global warming lasted for several centuries and then naturally diminished, and none of it was the result of human activity.

Perhaps the current upward trend in global temperatures is indeed caused by increased greenhouse gasses generated by human activity, but there appears to be historical precedent for temperature surges that are unrelated to industrialization and CO2 emissions so it would seem very premature to assume that something similar is not happening today.

Free Will and Determinism

Graham Lawton, deputy magazine editor at New Scientist offers a brief review of atheistic philosopher and materialist neuroscientist Sam Harris' new book on free will.

Harris argues that free will doesn't exist, a claim which, it seems to me, gets him entangled in a number snares, but I'll let Lawton explain:
Free will touches everything we value - law, politics, relationships, morality and more. And yet it is an illusion (according to Harris). We either live in a deterministic universe where the future is set, or an indeterminate one where thoughts and actions happen at random. Neither is compatible with free will.

Having laid this out, Harris tries to salvage something from the wreckage. In the process he ends up rowing back to a position not unlike the "compatibilists" who argue that free will can be reconciled with the laws of physics, a notion he has earlier attacked.

Harris starts his rescue mission by pointing out that, even in the absence of free will, there is still a distinction between voluntary action and mere accidents. Imagine, he says, that while he is writing his book somebody outside fires up a leaf blower. He ignores the sound by attending to his work. The decision feels like the exercise of free will, but isn't.

Even so, the choice still matters because it leads to outcomes in the real world. "If I had not decided to write this book, it would not have written itself." His choice "was unquestionably the cause of it coming into being". But that choice came out of the "darkness of prior causes" that Harris has no control over. As he puts it: "You can do what you decide to do, but you cannot decide what you will decide to do."

To me that sounds like a bit of sophistry. Harris shatters the illusion of free will and tries to numb the pain with an argument that it is all OK because our actions have consequences. But even if we can make choices that make a difference, does that make them any more our own? Does that take us anywhere new? I'm not sure.

Regardless, Harris presses on to explain how this version of not having free will plays out in the real world. At the very least, his argument provides a refreshing antidote to the nihilism that the debate tends to produce.
Yes, Harris chose to write the book, but the choice was determined for him, just as his belief in determinism was determined for him, by those dark prior causes. At least Harris himself must believe that, but that being so, why should anyone think that his belief in determinism is the product of rational reflection? Why should he think that the reader's rejection of his arguments has anything to do with the cogency of those arguments?

What we choose to believe, if determinism is actually the case, is the result of a host of factors most of which we are unaware of and none of which have anything much to do with what's reasonable or true. The belief in determinism, if determinism is true, is simply the inevitable consequence of millions of chance events throughout our lives and even before our lives, as well as the genetic endowment we've inherited from a long skein of ancestors.

Indeed, in a deterministic world I'm not even sure what it means to talk of a "reasonable" belief. Reason is just another illusion like free will.

Given all this, I don't know how Harris can possibly avoid nihilism, as Lawton suggests he does, without taking an irrational leap, i.e. choosing to live as if he were free when, in fact, he knows that he's not. People who do this should not, however, pat themselves on the back for being exemplars of rational living.