philosophy

The Ten Commandments of the Church of Convenient Religious Beliefs

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that truths convenient to our desires are truer than other truths…”

-The Prophet Clancy Al Newbaum, CCRB Sacred Informational Brochure, 1985 Edition

I frequently get asked if I am a Christian. I typically reply that, yes, indeed I am. I then inform my questioners that I am also a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Zoroastrian and a pagan. In fact, I am anything and everything. I am the alpha and the omega and the epsilon and whichever letter I feel convenient to my aims. I am, in other words, whatever it takes.

This is all because I subscribe to the sacred tenets of the Church of Convenient Religious Beliefs, a faith set up on the principle that religious beliefs should be tailored to suit one’s needs, that those ideas, beliefs and principles which help us most in our daily lives, those that most further our desires, confirm our preexisting notions, and satisfy our fears and inadequacies, should be the ones to which we ascribe.

While there is no central text to the Church of Convenient Religious beliefs, much of its philosophy and teachings began as a series of informational brochures passed out at our Founder, Clancy Al Newbaum’s, truck stop and tourist attraction The World’s Largest Non-Stick Frying Pan in New Carlisle, Kansas beginning in the 1980s. These brochures are now referred to as the Sacred Informational Brochures and well-known to all the faithful. While their content is broad, covering everything from what to eat to how to get out of going to an office luncheon, a good starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the faith would be its Ten Commandments of the Church of Convenient Religious Beliefs, first introduced as a part of the 1986 brochure and included as a part of every edition since. These beliefs as they currently stand—and new beliefs are always welcome—are provided below for your Englightenment.

SACRED LEGAL DISCLAIMER: These are all sincerely held religious convictions. They are necessary to my spiritual fulfillment and a fundamental right under the laws of this country. The CCRB is a multidisciplinary faith based on the principle that spiritual fulfillment can be attained through the demand for and fulfillment of preferential treatment. This truth was revealed through the god-man Jim Morrison and his prophet Clancy Al Newbaum, a huge Doors fan.

The Ten Commandments of the CCRB

 “In the beginning the Lord said, if it pleaseth you it pleaseth the Lord. Who are they to question your sincerity? What right have they?”

–CCRB Sacred Informational Brochure, 1999 Edition

First Commandment:

Thou shalt not have to perform jury duty or register for the draft. The Lord thinks you have better things to do and someone else should have to do it.

Second Commandment:

Thou shalt dress in whatever garment you deem comfortable, regardless of the situation. Every day is casual Friday in the eyes of the Lord. Though shalt not be required to wear ties, dress shoes or tuck in thine shirt. The most sacred coverings of the faithful are gym shorts, a t-shirt and sandals, if thou art so inclined.

Third Commandment:

Thou shalt not consume the vegetables which are green of leaf and bitter to the taste unless they be adorned with melted cheese. The Lord finds the holiness of a meal directly related to the quantity of cheese melted upon it and considers such foods exempt from your diet.

Fourth Commandment:

Thou shalt not have to send thank you cards.

Fifth Commandment:

Thou shalt not abide the tyranny of airline zone seating or the membership requirements of the Admiral’s Club, Delta Sky Club, StarAlliance®-affiliated clubs and the USO Lounge. The Lord thinks you have just as much of a right to be there as any of those assholes.

Sixth Commandment:

Thou shalt park in available handicapped spots without a permit. The Lord is pretty sure most of them don’t really need their permit anyway.

Seventh Commandment:

Thou shalt get Black Friday off. For religious reasons, this lack of work must come in the form of paid time off from thine employer. This is also true of any holiday separated from a weekend by a mere day.

Eighth Commandment:

Thou shalt not be required to shower after gym class…or attend gym class altogether. Thou will be fat in 10 years anyway. So sayeth the Lord.

Ninth Commandment:

Thou shalt have thine own dormitory room whilst you attend college, boarding school or a similar institution. Such institutions shall provide this to you at no additional charge in order to prevent you from offending God.

Tenth Commandment:

Thou shalt not have to accommodate any healthcare coverage needs of thine employees that thou does not wish to. The Lord thinks freedom of choice means freedom to cover whatever the hell thou wishes.

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Forget Media Spin, Defining the Subject is the Real Problem

People make a big deal out of media bias these days. Usually what they’re talking about is the so-called “spin” media outlets put on what they’re reporting, interpreting a story in a way that aligns with some preconceived worldview. Like when one channel describes an anti-abortion law as protecting the life of fetuses, while another describes it as attacking women’s reproductive freedoms. Let me go on the record as saying I don’t care about spin, at least not in any serious way. All but the biggest idiots are aware of its presence and choose to watch, read and listen to what they do not because they’re duped or stupid but because they like that particular spin. In other words, they’re just joining the choir with their preferred preacher. If the news they watch is tinting the world rose (or gray), they wear those rose-colored glasses because they like to see those aspects of the world in that way. Like I said, this doesn’t really bother me. What’s far more insidious, and what most people never seem to talk about, is how media outlets define what the subject is in the first place.

We’re all taking sides in the fight between A vs. B, but no one is asking who built the ring. If spin is giving you a set of rose-colored glasses, then defining the subject is grabbing your head and forcing your gaze in a certain direction. If spin preaches to the choir, then defining the subject is determining the topic of the preacher’s sermon. The difference is critical. It’s the difference between filling in a coloring book and making your own painting, the difference between a train and an airplane. It’s the difference between the repeated life and the created life. The world is a vast and complex place. For most of us, media is our primary window to the world beyond firsthand experience. Because our firsthand experiences are so limited relative to the size of the world, defining the subject can radically shape how we see the world. We are what we perceive, and when we let someone else define the landscape of the world in our minds, when we let someone else define the subjects we focus on, think about and care about, we let them define us.

This should be repulsive to anyone who values freedom, be it mental, physical, legal or economical. When people define us they mold us to suit their own purposes. We cannot be free people when we’re letting others define us. Sure, it’s unavoidable to some extent, but not even remotely to the extent most of us let it.

Think about something for a second: why do we talk and think and care and hope and hate and pray about what we do at all? Why do we notice one subject but not another? Why do we focus on one idea, one person, one event over all the billions of others in existence? Why does the water cooler only buzz with what was on TV yesterday? Why are we only donating to the one charity we saw something about on our Facebook feed? Why am I more aware of breast cancer and ALS than malaria and multiple sclerosis? Why do all the loud-mouthed blowhards at workplaces across America all spout opinions about the same subjects at the same time? Why are those same blowhards’ talking points, arguments and reasoning always the same as the other blowhards on their side? Is that the complete universe of possible ideas on the subject? Why are we only voting on stuff that our political leaders give us speeches about or debate during election season? Look, I don’t care if you vote for A or B or throw your vote away on C. What I care about is what’s on the ballot in the first place. I care about voters defining what the issues should be rather than being told what they are. I care about people considering all the worthy causes and donating time and money to what they consider the most important. I care about people spending their time, thought and effort learning about topics that really interest them. I care about all citizens determining what society’s most pressing problems are for themselves.

There are an infinite number of things to talk and think and care about, but somehow all of us are only talking and thinking and caring about the things that have been spoon fed to us. Consider the recent coverage on Ebola in the United States. Why is this a subject worthy of national attention? Sure, it’s a terrible disease and a substantial cause of human suffering, but so are a lot of things. So are a ton of things. Is it really even in the Top 1000 as far as threats faced by Americans? The media likes it because, properly framed, it can scare the hell out of viewers and boost ratings. But why should Americans be concerned about it? Certainly the pain and death it has caused in Africa is a reason for humanitarian concern. But so are white slavery, malaria, world hunger, poverty and predatory lending, but those are hardly being talked about by everyone at the office and inspiring hordes of politicians to make bold empty gestures. And in any case, it’s not like the media presents Ebola as a humanitarian concern. They present it as a threat. A threat to you. But what degree of threat is it really to anyone outside of Africa? Sure, it has a high mortality rate, but it’s not a particularly contagious disease and it’s well contained in most of the world. To date only a handful of people in America have died as a result of it. Compare that to the about 30,000 people who die in car accidents in America every year, a threat that gets zero media coverage on a national level.

Why? Why do you care about what you do? They’re leading us along like dogs on a leash and we’re wagging our tails and whining for a treat.

The consequences of this sort of thing are substantial. Besides the general dickishness of inflicting emotional pain on people for profit, it has the effect of wasting many different types of resources that could be better spent. Governments, businesses and institutions are wasting money and employees and hampering their normal operations. Politicians will blow government resources on ineffectual measures to appease a frightened populace. Hospitals will needlessly quarantine people or force unnecessary procedures to keep a paranoid public happy. Individuals are wasting their time and effort. We can only do so much. When we focus on some pointless thing like this, we take our attention away from something else we would find more worthy if only we bothered to look. You might spend your time reading tips on preventing Ebola infection or canceling your flight to Cleveland instead of reading about measures to reduce your risk of developing the prostate tumor that killed your grandfather and your uncle.

And inciting fear for ratings is hardly the only insidious way of defining the issue. Think of all the new products you don’t really need but suddenly want after seeing a news article by an “expert” predicting it’s going to be the next big thing anyone who’s anyone has. Think about all the articles, reports and stories subtly (or not so subtly) telling you want you need to wear, how you need to look, what sort of job, hobbies, friends or family life you need in order to not be an unsuccessful, pathetic, unloved “loser.” Why do you care about how you look? There are legitimate reasons, of course. Maybe you want to be stylish. That’s fine. But you should want to be stylish because you want to be stylish and not because America’s top cologne producers planted the suggestion in your head. Or why do you want to get married? Maybe you love your significant other and want to formalize the relationship with pomp and circumstance, a sweet party and some solid tax advantages. That’s fine. But you should want that because you want that and not because Crate & Barrel wants the profits from your wedding registry. Most media is a conspiracy between sellers of consumer goods and sellers of ideas, ideals and ideologies. To the media you are a commodity to be bought and sold. To politicians and pundits you are the wood that burns in the fires of power. To some you are both. As long as they’re defining your world you’re letting them sell you to the highest bidder and your flame is burning bright and clean.

So what’s a girl to do? Abandon all hope? Liquidate your possessions, triumphantly hurl your 52”, flat-screen, 1080p HD LCD TV out the window and go live in a second hand tent by Walden Pond? No. Of course not. Walden Pond is a very popular park with the 9 to 5 crowd nowadays and you’d probably get kicked out at sundown. Just be mindful. Consider the sources of your thoughts, opinions and interpretations. Consider what you’re okay with. Instead of turning on the TV news to hear what the latest things you should care about are, open up an encyclopedia and browse damn it, browse! Browse until you find something that is of interest to you. It’s still an imperfect medium, but so is everything. At least with an encyclopedia you get some meaningful choice. You’re forced to choose your own path, to shine a light on a particular part of the world yourself rather than follow the theatre spotlight you see on the stage of TV.  The news is an encyclopedia with 10 entries. Don’t hike a trail through the same existence as everyone else. Blaze your own damn trail.  Make knowledge an all you can eat buffet where you pick and choose, not some prison mess hall where you eat what they damn well tell you to.

But maybe you shouldn’t listen to any of this. After all, I was the one who pointed your focus in this direction, wasn’t I? Not you. Do you really care about this stuff or is this idea just a flashing neon sign in the night, stealing your focus like a streetlight to a moth? Maybe you should listen to them. I’m just some silly, pretentious asshole on the Internet, right? What do I know? I don’t have the experts. I don’t have any power or impressive titles. I don’t run any Fortune 500 companies. I don’t give any TED Talks. I’m not a trend setter or a thought leader. I can’t even cancel my goddamn cable. And making a route for your life is difficult. Why not let them show you the way? Why not just go listen to the news, to the politicians, to the sitcoms, to the ad agencies, to the talk radio shows and to all the other voices in our collective head telling us to burn down our souls and pay them for the ashes?

Look.

Over here!

No.

Here.

Where I’m pointing.

To me.

Me.

Not you.

I Apologize, but I Couldn’t Resist Talking About Religion (Part I)

PART I

Introduction

I’d prefer to limit the religious screeds on this site. Really, I would. Or at least I’d like to think I would. I like to think of myself as a live and let live type, that most people’s opinions would seem reasonable if you could see them through the lenses of their experiences and emotions. But I also live in a part of the country where I have the privilege of hearing blowhards at work spout their religious views all the livelong day, often taking it for granted that their entire audience agrees with them 100% and it’s just those crazy, nasty, drug-addled city dwellers on the coasts that would be crazy, nasty and drug-addled enough to think anything else. Being non-confrontational, I rarely say anything even when I have serious problems with what they say, which is all to say I need to vent this somewhere.

See, I’m an agnostic. What that means is I find the existence of any particular god unproven, although I also consider it likely something out there we might call a “god” exists, but I take no final stance on what it is and would guess that it’s likely as beyond our comprehension as poetry to a butterfly. For people who actually know what an agnostic is (which is depressingly rare), it is a common misconception that an agnostic considers all possibilities regarding the true nature of reality to be equally likely. In other words, that Christianity is as likely to be true as Hinduism, or that ancient Greco-paganism (Zeus and friends) is as likely to be true as Islam. This isn’t my position at all. In fact, though I don’t like being identified as an atheist because it’s a common misconception (even among the non-religious) that atheists are all certain God does not exist (i.e. a hard atheist), I identify with them primarily because we both find the religions of Earth highly improbable.

Now, while I admit that I cannot know for certain that Christianity is false and that the Christian god Jehovah does not exist, I consider the truth of Christianity extremely unlikely. People who criticize my position often ask how I can think that humans don’t know the nature of the Universe but also have an opinion about the nature of the Universe, namely that humans are full of shit. My answer is simple. It’s the same way I can think my foil hat-wearing neighbor with his alien abduction story is full of shit without actually knowing whether or not aliens exist. It’s the same way I can be skeptical of him despite thinking that there probably is something out there but we just don’t know what it is, and further, that the true nature of extraterrestrial life is more incredible than we could ever imagine.

See, a claim itself is no proof of the claim, nor is the inability to completely disprove the claim. My neighbor makes shit up all the time, things I have verifiable proof are false. He’s also schizophrenic and prone to believing crazy theories. Not only that, his family says they were in the same house the whole night in question and saw nothing out of the ordinary. This argument against agnosticism is basically a restatement of the well worn idea that the inability to disprove the existence of God is somehow proof of the existence of God. Lack of evidence against is not evidence for. Just because I can’t tell you for certain the composition of the core of the planet Mercury doesn’t mean I can have no opinion on the subject, nor that I must accept your belief that it is made out of blue cheese as a valid, legitimate opinion.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I have issues with religion, Christianity most of all. This isn’t because I think Christianity is particularly bad or deserves any more criticism than any other major religion on this planet. In fact, I actually admire many aspects of Christianity, or at least I admire the philosophy of kindness, forgiveness, charity and mercy that Jesus Christ supposedly taught. I focus on Christianity only because it’s by far the most common religion in my nation. I was made a Christian as a child. I have identified as a Christian. I have been friends with Christians. I am friends with Christians. I have dated Christians. I have had premarital sex with Christians. I have no such familiarity with any other religion.

And that’s just it: the familiarity. Most people don’t really follow Christianity (or any religion for that matter) as a philosophy of kindness towards others, as it’s ostensibly designed to be. They follow as members of a geographical team, like Red Sox fans. They follow it because they were born in a Christian nation and raised as Christianity fans. This is no reason to believe in a philosophy or a theology. It’s tribalism, pure and simple. It’s us and them, my team and yours. But more on that later.

My issues with the truth of Christianity essentially fall into three categories: (1) the philosophical, (2) the evidentiary and (3) the psychological/anthropological. That is to say I find Christianity improbable because of (1) what it says, (2) the lack of reliable evidence for its claims and (3) the minds, tendencies and histories of human beings in general.

In the interest of keeping these posts to single servings I’m just going to deal with one issue at a time. In any case, most of the time people find this sort of thing is either horribly offensive or preaching to the choir. In the unlikely event you are on the fence about this sort of thing, I salute you. God bless.

Picky Eaters are the Scourge of Civilization

“Nobody really likes sushi. It’s just a fad.” This is how a picky eating coworker of mine once described the centuries-old Japanese culinary tradition. Sure, I get his basic point. The popularity of sushi among young Americans has risen dramatically in the past decade and is, to some extent, a trend. But come on. It ain’t Krispy Kremes and cupcakes. Sushi has been popular with people my age since I started college in 2002, was popular before then, and will continue to be popular into the long term. I don’t really care about that debate, though. What got to me, what really drove me up the proverbial wall, was it’s just the sort of thing a picky eater would say, and picky eaters are, as they say, the worst.

There are three kinds of relationships people have with sushi: either (1) they love it; (2) they’ve never had an opportunity to try it; or (3) they’re overgrown children who never eat anything outside the spectrum between white bread and mac & cheese. What makes the third category “picky” eaters is that modern sushi ain’t just yellow tail sashimi. It’s tempura. It’s hot sauce. It’s rolls so Americanized they’re named after American cities (believe it or not cream cheese isn’t an authentic Japanese ingredient). To say you dislike sushi is more akin to saying you hate a whole class of food than it is to saying you dislike one type of food. But still, it’s not just that they dislike sushi that bothers me…

It’s a common misconception that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Bullshit. Legally, we’re entitled to think stupid, baseless things, but my respect for someone’s opinion is dependent on how they arrived at that opinion. That’s not to say that just because I disagree with your opinion means I disrespect it. There are plenty of horrible opinions whose existence I can at least appreciate and tolerate because they have a logical underpinning (see Ayn Rand). The thing is, picky eating isn’t one of them. Picky eating is more a state of arrested development than it is a real opinion. We all start our lives as picky eaters. I myself used to hate half the grocery store. Then came my eighth birthday and I realized that seemingly icky things with foreign sounding names and strange colors could actually be pretty good if I gave them half a chance. And that’s just it. Picky eaters don’t give things any chance.

Don’t get me wrong here. Just because you don’t like some foods doesn’t make you a picky eater. Everyone has a few things they just can’t stand. For me, that’s creamy goat cheese (feta is fine). It has this barnyard-y taste I just can’t like no matter how many times I’ve tried it. And I have tried it dozens of times. I want so badly to like it. That’s the key. I’ve given it a real chance. Having an opinion about something doesn’t make you picky. Having a baseless and/or unreasonable opinion makes you picky.

For picky eaters it’s their way or the highway. In fact, the unifying trait of all the picky eaters I’ve known has been that they’re generally close-minded and demanding about everything, not just food. Picky eaters are that asshole who won’t even give three seconds of playing time to a song before declaring they hate it. They’re that asshole who has one or two entertainment venues they’re willing to go to. They’re that asshole who will never move more than a hundred miles from their hometown even for the opportunity of a lifetime. They’re that asshole who has to be coddled into playing any new game and will have a tantrum if not good at it immediately. Picky eaters are certain of everything. They follow the most popular religion in their region. They hold all the most common opinions.  They know what is right and what is wrong without having to think about it. They are supremely confident and think anything else is evidence of error. Most of all, they can’t understand why anyone would want to be any other way. It’s all so obvious to them.

Once again, don’t get me wrong. There’s a certain breed of picky eaters who claim to be picky because of their unusual sensitivity to flavors, the so-called “supertasters.” I really can’t comment on this. It’s clear that such people do exist, but I don’t know how common they really are. All I can say is that making that excuse for picky eating seems similar to an obese person claiming it’s a glandular problem. Sure, I think such people exist, but for most it’s probably just a convenient excuse. That said, most of the self-proclaimed supertasters I’ve met don’t exhibit all the typical picky eater pathologies. For one, they’re usually apologetic about being a picky eater. True picky eaters don’t feel bad about being picky; they resent people who aren’t, like my sushi-eating coworker. True picky eaters proudly proclaim their allegiance from the rooftops and bitch and moan any time everyone else wants to hold a group lunch at some place that isn’t cheese pizza or chicken fingers. Secondly, supertasters have usually given the foods they don’t like several chances. When pressed, many picky eaters will admit they’ve never even tried the foods they hate, and when they have it was usually half a bite, one time, a decade or so ago.

Which brings me to my final point. Some of you are probably thinking “Why do you care so much? Live and let live, right? It’s not like they’re making you be a picky eater. Isn’t it kind of like them to have such a strong, certain opinion about picky eating? It doesn’t affect you, does it?” Okay, sure. I get what you’re saying. If I were reading this about a subject I’m neutral on I might have the same reaction. But see, the thing is it does affect me. Constantly.

Every time 95% of us want Chinese or Chipotle but we have to go to Applebee’s because Frank doesn’t eat “ethnic” foods, it affects me. Every time we have to order a goddamn cheese “pizza” because Debbie refuses to pick the pepperonis (or god forbid vegetables) off her slices, claiming she can still taste it, it affects me. It affects me when, instead of Subway or Quiznos, we have to go to Burger King for the 10,000th time because Bob hates “health food.” It affects me when the office snack closet has nothing but potato chips and candy bars because as a child John’s parents never made him eat anything that couldn’t be bought at a gas station. There is nothing group-related that they do not try to affect.

Unless you have a legit medical condition or a conscientious or religious objection (e.g. you’re vegetarian, have Crohn’s disease, don’t eat pork because you’re Jewish or Muslim, etc.), you have no right to always demand the majority change its food choice to suit your tastes. What’s ironic is that people who have legitimate reasons for wanting to eat something else are usually more accommodating than they need to be. I’ve seen many a vegetarian not make a fuss over having to order French fries for their whole meal because no vegetarian entrees were on the menu, and yet some spoiled child of a picky eater will bitch at Italian food because they don’t like tomatoes.

And that’s just it. Picky eaters are usually like that because they’re used to getting their way. They’re overgrown brats. Spoiled 25 year-old toddlers. When other parents were telling their kids to shut up and eat their damn broccoli, the picky eater’s parents were back in the kitchen cooking up an alternative their little prince wouldn’t cry over.

This attitude, the type of person who is absolutely unwilling to compromise, causes half the world’s problems. Civilization is the product of many compromises. If everyone were as intransigent as picky eaters, society would crumble into anarchy. Just look at all the problems America has had in the past decade because Republicans and Democrats have had difficulty compromising on even basic stuff. A good compromise means nobody gets exactly what they want, but no compromise means nobody gets any of what they want. Picky eaters introduce this stubborn unwillingness to deal into our world and the chaos and suffering that comes with it.

Let me close with a message to the parents of the world: picky eaters are made, not born. It is up to you to end the scourge of picky eating. When your kids complain about the Brussels sprouts, smack ‘em upside the head. When they refuse to eat, let them go hungry. The French say hunger is the best spice. Maybe your kids will think sushi tastes better after a foodless night spent pouting in their room.

Free Will and Other Inevitable Superstitions

The concept of fault is something I really struggled with in law school. Recently I saw an episode of Law and Order that perfectly highlighted my issue with the concept and really with our whole criminal justice system in general.  In it, a straight-laced, previously law-abiding and overachieving high school principal developed a brain tumor that inhibited the impulse control centers in the frontal lobe of her brain. This led her to try to screw anything that moved, including the children she worked with. They arrested her for sexually assaulting a minor and she successfully used the “tumor made me do it” defense.

In the episode they showed CAT scans of her brain seeing pictures of children after the tumor was removed with a similar readout for a certified child molester for comparison. All the good people at the DA’s office came to the conclusion that because her brain now showed the patterns of a normal person, it wasn’t her abnormal brain that caused the crime but the abnormal tumor affecting her normal brain, and therefore she wasn’t at fault. Okay, I agree with the result, but am I the only one who finds it insane that we can forgive one brain malfunction but not another?

If one physical abnormality of the brain, e.g. a tumor, can relieve someone of culpability for a crime, then why shouldn’t another physical abnormality of the brain? People don’t molest children because they’re evil demon souls that need to be sent straight to hell. They molest children because they were born with abnormal brain structure/chemistry that makes them desire children sexually and affords them insufficient impulse control to avoid acting on that. Don’t get me wrong. Molesting children is horrible. I just don’t see how one physical pathology makes someone any more or less guilty than another.

Of course the punishment-minded moral zealots of society proper have a response: it’s a matter of free will. With child molesters they have free will to choose whether or not to selfishly satisfy their dark desires and choose to do so. With the principal in Law and Order, the tumor removed her free will. So I guess the brain tissues we’re born with are a matter of personal responsibility, rich with free will juices and other magic, but tumors, being a creation of the demon of cancer or some shit (who I guess must be actively invited into your brain?), are not?

The thing is, if a physical thing can remove free will, is free will not the product of something physical inside of us? If being drugged can remove free will, is free will, or rather the organ creating its illusion, not physical? And if free will is physical, that is, if it is the product of cause and effect between conglomerations of matter, how can it be free?

Free will, by definition, requires some sort of supernatural element—something beyond the energy and matter, space and time and physical laws that make up our Universe. Purely physical things are completely at the mercy of the rest of the physical world. A rock cannot choose to go right or left. It is acted upon by the rest of the Universe and flows with it, like dominoes tumbling in a row, one after the other. If we are purely physical creatures, there can be no such thing as free will. Certainly a human is more, or at least different from a rock. But just because it is more complex—so complex in fact that we have difficulty ferreting out the causes behind it—does not mean that it is not still a totally physical thing, completely at the mercy of the physical Universe.

Some articles and friends I’ve discussed this issue with have mentioned that the seemingly random behavior of atoms at the quantum level could provide the basis for free will. This is intriguing and gives me more pause than most of the “just because” answers you typically get, but it’s still unsatisfying. Never mind that I doubt the existence of randomness and consider its illusion the inability to grasp the complexity of a situation (i.e. there is no such thing as randomness, just unpredictability by humans), if subatomic randomness were inherent to our structure, how is true randomness any more free from the perspective of personal responsibility than total order and absolute cause and effect? If one time out of one trillion I would kill a man in a given situation, is my poor luck in hitting one of those rare occasions something more deserving punishment than my non-murderous existence? What if one in two? One in five? The point is it doesn’t matter. Chance is by definition not a matter of free will. The idea that we are affected by the world in ways we cannot control but yet responsible for our response to all those effects is absurd.

Free will is, in actuality, of course, a concept rooted in religious superstition and used by our justice system as an excuse for the punishments it doles out to people because they “deserve it.” Murder, rape, and all the rest. Horrible crimes by perfectly ordinary people. Deep down I think most people realize this but choose to ignore it. And why? Guilt. Guilt for the cruelty we visit upon the guilty. Because, as a practical matter, our justice system is horribly inhumane without it. Left without fault and desert-based notions of crime and punishment (what’s known as retributivist justice), we are left without punishment as a justification in itself. Without harming people for the sake of harming them, because they deserve it, we can only imprison or punish people because, as a practical matter, it’s necessary to protect society. That, my friends, would make a huge portion of our “justice” system monstrous. More to the point, it would make us monsters for tolerating it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should just abandon our laws because all crimes are understandable given the perpetrator’s physical makeup and life experiences, something over which, without free will, they had no control. What I’m saying is we should revisit the tenets of our retributivist justice system which focuses on revisiting the harm inflicted by the defendant back onto the defendant because we think somehow they had a meaningful choice and decided to do the evil thing and pollute their souls or whatever. Cruelty is never an appropriate response to cruelty. Cruelty is never an appropriate response to anything. Instead of focusing on the results of criminal pathology, why not focus on addressing the cause of the problem? Perhaps there is no way to treat child molesters and therefore they really do need to be locked up for life in order to protect our children, the potential harm to which easily justifies the harm visited upon the defendant by imprisonment. Fine. But shouldn’t we work to minimize the harm that nature has dealt us? Punishment for punishment’s sake makes no sense other than being a half-assed basis for our justice system. Justice is not vengeance. Or at least it shouldn’t be. In our current society, though, I have a hard time telling the difference. In the end, there is no justification for vengeance other than that it satisfies the rage in our monkey minds.

Be Mindful of Cognitive Dissonance

NOTE: I am not affiliated with the authors, publishers or sellers of the book mentioned below in any way. I will receive no money from them for this article or any clicks of the Wikipedia link to the book below. I just think it contains ideas worth spreading and consider it a good use of a few hours of your life.

Cognitive Dissonance is just a fancy word for holding two conflicting ideas in your head at once. It permeates everything human beings do, and understanding it can help you understand people who act in seemingly irrational ways. Even more importantly, it can help you be a more honest, rational person.

Our minds are all full of dissonance in ways both profound and mundane. For example, I might consider myself a safe driver, but I may also think speed limits can be ignored. I may believe that stealing is wrong, but illegally download music. What’s interesting about cognitive dissonance isn’t that it exists; it’s how we rationalize it to alleviate the conflict in our minds. In the speeding example, I may tell myself that ignoring speed limits isn’t what causes crashes; rather, it’s speed differences. This allows my self-image of me as the safe driver to remain intact. If I just go the same speed as everyone else, I tell myself, then I don’t need to worry about the speed limit. Keep in mind that these sorts of rationalizations aren’t necessarily wrong. The thing is that they have a tendency to be because we don’t make them in a relentless search for truth but rather to make ourselves feel better. In other words, they tend to follow the path of least resistance. If a logical one can be found, all the better. But if not, oh well.

This is all wonderfully laid out in the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)* by Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris, one of the most useful psychology-for-laymen books I’ve read in a long time. The book gives many different examples, but some of the most thought provoking are those on political corruption and crime. Many people wonder how can someone at the top of American politics, someone with so much to lose, can be as stupid as some politicians are. A lot of seemingly inexplicable or horrible behavior is actually quite understandable when viewed through the lens of cognitive dissonance theory.

For example, the book asks the question: how do mobsters sleep at night? Its answer: the same way we all do. While something like the music downloading example might be far cry from accepting bribes or murdering a rat, the rationalizations that keep these people sane operate on the same basic principle taken to its logical end. It’s tempting to think these people are just extraordinarily greedy or power hungry or just plain evil. But they’re not. In most cases, even the worst among us really are pretty average. That is, that most people, given the right circumstances, are capable of doing horrible things. These people aren’t any more cruel or mean by nature than we are, but through a careful nurture, through many small steps of increasing self-delusion, they have to the conclusion that something as perfectly awful as murder can be acceptable. This is not to say that sociopaths and the like don’t exist. They do. But they are the exception in these cases, not the rule. Most of the people who do awful things are perfectly ordinary.

Anyways, I could go on forever, so I won’t, but I would encourage you to reads Mistakes Were Made. There are two takeaways from all this that I would like to highlight: (1) don’t get overly upset when people do seemingly terrible things; and (2) this is because there but for the grace of the almighty goodness being goes I. It can be useful to think of people’s motivations in terms of the delusions they’re selling themselves. We’re all just confused little creatures trying to avoid suffering and fulfill our desires.