Moving home.

First up, apologies for the lack of a post last week. I’m trying to stick to a weekly schedule, but things got ahead of me and I was laid up with the Mutant Martian Death Flu™ for most of the week. When I have been well enough to be up and about, I’ve mostly been organising things for the move back home, which is less than seven weeks away now. Yes, we’re coming home. We’d have liked to stay, but they’re changing things up on the campus here which means Jenny’s position will no longer exist. I’ve been job-hunting for when we get back, and Jenny has signed up for some fill-in teaching work next year.

I’ve also started on a regular editing gig for pop-culture news startup ComiConverse, which is taking up some of my wordsing skills, and finishing the novel is taking the rest. I should hopefully be able to keep it up when we’re back in Melbourne, but it’s just a casual gig so it’ll only be as a supplement to whatever else I end up doing there. Still, it’s good work, and I’ve already got some great positive feedback from it.

The rep from the moving company came to take a look at our things on Monday. It looks like we should be able to bring back all our stuff within our 3m3 limit. We were well under the limit for the trip over here, nearly three years ago, but in that time we’ve accumulated rather a lot of books and clothes, a couple of musical instruments, and a few pieces of furniture that all need to be shipped back to Melbourne. Packing for a holiday is stressful enough; I’m not looking forward to literally packing up and shipping off our entire lives here. At least we’ll only have to live out of our suitcases for a couple of days.

I am looking forward to coming home. Melbourne and Australia seem to be in better shape than we left them, all things considered. While I might disagree with many of his government’s policies, our Prime Minister is no longer a complete international embarrassment. (Although it appears Tony Abbott is still doing his best to do that job.) Our state government seems to be much more competent than the last one. More fundamentally, though, I miss Australian food — and good coffee.* I miss our friends and family, and our cats. For that matter I miss having regular work — everything I’ve done here has been more or less ad-hoc, with hours varying from week to week.

I also miss being at homewherever home is — for the vast majority of the year. As I write this, I’m sitting on a four-hour express train to Beijing, where we’re based this week. For the last three years we’ve spent 37 weeks of the year in Nanjing, and of that time we spend 14 work-weeks (Tuesday to Friday) in Shanghai and Beijing. We’ve made a few friends in Shanghai but it’s still difficult.

All that said, though, I am definitely going to miss Nanjing. We’ve made some great friends here, and while we’ll definitely stay in touch after we leave I know we’ll miss them terribly. I really appreciate the fact that between the ubiquity of public transport, the cheapness of taxis and the convenience of our electric scooter, we don’t need a car here to get by. Even though the place we bought in Melbourne last year is very conveniently located for public transport, we still expect we’ll need a car there. And we won’t even be moving in there straight away; our tenants’ lease runs out in September, and my parents have offered to take us in until then. That gives us some time to find our feet, and to find work if we haven’t already.

I’d also like to add a little reminder that I’m doing Movember next month — which will involve shaving off my beard for the first time in about eight years. I’ll be posting regular picture updates to my Mo Space (linked at left), Facebook, Tumblr, and here if I can get the hang of posting photos to WordPress. Please consider clicking through and making a donation. I’ll also post thanks to everyone who chips in, of course. In advance of the actual mo-growing, my mum Cathy has matched my starting donation, and we’ve also received some donations from the members of STC South Camberwell and North Balwyn Cricket Clubs — thanks fellas!


*There is one place in Nanjing that does proper Antipodean-style coffee: Motu, run by a Kiwi couple. It’s 14km away, on the far side of town. I’ve tracked down some places in Beijing and Shanghai that do it too: Barista Coffee near the Lama Temple in Beijing, Café del Volcan and Vinyl Ganesh in the French Concession in Shanghai. Beijing’s Bookworm, where I’m now finishing up this post, isn’t bad for coffee either, and has the added bonuses of being additionally a bar, restaurant, bookshop, lending library and performance space.

The Power of the Mo.

I’m proud to identify as a feminist. Women have got the short end of the stick in most respects throughout history and still do today. They still earn less for the same work, do a bigger share of unpaid labour, are disproportionately victims of sex crimes, and in some countries are still unequal in the eyes of the law. Now, as a lot of self-identified “men’s rights activists” are all too quick to point out, this is not the fault of all men. But it is the fault of the culture that teaches us that a woman changing her name on marriage is unremarkable, while a man who changes his is servile; and that a little boy who bullies his female peers does it because he likes them; and that makes us see a crowd with a 50/50 gender split as “female dominated”, and it takes a ratio of five men to one woman for the average person to perceive it as even. (There have been studies.)

The men’s rights activists are right that men have it tough in some areas, but they’re wrong if they try to lay the blame for that on feminism or gender equality. Men are disproportionally cut out of their children’s lives in divorce cases, not because feminists have convinced judges that teh evil menz cannot be trusted, but because of the patriarchal view that women are more natural nurturers and better with children. Men who are raped are far less likely to be taken seriously than women, who have a hard time of it as it is, not because of some feminist idea that men are always aggressors but because of the patriarchal idea that a man wouldn’t refuse sex and that it’s “unmanly” to be a victim. Men are disproportionately victims of violence in general, but not because women are more violent, rather because outside of domestic cases (where the target pool is kind of small) most violence is between men. In turn, this is in no small part because we are taught to feel we have no other outlet. We can’t talk about our issues as freely as women can without being mocked and dismissed. This is also a reason why men are disproportionately victims of suicide. (The expression victims of suicide might seem wrongheaded, but I stand by it.)

And that brings me to where I’m going with this post. Mental health is a huge issue. According to beyondblue, one in eight men will have depression and one in five men will experience anxiety at some stage of their lives. I’ve been living with low-level anxiety for years, which I generally brushed off as just normal stress — I’m doing Year 12, I’m in a new environment at uni, I’m moving out of home, I’m working two jobs and studying, I’m living in a strange new country — but in the last year I’ve recognised that it isn’t just something I have to grit my teeth and bear. I’ve had anxiety attacks, and while they might be triggered by thinking about my career or our mortgage or whatever, they aren’t rational, and so they can’t be fixed by rational thinking. My most visible symptom was nail-biting, and it had gotten very bad. Interesting thing though, what finally stopped it wasn’t that bad-tasting stuff you can put on your nails, nor was it getting anti-anxiety medication (that came later, and I don’t need it most days) — it was getting a manicure and having my nails painted (a very unmanly) purple.

So this year, I’m going to do what I’ve been meaning to do for a while and never got round to — yet another symptom of both anxiety and depression being procrastination and avoidance, of course — and sign up for the Movember charity drive. This means that for the month of November I’ll be growing out a moustache and raising money for men’s mental health. Movember supports men’s health in other areas too, like prostate cancer, which is great.

As an already beardly-faced fella, of course, this will mean shaving my face for the start of the month. I’ve had the goatee for so long my wife has literally never seen me without it, except in old photographs, so that should be interesting. I just hope people don’t get too freaked out when I end up looking like my Dad, because to be honest, I know that that’s what’s going to happen.

I’ve pledged $100 just to get the ball rolling towards my target of raising $1000. You can follow my progress at my “Mo Space” page here, and I’ll be adding a link on the sidebar and on my other online presences as well. If you can and you’d like to, please click through and donate. It’s a very worthy cause.

Asking the Right Questions.

Over the last few weeks, if anybody has been reading these, I’ve been talking about free will. The conclusion I reached was that the important question is not simply “do we have it?”, because that begs the question of what it actually is. There are senses in which we have it and senses in which we don’t. The usual arguments hinge on a definition of free will that not only trivially doesn’t exist, but also wouldn’t do what we’d want it to do if it did. What this highlights to me is the vital importance in philosophy, and in rational inquiry in general, of asking the right questions. Closely related is the value of using appropriate and transparent definitions, which I have also written about before.

Today, I’d like to turn the discussion onto the concept of knowledge itself. What does it mean to know something? This is the field of epistemology.

For some people, saying you know something is just making a distinction between saying you believe it, and saying you really believe it. But that’s not an appropriate use of the word; the difference between knowledge and belief, we feel, should be qualitative, and an appropriate definition needs to capture that. Yes, knowledge seems to imply certainty, and it definitely involves belief, but there’s something else it requires too. You can believe something that isn’t true. You can’t know something that isn’t true.

But a true belief isn’t necessarily knowledge either. Democritus, in the fourth century BCE, believed that the material world was composed of tiny, indivisible atoms whose varying properties and relationships gave rise to different substances. His theory was, as far as it goes, more or less correct. Certainly it is more true than its contradiction. But we wouldn’t say he knew that the world was composed of atoms, no matter how certain he felt about it, and no matter how true it is that the world actually is composed of atoms. Why?

Because there wasn’t a good enough reason for him to assert it. Nobody had ever seen an atom, and Democritus was more or less speculating. Not only did he have no physical evidence for his theory, but he also had no idea what evidence favouring it over its rivals might even look like; and, on top of that, he didn’t particularly mind. The formulation of the scientific method, in any recognisable form, was centuries off. He was going on intuition, and he arrived at his ideas in the same way as his contemporaries arrived at rival (and much less correct) metaphysical theories.

This is not to say that there was no such thing as knowledge at all prior to the development of the scientific method, of course. Just because you couldn’t see evidence pointing to atomic theory didn’t mean you couldn’t see the stars, or predict the seasons, or have confidence that your new bridge wouldn’t fall down. But all these beliefs, like more rigorous scientific ones, were justified. Your prediction, one spring day, that the Sun would rise earlier tomorrow than yesterday, was justified by the fact that you had always observed it to be so in the spring. And so Plato in his turn was justified when he laid down the definition of knowledge that philosophers accepted for over two millennia: that it is no more or less than justified true belief.

And then Edmund Gettier supposedly came along and spoilt all that. You may note the past tense accepted there. Gettier gave examples of justified true beliefs that were not knowledge. To do this, however, required him to use a definition of justification that allows for justified beliefs to be false.

Most epistemologists take Gettier’s examples as proof that whatever knowledge really is, it isn’t justified true belief. But this is nonsense. If we actually try to derive an adequate definition of justification, the best candidate is one that does not allow for a belief to be both entirely justified and false.

That definition is the following. A belief in a proposition is justified if and only if the belief is causally descended from, or in less wanky language caused by, the truth of the proposition itself. Someone who believes he sees a barn in a field (to take another traditional example), and believes it to be a real barn, is justified in that belief only if what he saw was in fact a real barn, and not a false façade erected by a prankster to fool passing epistemologists, because in the case of a false façade, his belief in a real barn is not caused by the objective existence of one.

But this, of course, merely removes the problem from the object level to the meta level. How could such a person know whether his belief were justified, if false façades and real barns looked identical? He couldn’t. And in turn, if he cannot know whether his belief is justified, he cannot know whether it counts as knowledge at all. This is the reason Gettier uses a weaker definition of justification that allows for justified beliefs to be false — the stronger, more accurate causal definition rules out knowledge at all.

This is why I believe epistemology requires a normative approach. “What do/can we know?” is the wrong question. The actual question we’re trying to answer when we do epistemology is instead “What ought we to believe?” And this also takes away the requirement for complete certainty. After all, there are very few things of which we can be completely certain. You can derive a lot of assertions from I think therefore I am, but most of those assertions don’t come with complete mathematical certainty.

Framing epistemology in normative terms, although it does away with the necessity of a definition for knowledge, does give us a more useful, workable definition than the Platonic justified true belief. JTB is useless because of the meta problem of never knowing whether your beliefs count. Rather, a better definition would be one on which you had enough confidence in a belief to act upon it. So while we don’t — and can’t — ever have complete, formal mathematical certainty about whether vaccines work, or the climate is changing, or God exists, we can legitimately say that we know they do, it is, and he doesn’t respectively, because the balance of evidence in each case is so overwhelming that it would be unjustifiable to act as though it were otherwise.

As a secondary matter, this way of looking at epistemology neatly sidesteps the fundamental bootstrapping problem of ethics — that is, that you can’t derive a normative statement from an existential one, or in simpler terms, you can’t get an ought from an is. By framing the validity of assertions in a normative way, we already have them in the form of oughts.

On Free Will: Philosophy.

The first two posts in this series have effectively treated free will as an unanalysable concept. This is not necessarily a bad thing; you can get away with unanalysable concepts if they’re simple enough, unambiguous and not the subject of the controversy at hand. But that’s unfortunately not the case here. So toward the end of part two, I began to move away from this, when I referred to free will as entailing that the actions of free agents must be irreducibly unpredictable: that is, unpredictable even with mathematical probabilities. Most arguments about the subject, even when they aren’t framed in quite those terms, rest on whether or not our actions are irreducibly unpredictable, so this is a good definition to use when analysing those arguments.

I believe, and will attempt to explain why below, that science does not disprove the existence of free will as usually understood. But as usually defined, as irreducible unpredictability, it does. The mind is a function of the brain, albeit a supremely complicated one, and the brain obeys the same (predictable or at least predictably random) laws of physics as the rest of the universe. Even if there were literally some form of soul or spirit of a separate substance to the brain, we can be pretty certain that it leaves no evidence of itself in the physical world — which is just another way of saying that it has no effect on the physical brain and its actions. If it has no effect on what we do, then it cannot be a mechanism to explain anything about the mind, free will or otherwise. There is, quite simply, no room for irreducible unpredictability in the brain.

Irreducible unpredictability makes for some fun arguments. But those arguments, for all their flair and rigour, are not actually about free will, in terms of what we actually want the concept to do once we’ve wrung it out. We don’t want to think we have free will so as to reassure ourselves that we (or other people) are fundamentally unpredictable. Rather, we want to think so in order to feel we have some legitimate basis on which we can take credit for our actions and blame others for theirs. Or, more rarely, blame ourselves and praise others. On an even more fundamental level, it seems necessary in order for us to have a sense of ownership over our thoughts, as well as our actions. And it’s not at all clear how defining free will as (entailing) irreducible unpredictability could help us do this.

We don’t think people are free to the extent to which they’re unpredictable. We don’t think a completely unpredictable person is normal; we think he’s a looney. We might consider a particularly predictable person to be dependable (if we like them) or boring (if we don’t), but we don’t think they’re less of a whole person for it.

We want our actions, and those of others, to be determined. We explain villains in terms of their tragic past, while acknowledging that this does nothing to excuse their actions. Our minds are determined entirely by what goes into them. You can’t imagine a colour that you haven’t seen in the same way as one you have. This can be very direct. If I tell you to not think about elephants, you immediately think of them. You can’t help it. But does that really mean you don’t have free will at all?

It only means that the freedom of your will is not unlimited. But of course it isn’t. You can’t calculate the value of π to a million digits in your head just by willing it. You can’t picture a colour you’ve never seen in the same way as you can picture the blue of the sky on a clear day. Most people can’t even consciously choose which gender they are, or which flavour of ice cream to prefer, or who they fall in love with. But we can choose what to do about those things, and to that extent, we have free will. Having murderous impulses doesn’t make you a murderer; acting upon them does. There is an extent to which we can deliberately affect our internal states. Consciously trying to become more generous of spirit, for example, or to genuinely appreciate a genre of art we find challenging. But such attempts too rely on a deterministic conception of the mind, as something that can be affected by things and affect things in its turn, including itself. This reflexivity is important, and I’ll come back to it later.

It is, to be sure, a more limiting conception of free will than the incompatibilist version used by both sides of the traditional argument. But it’s both more accurate in terms of describing the real world, and closer in its effects to what we actually want the concept of free will to do for us. We don’t need a less limiting conception of free will, any more than we need one that says we can fly.

And that point about what we want the concept to do for us is very important. The first question you should ask when you encounter an abstract concept like free will is what you want the concept to achieve. When you ask “are human actions irreducibly unpredictable?”, you’re not asking the same thing as “do people have free will?” But often people don’t realise that, because they load a preconceived definition of “free will” into the question. And their preconceived definition has nothing to do with the question they really want the answer to, that is, whether we can own our own thoughts and take credit or blame for our actions.

Some opponents prefer to describe this compatibilist definition of free will as autonomy, as it emphasises that we have free will to the extent we’re not entirely controlled by other wills. But that’s purely a semantic quibble. And as I’ve demonstrated, the concept in question — whatever you prefer to call it — does anything we could reasonably ask of the concept of free will, and does it better than the alternatives, which aren’t really free will at all.


There remain a couple of points I want to discuss. The first comes back to the predictability of the mind. There is a very good reason why people think about free will in terms of irreducible unpredictability, and it has nothing to do with being stupid or wanting to simplify the problem. Rather it has to do with the reflexive, or introspective, nature of consciousness. Consciousness involves having a privileged view of your self. You alone are aware of what your thoughts really are, in a qualitative way that nobody else could be. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine what it would even be like to see inside someone else’s mind in the way you see inside your own. How could that happen without you effectively becoming that person? And conversely, how could anyone or anything outside your mind predict your thoughts without effectively becoming you?

If human minds are, even in theory, determinable, then it follows that everything that happens in your mind, including this sense of self-awareness, could be predicted from outside. You don’t yourself know what you’ll be thinking about in an hour from now, but someone with a perfectly accurate Prediction Machine™ could tell you. Surely, if it’s possible to know what you’ll do before you decide to do it, you’re not free in any meaningful sense — you don’t own your own thoughts, decisions, or actions after all.

In fact, we don’t need to go so far as to imagine a Prediction Machine™ so accurate it could never exist except in theory. A neurologist with a brain scanner can tell what decision you’re going to make — for example, whether to raise your arm — whole tenths of a second before you’re aware you’ve made it. Such experiments have been repeated many times, and there’s little doubt as to their veracity; they’ve been hailed by scientists and philosophers alike as the final nail in the coffin of free will.

Not so. A blip on a brain scanner is evidence of your decision to raise your arm in the same way that your arm ascending is — no more, no less. The blip is caused by your decision to raise your arm, not the other way around. The few tenths of a second it takes for you to be fully cognisant of that decision is analogous to the few tenths of a second it takes for you to process images from your eyes or sounds from your ears. The fact that a camera’s sensor registers an image faster than the vision centres of the brain hardly dealt a blow to the theory of human perception. The fact that the brain scanner can detect brain states quicker than the brain itself should be similarly untroubling.

Even if things were determinable on scales much longer than a tenth of a second, on a scale of minutes or days or even decades, all that this would mean would be that the results of any such determination would be the result, not the cause, of what was going to happen in your brain. But the catch here is that we’re back in the territory of a Prediction Machine™ again, and any Prediction Machine™ able to even remotely accurately predict (rather than merely observe, as the brain scanner does) a person’s thoughts must be powerful enough not just to perfectly simulate their brain, but also the brain of every person who causally interacted with them (which on a long enough timescale adds up to everyone in the world, due to the chaotic nature of causation).

And it also, and here’s the kicker, would have to be able to fully simulate its own operations, on top of all that, in order to know the effects of its predictions on the people it was simulating. In other words, while I couldn’t say exactly or even roughly how complex it would have to be, I can say with complete certainty that it would have to be more complex than itself. Such a machine is not just practically but logically impossible. And even then, its predictions would be determined by what was going to happen inside the minds it was simulating — not the other way around. We should be thankful that it’s impossible, not because it preserves our autonomy, but because the logic of time and causality would be violated if it weren’t.

On Free Will: Science.

Right, that’s the theologians ticked off. For my next trick: scientists.

Unlike theology, of course, we can’t dismiss scientific facts as untrue, no matter how inconvenient we might find them. But the implications of scientific discoveries get misinterpreted all the time.

Newtonian classical mechanics describes a mechanistic universe, one in which everything happens according to fairly simple, predictable, mathematical laws. If we know the exact state of everything at a given time, we can in principle know all future states, just by working out the maths. Such a universe is, in philosophical terms, determinist. But if people have free will, the argument went, it should be impossible even in theory to predict what they will do. If it’s possible to predict them, then they can’t be said to have any control over what they do, because it’s already determined before they decide to do it.

This was traditionally dealt with by means of substance dualism: the theory that the human mind was fundamentally separate from the body in such a way that preserved its freedom. This separate thing might be the soul, or the spirit — the important thing was that while it could affect, and be affected by the body, its internal processes were not bound by those effects. Descartes’ (in)famous I think therefore I am was part of an attempt to prove substance dualism.

Classical mechanics, of course, took a hell of a beating about a century ago, from relativity and quantum theory. Crucially, quantum theory is indeterminist. The most it can give us on the atomic scale, even in theory, is the probability of a thing happening. This is why we speak of the half-lives of radioactive materials, for instance: over any given interval, there’s a certain probability of a given atom decaying, and these probabilities add up over the billions of billions of atoms in a sample of plutonium to predict how much will be left after a certain amount of time. On a macroscopic level, then, the universe still appears deterministic, but fundamentally it isn’t.

Dualism has also, deservedly, fallen well out of favour, to the point where in some philosophical circles it’s more of a term of abuse, like creationism among biologists. If a theory entails or requires dualism, that’s all you need to dismiss it. There are a handful of (mostly theistic) philosophers who stick by it, but they’re a small minority; and, much more importantly, they’re simply wrong.

The indeterminism of quantum physics, however, doesn’t actually help us out of the apparent implications of determinism for free will. Firstly, the human brain mainly works on a macroscopic level; quantum effects are relevant to its electronics just as they are to artificial ones, but only to the extent that they are predictable. But even if the brain were entirely or mostly governed by quantum probabilities, it’s not at all clear how that would entail, or even allow for, free will in the usually understood sense of being free from determinism. We’d still be just as subject to the laws of chance as to those of physics.

Quantum effects and “free will” are supposed to be unpredictable, although in both cases they add up to predictable effects on large enough scales through the aggregation of probabilities. But the unpredictability of quantum effects isn’t caused by the free action of some unseen thing; it’s inherent in the fabric of reality. It’s no more indicative of intent than the result of a random dice roll, and there’s no reason to think it allows for free will as generally understood. Indeed, if it did, one of two things would be the case, neither of which we observe in reality.

The first would be that different probabilities would apply to quantum effects depending on whether they were inside a brain or not, or that quantum effects inside brains obeyed no predictable probabilities. That would be strong evidence for some sort of dualism, but no such thing has been observed — I don’t know if anyone’s tried, or how easy or obvious it might be; but it would be the story of the year in both physics and neurology if anyone had succeeded, and it’s not the sort of thing we can assume without checking. The alternative would be that everything in the universe has a conscious will. That would be interesting as a thought experiment (it shows up in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy series as a productive metaphor for a lot of ideas), but like the first option, it begs the question in the real world. We’d have to have independent evidence for pan-sentience, which, again, we don’t.

So physics doesn’t seem to allow for truly unpredictable free will. In fact, the fact that the actions of groups of people can often be more predictable the larger the group would seem to rule it out on its own. But this is a mistake. The essence of the problem, in one sentence, is that we’re looking for evidence of free will in the wrong place. We assume the evidence must take the form of irreducible unpredictability, that is, the sort that can’t be expressed even in terms of mathematical probabilities. There is an answer, but I’m trying to keep these posts to a manageable length, so I’m afraid it will have to wait for part three.

At least, that’s the deterministic explanation. The free-will explanation is that I like cliffhangers.

Splitters!

There have been rumours of a coming split in the Liberal party. I expressed my hopes for this last week, and while I certainly wouldn’t put any money on it now, it will be very interesting to see how the story plays out. Will there be repercussions for Senator Bernardi for publicly admitting to the possibility? Either way, I wouldn’t put away your popcorn just yet.

Now, it would never happen while the party was in government. Of course I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if it did, but I don’t think even the most pigheaded Liberal MP would be stupid enough to try it. But if (and now it is, unfortunately, if rather than when) they lose next year’s election, I wouldn’t put it past some of them. It wouldn’t necessarily be political suicide for those concerned — a new Conservative Party, let’s call them, would ironically have the advantage of incumbency, with a full term of Parliament to prove themselves, as we don’t kick out MPs for changing parties — and so it’s not all that far-fetched.

The name Liberal has always been at odds with the party’s conservative platform.* A bit of a fuss was made last week when somebody noticed that Bernardi’s twitter bio lists him as a “Conservative Senator” and makes no mention of his party affiliation, and while he denied that this was a recent change, I think (I hope) it might be significant in itself. When he was directly asked to rule out defecting, he had no comment. And he’s got a book out. That’s never a good sign. A politician with a book out can be safely assumed to be more ambitious than one without — especially if they’ve dropped the price from $30 to $2, as someone pointed out to me. Although that might just be due to the fact that nobody is, so to speak, buying his bullshit.

Now, why would I of all people, a bleeding-heart leftie, possibly think that a new rabidly conservative major party might be a good thing for our country? A major advantage of our preferential system, after all, is that you don’t tend to get vote-splitting, so it’s not like it would directly lead to a landslide victory for the ALP (which I don’t necessarily want either; I’d much prefer hung parliaments and especially hung Senates).

Well, there are a few reasons. With my policy hat on, number one is that the appearance of disunity would hurt both sides of the split; they’d be unlikely to get as many votes or seats combined as the single party would have, although you could never prove that. The ALP has fractured twice in its history, and in both cases the split hurt them electorally, for a long time. They’d spend time and effort fighting each other and less fighting the ALP and the Greens. It would spell the end of the Coalition as we know it — there’d be no way of knowing whether the Nationals would side with either side post-split, and it’s been very rare that the Libs haven’t needed the Nats to form government.

Additionally, without the most batshit consies in it, what remained of the Liberal party would by default shift to the left on average, while almost certainly (if the popularity of the Abbott government is anything to go by) commanding more if not most of the pre-split Liberal vote. They might be in Opposition for a while, but they’d be a more moderate Opposition. This could in turn put pressure on the ALP to shift leftwards in order to differentiate themselves.

Most importantly though, and this is where I put my meta hat on, it might even spell the end of majority government in Australia. It would certainly be a shake-up to the whole system, which every system needs now and then. The two major parties are far too conservative (in the organisational sense), and fresh blood would definitely be a good thing. They’re used to being either in government or in opposition, as though that’s just the natural order of things — and so is the electorate. A split would illustrate most clearly that it doesn’t have to be that way, and would likely force them all, including Labor, to actually stand for something.

And more major parties can only be good for democracy; the more parties, the more likely a given person’s opinion will be represented among them. And for better or worse, democracy must give representation to everybody’s opinion — and, historically, it’s almost always been for the better.** A Liberal Party to represent centrist economic liberals like Turnbull, and a Conservative Party to represent the social consies, including the batshit ones like Bernardi, would be much more democratic than the entirely artificial conflation of the two stances we currently have; and that’s not even starting on the Nationals, who might reemerge as a force in their own right, making coalitions according to their own policies rather than serving as the half-fossilised country wing of the Liberal Party.


* It does accurately describe their economic approach, but then, economic liberalism and especially neoliberalism shouldn’t be something to be proud of. Most of their crusted-on voters are social conservatives who don’t give a toss for economics, or at least don’t give a toss about understanding it; while Labor is just as neoliberal as the LNP these days.

** When it hasn’t been, that’s usually been down to a failure of the system itself, such as FPTP giving governments large legislative majorities with a distinct minority of the vote, as we see in the UK and Canada, or to outright corruption, as with the epidemic gerrymandering in the USA — neither of which problems are indictments of democracy in principle. I intend to write a full post on the matter, but a footnote will do for now.

On Free Will: Theology.

Free will. It’s supposed to be one of those Big Questions™, isn’t it. It’s supposed to be the solution to the Problem of Evil (ie. Why Does God Let Bad Stuff Happen?), but it’s not often explained how this is supposed to work. Science, with its atheistic, mechanistic view of the world, is repeatedly said to have disproven it. Philosophers argue about whether there’s even any coherent definition of it at all, or at least one which can help with what we’re trying to achieve by using the concept.

I’ll take these one at a time.


As for theology, it’s a simple matter of fact that there’s no such thing as God and never was, so the Problem of Evil is really a non-starter. But so much has been said on the matter that would be thoroughly wrong even if there were a God, and it can occasionally be helpful to speculate about what one might or should be like. Omnibenevolence, after all, is hardly a bad model for us if we’re trying to be merely benevolent.

The basic idea is that if there were no evil in the world, we would have no free will to choose good instead. This applies both to “natural” evil, or misfortune, and to “human” evil, or what we usually think of when we see the word. No natural disasters means no heroes to save people from them. No disease means no superlative doctors. And so on. And if nobody ever did bad things, not only would it mean the rest of us couldn’t distinguish ourselves as Better Than Them by choosing not to do them, but it would also mean that nobody could have even freely chosen to do them. Not only would there be no point in recognising or rewarding good behaviour, but there’d be no intrinsic merit in it either. You can’t hold a person responsible for their actions if they couldn’t have done otherwise.

Incidentally, the usual interpretation of Jesus as partaking in his dad’s omnibenevolence paints him this way. If a being is omnibenevolent, that means that they always, by definition, must do the right thing. They do effectively have no choice in the matter. They have no free will, and therefore when they do the right thing, there’s no merit for them in doing it. If Jesus is an omnibenevolent god, then his sacrifice at the end of the story is meaningless even if you ignore the part where he gets better (spoiler alert). Same goes for big-G God himself, for the same reason. A mere mortal who does even the slightest shred of good off his own bat is more worthy of praise than a divine creator who, if you believe the stories, does all the good in the world because he can’t help it.

But that’s all nonsense, really. If a real person maimed, infected, and killed his children on a regular basis, in the name of seeing who among them was really virtuous, we’d lock them up. If a real person had the power to heal the sick with a snap of his fingers, we’d get him to do it — and if he’d been the one making them sick in the first place, we’d think him a monster, no matter what his reasons. There are real people who advocate a complete absence of laws, or at least of their mandatory enforcement, but the sane majority of us rightly consider them to be loonies.