Friday, 27 March 2015

Don't Call it a Comeback


I just logged in to my Blogspot account for the first time this year, and noticed that this blog still gets a lot of traffic even though no new content has been posted for a long time; almost the same as when I posted the entry on privacy (which by the way, is pretty much the only thing worth reading on here so farI'll get to that).  I have no idea what's driving the traffic, but I've decided to revive this blog and actually do a decent job at it for a change.

Reading back through the early posts is embarrassing now, but that's what the philosophical journey is about; you don't become Confucius overnight.  It takes a ton of work and reading and debating and being dead wrong and in my case, putting your digital foot in your digital mouth. There's some good stuff in those early articles, but it's mixed in with a bunch of junk too, with the exception of this entry on privacy whichand I'll try and temper my natural arrogance hereis important and worth reading.  It's also about 30-odd book format pages, so way too long for a blog, and I don't expect many people to have the patience to read it, much less to agree with its controversial thesis.

But I'll leave those early posts up though and make an example of myself as to what not to do.  My writing's also improved since then, so this blog should suck less than before all around, which means it might rise to that elevated level of being maybe worth reading.  I'm going to discontinue the free will series though, and maybe come back to it later.  Much later.  Maybe never.

Lastly, I'm going to discontinue the podcasts since they're far too much work and were the initial cause of me neglecting this blog.  Between family, work, recording, writing, and whatever else it is I manage to squeeze in between those things (note the conspicuous absence of "sleep" from that list), I don't have time to put together a presentation on blog entries and then record it and then edit it.

All modesty aside I think there's something worth salvaging in this blog, and so it's time to bring it back.  Unlike before, all the entries will be short and not multi-part essays, but like before, all will be devoted to some philosophical topic.  Seeing thatdespite my misgivings about it in general (I was going to eventually just delete it altogether)this blog still generates way more traffic than I would have ever guessed has encouraged me to continue it, and so now being freshly inspired though probably none the wiser, it's time to revive this thing and once again proclaim from my position on the top of the internet mountain just WHAT IS & WHAT AIN'T.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

We Gave Up Our Own Privacy Willingly

Download the podcast audio version of this blog entry here.  Listen to the podcast on Youtube here.  Due to the length of this blog entry, it has been divided in to parts; click on the following links to jump to the various parts directly:

Part 5:  Epilogue

Acknowledgement is due to Stefan Molyneux, whose "Truth About Edward Snowden" video formed the initial basis of much of part 3.

This world is a complicated place.  There are not many issues worth discussing which proceed so necessarily from prior, known conditions, as 4 proceeds from adding 2 and 2 together.  But there is one problem which, though a major topic of debate, really should not be controversial at all.

That problem is the problem of why we have no privacy.

I do not expect to change many minds by way of this essay.  This is not to say anything about the strength or weakness of the arguments, but only of the difficulty I forsee in the conclusion gaining acceptance.  There is too much at stake.  Regardless of whether the reader agrees with the basic thesis put forward, I suspect that anyone with even a passing interest in the topic of online privacy in the 21st century will gain much from reading the 3rd section, which provides a brief overview of the history of the erosion of personal privacy in the Western world.


If one cares deeply about the encroachment of the state, of plutocratic interests, or of some other malignant force in to the sphere of one's private exchange of information, then it is a safe bet that one's heroes have names like Assange and Snowden.  Yet, as influential as these figures have been, as much as they have done to bring this problem out of the shadows and throw some light on the forces at work, they have in fact undermined the cause of privacy in at least one important way; and that way is in distorting the true source of the loss of privacy in the modern, digital era.  They are actors, not thinkers; they make history, but do not understand it; they get things done, but have proven unable to root out and analyze the causes of the problem.  Though these men are certainly intelligent and thoughtful individuals to whom the greatest respect is due, their aim in terms of finding a set of shoulders on which to rest blame, is massively wide of the mark.  I suspect they are too entrenched in their causes to see the facts of the matter for what they are, because if they did, then they very well might not find the cause quite so worthy of their efforts and so deserving of their martyr-like personal sacrifices.  While Assange and Snowden generally tend to place blame squarely on the government, corporate interests and the corruption and collusion between the two, there is a much more banal and less sinister party who is in actual fact, the guilty one.

That party is you and I.  We are to blame.

This is the tragedy of our lack of privacy.  As the song goes, "you do it to yourself, and that's why it really hurts".  And hurt, it does.  Now you understand why I do not expect to change many minds.  The first step in the process of healing a deep wound is to admit that there is indeed a wound, a reality which these heroes of our time have forced us to confront.  There is no going back; no person in their right mind can look at the gash in our side, watch it hemorrhaging the lifeblood of our confidence in private exchange, and believe that all is well.  The next step is to figure out the source of our calamity and eliminate it, to ensure our immediate safety, and prevent the recurrence of so hideous a laceration even before we dress the wound.  The fact is that such a recurrence is immanent, because the knife rests in our own hand, and the injury results, not from a form of self-loathing, but rather from ignorance.

The source of the problem and that which sustains it, is not greed.  It is not the lust for power.  It is not a contempt for the concept of rights.  It is ignorance, pure and simple.  We are all to blame, and it is our collective ignorance which is the root cause of the loss of our privacy.  An ignorance of what?  An ignorance of what privacy actually is in the first place.  How can you protect something you do not recognize?  From the outset, such a task is utterly impossible to undertake, and so it is little wonder that the situation is not improving.

So the obvious question which must be addressed first and foremost is, "what is privacy?"

No novel interpretation is required, we need not redefine the conventional notion of privacy in order to see just where we went wrong.  The confusion which seems so universal comes from not following premises through to their conclusions.  From Wikipedia:

Privacy (from Latin: privatus "separated from the rest, deprived of something, esp. office, participation in the government", from privo "to deprive") is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively. defines privacy as "the state of being private", so from it we take the definition of "private":

* belonging to some particular person
* pertaining to or affecting a particular person or a small group of persons' satisfaction
* confined to or intended only for the persons immediately concerned
* personal and not publicly expressed

What unites and underlies all these separate but related notions of "private", is exclusivity.  There is an exclusive right involved, which necessarily does not include all parties, but is restricted only to certain ones.  That right is the right to use, protect and distinguish individually or corporately owned property from non-property or that which is common to all.  In a communal society which has dissolved all notions of private property, there can a priori be no expectation of privacy.

So far we have not crossed in to difficult territory, and are treading safely outside the bounds of controversy; all of this is common-sense.  Privacy by definition includes a notion of exclusive property rights.  This is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to arrive at a full understanding of what privacy is.  Apart from a violation of property rights, a violation of privacy also involves some form of fraud or deception - the confidence of the violated party must have been breached in some form.

Perhaps some examples will help to demonstrate the explanatory power of this understanding of privacy:

1)  The filming of a person using a public restroom:  This is a privacy violation.  Firstly, there has been a violation of exclusive property rights; namely the right of a person to restrict viewing access to parts of their body that they wish to remain unobserved.  Secondly, there is a deception being perpetrated; an implicit contract has been violated, a contract whereby the person using the restroom reasonably expects that they will be able to do so without anyone watching.  The first and most fundamental form of property ownership is self-ownership, and the filming of a disrobed person without their consent is a violation of privacy.  A property violation has occurred, and a breach of confidence has occurred, and both these events taken together result in an injury to a person's privacy.

2)  The use of secretively collected DNA:  This is not a privacy violation.  While it could well be argued that a police investigator collecting DNA from a discarded coffee cup is a deceptive act, there is in this act no violation of property rights.  One does not (at least within any current legal framework) have an exclusive right to restrict the use of one's own DNA, only a right to refuse to submit a sample for DNA analysis.  Once the sample has been yielded up by the person in question, it is no longer a part of their person, and thus not subject to property protections resulting from self-ownership.  Whether or not DNA should be considered property that has legal protections (such as in the fairly reasonable expectation that one might be able to restrict oneself being cloned should the technology become available) is beside the point, the point is that what is considered "private" is only able to be considered as such through assigning it the status of "property".  The secretive collection of DNA has been legally challenged as a privacy violation in some countries such as Australia, but it is significant that these challenges have so far amounted to nothing, not because they cannot be enforced, but because to consider it a privacy violation would be to reduce the concept of privacy to a meaningless one.

So in short: a privacy violation includes at least a violation of property rights, coupled with an element of deceit and the betrayal of a person's confidence.  It is clear both from what privacy is by definition and also from a cursory glance at the history of privacy violations, that whenever you interact using a medium which is not privately owned, eavesdropping and spying will occur just as surely as day follows night.

Now, let us extend this idea to the sphere of online interactions.  What is online privacy?  Nothing more than the application of the conventional concept of privacy to the exchange of information exclusively.  But there is a difference; we have crossed a line when we move in to the online world, though in this new world all our established ideas about privacy still apply no less than before.  In speaking about online privacy, we have left the domain of material property, and must apply the idea of privacy as the maintenance of property rights and confidence, to the non-material realm.  We are no longer considering the protection of material, physical property, but instead non-material, intellectual property (IP).

And now the diagnosis comes home.  Why do we live in a world where we can expect no online privacy?  Because it is clear that the vast majority of people believe that intellectual property is not worth protecting.

Before proceeding in to the case of why intellectual property is indispensable to online privacy, it will be helpful to gain some historical perspective and explore just how we got to where we are today.  We did not lose our privacy overnight.  If we can re-trace our steps down the road which led us to the modern world of hyper-transparency and can clearly see the wrong turns we took along the way, then this will illuminate those dark corners wherein lurk the enemies of privacy.

Issues of privacy reach back as far as the student of history cares to look, and the roots of our modern dilemma can be traced directly to pre-Revolutionary America, when "writs of assistance" played a significant role in stoking the fire that eventually exploded in to the American Revolution.  Writs of assistance were the colonial era's equivalent of a court order which granted a search warrant, except this search warrant did not expire, required no evidence, and could be transferred at will between parties.  It was a Sword of Damocles that the British government could leave dangling over its subjects' heads and bring down upon them when they disobeyed, allowing arbitrary searches with no protection for damages resulting therefrom.

After the American Revolution and the adoption of the US Constitution in 1787, ten amendments were presented simultaneously and ratified, later becoming known as the Bill of Rights.  The fourth of these amendments was specifically intended to address privacy issues resulting from unreasonable searches and seizures, and it effectively establishes a right which is still the major check on government intrusion in to privacy today:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

It is noteworthy that even at this early stage, privacy is necessarily limited in scope to the violation of private property ("...persons, houses, papers, and effects...") and though future court cases such as Katz v. United States would expand the obvious interpretation of protecting material property to include immaterial intrusion with technology, at its heart the Fourth Amendment in ancient or modern interpretations is in keeping with the central definition of privacy in this essay; that privacy extends only to those things which are property, and protects against a violation of confidence.

The 19th century was a period of scientific discovery and technological development the likes of which the world has never seen before or since, and during which the pace of change for even the average person increased unimaginably.  From the introduction of the telegraph in 1838 to the invention of the telephone in 1876, communications technology reached heights never dreamed of before, and it would be entirely outside of the scope of this essay to enumerate all these changes in detail.  But not everything was coming up roses at this time of great change; legislation to protect privacy continued to be drafted in to law in the late 19th century, however this legislation was largely ineffective and misguided, failing to protect property but rather attempting to establish a vague "right to privacy" which was neither specific nor enforceable.  Thinking at the time is typified by an article written by lawyers Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren entitled “The Right to Privacy” for the Harvard Law Review, which lamented the new technologies of instantaneous photography and the mass printing of newspapers, rather than addressing the root issue of protection of property.  Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, in 1907 the first dictograph was invented, which acts as a bugging device that can be surreptitiously planted just about anywhere, and transmits conversations by use of a diaphragm to remote listeners who can eavesdrop on the conversation.  The dictograph was of course not the first instance of spying technology but a rather conspicuous development, as before this time widespread bugging and spying was restricted mainly to large scale communications networks such as that of the telegraph, but never before could something like this be so easily placed in the home.

Following World War I, in 1919 a predecessor of the NSA was established, known as the MI-8 (AKA the "Cipher Bureau" or "Black Chamber"), with the express purpose of breaking communications and monitoring international telegraphs for potential threats to US national security.  Shortly after its inception, the MI-8 approached the largest telegraph company in the US - Western Union - demanding access to the information travelling through its telegraph line system.  Naturally, fearing repercussions such as loss of business licenses or government favouritism to competitors, Western Union obliged the MI-8 and granted the government secret access to its customers' private communications.  This willingness to acquiesce to government coercion anticipates the large telecommunications firms of today, who have even less bargaining power than did Western Union due to the telecom firms lacking complete ownership of the internet infrastructure they are largely responsible for building during their history as phone and telegraph companies.  The MI-8 was de-funded in 1929, but a year before this in the Olmstead v. United States court case, seizure of electronic conversations was deemed constitutional, only to be later overturned in the aforementioned Katz v. United States case four decades later.

Following World War II, Project SHAMROCK was initiated, with the goal of compiling all telegraphic data going in to or out of the US by way of Western Union and its subsidiaries.  This information was accessed and scrutinized by the "Armed Forces Security Agency", which formally became the NSA in 1952, though its existence was denied and the public would remain unaware of it for nearly half a century.  Project SHAMROCK continued until 1975 and in the intervening time was joined by its sister project MINARET with similar aims, both operating at all times entirely without warrants or court oversight.  By this time the usurping of information and the de facto relegation of it to "non-property" status was all but complete; all that was needed was legislation to legitimize actual physical surveillance.

In 1971 it was internally revealed that US Presidents had illegally spied on their political opponents using government resources such as COINTELPRO and Project MINARET, and this revelation led directly to the passing of the "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act" (FISA) by US congress in 1978 with the purpose of rendering such activity legal.  FISA makes provision for the government to legally surveil (both physically and electronically) foreign nationals and American citizens who are suspected of espionage or terrorism, by use of a secret court which provides warrants.  FISA is the core legal framework which allows the NSA and a host of other projects and government agencies to conduct their operations within the bounds of US law.  Ostensibly a limitation on previously unchecked powers of the state to surveil its population by requiring warrants, FISA has been criticized for rubber-stamping warrant requests and for all intents and purposes, allowing anyone to be surveilled if they are suspected of a crime based on evidence which may be classified.  The court which oversees FISA is called the "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court" (FISC), however according to a former NSA analyst, it is little more than a kangaroo court which permits the granting of essentially any request.  Out of approx. 34,000 warrant requests, FISC has denied only 11.  Decades after the introduction of FISA in to US law, in 2007, the Protect America Act was enacted as an amendment to FISA which entirely removes the warrant requirement for surveillance of foreign intelligence targets, thereby making it yet easier for the US government to surveil people it considers "of interest" on the basis of evidence which "may be classified".

Also in 1971, a program code-named ECHELON was established whereby the NSA and its junior partners in the British Commonwealth (UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) operate a global information collection and analysis network, which works by controlling the dissemination of satellite trunk communications.  This data collection network was originally intended to monitor the military and diplomatic communications of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in the Eastern Bloc, but since that time it has continued and expanded to where these countries can now essentially monitor any telephone calls, fax, e-mail and other data traffic globally by the interception of communication bearers such as satellite transmission, public switched telephone networks and microwave links.  The point of this program is to enable governments of country A (say, the US) to ask the government of country B (say, Canada) to intercept domestic communications of country A's own citizens (who are foreign to country B and thus within the realm of suspicion).  Since all this information is shared, it allows country A to essentially spy on its own citizens by asking country B to do so, while each country can maintain that they do not in fact spy on their own citizens.  ECHELON has also been heavily employed in commercial spying by enabling the theft of trade secrets, patent information and other intellectual property which has allowed companies in the countries who use ECHELON to gain market advantage off the backs of their competition by in essence having the competition perform their R&D for them.  Examples of companies who have had their intellectual property stolen include German wind energy developer Enertech and Dutch speech technology firm Lernout & Hauspie.  ECHELON has also been used to gain trade advantage in other ways, including spying on negotiators in trade deals.  This program was carried out unofficially for decades, only coming to light publicly in the late 1980s.

The landmark case of Katz v. United States unambiguously established a precedent for "reasonable expectation of privacy" as a condition under which the privacy of the individual can be protected.  However in 1979 a blow was dealt to this concept, in the form of the Third Party Doctrine.  The Third Party Doctrine is a legal principle established in a ruling on the Smith v. Maryland case, whereby if an individual voluntarily provides information to a third party, the Fourth Amendment does not prevent the government from accessing that information without a warrant.  In effect, if you reveal information to a 3rd party, you can claim no legitimate expectation of privacy over that information.  The Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the obtaining of information revealed to a third party and conveyed by them to government authorities, even if the information is revealed on the assumption that it will be used only for a limited purpose and the confidence placed in the third party will not be betrayed.

The Fourth Amendment as noted earlier protects only property, but you have no legal claim to your transmitted information as property, hence the way is paved for the Third Party Doctrine not to conflict with the Fourth Amendment.  This precedent provides the government with a legal loophole which allows them to essentially gain access without a warrant to any information you transmit over any communications network, including the internet.  What is at stake is the legal definition of a "search", which is what the Fourth Amendment protects against.  The Smith v. Maryland ruling says that the use of a "pen register", which is analogous in the context of its time to an ISP's logs of internet traffic, was not a "search" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and hence no warrant was required.  Thus one year after FISA was enacted in to law, the Third Party Doctrine, based upon the status of information as something other than property, provides the legal basis for the government being able to gain unlimited access to the information you transmit over a third party's network.

Between the late 1970s and early 1990s, two important developments increased exponentially the degree to which ordinary citizens could be monitored:

First, the US congress passed a number of refinements to existing wiretapping laws, originally in response to the Watergate scandal, and later on in order to require telecom companies and technology to be "wiretap-ready", thus providing back-door access for the government to ever-increasing traffic on communications networks, which allowed eavesdropping and bugging of devices to be carried out with minimal effort on the part of the authorities.  This trend culminated in the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), passed in 1994, the purpose of which was to force telecom carriers to make wiretapping more streamlined and empower law enforcement to tap any conversations carried out over its networks, and furthermore to force these carriers to conceal from the customer the fact that wiretapping is occurring.  The act stipulates that it must be impossible for the customer to detect that their conversation is being monitored, and that the carrier must thwart, at their own expense, any attempts of the customer to discover whether their conversation is being listened in on.  As with all such government programs, it has been greatly expanded as time goes on, and now encompasses all VoIP and broadband internet traffic.

Second and most importantly was the emergence of a phenomenon which we are all intimately familiar with.  Originally developed as a decentralized system of computer networks which could withstand the catastrophic potential of a nuclear conflict, in 1989 the internet saw the addition of the world-wide-web, and within half a decade the way the world exchanged information had changed irrevocably.  Corresponding with this change in the means of information exchange was the explosion in the sheer amount of data transferred.  Within a decade of the widespread penetration of the internet in to homes and mass consciousness, to the great majority of people in the Western world, transfer of information on a scale which was unimaginable to a previous generation was simply a fact of life, and a scarce few could even recall how life managed to proceed in the time before the internet.

The information age had arrived, with laws protecting information lagging behind in the remote distance.  It is no surprise then, that given how readily people had surrendered the right to their privacy and their property to this point, we would all soon be under a microscope which could scrutinize nearly any person thoroughly.  It would not be long before the great mass of people learned just how bad the problem had become, though most would mistakenly believe that the problem reared its head suddenly.  At this point in time, roughly contemporaneously with the rise of the internet, we saw the proliferation of what is now known as "identity theft", a crime whose entire basis is the unauthorized duplication and misuse of information.

Even our heroes, those maverick giants of silicon valley, who boldly blazed new trails and threw the old world aside, the Bill Gates' and Steve Jobs' who grace Time Magazine, Wired and other such publications - even these heroes are fully complicit in the downfall of civil liberties and the loss of the basic respect for ideas as extensions of their creator.  Microsoft, according to recent leaks which have now come to light, allows the NSA to override encryption protocols on Outlook and Skype video and cloud services, and regularly passes this information directly to the FBI and the CIA.  In fact in 1999, the Strategic Affairs Delegation (the intelligence arm of the French Defense Ministry) made a report which asserted that the NSA helped to install secret programs in Microsoft software.  According to the report "it would seem that the creation of Microsoft was largely supported, not least financially, by the NSA, and that IBM was made to accept the MS-DOS operating system by the same administration".  The report went on to state a "strong suspicion of a lack of security fed by insistent rumours about the existence of spy programs on [sic] Microsoft and by the presence of NSA personnel in Bill Gates' development teams", and further to suggest the Pentagon as Microsoft's biggest client.  It is well-known that for years there has been a Microsoft liaison at the NSA.

Let me interrupt our history for just a moment to ask a rhetorical question: how is this sitting with you so far?  Is this just the price we pay for the convenience of technology?  Are you not made viscerally, violently ill at the thought that you pay a large chunk of your hard-earned income toward such shameless corruption, to government agencies and companies which are utterly misaligned with your own interests?  But we haven't got to the best parts yet.  We are not far from Snowden's revelations.

In the wake of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, October of 2001 saw the signing in to US law of the much-reviled Patriot Act.  In contravention of even the loose and nominal protection offered by FISA, the Patriot Act allows essentially unlimited surveillance of any US citizen for any reason, but as an almost cruel joke does include a requirement that the government obtain a US court order, so long as the court order is granted within 72 hours after the surveillance has taken place.  Foreign citizens can be surveilled for up to one year without any court supervision.  I will not spend much time reciting the details or spelling out the consequences of such a fundamentally Draconian piece of legislation since it is so well-known already, but suffice it to say that the name of the game in this case is "shoot first, ask questions later".  Regarding that seemingly benign stipulation that foreigners can be surveilled for up to a year without any legal oversight, it must be pointed out that with IP masking it is easy to pretend that you are located anywhere in the world, and so there is nothing to prove whether someone is or is not using such technology.  This effectively opens the door to the US government spying on its citizens under the unfalsifiable pretext that they could be foreigners, since it is literally impossible with IP masking, Tor and other such tools, to determine who is domestic and who is foreign.  This is one of countless examples which I will refrain from listing, where the very act of attempting to use technology to neutralize the heavy hand of government coercion "necessitates" changes in the law which make provision for one's rights to be discarded entirely.

And now for the pièce de résistance, the jewel in the crown of government overreach.  In 2007 after the passing of the Protect America Act (that expansion of FISA which removes the warrant requirement for surveillance of foreign targets), the NSA launched their mass electronic surveillance data mining program called "PRISM".  This is of course the program brought to light famously by Edward Snowden, after it was revealed that the FISC court had required that a subsidiary of Verizon turn over logs tracking all of its customers' telephone calls on an ongoing daily basis to the NSA.  If you thought I was Microsoft-bashing when I listed the infractions against your confidence by that company, rest assured that I take an equal-opportunity approach to shaming the guilty.  Similarly to Verizon turning over its logs to the NSA, many major tech companies have provided back-door access to their systems to the NSA, but full details as to which companies are involved have not been revealed publicly.  Among those companies that are known to be involved are such minor players as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Skype and Apple.  Some companies such as Yahoo have fought back and refused to hand information over, but a 2008 congressional decision gave the Department of Justice authority to force reluctant companies to comply.  All of this is of course conducted without the need for any warrant or judicial oversight whatsoever.

PRISM collects both online communications (email, VoIP, search queries, chat, etc.) between Americans and any foreign entity including websites hosted outside the US, and metadata on phone calls.  By metadata is meant information about the phone call and the caller, but supposedly not the content of the calls themselves; the content of the calls can, where necessary, be monitored under the rubric of CALEA, as mentioned earlier.  Just when you thought that there might be some legal (if not moral) justification for such a program, whereas in section 215 of the Patriot Act the government is required to provide evidence that the information they are gathering is relevant to an authorized investigation (one which is conducted expressly to protect against international terrorism or secretive espionage/intelligence services), there is obviously no way that every wireless customer in the US can be materially tied to any such activities.  Obviously, any evidence that section 215 requires cannot be provided for all these customers.  So you would think that, in light of Snowden's recent revelations, such a program would have been struck down with contempt as both illegal and incredibly damaging to what little reputation the US government has left.  How optimistic!  Indeed, in 2013 the US Supreme Court halted a challenge to a warrantless surveillance program by the US government (Clapper v. Amnesty International USA).  In this challenge, the Obama administration successfully argued that government wiretapping laws such as PRISM, which were initiated following the Sept. 11th 2001 attacks, cannot be challenged in court.  A 5-4 majority concluded that, because the eavesdropping is done secretly, groups that sued to nullify the law have no legal standing to sue - because they have no evidence they are being targeted by the FISA Amendments Act.  All such assertion of them being targeted by such surveillance is "speculative" and thus not admissible.  Truly it seems, the ends must justify the means.

Up until 2013, the vast majority of internet users, voters, ordinary Americans and interested parties, while perhaps jaded enough to disbelieve the honeyed words of most politicians, trusted their government enough as beneficent protectors of the "common man" to justify some degree of participation in the political process and to believe the narrative that the established media, both online and traditional, put forth.  The government, they might have said, for all its problems and inefficiencies, is fundamentally on the side of the people.  Then in to a Hong Kong airport steps a man named Edward Snowden, and in June of 2013, the world would learn just how bad the situation really is.

It should be clear to anyone who has read this far, through the odyssey of the past two centuries, just what the connection is between privately owned property and privacy.  But objections may have begun to form in the reader's mind about whether intellectual property itself really is necessary in order to protect the online privacy which many of us thought we enjoyed up until recent revelations forced us to re-consider.  Could the notion of "traditional" property be sufficient to protect the online exchange of information?

It should first be noted that intellectual property, while obviously not as old as the concept of property itself, has a long history of its own.  Whereas the concept of property reaches back in explicit written form at least to the ancient code of Hammurabi and evidence suggests Neolithic societies had some conception of private land ownership, intellectual property has historical precedents reaching well in to antiquity, long in advance of the invention of the printing press, at least as far back as Periclean Greek times when, for example, the city of Sybaris had a form of patent law.  There are numerous other examples of what we would today recognize as intellectual property from ancient cultures around the world, and this means that intellectual property, far from being a machination of the so-called "robber baron" age of the 19th century as has been so often portrayed, is at least as old as democracy, Western philosophy and a host of other inventions and cultural advancements which we would consider foundational to the West.  Thus to call property "traditional" and think of intellectual property as a novelty, as the new kid on the block, is to assign the label of "novelty" to other ideas in such a way as no sane person would admit to doing.

But to return to the main point, the notion that physical property rights are sufficient to protect the transfer of non-physical packets of information must be addressed.  The first thing to understand is that the burden is on the person suggesting that they are sufficient, to establish this as a fact beyond doubt.  The reason for this is twofold.  First, I who am suggesting that they are not sufficient cannot be called upon to prove a negative - it is up to my interlocutor to establish just how immaterial goods could be sufficiently protected.  Second, intellectual property laws have been developed specifically in order to address the failings of physical property laws in the sphere of non-physical property; in other words the idea that "IP is necessary to protect non-physical property" has been established as a fact already, and it falls to the challenger to explain just what has changed which would make this no longer true.

Often, it is asserted that the Fourth Amendment applies to online privacy as much as it does to privacy in the home.  However this is entirely untrue, since the Fourth Amendment protects only against violations related to property.  Even in the case of Katz v. United States, no general right to privacy was upheld by the Supreme Court, and the Third Party Doctrine as the reader will recall, has explicitly rendered all information transmitted to a third party as not belonging to the originator.  The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches of property, of which there is none without establishing information as property, and against unreasonable seizures, which again requires that information be considered property and the unauthorized duplication of it as a seizure.  You cannot believe that "sharing isn't stealing" and at the same time invoke the Fourth Amendment as your protection against the "seizure" of your own property, at least not without asserting an obvious contradiction.

One much more serious objection to the idea that IP laws are necessary to protect information, is that the free market will favour those companies who protect privacy over those who don't, because there is a demand for privacy which the market will satisfy.  Much has been written about this topic on both sides in scholarly literature, but it must be noted that the same objection could easily be made about the protection of the ownership of material assets.  Now, there are many anarcho-capitalists who would in fact argue that all property laws are unnecessary, and that voluntary association and the free market will indeed protect the ownership of material assets no less than it will protect immaterial ones, a thesis with which I would agree so far as it goes.  However the history of property violations in times and places where virtually no governing authority has held any power at all, should be enough to convince one that an absence of the rule of law offers scarce little protection of material assets, and a similar degree of protection for immaterial assets.

In order to avoid this essay running to book-length and in to multiple volumes, I will not here attempt to address every conceivable objection to IP as necessary to protect immaterial property, but rather move on after having touched all-too-briefly on a few of the issues raised against it.  The bottom line is that if the reader can conceive of some way to protect information outside of IP laws, they stand to make a great deal of money in doing so, and so we await that brilliant stroke of genius, though for the preservation of our health we do not hold our breath.

At this point it would be helpful to examine a challenge which is not central, but still related to the protection of privacy through IP; namely the notion that non-physical property is not worthy of protection.

By far the most common argument for the idea that IP is not worth protecting, is that intellectual property is fictitious.  And, these detractors would say, it is fictitious just as a result of being non-physical.  They are typically among those who would suggest that there is no such thing as "society" or "culture" or numbers or any of innumerable conceptual entities.  They cannot see the forest for the trees, because there is no forest, only trees.  This is a metaphysical question, one with a long history and one which I do not pretend to resolve in the context of an essay about property and privacy.  Yet I do not need to, in order to lay this objection aside.  What these detractors forget is that in fact, property itself is merely a concept and thus fictitious.  Property, being entirely conceptual, has no independent ontological standing in the way that say a sailboat or a hammer or a cuttlefish does, and yet those making this objection have chosen to distinguish between property and IP on this very basis.  It is evident right from the start that they do not understand what property itself is, and so their objection can be discounted outright as being entirely self-effacing.  If you reject concepts as fictitious or purely psychological phenomena, then you must also reject the reality of the concept of property and with it, as has already been established earlier, the concept of privacy itself.

This is far from the only objection to the worth of IP, however.  One may grant that IP is not fictitious, but might state that the advantages which the protection of immaterial goods confers are far outweighed by the disadvantages that such protection offers to the general welfare of society.  To this I can only suggest that they either do not understand what privacy is, or are willing to sacrifice it for the "greater good".  Neither I nor anyone else can sensibly tell you what to value, that is up to you and no argument can ever persuade you that privacy is a worthwhile end in itself.  What I can do however, is to illuminate just what is at stake in preferring the greater good as an end in itself.

The objection that IP must be sacrificed for the greater good is a consequentialist one.  Consequentialism is a school of normative ethics which holds that the consequences of an action are the benchmark by which any ethical theory should be evaluated, or more colloquially that "the end justifies the means", and often consequentialism takes the form of a philosophy which places the greater good highest among ethical goals (the latter is known as "utilitarianism").  One problem with this view is that if the ends are all that the theory specifies, then the means, being justifiable only so long as they serve the ends, fall entirely outside of the theory itself.  This is the bane of any consequentialist, that their theory has no predictive value for particular actions - it can only evaluate the ethical content of an action after the fact.

This problem is especially evident in the case of our anti-IP, pro-privacy consequentialist; they know they want privacy, but are bewildered as to what the fulfilment of that goal requires of them in terms of beliefs about property.  They do not believe that adherence to a principle is of paramount importance (except paradoxically that single principle which governs their philosophy, that of the ends justifying the means), and this leaves them vulnerable to having their aims thwarted by unforeseen consequences.  A practical example will be useful in illustrating just how slight is the philosophical depth of this particular breed of consequentialist.  They may suggest that non-material property is not worth protecting on the basis that there is a net disadvantage in doing so, perhaps as a result of the benefits conferred by infinitely available entertainment.  But they would of course be the first to raise a storm of condemnation against the person who erased the 1's and 0's which reside so immaterially in their bank account.  And yet they would have no recourse to a governing principle which would protect them, if only in theory against such an offence, but would rather be relegated to the ceaseless shoe-horning of ad hoc prohibitions in to law to address every conceivable infraction.  The more learned among these consequentialists might even denounce the seemingly infinite reproduction of those 1's and 0's by the Federal Reserve or their own nation's central bank, thus diluting the value of their own 1's and 0's in the first place.  Their intentions are of the most noble kind; that the greatest good be the universal standard by which any ethic is judged.  And yet they are like a dog who chases its tail, whose goal ever evades them, since they misunderstand the incompleteness of their theory and the essential futility of any ethical project which is based solely upon it.

There is a great danger in not adhering to a definite principle, and because it manifests the illusion of safety, perhaps a still greater danger in adhering to a principle which is so vague as to be nearly meaningless (such as "the greater good").  Avoiding the pitfalls that vagueness would lead you in to requires not only a clearly stated principle, but a principle which is universally applicable; this is the test of any philosophical position - just what power does it have when applied across the board?

Of course the good of all is a worthy standard by which ethical systems can be evaluated, and not at all incompatible with the good of each individual.  They are in fact one and the same.  But the right principle is indispensable in the effort to achieve such a lofty goal, and it is not enough to just have the right principle - one which is universally applicable - but you must actually be willing to apply it universally, to have the personal integrity, the moral virtue, to apply it no less to others than to yourself.  It is all too easy to consider oneself the exception to the rule; we do it all the time.  Examples can be found everywhere, embedded even in the very grammar of our discourse.  Who among us would ask for less privacy?  And who among us would wish to live in a world of more secrecy?  Yet the distinction between privacy and secrecy is only semantic; the two concepts do not differ in any essential way, but the former we apply to ourselves and those who resemble us, the latter we apply to those whom we distrust, who are alien, the other.  And this is the crux of our problem; it is this hypocrisy which must be overcome, this hypocrisy which is the bedrock upon which our predicament has been erected.

The vast majority of people have fused in their minds the cause for which Edward Snowden fights, and that of Julian Assange.  Assange has even expressed admiration for Snowden and legitimized this merging of the two men's interests by saying as much.  But, whether one or both men truly realize, they in fact could hardly be more philosophically opposed, and this distinction is absolutely crucial to understanding just how we ended up where we are today.  While Snowden is a champion of the cause of privacy, Assange is explicitly a crusader against privacy.

Snowden, for all his noble sacrifice in bringing to light the colossal extent of the privacy violations perpetrated by the US government, holds a contradictory position.  He believes in privacy first and foremost, that the actions and property of private actors should remain obscure if they so choose.  And yet, he is clearly a consequentialist in one respect, justifying the means by way of their ends, and so is willing to undermine his own position - that of the inalienable right of all to privacy - in order to serve the greater good of exposing widespread privacy violations.  He must undermine the right of his employer to privacy in order to protect the public's right to privacy.  Whether he was right to do so, whether in fact the ends will justify his means, is beside the point and also remains to be seen, but the fact is that he cannot simultaneously assert the right to privacy and violate the privacy of his superiors, regardless of whether he calls himself a whistleblower.  Like with "secret" and "private" there is no strict demarcation between a whistleblower and a violator of privacy, the definition and who falls on what side of it depends entirely on one's own perspective and the relationship of one to the party who stands to benefit.  Again, I must stress that I am not passing judgement on Snowden who was obviously placed in an agonizing position for any thoughtful individual, and do not condemn his actions.  I merely point out that he must destroy the privacy of some in order to save the privacy of others and so is unwilling to adhere to a universal principle that would protect privacy.

Assange on the other hand, does not present any such contradiction, except in his stated affiliation with Snowden.  Assange does not care about the privacy of anyone public or private, as his whole enterprise through Wikileaks is fundamentally opposed to it.  From the Wikileaks "About" page:

It is only when the people know the true plans and behaviour of their governments that they can meaningfully choose to support or reject them. Historically, the most resilient forms of open government are those where publication and revelation are protected. Where that protection does not exist, it is our mission to provide it through an energetic and watchful media.

It does not matter whether the target is the "government", the "power elite" or "your next door neighbour"; a rose by any name would smell as sweet.  Confucius is said to have uttered one of the great lines of all time, that "the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name", and the name for what Wikileaks destroys is twofold; they undermine not only "secrecy" but "privacy".  The goal of Wikileaks is to enhance and promote the universal "openness" of information, and to expose the secrets of any individual or group in whom their client (the public) takes a political interest.  There is no essential, objective difference between a "secret" and that which is "kept private", the only difference is in terms of the perspective of the person assigning those labels.

You cannot steal secrets without an affront to privacy.

In a recent article in Glasgow's The Herald, Snowden has made a foreboding proclamation: that a child born today will never know what privacy means.  One might question the burden of such a statement, because our own mature adult population is living that reality in this very instant.  On television, the internet, any form of media you turn to we see crowds of demonstrators around the world, massive congregations of people who know that something is wrong, and demand change.  You can look at these crowds of attentive, reasonable people, and still be unable to point to more than a few solitary individuals who understand the full implications of property to privacy.

In this article, Snowden cites, as have many others who champion the cause of privacy, George Orwell, author of the seminal work entitled 1984.  Yet Orwell's work is less seminal than one might think.  He was preceded by a fellow named Aldous Huxley, who wrote a work which has a superficially similar message, though differs in a fundamental and important way; that work is entitled Brave New World.  Those familiar with only the former who have merely gathered a synopsis of Huxley's groundbreaking work might tell you that both authors are barking up the same tree, but this is not the case upon a closer examination.  It is revealing that Snowden cites Orwell and not Huxley, for (to repeat the words of Neil Postman who phrased the difference in as eloquent a way as can be imagined) in Orwell's magnum opus it is the things that we hate which destroy us - authority, violence, control - whereas in Huxley's yet more profound masterpiece it is the things that we love - cheap entertainment, trivialities, distractions - which prove to be our undoing.

It is revealing that Snowden cites Orwell and not Huxley, because for all of his noble sacrifice, Snowden is fundamentally confused about why we lack privacy.  He seems to believe that a boogeyman of sorts lies at the heart of our predicament.  But rather more frighteningly, we are in fact behind it.  We willingly, happily even, trade any hope of privacy for cheap entertainment and scoff at intellectual property as an outdated relic of a bygone era, all the while opiating ourselves with the unpaid fruits of others' labour, hypocritically demanding the right to protect access to our own information, and spouting empty platitudes to morally justify our mutual self-harm in the form of file-sharing.


One of the amazing, baffling and at times frustrating things that confronts the attentive student of history is an almost comical tendency that humanity has, to stub its collective toe on the same stone over and over again like a blind man with the short-term memory of a goldfish.  Or rather, it would be outright comical if it wasn't so utterly tragic.  This, unfortunately, is an unavoidable by-product of group decision making.  As individuals, human beings tend to be thoughtful, considerate and genuinely concerned with both their own and others' welfare, but once the group dynamic is introduced, all bets are off.  As it was when after the first "Red Scare" in 1920 the American people swore they wouldn't get fooled again by an imaginary foe, and after the second Red Scare in the late 1940s the same lesson had to be learned anew, only for the early 21st century to prove that it hadn't with the rampant xenophobia, witch hunts and surrender of civil liberties that was seen during the age of "Terrorism" - so it is now with yet another stone which confounds us like a Gordian Knot.  We honestly believe with a deep conviction, that we can get something for nothing.  That in fact some things really are free.  That something fundamentally, qualitatively rather than quantitatively, has changed now that the scale of information exchange has reached heights which could not have been envisioned by previous generations.

Nothing in this world is free.  Even the air we breathe comes at a cost, and that is the cost of ensuring its purity, a problem which has really only come to the fore during the era of globalization.  The fact is that in the long run, you only get what you pay for.  Sure, some few may be able to live parasitically at the expense of others, but in the grand scheme actions have inescapable consequences.  The inescapable consequence of having debased the concept of intellectual property and eliminated the private ownership of information, is that the information you originate cannot be protected in any way which conforms to a non-arbitrary ethical principle.  A lack of privacy just is the cost of "free" entertainment.

Taking seriously the need for enforcing intellectual property rights is not a panacaea, it is not a cure-all for what ails us in terms of privacy violations.  It is, however, the first and indispensable step in ensuring that your privacy is protected, since it unambiguously establishes all communications as being essentially yours, and allows you legal and moral jurisdiction over who receives it and how it is used.  The government and unscrupulous parties will always attempt to violate your privacy - it is simply in their own interest to do so.  However you do have a tool to fight back with, and that tool is claiming your communications as your own personal property.  Nothing less will allow you to protect your privacy, unless you are willing to sacrifice having access to all modern communications tools, in which case you have given up your rights anyway.

Our forerunners were not ignorant and nor are their own most closely held philosophical principles irrelevant to our time (the belief in the irrelevance of the past is, incidentally, yet another face of that stone which attracts our toe like the flame does the moth).  Every generation believes itself to be the exception to the rule, is convinced that now things really are different, and that the game has changed once and for all.  This belief betrays a dangerous degree of narcissism and a sort of historical naiveté which borders on myopia.  Countless generations before us have placed a premium on the concept of property, and to earlier generations reaching back in to antiquity, intellectual property was an important concept which was no less worth protecting.  Now with the advent of the internet, much like with the advent of the printing press, the concept of intellectual property is not less relevant, but more relevant than ever; this fact can only become more evident as time goes on, as what forms of digital privacy remain, are further eroded.  Far from being unenforceable, all that prevents the enforcement of intellectual property rights is a lack of political will, the will of the people.  And the people must decide, being entirely culpable, which of the two irreconcilable alternatives they prefer: a world without digital privacy, or a world without cheap amusements.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Question of Free Will - Part I - Why It Matters

Download the podcast audio version of this blog entry here.  Listen to the podcast on Youtube here.  

Is it true, as the pragmatists say, that we do not solve philosophical problems, only get over them?

What a strange idea.

Suppose we treated other problems like this.  What if our ancient precursors had deliberately ceased to wonder just what that mysterious light is which is born and dies each day, sailing across the sky, which we call the sun?  Would our world be a richer place if we had simply dismissed Zeno's paradox of motion, and Newton had never developed his calculus?  If hitherto unsolvable problems don't matter, then why is there a million dollar prize on offer to the person who solves certain long-standing problems in mathematics?

To be sure, problems which seem to have no solution have been with us since time immemorial.  And yet, we do not ignore them, brush them aside and pretend like we have "got over" these problems.  Or if we do, we do so at the risk of our own intellectual impoverishment.  In fact, there is a very good argument to be made, that our degree of abstract thinking and our ability to make conceptual leaps beyond the present, are the very factors which make human beings unique in the animal kingdom.

Now, in a way I agree with the pragmatists, in that philosophical problems which have no significant consequence should be ignored.  But the truly ageless philosophical problems persist for a reason, and the reason is that they are of the utmost practical importance.

The question of free will crops up in different forms and under various guises in ages as far back as we have record of.  The Greeks certainly wondered about it, as did the Hindus.  Even the ancient Egyptians wrestled with this question, as implicit in their code of Ma'at and lurking as it does not far below the surface in their many stories, for example that of Sinuhe.  Philosophy is not free from the vagaries of fashion, and problems in this discipline go in and out of vogue like bad hairstyles, but the problem of free will has remained at the heart of philosophy since the time of the Pre-Socratics at least.  It is ever-present outside of philosophy as well, from antiquity down to modern times, both in the popular consciousness and deeply enmeshed within religious thinking as far back as one cares to look.

The very fact that the question of free will persists, is enough to suggest that it is far from irrelevant.  But why is this?  Why is the question of free will important and why has it not been resolved?  My aim in this treatment of the problem is to address these questions, the first of which will be dealt with presently.

When we find our modern selves faced with a problem which, for all intents and purposes, will not yield an answer, what do we turn to?  We turn to science.  We live in the scientific age, where we have a method which, in principle at least, appears to be able to investigate just about anything, and to deliver better results than just about any other method at our disposal.  But there is a cornerstone of empirical science for which the problem of free will has grave implications, and that is the concept of falsifiability.  Falsifiability, simply put, is a property of a statement or theory that makes it possible to hypothetically show that it is false by the observation of some fact.  It is a tool for distinguishing empirically justifiable theories from non-empirical ones.

The problem is, no answer to the problem of free will is falsifiable.

So we have a dilemma in which one must choose either an answer to the free will question, or falsifiability as a universal criterion of sensible theories, but not both.  Just exactly why this is the case will become clear as I explain in subsequent entries what the problems are with each proposed answer to the free will question.  I offer this brief mention of it as a provocative suggestion for the reader to consider, though for now I will concern myself first with outlining the problem of free will and why it is important.

So, deep philosophical questions are not irrelevant, least of all that of free will.  Easy to say, but where's the proof?  Well, perhaps we should briefly sketch out the problem of free will first, before moving on to why it matters on a down-to-earth, practical level.  The problem of free will, in a nutshell is this:  It makes no sense given our daily, commonsense notion of causality, for us to be free, but at the same time, it makes no sense, given our daily, commonsense notion of personal autonomy, to be anything except free.  We have an apparent paradox here, and a very difficult one at that.  Neither one of these metaphysical positions (free or predetermined), seems rationally acceptable on its own, and neither of them alone squares with the facts as they are given to us.  One of our commonsense notions will have to be thrown over and rejected.  Or is there some compromise?  Could we be both free and determined at the same time?

Before I get to weighing the assets and liabilities of these positions, I want to first consider the question of why the notion of free will is important.  Can't we go through our day-to-day lives without ever thinking about these things?  Can't we just ignore the question and believe that, whatever the answer is, it doesn't matter if I know it or not?  Why should I care?  Isn't this the type of problem that only the chronically unemployed have the luxury of worrying about?

I certainly hope not.  You should care about the problem of free will, because where you come down on this problem makes a colossal difference in your life, as it does for society as a whole.

Let's start with society, and work our way back to the individual.  The problem of free will is relevant to all forms of ethics, from the most complex theological and meta-ethical systems right down to the simplest forms of morality that a 2-year-old can understand.  This problem is relevant, because to even have a moral code or a notion of ethics in the first place, means to take a particular position on this question, i.e. that in some way, we are free to act, and have alternatives before us.  To take a page from the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu, nobody curses the empty boat for crashing in to their own boat.  The empty boat has no volition, no agency, no blame, just like a river flowing over a cliff cannot be blamed for falling.  The empty boat has no choice in the matter, because it is entirely determined in its actions by conditions prior to itself.  The hard determinist, who suggests that there is no such thing as free will, cannot argue that we are morally responsible for our actions, and consistently maintain their position.  Does this seem like a mark against determinism and a point for free will?  Not necessarily, if you consider that some of our other commonsense notions have been challenged by recent scientific discoveries.

So, nearly all of us believe, or at least behave as though we believe, that we are morally responsible for our actions.  But it doesn't stop at personal responsibility.  This responsibility is the foundational principle which underlies all legal systems.  "Guilt" in the legal sense is the state of being responsible for the commission of an offence, and that responsibility can only be borne by an agent who has the power to choose one action over another.  Again, the empty boat will never be seen in court, defending itself against charges levelled against it for some impropriety.  The empty boat has no alternative but to do whatever prior conditions necessitate it will do.  It cannot even be said to agentially "act", but rather is only acted upon by external forces.

One might argue that, regardless of whether or not free will exists, some legal system should be brought in to being or maintained in order to deter those inclined toward aberrant behaviour, and to bring punitive measures against those who engage in such behaviour.  There are at least two problems with this argument, however:

1)  This metaphysical position (no free will) must either utterly undermine the legal concept of "guilt" as arising from responsibility, or it must impel us to assign responsibility in such a way as would make no sense to the ordinary person.  To remain consistent, we would be forced to assign equal responsibility to other "actors" who could not have chosen a different course of action, just as we ourselves lack this freedom to choose.  We must hold the empty boat responsible, since it is no less able to do otherwise, than we are.

2)  This idea that legal systems should be maintained or brought about, is unintelligible on a hard determinist account.  If there is truly no such thing as free will and thus alternative possibilities, then it makes no sense to speak of what should be done or even whether any legal system whatsoever is "appropriate", because in a deterministic universe, there is no "should", only what is inevitable and what can never be.  Indeed, all ethical considerations (which state what "should" or "ought to" be done), break down in the face of such a metaphysics.

The ethical and political implications of whether or not free will exists are many and serious, however in my view, these are not necessarily the most important reasons why the problem of free will is worth your attention.  Another, perhaps more important reason is that, by all reasonable accounts, this question should not be controversial.  I mean really, do you doubt that you actually even had any choice in whether to begin reading this essay?  If you do doubt that (and let me just say if you answered "yes", I share your doubt), then you really need to check your claims to any significant level of certainty on other, less settled matters.

It might seem like I'm contradicting myself here, saying at once that we should care about whether we are free, and that the question should not be controversial.  This is no contradiction.  The fact is, this question is controversial, it is paradoxical, it is a mystery.  And that is very unsettling.  Free will is so deeply embedded in our consciousness, such a fundamental given in our conduct, that if we suddenly found ourselves unable to maintain our belief in its existence, then this would call in to question other "certainties" which appear to be self-evidently true.  This is what I was alluding to when I stated near the beginning of this essay that perennial philosophical problems persist for a reason - namely that they are of the utmost practical importance.  If you can't trust your most basic commonsense notions, what can you trust?

No wonder this question is unsettling, and no wonder it tends to get swept under the rug in favour of more "practical", more "important" problems.  Well, what could be more important?

Like other questions such as "do my senses deceive me?" or "is there really a world outside of myself?" if the answer to the question "am I free?" is "I don't know" then this really should change the way we comport ourselves, namely with a substantial degree of skepticism, which I hope to impart to the reader in the next few essays.

Free will is important because whether it exists or not, makes a difference.  And I am fairly certain that by the time I am done elucidating the problem, you will have some considerable doubt as to whether it does exist.  But many have argued, among them well-respected philosophers, scientists and thinkers, that whether we are free or not, it makes no difference at all.  Embracing the concept of either free will or determinism or both does not change the facts of the world, and makes no difference to how we act in it.  If so, then they must know something I don't.

If it is true that our metaphysical position on free will doesn't change reality or our perception thereof, then it is equally true of all statements about reality.  Evolution, the big bang, God, Newtonian mechanics, all of these must be grouped under the heading "irrelevant".  I can scarcely imagine a more cognitively dissonant viewpoint.  It seems to reduce "irrelevance" to an utterly meaningless term.  Of course these things make a difference to our understanding of reality, and this is equally true of the concepts of free will or determinism.  Indeed, how can you even conceive of Newtonian mechanics without the fundamental underlying metaphysical framework of determinism?  To say that "it doesn't matter if we are determined" and in the same breath that "Newton's physics is a paradigm shift for the human understanding" is like saying that mathematics doesn't matter but calculus does.  It is madness, pure and simple.

If you embrace free will, then you can act with the full conviction that you are responsible, and not just in the sense of ethics.  You are also responsible for your victories.  But this does not mean you can be complacent in your freedom.  As the existentialists have rightly pointed out, freedom may not necessarily be the parade of self-congratulation that it seems, it may in fact be something much more distressing.  You may be, as Sartre puts it, "condemned to be free".  Yes, your successes are yours, but your failures also belong to you, and you alone.  If you are free, you are responsible, and that in itself, is disquieting.  At the least if you find that you are unquestionably, self-evidently free, then there is one sense in which you can rest easy - you know that at least one assault on your commonsense, intuitive, experiential grasp on reality has been laid aside, and that you can trust your immediate experience once again.

If you reject free will, then, well, there is no you can, only you will.  Like freedom, this prospect itself is very disconcerting.  However in rejecting free will, one all of a sudden recognizes the many misapprehensions that one has laboured under, and can begin to strip the layers of illusion away from what is in fact only a perceived reality.  You will have an understanding that to worry about responsibility is futile, and that what we perceive on this commonsense, intuitive, experiential level does not always have a direct bearing on what has genuine ontological standing.  In so possessing this understanding, you will no longer be subject to the errors and prejudices of the great majority of people, who cannot be blamed, because they do not know any better.

Our position on free will underscores our philosophy on many things, it cuts across all the major branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and even politics.  To suggest that the free will debate is irrelevant can only be done from a non-philosophical, and furthermore, a mistaken perspective.

"Fair enough," you might say.  "The question of free will matters.  But hasn't it been resolved?  Aren't I obviously free?"

As I mentioned at the outset, this is one of the most fundamental of all philosophical problems.  Now, I would be the last one to tell you to take someone else's word, but let's have a look at what the experts can tell us.  Philosophers certainly disagree on this and always have, in fact a 2009 survey of philosophers by Bourget and Chalmers suggested that about 3 in 5 believe that we are both free and determined simultaneously, with only about 1 in 7 believing that we are entirely free to choose between alternative courses of action.  But let's ask the scientists.  While there has been (and indeed I will argue in future installments can be) nothing approaching definitive empirical evidence for or against the existence of free will, it would seem based on anecdotal evidence that scientists generally also do not believe that we are free to choose between alternatives, even more strongly than philosophers.  Amazingly, the only survey which I was able to find that asked professional scientists was a 2003 survey by Graffin and Provine which showed that about 4 in 5 scientists do believe in free will.

It seems there is more to this question than idle musing.

The jury is not in on the problem of free will, either in the modern age or in earlier times.  The reality or unreality of volition, or free will is one of the, if not the most fundamental of philosophical problems.  This is philosophy 101, and like other questions like "what is real?" it does not get answered by way of a reductive method any more than by popular opinion.  In the next entries I will explain exactly what is involved with asserting free will or determinism, or both, and hopefully show that, although the question is a sensible one, none of these proposed solutions is satisfactory.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Why Take Religion Seriously in the 21st Century?

I was recently involved in a discussion with someone who asked me to convince them why they should take religious thought seriously in this, our most confident 21st century CE.  Essentially this question was asked in the spirit of "as opposed to scientific thought", which the questioner had judged as incomparably superior in every imaginable way.  Fair enough, that will be the division around which the discussion turns.  What follows is a slightly expanded version of my response to this challenge, and to the follow-up objections made by my interlocutor.


This is a difficult question, the question of "science or religion?"  It is far from a foregone conclusion, and I urge the reader to set aside whatever bias they may have as far as possible, and keep an open mind.  Nothing undermines debate so much as the unswerving orthodoxy of the convinced.

By way of introduction, perhaps I should briefly say something about my own experience with this question.  As it is with most people who have not grown up in a religious environment, in my early years I was a rather rabid atheist.  However, I figured I could strengthen my own case by knowing something of the other side of the argument; as Sun Tzu says:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

Thus I began my study of the religious literature of the West, with an eye to subjecting it to merciless criticism.  Even in my skepticism toward religion, I found that in reading the Bible, Koran, Pentateuch etc. I gained deep insights in to the unconscious motivations of those around me in general, regardless of whether they believed in God.  Religion is so deeply embedded in our thinking, even in secular society, that to not understand it is to be wilfully ignorant in a large degree to what makes people tick.  This alone is reason enough to familiarize oneself with the basic teachings of world religions, whatever one may think about the truth or untruth contained within them.

Around the same time, I was introduced to a person of extremely wide learning in both the sciences and religion, of whose type I have never encountered before or since.  Believing unambiguously in God, he seemed quite able to defend his own peculiar theistic views against any of what I was forced to conclude were my own hopelessly over-simplified objections.  In time I began to re-assess my views.  The process is still on-going.

I am not religious, but have a deep respect for most religions and the role they play in our world, yet like technology I see religion as having been misused, abused and leaned upon as a crutch for far too long.  A hammer can be used to build a house, or to kill.  Yet, the hammer is not to be praised or blamed.  So like any tool or piece of technology, the question is, of what value is it?  Allow me to answer this question, contrasting it where possible with science.

When religion is contrasted with science, all-too-often one is compared with the other in the terms defined by one, to the universal detriment of the other.  In other words, a person arguing a pro-science thesis will often evaluate religion according to how well it achieves the agenda set out by science, according to science's methodology, and with the truth-criteria of science in view.  This is equally true vice versa.

There is something very, very wrong with this.

When addressing this question, a specific religion needs to be contrasted with the well-defined practice of scientific discovery.  The idea that "religion" as such can be defined meaningfully enough to contrast with anything except other vague terms such as "good", "morality", "existence" etc. is the source of a lot of confusion and fruitless debate.  As such, the question of "why take religion seriously in the 21st century?" is already too vague, though something may be said through use of an example, which I will offer.

Where "religion" can be taken to have a specific enough meaning, it and science do share something: they both pursue the truth.  Allow me to take a particular religion, in this case the Brahmanism of India and apply a philosophical question to it and to science.  If one wishes to answer the philosophical question par excellence, namely, "what is real?", then both Brahmanism and science are quite capable of shedding some light on the subject from varying angles.  Here is an interpretation of what they both have to say on this, a most important question:

Science:  What is real is a confluence of matter and form. The ultimate constituents of reality are at bottom material (I take it that "matter" is understood per se and needs no further definition), but are presented to us in such a way as to take on a certain formal, expressible structure.  Example: if you ask what water is, the answer is that on a certain level, it is two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, arranged in such a way that the hydrogen atoms are bonded to the oxygen atom but not to each other.  To offer a lower-level account than that, water is composed of a specific arrangement of protons, neutrons and electrons.  One can keep going, reducing the account to ever more microscopic levels, but the answer will always ultimately be that water or anything else is a certain formally expressible structure of material elements.  So what is real, is ultimately matter and form, which is the sole reality.

Brahmanism:  What is real is Brahman.  This bears some explanation to Westerners.  Atman is most closely translated as "the self", and is an individuated expression of Brahman, which is the ultimate reality, of which Atman is the most easily cognizable constituent or element.  Example: if you ask what water is, the answer is that water is the thing that I sense as being wet, which when it falls from the sky is called "rain".  The only way in which I can even be cognizant of water in the first place is through my senses.  My senses are ultimately an outgrowth of myself, so that when I am experiencing water whether conceptually or physically, I am experiencing myself and myself alone.  Extrapolating this point, it must necessarily follow that this is true for all other sensible beings.  If so, then this self that is being experienced by all conscious beings is the same thing, if there are other beings at all in this reality.  All beings are experiencing the same thing, and that thing is "the self", but universalized.  So what is ultimately real is the universal self or Brahman, which is the sole reality.

Two very different approaches to the same question. The answer to the question "why take religion seriously?" is, it depends what you're after.

I have frequently heard that practical reasons need not enter in to the debate when asking why someone would take any particular religion seriously.  It is often said that "religion" like any other truth-candidate must stand on its own, and not be simply useful or contingent, if it be in fact truthful.  It must be self-evidently true, and not a matter of faith.  Shouldn't it?

As has been rightly pointed out by many others, when you get down to one's own ground-floor axioms upon which evaluations are based, science itself requires faith.  Now, this faith may well be in "self-evident" principles such as reason and evidence, but ultimately you cannot point to anything that would impel you to accept these principles, apart from the fact that they are useful.  Science is only of any value whatsoever to the extent that it serves our highest interests.

It may then be argued that science is unquestionably religion's superior in terms of usefulness or practicality.  However to argue such a point is to fall back in to the trap I mentioned already.  As I've said, it depends what you're after.  If one compares religion to science in terms of the physical description of the universe or the applied sciences then religion is going to fail miserably 100 times out of 100.  There is a common misconception that religion in general is a sort of "immature science", that religions are basically flawed, intermediate steps toward our modern empirical understanding of the world, that they are the mental product of a sort of primitive rusticity.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

True, certain individual religions have made cosmological claims that are wildly out of step with the facts as we take them today, the most widely cited of these claims being the 6000-year cosmology of book of Genesis.  There is no denying that this flies in the face of what these days we take to be sufficient evidence to the contrary.  However I will shortly call in to question whether, wrong though this 6000-year claim may be, that error is of much relevance to what concerns us most.  I would further point out that Brahmanism has a much more accurate estimate in terms of the cosmological time-scale to what modern physics would have us believe, to again be-labour the point that it is much more productive to compare a specific religion with the rather more unambiguous practice of experimental science.  Lastly for anyone who judges the committing of fallacies to be in any way revealing about an argument, it is transparently ad hominem to suggest that "you were wrong about X (e.g cosmology), therefore you must be wrong about Y" (e.g ethics).

Then, as I have just alluded to, there is the question of morality.  The relative failure of religious doctrine in describing the history of the physical universe has, warranted or otherwise, cast serious doubt upon its authority in this domain as well.  However, no one would seriously argue against the idea that all religions have something to say on the matter of morality, and how one can live an ethical life.  Religion may or may not be the best means of addressing questions of morality, but not even the most ignorant would deny that it does address them, is at least engaging in an ethical dialogue, irrespective of what one thinks of their conclusions.  What of science in this regard?

Science has, as far as this observer can tell, exactly nothing whatsoever to say about morality, at least within the proper sphere of scientific enterprise (which is strictly empirical).  You cannot derive an "ought" from an "is", to paraphrase David Hume.  In this, science is woefully limited compared to religion, insofar as it puts forth no thesis whatever, and rightly so.  Science does not and cannot tell us how we should treat other people, how we should live our lives, or what constitutes the highest good, if it is to remain science.  Though it may help to provide supplementary knowledge when the question of morality does occasionally draw from the domain of the physical world, on questions of human valuation, science properly remains mute.  To borrow a phrase from Wittgenstein, "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent".

So that's it?  This question of "science or religion" can never be answered?  The two speak a different language and never the twain shall meet?

Not quite.

Practical considerations may rightly be invoked to evaluate this question, and in order to do so, one must evaluate the practical necessity of the domains of knowledge which they respectively inhabit.  So, what pressing issues are humanity facing today?

Are we most likely to be destroyed by the daily operations of nature, the palpable, physical pressures which we feel from living in a world of limited means?  In other words, is the problem one which science is equipped to address?  Or are we most likely to wipe ourselves off the face of the earth due strictly to an inability to live with one another, to die needlessly, hubristically, at the very height of material prosperity?  In other words, is the problem one which ethical modes of thinking are equipped to address?

I leave it to the reader to decide.