“I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.”  ~Clarence S. Darrow


“Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.”  ~Bertrand Russell


“The educated in [the critical habit of thought] . . . are slow to believe.  They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain.”  ~William Graham Sumner


“What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”  ~Christopher Hitchens


“Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.”  ~Voltaire


“It is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence”  ~William K. Clifford


“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it”  ~Terry Pratchett


“A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.”  ~José Bergamín

Red flags go up for me whenever I’m faced with absolute certainty from somebody.  My experience tells me that such a person is probably either a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim or is a didactic pedagogue who feels that anybody who disagrees is obviously wrong.  Among us atheists, of course, religious fundamentalism is ruled out, so it always turns out (so far) that absolute certainty, in atheists, conceals over-confidence or intransigence or (more likely) both.

I used to feel certain that no entity, all-powerful or not, could possibly produce the unimaginable mass/energy of the entire universe.  But as it turns out, cosmologists now believe the universe has a grand sum of zero energy (thanks to "negative energy", like gravity).  I used to feel certain that consciousness was entirely subjective and abstract.  But observation explicitly factors into quantum theory.  And certain phenomena, like quantum entanglement, reveal that data is inherent to subatomic particles.  That seems a bit strange for a universe that existed for billions of years without intelligence of any kind (if you assume God does not exist).  And, of course, there's the favorite argument of Intelligent Design: our universe, fine-tuned to life on Earth.

I know that there's arguments for and against all these strange things.  The point is that, although we have theories that attempt to explain everything, they are only working models that fit observations.  They aren't the actual reality or "truth".  There were many scientific paradigms preceding modern ones and there will be many more to come.  Are there really 11 dimensions?  Is life limited to 3 dimensions plus time?  What if life existed in higher dimensions?  According to the math, if an entity existed in the highest dimension (the 11th?) he would have god-like powers, such as omnipresence.

I know that's a bunch of wild speculation.  The point is that there is too much we don't know.  So much, in fact, that certainty is an unjustified pretense.  The ineffable mystery of existence may never be solved.  I reject any certainty where the big questions are concerned.

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Comment by Glen Rosenberg on August 4, 2011 at 8:41pm


Happy to hear you are underway. It has to be daunting but I have a feeling things will fall into place for you. I have always had the same issue with looking into tangential issues and ideas.

Digression is the oxygen of intelligence. But it can send you willy nilly.

Persevere without trying to.

Comment by John Camilli on August 4, 2011 at 8:15pm

I have been, but its such an endless process. If I try to pressure myself about it I end up not wanting to write, but the schema I want to address is so expansive that its hard to start anywhere, so I just write chunks of a story that will one day fit into a whole theme. Even this discussion of causality, determinism and choice is just a tiny part of what I am incorporating, yet you've seen me debate about it fairly continuously with various people for months at a time.


I will say that attempting to write a book has been the single most educating experience of my life, far more than school ever was for me. In not wanting to feed people bullshit, I end up researching something in every other sentence, and those little trips to the internet often turn into whole-day tangents of information gathering. On the flip side, with all that additional information, the scope of my book keeps expanding, along with the difficulty of writing it.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on August 3, 2011 at 8:38pm


You are becoming so damn cogent in your dotage. Are you writing?

Every other location within the multiverse you are working like a dingbat and dazzling

your readership. So follow the leaders and get cracking.

Comment by John Camilli on August 3, 2011 at 1:28pm
Just want to say again that I appreciate your points of view here. I hope I do not come off as belittling or condescending. I have not assumed that I am correct and that you are not, but am still openly listening to, and trying to consider your ideas. I suppose I just see causality as being an idea that is somewhat incorruptable in its simplicity. It's an assumption, and one that could as easily be wrong as right, but if it is right, then it spells a very specific limit for the universe; that nothing happens uncaused; that everything is preceded and is a direct result of what it follows. And if determinsm is correct in addition, then it means that those events follow each other with very specific behaviors that remain consistent. To a smart enough observer outside our universe (oxymoronic, I know) everything happening in it would be completely predictable, in both directions of time. We can't be that outside observer, in order to prove it, but our theories still insist that if we could we would see Newtonian billiards in action. No suprises, just pieces interacting predictably. And I just can't fathom where...is...choice....in that? Where do we exert any control; any influence that is not itself an exerted influence, controling us? I don't see it.
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on August 2, 2011 at 8:15am


Christians thought and think they are very rare, unique in fact. Are you committing same sin of pride when you say self-awareness and memory are rare and new to the universe. What do you know that the rest of us do not?

Comment by John Camilli on August 1, 2011 at 10:55pm

Ok, lots of issues here. I'll try to deal with them in order. First, rarity does not make something special, it does not mean it has special powers, or special exceptions from universal laws. Rarity does not mean anything beyond a limit to observability. Second, neurologists are more versed in memories than you seem to be aware. We are now able to turn specific memory capacities on and off, and can isolate the locus of many different types of memories, with more detail being uncovered regularly. Memories are a physical thing, stored in physical places, with physical mechanisms. Those mechanism work.....mechanistically; they can be described. And for something to be mechanistically describable, it has to be causal and deterministic. If it were not,deterministic, it could not be described in a useful way, and if it were not causal, it could not be described at all.


Next, your notion of internal and external causality. First of all, what is external causality? Causality is moment-to-moment connection between every piece of existence. There is no internal and external version of it. It is intrinsic to existence (assuming causality is a correct notion), and cannot be separated or isolated from existing things. You seem to be under the impression that when a physical structure has temporal isolation from external structures (meaning only that entropy seems to be prevailing more slowly inside than outside of it, even though that's actually impossible), that causality somehow operates differently inside than it does outside. It doesn't. It's still causality. How fast it is happening inside and outside of a given structure is irrelevant. It is still effects stemming, however far removed, from prior causes. If some energy is absorbed into a structure and does not re-emerge for a decade, who cares? It's still doing so according to the principal of causality. It wasn't doing anything supernatural while it was inside. It wasn't removed from the causal flow, and it is not an uncaused occurence when it finally re-emerges.


When you talk about self-awreness and mental feedback, I'd say causality, whther you want to call it internal or external, is exactly like string pulling on puppets. And I'd say that having a memory is like being a puppet inside a house of mirrors, so that there seem to be way more strings than there actually are (because some that appear to be different strings are just the same ones from further back along the line). And it's all so confusing that we lose track of what the strings even connect to. We only know that one end is connected to us, and in moving and seeing the strings move with us, we decide it was not the strings pulling us all along, it was us pulling them! What silly puppets we are.


Lastly, even if I could accept the ideas of internal and external causality, where does responsibility get added? If the causality inside you is somehow of a different quality than what's outside, is it no longer causal? Is it no longer effects being generated by causes? Aren't all my activities still just effects? Did I generate their causes from nothingness? Only if I did that, and in a controlled way, would I accept responsibility for what I do. As it is, I do not think I am a god, and that I am creating impetus where none existed, so I do not think I am responsible for anything I do.

Comment by Atheist Exile on July 25, 2011 at 12:06am

Hi John,


My position on the specialness of memories and self-awareness differs from yours for some very specific reasons.  They’re found only in animate beings and, perhaps, only in a select few of species.  That means such neurological artifacts are extremely rare in the universe.  And they are -- along with many other phenomena and abstractions associated with life – relatively new to the universe.  To me, such basic facts make them very special indeed.


Neurology is a fledgling science recently reinvigorated by the advent of imaging technologies.  Neurologists themselves are the first to admit they don’t know enough to properly explain their findings.  They don’t know what memories are and, I’ll wager, neither do you or I.  Yes, evidence suggests that neural pathways are strengthened with use and weakened with disuse but that appears to be more associated with learned behavior than with discreet memories.  For instance, since retiring 5 years ago, I’ve forgotten the values of specific bits in a TCP packet but my early childhood memories are unfazed despite rarely thinking about them.


However, I do suggest that our memories could not have context or subtext or cohesion without retention of the causal factors involved.  This leads to the idea that memory represents an accrued amalgam (pool) of experiences and that those experiences include their causal factors.  If that’s true (and it’s an admittedly big if), then self-aware memory can be thought of as another, different, form of causality: internal instead of external; relatively static instead of dynamically cascading.


If you think about it, “self-aware” is a paraphrase of “mental feedback”.  We are self-aware because of mental feedback.  We reflect on our experiences.  And that’s an important point to keep in mind.  When external events grab our attention, causality is not “pulling our strings” as if we’re inanimate puppets.  No way!  We have self-aware intelligence.  When external events grab our attention, we cull our memories to help determine an appropriate response.  Unless, of course, we don’t have time to think; then instinct (or catastrophe) takes over.  Instinctive, knee-jerk, reflex responses are clearly different from reflective ones and appear to invoke different brain modules.


In my own case, I know my responses must be drawing from my own personal experiences because I never respond beyond or outside the scope of those experiences. When we cull our memories to determine an appropriate response, what content could be more pertinent to those memories than their causal factors?  You tell me.


I don’t deny that external causality prompts us to respond.  But I do deny that external causality prompts us to respond reflexively (without thinking) unless the situation (usually fight-or-flight) specifically triggers a reflexive response.  We absolutely do think about how to respond.  And when we do, we draw upon experience.  If those experiences include their causal factors, then we are, in effect, responding to external causality with internal causality: causality feedback.


This is NOT free will.  It is self-determinism.  We learn and respond from personal experience.  Our futures are determined by how we respond to causality and we respond within the scope of our experience . . . within our selves.  That’s what it means to be self-determined.

Comment by John Camilli on July 24, 2011 at 12:48pm

I want to examine more closely the notion of accrued causality happening in the human body. This seems to be the area in which we come up against differences in opinion. To me, there's nothing special about memories and self-awareness. The ability to recall and process experiences from other times is not done independent of cause. We each remember what our system's chemistry and its sensory intake compel us to remember, when they compel us to remember it. Memories are just strengthened nerve paths in the brain and body that are connected to (thus associated with) various other intake and output constructs of our system. Therefore, a smell can stimulate recollection, or a taste or sound and any combination of feelings. Memories do not come unbidden, from the void; conjured up by a will that simply wants to recall them, thereby influencing the current moment in ways that would not otherwise have occured. Furthermore, memories are not preserved causality; held dormant from the past awaiting to be thus recalled. Memories are current structures which, when re-stimulated, evoke similar sensations to an original experience. And they change constantly. You will never recall exactly the same thing twice, because in utilizing the structure, or in failing to, you are either strengthening it or entropy is prevailing, either of which is a type of change. There's lots of research on this. So in other words, there is no difference between internal and external causality.


And our expectations of the future are likewise still restricted by the all-encompassing grip. You expect what you do for the future because it's what you were caused to expect. That it tends to be correct a fair bit is the reason our species is still around for us to wonder about it, and on top of the food chain, to boot, lucky us. But there's nothing special about it that sets us outside the flow of the river. If a river could sit up to see ahead of itself a ways, it would still end up flowing along its course.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on July 24, 2011 at 10:51am

First Exile,

I have probably come across as a bit of an ass. I apologize for that.

But in the free market of ideas you got to be thick skinned. And to your credit you have avoided a nasty exchange. After years of legal analysis and handicapping I am accustomed to meeting claims with greater specificity. But I do not believe your notion of self-determinism lends itself to that analysis any more than an assertion of god, or a delusion. When you argue from assertion the denial can rightly be asserted. Truth falls anywhere. It is not aesthetic unlike the designed lie or the unintended falsehood.

Comment by Atheist Exile on July 24, 2011 at 3:23am

Damn, last line cut off!


Here it is:


Whatever you are, you’re not serious and you appear reluctant to actually use logic.


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