Free Will

Last nite I went to a philosophy meeting of the North Yorkshire Humanists. The title is as the above, with a reference work called Free Will by Sam Harris. David was chairing the meeting and his main question revolved around how we can know, if at all, that we have free agency and control over our decisions. I thought his intial question to each of us what good.

Think of any city in the world!

Most people picked something random, which reflected their own experience and outlook, which is unsurprising. As I was tired I was not being inventive and chose London. I found it quite odd that most other people had said they had thought of London first but wanted to put “something of themselves” into the decision. I thought the fact that that was the first choice really indicated how much is pre-determined for us. It was almost as if the majority had to fight against their initial decision to demonstate to themselves that thay had a choice.

David was interested how Harris seemed to align liberalism with the determinist ( we do not have control) view while the conservatives with the Libertarian view , which is related to a Christian view that we have choice to do good or bad etc (I really think this was a bit of a Democrats vs Republicans rant myself). It is wothwhile that this was only in the chapter on politics.

Harris generally posited the idea that we have no free will and the sooner we get used to it, the better. He layed out the thought experiment of 5 scanarios in which a murder is committed, in a sliding scale from 1 to 5, 1 being the case of a small 4 yr old boy shooting a woman dead with his fathers gun on through more 3 greyer areas (a man with a brain defect killing her, a man with a terrible childhood killing her) onto a man from a good family killing her for no reason other than the fun of it. Of course everyone agreed the kid was not cuplable and the the man from a good family definitely was. Its the areas in between where the grey contentious areas lie. Harris was also quite dismissive of Compatabilism (there is pre-determination , but we still have choice withing this) as:

“a puppet is free as long as it loves its chains”

which I interpret as rather too emotive a statement for a rational argument ( does Harris secretly resent the lack of free will?)

David then returned to the main question. He mentiioned the experiments outlined inHarris’ book that indicate our brains action our intentions and movements microseconds before we are concsious of what we intend to do. Many did not agree that this provided conclusive evidence, including myself. Most other people said they did agree with the Compatilist view, that 98-99% of the time we have choice. I mentioned that we are on automatice pilot for most of our lives. When I was learning the violin my teacher told me I would only really play when I did not have to think about it. He did not like that, saying we will always have automatic reflexes and the like. I do not agree with that. I think we do have auto reflex actions, ok, but we are not aware how many of our actions and decision happen this way. Otherwise , if we had to make every decision, or work well in groups, we would get nowhere (not sure if I explained this well as I was tired from a bad nites sleep before).

The convesation then centred around the punative vs rehabilitative perspectives of prison. We discussed the Jamie Bolger case, the tabloids outrage in the UK at the time in comparison with a similar case in Sweden, where the perpetrators were merely viewed as mentally ill and not wicked, as was the case in the UK.

A novel called The Diceman by Luke Reinhart was then recommended. David summed up in the main conclusion was that we cannot fully know if we do have free will and full agency, but we can only witness it, as sometimes our consciousness drives us and not the other way around. I agree.

Spinoza’s Ethics

Basically this , as I see it , is an attempt to explain the nature of the world we live in and a treatise of how to live in it.

You can find it at:

This was a book to read for the North Yorkshire Humanist’s Philosophy book club at:

I am glad I had to read it for this meeting as I found it hard going and had to read secondary sources on the net to get an explanation. One explanation can be found at

The above should be a preview (you have to be a full member to hear everything) but it gives you an ok summary of the main points, notably about the nature of God.

The Ethics is divided into 4 parts.

Part 1 – Concerning God
(broke up into Axioms, Propositions, Appendix)

Summary: God is nature, all around, in us, is infinite, but not a conscious being like  one of traditional monotheism. God is the cause of our existence, though not our essence (not sure if this is meant that God does not exert influence over the will).
Part 2 – On the Nature & Origin of The Mind
(broke up into Definitions, Axioms, Propositions, Appendix)

Summary: mind as part of mass consciousness of nature, and by extension , God.

Part 3 – On the Origin and Nature of The Emotions
(broke up into Definitions, Postulates, Definitions of the Emotions, General Definitions of the Emotions)

Summary: Emotions are part of the body’s functions (in 3 parts – stimulation, merriment, pain), instinct is everywhere, even in animals. Emotions and self interest can work against us, must be able to identify the emotions and rise above them.

Part 4 – Of Human Bondage, or The Strength of the Emotions
– Of The Power of Understanding, of of Human Freedom
(broke up into Preface, Axioms, Propositions)
Summary: Influences of the emotions can be good or bad, depending on your situation and perspective. We are influenced by everything, but the highest good is the knowledge of God (this again does not comply with any traditional monotheistic beliefs). Do not live by the emotions , or be restricted by them. The way forward is through rationalism.
Overall, Spinoza meant the Ethics to be an organised approach, based on Euclidean geometry. In this respect, it’s not surprising that I found it too logical in parts
and too detached to have any real practical value. It’s a good book to study for from a strict philosophical point of view, but may have restricted practical value.

This sentiment was mirrored in the group and there is a sense in the book that Spinoza is denying the emotions than trying to live with them. This is impossible and Spinoza does come across a bit harsh at time, notably when talking about such emotions as pity. The group found similarities to Buddhism and Schopenhauer. Spinoza’s view on knowledge , as divided into 3 parts – imagination (bad), reason and intuition, was favourable though. Everyone thought it did need some explanation through reading secondary sources. I liked the idea of God as nature and infinite (as did most others). I found the idea of mind and body (extension) in agreement with nature to be a coherent argument also. The idea of rationalism as a guide to living is naive though. It definitely needs a few reading and a few diagrams.

“God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens

I went to the book club meeting run by North Yorkshire Humanists in the week. I will outline by own take on the book and then describe how the meeting went.

Overall summary:

As I told the group I found the book very readable and was pleasantly surprised by this. I read it while I was staying in the B&B after my first week in my new job up here. I had a bad cold and was happy to get some entertainment. Hitchens argues his point well. I was only disappointed with the chapter on Buddhism as he did not question it from a theological perspective (as he did with the other main religions), but merely pointed out that Buddhists have committed crimes also. His last chapter calling for a new enlightenment was not up to the same level as the rest of the book also.

A rough summary , line by line of its chapters:

1. A good introduction to his confrontational style.

2. Religion sits on the fence, does not really stand up for the people.

3. Why all the fuss about pigs?

4. Religion is no moral guide, quite the contrary; Its sex obsessed and hypocritical, e.g Islamic extremists proposing a life of denial in hope for an after life of debauchery.

5. Reasoned philosophy from antiquity just an afterthought reprocessed by the church to complete with the Greeks; religion only appearing flexible nowadays as it does not have the upper hand any more.

6. Reality is more fascinating than anything the argument from design can come up with.

7. Old Testament God: what kind of guy are we dealing with? It’s a man made fable to oppress people.

8. New testament is just a rehash of the Old.

9. Koran is just a rehash of the earlier two books.

10. Church is frigging miracles as the evidence does not stand up (Mother Theresa); using divine intervention as an excuse for calamities just a method of targeting parties who do not agree with the church; there is more to be learned from other literature with regard to the argument from authority; Judas is an example of someone who has been written out of history of possible events.

11. It is a means of deception for gain where even the deceivers may begin to believe their own rhetoric, example of Mormonism; it may be easier to believe in something and that may be what gets people.

12. Look at the example of Sabbati, which whittled away without any martyrs to perpetuate a myth.

13. Looking at the Korans approval of slavery; humanism drives decency, not religious belief; Ghandis over emphasis on Hinduism stifling full Indian unity; current religions have only been fortunate due to good fortune, e.g Contantine and Christianity; the example of Waugh swayed badly by religion.

14. And Buddhists can behave badly too!

15. Abraham ready to sacrifice son counters reason. What are we atoning for (Christ)? Laws impossible to obey only intimidate (sex as forbidden idea).

16. Joyce anecdote of priest getting the intimidation in early; circumcision as an idea to impede sexual function.

17. Papal acquiescence in WW2;  Fascism thriving better in Catholic countries.

18.Socrates healthy scepticism and first cause; all overturned by fervour of early Christians (Augustine), Spinoza ostracized.

19. Everyone needs to thing for themselves.

Several other people in the group found the tone of the book a bit too judgemental, but accepted this is part of Hitchens’ style. He did seem to even have issues with people’s personal beliefs, which may found difficult. Generally the group agreed that religion may only be used as an excuse for social ills and if it did not exist, some other excuse would be used. Most people in the group seemed to be confirm atheists (I would would describe myself as more of an agnostic), though that did not seem to get in the way of my agreeing with the overall view. Generally a good meeting with nice people in a good atmosphere where its easier to listen and be heard.




Change and new places

This is more of a diary entry. I have moved to Harrogate in Yorkshire for work reasons. Its a lovely place and closer to Leeds and York, which have lots of activities and stimulation. I gave up going to the PFA meeting in London in the end while living in Southsea, as it was just too much hassle. Unlike down south we are no longer in the South East / London ecosystem any more. I have attended one meeting of the North Yorkshire Humanists

and York was quite easy to get to (and beautiful of course). So hopefully going ahead I will be updating this blog again twice a month as originally hoped.

Settling in has stifled my Pathways study as bit (on their essay of Pre-Socratics now and will upload summary of Philosophy on Mind soon), but am getting a bit of a routine back now.


More good YouTube sites

Its been a couple of months since I have put a post in. Thats not to say I have not been busy. I finished the Philosophy of Mind course with Pathways and have since begun the Pre Socratics course (I will update the blog to cover the course in a separate entry ).The purpose of this short entry however is to follow up on earlier post on YouTube entries.

My first mention would have to go to Olly Lennards YouTube channel, who is very articulate and gives good summaries of old and new material:

My second would have to go GK from Pathways:

Some of his entries are a good complement to the Pathways courses.

I have also been looking at the Open University YouTube channel recently as I amd thinking about doing their Classics course at some stage. They do have a lot of free stuff which helps:

Philosopy Overdose has a lot of the programs from Bryan Magee’s Philosophy Programs from the eighties which are worth while:

Again another channel worth mentioning is crash course which is mildly irritating as it tries to put everything in small sound Bites but nevertheless gives a good overview of each subject it covers including  philosophy.

Good Youtube sites – Yale courses

In doing the Pathways courses over the last few months I have begun using Youtube more than ever. Most comprehensively I used Shelley Kagans course on Death, which is part of the Yale courses as below. I have not gone through it fully but sifted through sections as needed. I would recommend the lectures on Personal Identity through time. Some reviewers criticise Kagan for repeating himself, but I consider that a good thing, especially in philosophy.


As part of my preparation for the Pathways course on the Pre-Socratics, I have begun Donald Kagans course on ancient Greece.  He gives a good overview to the background and context of the world view they would have had.



Both courses come with a recommended reading list. I have not gone so far as to reading everything on them myself and have only bought the main text for the history course as below:

Shelley Kagan does have a book on Kindle , which cover the course on Death. I may still get this if I do have to revisit this course:



Pathways and my Summary of the Introduction To Philosophy Pathway

I have mentioned before in this blog I am doing the Pathways courses as below:

While I am making headway with the fourth essay now in  Pathway B: Philosophy of Mind I have always intended on writing up a summary of how the first pathway went; the intention being that this synopsis may be useful for others. So here goes. I will describe some background first and then describe how the essays went.

Last year in June I was thinking about doing the University of London (UOL) distance learning programs in English or Theology, starting with doing the cert and may be getting up to diploma level, pending on how things went. I did have reservations about UOL though as they do not actively tutor their courses and then Heythrop college closed (they handled the Theology element). I began looking at the option of doing the Philosophy courses. Until then I always viewed philosophy as a wishy washy subject, which annoyed me with its inconclusiveness. I read somewhere that studying philosophy helps you to think more critically and keep you more open minded. I realised I was not being open minded about philosophy, so may be I was not as open minded or logical as I would like to think myself to be.

I found an Introduction to to Philosophy course on Coursera

and did the course over a month. I found the course quite interesting and wanted to know more.

I then found the Geoffrey Klempners  Pathways site on the web (referred to as GK from now on). I was not familiar with the way it used to run and emailed some queries to him enquiring why it was so cheap (only 60 GBP at the time), believing that there may be some more tutoring fees on top (which I would not mind). It turned out that he used to actively tutor, but had retired from that activity. He then put up the price to 180 GBP, as he believed the lower price would make people think it was not any good. I decided to pay the new price in any case and it has , so far , been worth it. I submitted 5 essays to GK as part of the first course

A. Introduction to Philosophy — The Possible World Machine

As GK says on his website each of his course are divided into 15 chapters and the student is required to write an essay after each 3 chapters. I decided I would try to write one essay a  month.

The pathways site has a recommended book list and from that (and the London School of Philosophy website) I decided on buying some background material first, namely

Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Edward Craig)

Philosophy For Everyone (Matthew Chrisman, Duncan PritchardGuy Fletcher, Elinor Mason, Suilin Lavelle, Michaela Massimi, Aladair Richmod, Dave Ward)

Philosophy: The Basics (Nigel Warburton)

Philosophy: The Essential Study Guide (Nigel Warburton)

A History Of Western Philosophy (Bertrand Russell)

The Problems of Philosophy (Bertrand Russell)

Western Philosophy: An Anthology (edited by John Cottingham)

Thought Probes: Philosophy Through Science Fiction Literature (Fred D. Miller, Nicholas D. Smith) – this is the only book is recommended by GK for the Introduction to Philosophy course.

I think the main delay in setting myself up was trying to absorb the information in the tomes above. Naturally I did not read the reference works from page to page, but tried to get a good overview of where I would need to look before starting in earnest.

I did refer to to additional sources as I went through the courses, for the particular essay questions.

Now some comments about the essays as I progressed through them, with some GK comments (as said he does not actively tutor but will comment if something is way off or if he like a certain point..)

Essay for units 1-3

Explore the use of ‘possible worlds’ in philosophy, illustrating your argument with
an example of a problem that involves the notion of possible worlds.

GK comments: Fine but I did not mention anything about whether possible worlds did exist.

Essay for units 4-6

Assess The Significance Of Philosophical Scepticism

GK comments:  I may not really cover philosophical scepticism, deal such as Pyrrhonism etc.. which he was right about( I rushed in, though I had a good anecdote about Einstein to build an interesting essay on and went OT)

Essay for units 7-9

Why Be Moral?

GK Comments: ” The various moral theories such as utilitarianism, Kantianism etc. offer an account of what is the moral thing to do, once we have decided to throw our lot in with morality, although both Mill and Kant also attempted to make a case for being moral. I think you got the point that this is a case that needs to be made.” (may be I should have covered these areas a bit more)

Essay for units 10-12

What Is Perception? Explain The Role of Perception In An Account Of The Nature
And Limits Of Human Knowledge

GK Comments:  “I made a few corrections to typos, but otherwise the essay was fine. Nice point about photography and getting close to the subject. This is especially true when your prime lens is wide, or extra-wide angle which is what I use for most of my work” (we both have an interest in photography).

Essay for units 13-15

Is It Rational To Fear Death?

GK comments: “An interesting take. I hadn’t considered in this connection my
speculations about the unacountably many possible worlds much
worse than this one.” (I referred to one of his videos on youtube)
Generally I found GKs feedback to be brief but useful. For the price though I find Pathways excellent. Before proceeding to the next course I decided to get another academic to briefly assess them. In summary his remarks were more forensic and critical (I think as he is looking at them from a  more more strict academic level)


 Introduction: not entirely clear what the argument will be: i.e. what the conclusion will be or how you will reach it.

Main body of essay: in general, the essay was written in a rather descriptive style, with a limited attempt to provide an argument. Given the question, this wasn’t entirely fatal, although the essay could have been improved by focussing more clearly on a specific conclusion and directing the rest of the essay towards supporting that conclusion. At present the essay reads rather like a list of examples.

In terms of how the essay addressed the question, it failed to discuss the central uses of possible worlds in philosophy, namely: analysing the nature of possibility, necessity, contingency, causation, propositions, physicalism, supervenience, verisimilitude, and so on. Indeed, no clear account was given of what a possible world is, even in a minimal sense, e.g. “a complete way things might have been.” There was also no discussion of modal realism, although it was alluded to in the last quote from the Routledge Encyclopaedia. These were all conspicuous by their absence.

The argument reconstruction in standard form is invalid.

Excessive use of quotes – only quote if you absolutely have to (e.g. if you’re arguing for a novel interpretation of a passage and quote the original so that your interpretation may be assessed), otherwise just put it in your own words.

Finally, the important distinction between possible worlds in the philosophers sense versus the physicists sense was not recognised.

Conclusion: there was no conclusion: i.e. a summary of what you have concluded and how you have reached that conclusion.


Introduction: again no proper introduction. Your introduction should state what your conclusion will be and how you will reach it: what objection(s) you will consider and how you will respond.

Main body: again, the essay was written in a rather descriptive style, with a limited attempt to provide an argument.

It would have been useful to begin with a clearer account of what it is to be a sceptic, e.g. “to be a sceptic about a domain of knowledge A is to deny that knowledge of any propositions in A is possible” or such like.

Don’t introduce key notions like a priori or the problem of induction without explaining them.

1-3 are a bit confused. Better: “Propositional knowledge is typically taken to be analysable into three necessary conditions: x is knowledge if and only if (i) x is a belief; (ii) x is true; (iii) x is justified.

Only use “valid” to mean “deductively valid”.

Perhaps the key point about scepticism is that any theory of knowledge worth its salt should be able to refute (that’s the classic assumption, at least) – hence it is useful test of epistemological theories. This point didn’t come across clearly enough in the essay.

Descartes aside, the examples used were a bit off-piste and failed to make the central concerns of epistemology when it comes to scepticism clear: e.g. what is the structure of knowledge (foundationalism, coherentism, infinitism), are particular domains more susceptible to scepticism than others (e.g. moral knowledge, aesthetic knowledge, religious knowledge, etc.)? Where does knowledge come from (empiricism vs. rationalism)? And so on.

Again: the quotes seemed to be used largely for the purposes of adornment.

Conclusion: again, no proper conclusion.


Introduction: again, no proper introduction. It’s not clear what you mean by “subjective question”.

Main body: again, the essay was written in a rather descriptive style, with a limited attempt to provide an argument. The essay begins without a clear description of what the philosophical issue is: the question “why be moral?” demands good reasons be given for one be moral. There was no discussion of this, instead there were just some loose reflections of limited relevance.

When some philosophical positions are introduced, objectivism etc., they are metaethical positions which might be relevant to the question but whose relevance is not made clear, nor are the positions themselves, which are not properly explained.

The essay would have benefited from focussing on one classic answer to the question, e.g. that we should be moral because it is rational to be moral (this was Kant’s answer).

Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics are discussed but never clearly explained, not linked to the question in a fully satisfactory way.

 Again: the quotes seemed to be used largely for the purposes of adornment.

 Conclusion: again, no proper conclusion.


 Introduction: again, no proper introduction.

 Main body: again, the essay was written in a rather descriptive style, with a limited attempt to provide an argument.

 The attempt to use original examples from short stories is to be praised, but here, like elsewhere the examples didn’t really assist in clarifying the substantive philosophical issues. Indeed, in this essay, it was never made fully clear exactly what the philosophical issues were. In the case of perception and epistemology, some detailed discussion of empiricism would seem to be required, but there was none. This was a significant omission.

 The other obvious issue to focus on would be direct versus indirect realism (or even idealism), and although Russell was discussed very briefly, this issue was largely skirted around.

 Again: the quotes seemed to be used largely for the purposes of adornment.

 Conclusion: again, no proper conclusion.


 Introduction: again, no proper introduction. And the claim that the essay question is rhetorical seems obviously false – otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a philosophical issue to investigate!

 Main body: This essay is more focussed and develops a more coherent line of argument than the others. It sticks to the issue of whether it is rational to fear death and delves, to a reasonable degree of depth, into Epicurus/Lucretius’ arguments against the rationality of fearing death.

 To improve the essay, the discussion would need to be more detailed and rigourus. The level of engagement with the issues is still relatively superficial – largely describing the views of others, or making comments upon those views of limited incisiveness.

 Again: the quotes seemed to be used largely for the purposes of adornment.

 Conclusion: again, no proper conclusion.

In short I think for I need to have a good introduction and conclusion to my essays with a solid logical argument in the middle, with a minimum of quotes. I have done this so far for the Philosophy of Mind Course I have been doing since December.
I have included the 5 essays I wrote below. Please note the extra sources I used (on top of the additional reading I did for the course).






Progressing in Study and Update in General

At the start of the year I resolved to make two updates a month to this blog. I have been quite tardy in my updates, but hopefully will maintain some discipline in the months to come.

One notable date in my diary was the Philosophy Now festival on January 20

The initial session “What Is Happiness?” was quite enlightening and , in my mind, thats when the lectures in the main hall only really worked. The sound there was not great and the atmosphere not intimate or comfortable enough for free flowing debate. Richard Barons discussion on Mathematical knowledge was quite well structured (as his lectures usually are) and Sanjay Joshis “Effective Altruism” quite thought provoking. Ralph Blumenau’s lecture on the philosophy of history once again made me thing whether I wanted to study history instead also. They had a good second hand book sale where I picked up Metaphysics by D.W Hamlyn (recommended by Geoffrey Klempner for his Metaphysics Pathways course) and the Philosophy of Language by John Searle, which should be useful for the Pathways Philosophy of Language Course.

I was a bit delayed over Christmas in the Pathways Philosophy of Mind course but am on track now and, as usual, procrastinating on my third essay on Personal Identity over Time (essays on Philosophical Zombies and Their significance and Descartes Sixth Meditation have been accepted into the essay cabinet).




The David Bowie Book Club

I was a fan. Not a big one, but I read about his 100 favourite book a few years ago and he seemed to have a good eclectic taste. There is a good quote from Andrei Tarkovsky in the article:

” A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books”

This, for me, seems to resonate with the subjective nature of self within us all. We really do live in separate worlds and each have a different perspective.



George Ross Lecture

Speaking of Philosophy Now they co-organised the lecture on Bertrand Russell and Friendship with the PFA London last Friday.

I think, for Christmas, I have to read Russells Conquest Of Happiness. According to Tim Madigan it appears to be a pre-req to reading his new book on

His comments about Aristotles three kinds of friendship (ones of utility, pleasure, and goodness) resonated with me, so I would believe, after I read Russell, that Tims book will be on my reading list.

Peter Stone also edited another Russell book with Tim, which may be of interest if I get into Russells works and this may provide a quick overview of his some of his work:

For a picture of Russell, the man Stone was also pushing his new book (for the dedicated):

(Its a bit pricey so may be wait for the papaerback oir Kindle edition).