ISIS: Medievalism in Modern Times

It was clever of Shadia Drury to use postmodernism to shed light on the current problem with ISIS (“Beheadings for Postmodernity,” FI, June/July 2015). Postmodernism teaches that one way is just as good as a nother. So why shouldn’t ISIS use force and violence to accomplish their deadly ends? The postmodernist claims that there is no compelling interest in doing otherwise.

However, in the larger sense, claiming that one way is just as good as another is sheer nihilism. It leaves humanity without values. This makes a society untenable. Chaos is the result. There is nothing to restrain violence except a greater threat of violence. Indeed, as Drury notes, this was the way of the Middle Ages, for which ISIS apparently longs.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas



Religion Losing Its Grip

I read with interest James Haught’s article in the June/July 2015 issue of Free Inquiry (“Slip Slidin’ Away”). He pointed out how the Christian religion has evolved over the centuries, how they now accept gays and homosexuals in an ever-increasing number and ignore Leviticus 20:1. Most Christians no longer believe the world is flat or that the sun goes around Earth, yet in 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for saying that Earth was not the center of the universe.

A huge majority now think slavery is wrong, although the Bible approved of slavery and even Jesus thought slavery was normal. Most believers now find no problem with interracial marriage, birth control, or couples living together and having children without being married. Divorce no longer carries the stigma it did in the fifties and sixties.

Religion is at a point now where same-sex marriage was only a decade ago. Americans don’t realize that one in four of us is a nonbeliever. I think we should advertise and push the momentum. Ask pointed questions and let people contemplate some of religion’s absurd beliefs. When the public sees that others have doubts, they may question their own beliefs.

Wilson Westbury
Maggie Valley, North Carolina



Confronting Overpopulation

So Free Inquiry has now joined the call for curtailing immigration to the United States (“Population, Immigration, and the Global Future,” June/July 2015). The magazine’s latest issue leaves no doubt, with five articles arguing for restrictions on immigration, both legal and illegal, on the grounds that the growth in population it brings is harmful to the environment. The issue has not a single article taking any contrary view, such as population and environmental protection being global issues that will be not be addressed by countries sealing their borders and ignoring what happens elsewhere. For example, climate change—probably the greatest environmental threat—is linked to worldwide carbon emissions and deforestation, which cannot be addressed by limiting movement across borders. Instead of stigmatizing the overwhelmingly poor and desperate individuals who cross borders in search of a better life, advocates for environmental protection should target the lifestyles of affluent natives of the advanced countries who use more than their share of environmentally destructive fossil fuels. Confining potential migrants to their poverty-stricken homelands provides no net benefit for the global environment.

Bill Mosley
Washington, D.C.

It is laudable that the Center for Inquiry had the most recent issue of Free Inquiry on the topic of population. I am not distressed that a number of the articles had depressing facts and pessimistic projections. Facing reality is difficult but must be done to change our path to point to a better future. I was pleased to see writers also express that the best and most humane solution to human overpopulation is to “empower women, educating our youth, and expanding family planning information and services.” This is a sensible humanist position.

In contrast, two articles later I was deeply shocked and ashamed for you to see an article from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)—a think tank founded by racist John Tanton. Their concern is less worldwide environmental havoc than a “NIMBY” attitude about more human beings coming into the United States. Subtle tip-offs include word choices such as aliens. It’s exactly because of groups like CIS that people are so leery to discuss overpopulation. A real humanist would not embrace the true philosophy of CIS, which is just a racist spin on Scrooge’s hard-hearted quote to “decrease the surplus population.”

Beware the racist wolves in environmentalist sheep’s clothing!

Kate Amon
By E-mail

As I read Tom Flynn’s and Robert Walker’s articles (“Overpopulation, Immigration, and the Human Future” and “Four Out of Five Scientists Agree: Population Matters,” respectively), I realized that they are well aware of the need for reproductive health services and the rights of women. My question is, what are the scientists doing about the “harebrained political assaults on family planning clinics” and increasing “the number of women eligible for contraceptive services”? Why is overpopulation and immigration not on every TV news show and Internet news site? One of the National Organization for Women (NOW) Top Six Priority Issues is “Advancing Reproductive Freedom.” Has any contact been made with NOW, Planned Parenthood, and other poorly funded nongovernment organizations (NGOs) or financial assistance been given to help them in their work on this issue?

Our country has been “playing” with immigration for at least the last six years without accomplishing anything. We need to process the people who are already in the United States and then set limits on who can immigrate here before all our natural resources are gone. Maybe we do need that wall on the borders, north and south of the United States. The information that has been shared through Free Inquiry magazine needs to be broadcast everywhere so we can start to keep enough resources in our country for our country’s citizens.

Jocelyn Morris
NOW National Board Member and Chair, NOW Task Force to End Racism
Richland, Missouri

Thanks for dedicating the June/July issue to the deplorably neglected problem of overpopulation. This problem has been recognized for decades, but public attention has never focused on it in an effective way. This issue of FI is a step in the right direction. Congratulations.

Philip Appleman
(author of The Silent Explosion, Beacon Press, 1965)
New York, New York

Regarding the articles about the U.S. population and immigration policies in the last issue, I can find no fault in the logic, but I’m not too sure about the moral/ethical aspects. In the short term, lowering the number of immigrants we allow into this country might work. But what about the future, assuming we do not adequately cope with global warming and climate change in time to prevent the upcoming worldwide disaster? What if the United States finds itself someday in serious trouble, with drought and starvation imminent? Do you really think that Canada would be willing to admit the hordes of Americans who would be crossing its borders, desperately seeking food and water in order to survive?

If civilization collapses, there will be no safe place to hide, no matter how high you build the walls around you.

Kerwin L. Schaefer
New Bern, North Carolina

I found the series of articles about “Population, Immigration, and the Global Future” to be hopelessly biased. Where is the balance? These articles all advocate progressive, more-control-to-government dogma, with the only alternative being
a Malthusian catastrophe.

Thomas Malthus was wrong when he published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798. Paul Ehrlich was wrong when he published The Population Bomb in 1960. The writers of these articles are wrong, too. We’re not running out of water (there is all the water we need in the oceans, and we are getting better and better at economically purifying it). We’re not running out of metals (none of these metals ever “disappear,” and we’re getting better and better at finding new sources and reclaiming metals). And we’re nowhere near running out of fossil fuel material. It’s only a matter of how much it will cost to get more of it, and we keep getting better and better at doing this (e.g., fracking, metal reclamation, etc.).

Losing agricultural land to suburban growth is not a serious issue, when we have gained huge amounts of reforested land from former farmland that is no longer needed.

The world population doesn’t need coercive solutions, when increasing wealth leads to this “problem” mostly solving itself. The whole idea of planning for declining economies and lower standards of living is silly. Even with a declining population, the economy can be strong.

Are the writers for Free Inquiry so inbred that only progressives need apply? I would have hoped for more balance. There are other ways to view the current population situation that do not involve the idea of imminent catastrophe. Free thinking does not require us to adopt a hopelessly impractical progressive view of the world.

Ben Fishler
Dennis, Massachusetts

Look around you: virtually everything you see, hear or touch exists because of oil, coal, and natural gas—all temporary re­sources. We must immediately stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere, but we can’t. To do so would cause an immediate collapse of our “civilization” and the economy and cause the death of billions of humans. Continue on with business as usual, and the result will be even worse— runaway global warming resulting in the death of most life on Earth. I do not see us ending the burning of fossil fuels, so we have condemned ourselves and life on this planet to extinction. Our legacy will be a hot, dead planet devoid of visible life. Only our vast ruins will be testament that once there was intelligent life here, but it wasn’t wise. We are like yeast in a petri dish and just as doomed.

Sheila Chambers
Brookings, Oregon



Is Free Will an Illusion?

“Is Society Accepting That Free Will Is an Illusion?” by Jonathan MS Pearce (FI, June/July 2015) appears to assume the truth of determinism. However, if determinism is true, we would not really know it is true because our belief would be determined. The bona fides of a belief in determinism requires the capacity to choose whether it is true or false.

Charles D. Hoornstra
em>Madison, Wisconsin

Unless one believes in magical free will, choice must ultimately be grounded in scientific principles. But that doesn’t necessarily eliminate free will, the ability to influence an indeterminate future. At best, Jonathan MS Pearce has referred to scientific examples that constrain our choices more than we might realize. This constraint is statistical, not absolute. Now, if a hundred guys are starving, one might predict that they will choose to join a nearby public feast. Does that mean they have no free will? Perhaps, that is not the way to refute free will.

The argument against free will invariably turns to a deterministic universe. From an evidential perspective, that idea got rolling with Newton’s clockwork universe that was refined by Einstein. People forget that scientific laws are mathematical idealizations of reality, not reality itself. They work quite well, but I doubt they confer accuracy to one hundred decimal places! Ever hear of the butterfly effect? In all likelihood, scientific laws give us a probabilistic distribution for the future and do not compel us to buy into determinism. Because of quantum mechanics, rolling back the universe to a certain point in time would not guarantee that the future would unfold as before.

We also have a paradox. In a deterministic universe we could, in principle, hook up a super-duper computer having access to the relevant facts and predict that I will choose the Queen of Spades an hour from now. Remember, the future is fixed in stone and can’t be changed. I am then informed of this prediction. What prevents me from choosing the King of Diamonds? Is there a magical force that will grab my arm? One might argue that a determined future need not be amenable to calculation. However, if we can’t know the future even in principle, that being the only operational definition I know of for a determined future, then the two extremes collapse into the same pot.

Whatever the nature of that mystery called “free will,” it’s a little early to just dismiss it.

Dave E. Matson
Pasadena, California

As Jonathan MS Pearce points out, there is just no evidence that the causal universe makes a special exception for human free will. So it’s difficult to justify the punishment of criminals.

One of the primary errors of secular humanism is its holier-than-thou (!) emphasis on moral behavior principles, possibly in a bid for acceptance among believers. “Yes, we are atheists, but we are the good atheists! Free will intact and directed toward lofty purposes.” Certainly they are lacking at least one important virtue: humility. It seems to me that people, atheist or otherwise, are by nature moral because, as social animals, moral humans have a better shot at survival. Whether we claim we are serving God or serving humanity, the fact is that it feels good to do nice things, and we do. Thanks, evolution.

The more fundamental question that Pearce avoids is: Who is this “I” to whom he refers? What is the self? In other words, is only free will an illusion, or is consciousness itself an illusion?

Sandra Bidwell
Tucson, Arizona

Jonathan MS Pearce spends much space convincing readers that autonomous agents are deterministic, as if that were sufficient to rule out free will. Philosophers would do well to learn about a modern insight into complex systems: they can be completely deterministic yet at the same time chaotic in the sense of being unpredictable. Edward Lorenz of “butterfly effect” fame summed up the now well-developed mathematical theory of “Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”

Human minds are sine qua non examples of completely determined yet essentially unpredictable systems. Indeed, the simple fact of having a subconscious forever robs us of the perfect self-knowledge needed to accurately predict future behavior. The appropriate name for our black hole of essential self-ignorance is “free will.” It spans the gap between the precise determinants of our actions and our (often self-serving) rationales. It also leaves us responsible for our actions whenever the many causal chains to precise external antecedents cannot be established—which is almost always the case.

Paul Bassett
Barrie, Ontario, Canada

This is the sort of piece that can kick-start a debate with ease, with the resulting ironic spectacle of determinists mightily using their will to get their opponents to change their opinion of their own free will and agree that they have no free will. And the contradictions don’t stop there. Maybe part of the problem is that this debate is heavily influenced by the law of the excluded middle, which actually has no place here. The debate is always framed in either/or terms—either one is taken to be as an omnipotent god with full power over all aspects of life or a pathetic and helpless feather in th
e wind. Probe further into this maze of either/or and you will discover a most delicious paradox. The determinists scoff at the notion of a conscious free choice, since any action is said to be a slave to the limited knowledge, temperament, and prejudices of the chooser. The omnipotent God at the other pole of existence will have none of that, surely, and by logical conclusion will have no desires, opinions, character, or inclinations that would make him want to proceed with anything. And so here sits an all-powerful lump, chock-full of power and with no “enslaving” inclinations to do anything—an all-powerful sluggard too free of the urge to act freely. Maybe Oceania’s slogan, “Freedom is Slavery,” has more angles than Orwell envisioned.

J. Wroblewski
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Letters in response to Free Inquiry volume 35, issue 4.

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