Saturday, 7 March 2015

Discussion Group - Free Will (Part One)

The Discussion Group met on 19th February to discuss Free Will.

About 10 people attended.  Most accepted determinism – although at least one felt that the jury was still out and raised issues such as quantum mechanical indeterminacy.  Most felt determinism means that we do not have free will but there was general concern that this is not how things appear.  The question we identified for debate was ‘If we don’t have free will, is there any way we can reclaim it?’ 

One view was that at the level of the self we do have free will because we are the determined person making the decisions. This is close to David Hume’s position that we are acting with free will if our actions flow from our underlying character.  All agreed that retributive punishment was inappropriate versus punishment aimed at rehabilitation and deterrence.  On the face of it the question we debated contains an internal contradiction – we don’t have free will so how can we reclaim it. On reflection it is not far removed from the aim of free will compatibilists such as Daniel Dennett. In Dennett’s view determinacy is irrelevant to ‘practical free will’ which is the ‘type of free will that matters’.  We will be continuing the discussion at the next meeting on March 19th, to cover some of the more subtle views of the compatibilists.  

All are welcome; we meet at 8.15pm at The Waterhouse, 67-71 Princess Street, Manchester, M2 4EG. We are not booking a particular room but will aim to meet in a room at the far end of the building from Princess Street. It would be helpful if you would let John Coss know if you will be coming ( or phone@ 0161-430-3463).

David Kemmish 

Is Man Just Another Animal?

For Darwin Day on February 12th we were fortunate enough to have a talk by Professor Steve Jones - Professor of genetics, science writer and broadcaster, and a Patron (formerly Distinguished Supporter) of the British Humanist Association.

International Darwin Day marks the birth of British scientist Charles Darwin.  It celebrates the contribution of Charles Darwin and the wider scientific community to human understanding and development. Co-organiser of the event, David Milne, explained: “International Darwin Day seeks to encourage us all to reflect on the principles of intellectual bravery, scientific thinking and hunger for truth demonstrated by Charles Darwin”.   

Summary of Steve’s presentation: Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ is the real beginning of biology. Evolution equals genetics plus time; it is ‘descent with modification’. Natural selection is design without a designer. In fact ‘evolution makes me feel more important not less’. 

We can observe evolution before our eyes in the development of the HIV/Aids virus. It spread rapidly from the early 1980s to infect 33 million today. Infection rates in some African countries such as Botswana reached 30/40% at one point. It is now thought the virus started in the 1910s/1920s when cities were developing in Africa. However, we would have been unaware of what it was until, with the advent of cheap air travel, it spread to American and European cities– leading to research and identification of the virus. The virus would have come from chimpanzees that, in fighting with other animals, spread it to bush animals. Eating bush meat would then have infected the human population. The origin is tracked to an area of Cameroon. 

Humans split from chimpanzees about 7 million years ago, but were susceptible to viruses carried by them through being of the same genus. Humans have lost many of the genes that in chimpanzees produce big teeth, big muscles and thick hair. We cannot now survive without cooking food – if we ate only raw food we would eventually starve to death. 

Humans are very similar genetically all over the world, whereas the DNA differences between chimpanzee sub-groups, which all live in Central or West Africa, are much more marked. However, humans adapted mentally by evolving large brains (more than half of a new baby’s metabolism is dedicated to the brain). 

Language: as well as passing on DNA, humans pass on culture and learning through language. Other animals do not do this. Even chimpanzees do not teach their young – though the young may learn through imitating the adults. Our modern languages probably originated 60,000 years ago. Evolution in our DNA is not enough to explain the development of humans and all the differences between them. Humans uniquely developed large brains, languages, and the ability to cooperate which sets us apart from other life forms. Thus man is NOT just another animal. 

There followed a lively Q & A session with Steve. Some of the topics touched on were: The recent mitochondrial debate; the fact that, though animals do display altruism, humans are the only species with a sense of self; we don’t know if our species killed off the other types of humans; we don’t need to evolve as much today as we have created environments that are more suited to our species (e.g. we don’t have to fight- off sabre toothed tigers); Dawkins vs EO Wilson. The origin of life is problematic, a unique event, not the same as evolution. It either happened once or many times.  In 1400 there were probably about as many people with white skins as there were people with black skins. By 1900 there were twice as many whites as blacks. In 2015 there are about the same number again. By 2065 there will be twice as many blacks as whites. All people are getting taller (e.g. the Dutch have grown three inches since WW2); we don’t yet understand why this is. 

Richard Sandover 

Mastery of the Mind - from a Buddhist perspective

In February Kusal Ariyawansa (aka Ari) talked to the Stockport group about Meditation and Destiny.

Ari originally came from Sri Lanka where he grew up in a traditional village with a temple at its centre, where people offered flowers and said prayers on a daily basis. Once he was living in the UK someone suggested that he go on a meditation retreat.

The retreat involved waking at 4 am to start meditating in the lotus position from 4.30 to 8.00 am. Breakfast was from 8 to 9 am during which they were taught rules such as abstaining from killing, from lying and from alcohol. Further meditation was from 9 to 11 am. Lunch was from 11am until noon but they weren’t allowed to speak. Meditation from 1 pm to 4 pm was followed by drink and food then more meditation from 6 to 8 pm. By day 6 he was having psychotic episodes with flashbacks to previous scenarios. He also experienced a great desire to sort out injustice and put the world to rights.

After a brief life history of Buddha, Ari went on to talk about Dhamma, the path to liberation. This can be considered non-sectarian for all faiths where liberation means freedom from impurities in the mind resulting in freedom from suffering. It is necessary to practice training the mind persistently, ardently and diligently and each individual has to work out his own path. It is necessary to abstain from sinful actions and pious actions can bring harmony.

He discussed a threefold pathway consisting of Seela (the right morality, involving no killing, no lies, no stealing, no sexual misconduct and no toxicants), Samaadhi (the right concentration, involving mental effort, mental awareness and a wholesome base), and Panna (Wisdom, listening to, understanding and living the wisdom).

Mind precedes everything. There are six senses; hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, touching and feeling. If one observes rather than reacts to sensations (e.g. ignoring an itch), there can be changes to patterns of mind at the deepest level.