« Muslim, pregnant & unmarried | Gene Expression Front Page | Grey Europe »
July 18, 2003

Cause we are living in a material world...

Excerpt from Tony's Blair's speech to the U.S. Congress yesterday:

"The spread of freedom is the best security for the free. It is our last line of defense and our first line of attack. And just as the terrorist seeks to divide humanity in hate, so we have to unify around an idea. And that idea is liberty. (Applause.) We must find the strength to fight for this idea and the compassion to make it universal. Abraham Lincoln said, "Those that deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves." And it is this sense of justice that makes moral the love of liberty."

That's a lot of idealism for one paragraph. Is Tony Blair really just pushing the same supernatural claptrap as the Pope with a different spin (e.g. just substitute 'Christ's love' for 'freedom' and 'salvation through Christ' for 'liberty' above)? What is "liberty" in a material world?

Posted by martin at 09:18 AM

i'm not sure what you mean martin,.. but perhaps you have to live in an unfree society first to understand what liberty can mean... try living as a non-white person in various part of South America, Asia and Africa... then you'll understand what liberty is...

Posted by: marinara at July 18, 2003 12:24 PM

hey marinara you try smoking pot in Crestview County Florida-I know what liberty is...or at least what my vision of it entails...
OTOH this place is a viper's pit of hardcore materialism. Indeed, some of our fellow gnxpers don't even believe in free will.
I'm an idealist (mostly)-I agree with Mr. Blair 100%. But it seems to me a true materialist would have to reject his statement as nonsense-(I left out the preceding section of the speech where he talks about the "universal human spirit") but as I said-I'm not a materialist so maybe I'm wrong there.
For example-GC may well tell you that the human spirit longing for freedom is in actuality simply a case of a better optimized feedback control mechanism than currently available under more tyrannical systems. (Indeed he has-see a few posts below) Basically I'm just curious to see how our more material friends interpret these issues.

Posted by: martin at July 18, 2003 01:29 PM

GC-I think those brain studies are fascinating-and I remember Dennett citing some very interesting "pre-conscious phenomena" to deny free will-but I never understood why the will has to be conscious to be free?

Posted by: martin at July 18, 2003 02:17 PM

"But it seems to me a true materialist would have to reject his statement as nonsense"

What part in particular? Interpret "universal human spirit" as "uniform human nature", and I don't see what's so problematic.

Materialism doesn't require absolute cultural relativism now, does it?

Posted by: Jason Malloy at July 18, 2003 02:32 PM

By the way, I think disagreements about free-will are mostly about semantics and terms. I would say there is a continuum of complexity from germs to insects to animals to humans. Where does cause-and-effect become free-will? The arguments are going to get muddy until we can describe what will is and what it is "free" from. I would say a chess program that can beat the world champion, has "free-will" too. It made choices.

Posted by: Jason Malloy at July 18, 2003 02:42 PM

No Jason-but it seems materialism requires matter-so I'm asking where do we find liberty (however defined) in the genome?
If you agree that "uniform human nature" yearns for "liberty"- what gene(s) carries this yearning?
also-the historical record shows "liberty" to be a relatively new concept-how did it work its way into our very nature? I realize the studies are incomplete-but this "uniform human nature"-please tell me more of its features?
And really-in all seriousness-I'm talking hardcore materialist here-one "who believes that every physical phenomenon (in principle) can be reduced to calculating dynamics with the four fundamental forces." Where does liberty fit into that schema?
GC is serious as always-honest belief in liberty is dumb-I accept that-GC's consistent.
Yet Jason-I sense you don't quite want to go to that point-am I wrong?
No trolling-honestly inquiring.

Posted by: martin at July 18, 2003 02:51 PM

And really-in all seriousness-I'm talking hardcore materialist here-one "who believes that every physical phenomenon (in principle) can be reduced to calculating dynamics with the four fundamental forces."

You don't have to go that far to be a strict materialist. You can be a materialist emergent believer like many condensed matter physicists and hold that it's all determined even if we can't - even in principle - do those calculations.

Posted by: Dick Thompson at July 18, 2003 03:07 PM


we've been through all this before. I went through an argument of why it's *useful* to treat criminals as if they have free will even though in reality no one really has free will. Similarly the 'free will' meme may have given us an evolutionary advantage. Useful for what? For creating an order where any randomly selected individuals maximises the probability of satisfying his or her preferences. Why the normative emphasis on satisfying preferences? Well, why any normative thoughts at all? When these normative thoughts are mutually influencing each other and no one really has any free will in forming them in the sense of being independent of some chain of cause and effect? Well, I think preference satisfaction is the most all-encompassing one that can best facilitate coordination for mutually beneficial ends compared to some particular prescribed good life - so yeah, in the end my arguments lead the same way as Godless' - the foundation of it all has to do with creating a sustainable order for feedback-response of 'experiments in living'. Now, arguably the prescriptions for faciliating this order are close to what a libertarian would prescribe - thus it was not a contradiction that Hayek, who didn't believe in free will either, was concerned enough for the prospects of liberty to found the Mont Pelerin Society, write a book called The Road to Serfdom and so on. Ultimately his normative views were bootstrapped from the 'feedback-response' view of coordinating the satisfaction of human preferences I outlined and which Godless shares - Godless regards himself as a neo-libertarian and I'm libertarian-leaning. Again, no contradiction. Are Blair's words piffle? Sure, but they're inspiring piffle and piffle that tends to lead to a view of society closer to the one I outlined here than the piffle of, say, Ayatollah Khamenei. Rhetoric has its place.

Posted by: Jason Soon at July 18, 2003 03:39 PM

I take "liberty" seriously when I see it scratched on a wall. When I hear it from the lips of Tony Blair, I take it as a mind-numbing device. There are a few words like "liberty", "love", "democracy", "peace" that are so often used as rhetorical ploys these days as to have become almost completely devoid of meaning.

Posted by: Dienekes at July 18, 2003 04:36 PM

Jason S.-as always I appreciate your cogency. I know you'll fogive me for bringing these matters up once again as I of course had no choice in the matter.
I myself am pretty anarcho-libertarian. As I'm not too concerned with foundations, I'm just pleased we all end up in the same place.
But I don't see those words as mere empty rhetoric. As a strong advocate of natural law- I see human liberty as a very real thing indeed.
Yes-the feedback mechanism is optimized-but what makes it optimal? Because democratic-capitalistic societies most closely approach nature's harmony-though it's an asymptotic thing.

Posted by: martin at July 18, 2003 05:39 PM

I don't really have any difficulty understanding what Liberty Blair is talking about and I'm not sure how a "material world" lessens our Liberty, which is the implication I draw from your question. Really, and I know this is a surface skimming viewpoint, but if you want to see what lack of Liberty looks like its real close. Go to Mexico City and check out the poverty. No food, clothing and shelter looks an awful lot like a lack of liberty. To me Liberty is the freedom to do what I want to do, an ability that is directly impacted at least to some degree by my material circumstances.

That was the best speech I've seen in years. I still had tears in my eyes 15 minutes after he was finished. Rhetorical devices? Perhaps.

I'll tell you what I saw in that speech though, and its something I haven't seen in a good while. An honest to god Pro-American Liberal. I wasn't sure there were any of those around anymore.

Posted by: Katy at July 18, 2003 06:24 PM

Liberty is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for lack of poverty. If it was sufficient, then India would not be poor. If it was necessary, then Nazi Germany or Kuwait would be poor.

Posted by: Dienekes at July 18, 2003 07:21 PM


"Liberty is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for lack of poverty."

I didn't say it was Dienekes, and I wouldn't make such an arguement.

What I attempted to do, however clumsily, was express my befuddlement with Martin's "What is "liberty" in a material world?" statement.

Posted by: Katy at July 18, 2003 08:50 PM

I'm not sure how a "material world" lessens our Liberty, which is the implication I draw from your question

Sorry Katy,I must be obtuse. Actually, my question is just what it says-what is liberty in a material world. Myself-I'm not a materialist-I've never gotten a solid enough definition of "matter" to go for it. I know there are people smarter than me who do call themselves materialists, however, so it's worth investigating. Now table salt is a material-sodium and chloride-I got that. And water is an oxide mineral-got that. The sun is a mass of burning gas and so on. Right. But I don't see what combination of the elements produces liberty. So I asked my materialistic friends, and received very interesting responses supra. But you can judge the merits for yourself. Glad you liked the speech. I agree with you.

Posted by: martin at July 18, 2003 08:59 PM

I don't think that the resolution of the free will debate changes things much. I don't believe in free will on account of parsimony. Free will is would be an unnecessary add-on to what I already believe. Also I don't understand why non-materialists tend to believe in free will moreso than materialists. I would think the idea of a some sort of purely random element is more consonant with materialism then non-materialism.

Posted by: Sporon at July 20, 2003 10:16 AM