When a Dancing Bear Fallacy shows up in the Sunday New York Times, it’s thugs all the way down.

Karl Marx is The Lord of the FliesI borrowed the public library’s copy of Sam Harris’ “book” denying free will by upholding it. I’ve tried to read it several times, but every time I pick it up, it falls open to Harris mocking the idea that the reader is the author of his own life. I look at the words and mutter, “Who is the author of this fucking book?” Then I throw it back onto the pile of useless wastes of perfectly good paper.

The New York Times wastes quite a bit more paper than Harris on any given day, but Sunday is the day set aside at the Times for wasting human minds. This has always been the case, going back decades. Sunday’s paper is filled with huge department store ads, and the Times elects to “cover” those ads by giving space to the most pernicious sorts of anti-human ideas.

This Sunday’s paper features an amazingly stupid Dancing Bear Fallacy from an academic named David Barash:

Voluntary actions are, we like to insist, ours and ours alone, not for the benefit of some parasitic or pathogenic occupying army. When we fall in love, we do so for ourselves, not at the behest of a romance-addled tapeworm. When we help a friend, we aren’t being manipulated by an altruistic bacterium. If we eat when hungry, sleep when tired, scratch an itch or write a poem, we aren’t knuckling under to the vices of our viruses.

Get it? Free will is just a disease and you are nothing more than a zombie robot hewing mindlessly to the genetic predispositions of nefarious micro-organisms.

What is Barash’s evidence for making this absurd claim? You have to pay attention to his “defenses,” but what you end up with is a very simple answer: Nothing. He makes one analogy after another from diseases among other species of organisms, then uses those stick figures to construct this straw man:

Here, then, is heresy: maybe there is no one in charge — no independent, self-serving, order-issuing homunculus.

The idea of the homunculus is itself absurd. If a “little man” inside your brain is the source of your will, what is the source of the little man’s will? It’s turtles all the way down. But to analogize from diseased bees to the self-initiated creations of the human mind is pure Dancing Bear. Quoting from Man Alive!:

As a sort of pocket-reference to the kinds of bogus arguments made about your mind – claims you will see everywhere if you look for them – take note of these three general categories:

1. “We now know we know nothing!” Either your mind is inherently unreliable or the world outside your mind is fundamentally incomprehensible.

2. “Your good behavior is not to your credit, but at least your bad behavior is not your fault!” The actions you think of as being morally good or evil are either causally unavoidable or are caused by something other than your free will – hormones, brain chemistry, genes, brain defects, drugs, diseases, your upbringing, your environment, your wealth or poverty, memes, etc.

3. “Dancing bears are just like us!” Either animals such as apes or dolphins (or even “artificially intelligent” computer programs) are just as smart as you, or you are just as flailingly ignorant as an animal.

Note that all three of these categories are self-consuming: To uphold them, necessarily, is to deny them. If we know we know nothing, then we must know at least that one something – begging the question of how we can know even that little bit of nonsense. If the human will is not free, I cannot will myself to persuade you of this claim – nor even simply to make it – and you cannot will yourself either to accept or reject it. And if your mind works “just like” an animal’s brain, then you cannot discover anything at all about how your mind works, nor record or communicate your findings. Do you doubt me? If so, please have your pet or your software project write a peer-reviewed paper denouncing my egregious intellectual arrogance. No one believes this hogwash. They just want for you to believe it – or at least not dare to challenge it.

As with Harris, if the poet is not author to the poem, then what undetected disease “caused” Barash to produce this oh-so-sophisticated denunciation of the human mind?

I can answer that question. The purpose of all academic quibbling with the obvious and undeniable ontological fact of free will — and, not-at-all-coincidentally, the over-arching objective of all of academia and of The New York Times itself — is to undermine your ability to defend your one irreplaceable indomitable human life from the tyrants who long to enslave you.

So what alien organism occupied Barash’s mind to induce him to construct this hideous, scurrilous, flagrantly fallacious lie about the nature of your mind?

Karl Marx, of course. The man may not be king of the zombie bees, but he is beyond all doubt Lord of the Flies. If you don’t learn to mind what goes into your mind, your own will will be his, too, soon enough.

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  • Mike Arst

    Do you suppose that any of these pedigreechniks actually believes what he’s expecting his readers to accept? Does he leave his house each morning, thinking: My God, I’m not under my own steam! Then: My God, the thought ‘My God, I’m not under my own steam!’ didn’t come from within me, of my own will! Then: My God, the thought “My God, the thought ‘My God, I’m not under my own steam!’ didn’t come from within me, of my own will!” didn’t come from within me, of my own will! (It goes on from there. Fol-de-rol all the way down.)

    Of course not. Only an insane person would believe he’s a mindless puppet whose entire life consists of dancing on some unseen force’s strings. These clowns, however misguided, are not insane. As you point out, the hoped-for result is that you believe it.

    • The luggage tags put the lie to everything they say: If human behavior cannot be influenced by acts of will, why do you put name-and-address tags on your luggage? Dogs can’t read ’em, and neither can bees. If human behavior is fated, random or purely animalistic, what are they there for?

  • Pingback: Movie of the week: Celebrating six months of Man Alive! by embracing the fact of human free will. | SelfAdoration.com()

  • Mike Arst

    Luggage tags? Oh, that’s simply God’s little enrichment program. You know — the way they hide food at the zoo so that the animals have something interesting to do once they’ve finished the Times.

    The species that knows nothing certainly pulled off a good simulation of knowing something when it, say, figured out how to drop a spaceship on an asteroid, or to detonate a nuclear bomb, or to get a breathtakingly clear shot of some galaxy thousands of light-years away. Imagine what we might do if we actually knew something…

    • > Imagine what we might do if we actually knew something…

      During the discussions of Man Alive! at FreeTheAnimal.com, there was a Dancing Bear fanatic who was absolutely apeshit over the idea that monkeys using sticks to spear and eat termites was “proof” that human conceptual consciousness is a difference of degree and not of kind from animal brain-functioning. The monkeys were unavailable for comment.

  • Mike Arst

    Drat. Breathtakingly, I mean.

    • > Drat. Breathtakingly, I mean.

      Fixed it. Obviously a glitch in your homunculary hardware.

  • Mike Arst

    Obviously a glitch in your homunculary hardware.

    Yep. Not my fault. Problem solved. Some monkey with a stick did it. (Praise the Lord and pass the termites.)

  • Mike Arst

    apeshit over the idea that monkeys using sticks to spear and eat termites was “proof” that human conceptual consciousness is a difference of degree and not of kind from animal brain-functioning.

    It’s pretty obvious that apes, crows, predators like leopards (leopards, especially) — the list goes on and on — can calculate to some extent. Predators in particular must be able to calculate. What they learn, they can pass along to their young, who observe them closely. The jays that flew onto our deck and begged for peanuts, starting a few years ago, came up with certain “oh, look at us, being cute” strategies for getting our attention, then somehow taught them to their young. I think it’s clear enough from observations — and the films — made by Jane Goodall and others that apes have some sort of rudimentary emotional life, including grief. What they experience, we can’t possibly know. But I think we can infer a bit of it.

    Now: have your dancing-bear guy show me a chimp who can drop a spacecraft, with pinpoint accuracy, onto an asteroid a bazillion miles from here. Then we can talk about mere matters of degree.

    The most cogent remark I’ve ever heard about animal intelligence was made by a keeper at the local zoo (as reported by a friend; I didn’t hear it myself). A little kid asked the keeper: “How smart are birds?” The guy thought about it for a moment and replied: “Animals are as intelligent as they need to be.”

    The monkeys were unavailable for comment.

    They have their own blogs, you know — FreeTheTermite, LoveTheBonobo/HateTheSin, and like that. They find our blogs deadly dull.

    • Emotions in mammals: I’m with you all the way. It’s clear to me that our own emotional lives have their origins in the mammal brain, and our ability to express them in Fathertongue is an expression of their existence in those parts of the brain. A baby gives and receives love about as well as a dog does, for the same reasons.

      Calculation: That’s a stretch. Enumeration, yes. Pattern-matching, definitely. But calculation implies a depth of subjunctive understanding that I don’t see evidence for. I mainly attend to dogs and cats — I live surrounded by them — so it’s plausible that bigger-brained organisms might be more impressive to me. But while the cargo-cult-like pattern-matching in mammals can be amazingly astute (over time; the pace at which mammals successfully match patterns can be glacial), it is still entirely aconceptual and hence is always fundamentally erroneous, often comically so.

      An example: On Saturday, some doofus abandoned a box of donuts at the dog park. Odysseus caught the scent and came that close to scarfing a donut or six before Cathy caught him out. Since then, for three trips to the dog park a day, he has gone back to that spot at that table to see if the donuts have miraculously reappeared. It’s possible he will do this every time he goes to that dog park for the rest of his life.

      Incidentally, this is exactly how religions get started: A misunderstood happenstance is reported as a “miracle” and yet another sanctimonious Eric Cartman figures out how to turn it into a sinecure. No donations, no donuts!