Free Debate

Last year I read Free Will by Sam Harris. The book impressed me as a concise demolition of folk psychology’s casual (lazy) assumptions about free will, written with straightforward language and a direct approach. I had a few issues with the book, and as an exercise wrote a “Devil’s Advocate” critique in which I used the last vestiges of the dualism I inherited from growing up with church and Catholic school.

Shortly after I read Free Will, I read Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. The latter struck me as beautifully written, philosophically and scientifically strong, and it razed my already crumbling Cartesian Theater. I remember thinking distinctly that I’d like to read Dennett’s take on Harris’ book, as Free Will openly challenges Dennett’s stance on the issue.

Monday I was happily informed through social media that this has happened. Sam Harris has posted Dennett’s rebuttal here. The rebuttal is a bit long, a bit thorough, and, to my thinking, imperfect, but I highly recommend both Free Will and Dennett’s take on it. Because what’s more fun than sitting at home reading philosophy?

Why should you read Harris’ opinion that free will is an illusion, then read Dennett’s opinion that Harris is wrong? It might seem a bit of a waste on the surface; if neither has the whole answer, what do we gain from these essays? We get a glimpse into a dialogue between two intelligent minds, and dialogue is the reason books like Free Will should be written in the first place.

Newton’s theories of space and time held sway for a couple hundred years until they were shown to be wrong by Einstein. But there could have been no “Einstein” if not for the foundations laid by Newton. Without Newton’s boldness, his willingness to put opinion to paper and publish it, science might have remained a stagnant morass of religious dogma and superstition. Even as Einstein was proving those theories wrong, he was standing on Newton’s shoulders (and the shoulders of many more recent scientists and philosophers).

“[A}ny hypothesis, however absurd, may be useful in science, if it enables a discoverer to conceive things in a new way; but … when it has served this purpose by luck, it is likely to become an obstacle to further advance.” – Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

It takes guts to point out what you think are mistakes and sloppy thinking in the work of a professional, especially one that is a friend. But Dennett speaks his mind and isn’t worried about Harris’ feelings because this is what intellectual adults do. They make rational arguments, arguments that come from science and sound philosophy. They are not arguing emotionally, and you can be sure since Harris posted the rebuttal on his own website that he respects the man behind it and thinks the rebuttal worthy of our time, even if it is expressly intent on showing Harris is wrong.

Why does this behavior seem strange to me? Because so many outspoken debaters fail at it. Deepak Chopra, for example, debates publicly about God but quickly gets emotional and degrades himself by hurling ad hominem attacks, like this muddled thing he co-authored about Sam Harris. This confused article says nothing of significance, continually attacks Harris, and yet is couched as a sort of moral high road for sloppy thinkers who hold onto beliefs despite evidence.

Some scientific figures like Richard Dawkins think some debates can be a bad idea. Dawkins posted this article on his website admonishing Bill Nye the Science Guy for debating evolution with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum (what items this “museum” contains, I do not know). Dawkins thinks these debates give undo credence to propositions that are not falsifiable and lack real evidence.

But this free will debate is completely justified, and I’m excited to read Harris’ response. Dialogues like these enrich our understanding, and though Harris and Dennett share many beliefs, they are two very distinct minds with distinct styles of argument. Neither is liable to make a proposition without either empirical evidence or a strong philosophical argument.

I don’t think this dialogue will resolve the issue once and for all. Certainly neither side will convince everyone in the world if scientists can’t even convince creationists of evolution. But if the debate causes us to question our own beliefs, maybe even shed some of our lazy assumptions, it will have done the us good.

True Detective

HBO’s new drama True Detective has a lot going for it, and it feels strangely familiar at times. It is a gritty procedural with complex characters and gratuitous nudity, nothing new for the network, but there is an edgy new darkness brooding around all the things that make this familiar as a cop show.

Like the dark woods surrounding Twin Peaks or the irrepressible Seattle drizzle in The Killing, the landscape of True Detective is haunted with secrets. From a seedy truck stop teeming with hookers to a grimy trailer park, also teeming with hookers, to a burned out church on a desolate farm with no hookers but a frightening smudge drawing and a portentous flock of birds, episode two (“Seeing Things”) smothered us with the underbelly of Louisiana.

Like all truly great cop shows, when we explore the territory we really explore the characters. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey have dug right in from the start as two deeply conflicted detectives with opposing philosophies. McConaughey’s Rust Cohle seems like a brilliant, existential isolate while we get the sense that Harrelson’s Martin Hart would be lost without his family, even if he doesn’t act like it.

We start with an occult murder and our leading man has lingering drug issues from his time as an undercover narc. I expect to explore some exciting, strange psychological territory here. We don’t need to believe in black magic; it’s enough that someone does. That is scary. And I get the sense Cohle knows a thing or two about this type of behavior already.

Only two episodes in and I already feel like Sunday is too far away.

Killing Them Softly

In the opening moments of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, we are swept toward an arched tunnel, paper debris blowing by on the far side, and provided we hear the audio, we know this isn’t just an ordinary movie. The soundtrack buffets us about with fragments of George W. Bush speaking about the global financial crisis. Isn’t this supposed to be a gangster movie?

The premise is simple: goons knock over a poker game, scapegoating the owner of the card room, a mafioso crook (Ray Liotta) who has already once stolen from his own establishment. When the higher-ups learn about the crime, they send in heavy Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to dole out justice.

The goons ( and ) own the first third of this movie. Their performances and dialogue are hilarious and fresh in a way I haven’t seen since Sexy Beast. When the reckoning comes, it brings along stars Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini, the latter playing a divorced, alcoholic train wreck who gets a disproportionate amount of screen time because his performance is so desperate and sad.

These unique characters elaborate what should be a simple revenge tale. A heavy dose of gruesome violence also helps. From the moment the poker game is held up, the look on Liotta’s face says at all. He knows justice is coming. And even though he isn’t guilty this time, he’ll pay the price dearly because in this world perception matters more than bare facts. Even while pleading for clemency, he is beaten so severely it made me queasy.

A laundry list of plot points cannot do Killing Them Softly justice. Right from the opening, basically narrating the action, the global financial crisis unfolds through bold sound design. Voices come at us from all over, Bush Jr., John McCain and then-senator Barack Obama front and center. Dominik dwells on Obama as he ramps up his rhetoric and we almost hear the subtext of hope and change in his voice. Can we survive this disaster? Yes, we can, but what will we be like when we come out on the other side?

As the reverberations of the financial crisis spread, we can’t avoid acknowledging that the disasters in America and in the film were caused by criminal gamblers, the most ruthless of which will come out of it unscathed after the industry undergoes a good bloodletting. We sometimes want to turn down the dial on all the allegorical exposition, but Dominik makes strong choices throughout this film, nudging us into sympathy with Cogan’s final edict, a response to Barack Obama on a barroom television:

“This guy wants to tell me we’re living in a community? Don’t make me laugh. I’m living in America, and in America you’re on your own. America’s not a country. It’s just a business. Now fuckin’ pay me.”

Not subtle, but classy. Just like this movie.


Going Abroad

I recently had to make a tough decision about a very dear item. My Twin Peaks VHS box-set had to go. There is no way I could just throw it out; this is the series that started my high school obsession. It blew my mind and made me realize I wanted to make movies. It also introduced me to worlds I never knew existed.

Fortunately I’ve found the box-set a good home, and I hope the recipient will get from it even a fraction of what I did. I have a lot of history with those tapes. They were my first introduction to the work of David Lynch, who quickly ousted Stanley Kubrick as my favorite director. I think Kubrick is probably the greatest that ever lived, but there’s something mysterious about Lynch that I can’t resist.

I think it was in the biography Lynch on Lynch where he mentioned that Federico Fellini was one of his major influences. The first Fellini movie I watched was . I find it hard to talk about  because it hit me on such a personal level, but suffice it to say that I think it’s one of the most beautiful films ever made. So I lost myself in the Italian auteur’s catalog. This was a breakthrough for me because I don’t believe I had ever seen a foreign film before 8½, or if I had, it wasn’t memorable.

Now I had a taste for it. I was interested to see movies from other cultures, movies from filmmakers who had a different way of life. I quickly realized that the Hollywood system seemed content within a certain set of values, a homogenous morality and thin, nearly meaningless output. So I unconsciously decided to become a film snob. Fortunately, my brother Jay had a copy of Agurre: The Wrath of God.

That stunning, visceral, hallucinatory take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the same source material as Apocalypse Now) made me giddy, and Aguirre is still one of my favorites. German master Werner Herzog became my next guru. He is one of the most exciting and prolific filmmakers I know of, even to this day, and the book Herzog on Herzog made me laugh my ass off. His genius is unique.

From Germany my tastes headed north, to Denmark, when Lars von Trier hypnotized me with The Element of Crime. I really did not connect with all of von Trier’s movies, but he is a magician when he hits, and his recent return to form has me considering, maybe masochistically, of going to see his new film Nymphomaniac.

Near that time my brother showed me Alphaville by Jean Luc Godard. It was funny, it was noir, it was smart, and it was beautiful. Plus, it had Anna Karina. I balanced Godard’s panache with the solemnity of Ingmar Bergman in Sweden. While Masculin Feminin had me giggling, Scenes From A Marriage left me gutted.

But when I caught wind of Andrei Tarkovsky, I started a pilgrimage to Russia starting with the sci-fi classic Solaris. It could easily be argued that Tarkovsky films are boring. He even joked about it himself. But the word boring tends to lose all meaning for me when I get wrapped up in a journey of Tarkovsky’s. Even the bizarre, didactic Stalkera 2 hour, 40 minute sci-fi allegory about transcendence–ranks as one of my favorite films.

Just like that, I had made it from a small logging town in Washington state all the way across Europe. It’s rare that we can trace the cause of our decisions in such clear ways, but I have no doubt that if it wasn’t for that Twin Peaks VHS box-set, I wouldn’t have seen so much of Europe so fast. And now it’s time to move on. After all, the Twin Peaks Blu-ray box-set comes out this year.