Saturday, September 25, 2010

the anti me

Response to:

Hi. If you look at your negative space, you'll see me. Your article for "The Smart Set" about "Freedom" clearly stated the opposite of some of my core views about fiction. It was antimatter to my matter. If you and I touched each other, I think we'd explode.

We do agree on one thing: there's no canon. The idea that one "should read" certain books is absurd. I am sorry you even have to write that, but since schools exist, I guess you do.

The following sentences, in a brilliant cloud of pith, could be said by me on Opposite Day: "I have always been bored by mysteries after I’ve figured out the ending, the who-done-it. The mystery of Freedom is solved: It’s a masterpiece. And so I’m bored." What you're doing here is caring more about the critical consensus about a book than the contents of the book itself.


Do you avoid "King Lear" because most people agree it's a masterpiece? Do you think, "Well, since the critical reception of Shakespeare's plays is a done deal, what's the point of reading them?" Do you always read to Have An Original Opinion about a book, or do you ever read for the experience the book will give you -- the sensual experience, which no one can have for you, even if many people have had similar experiences.

Have you seen the film "Metropolitan"? In it, a character discusses Jane Austen before admitting that he hasn't actually read any of her novels. He says, "I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking." You and that guy could have a great discussion about "One Hundred Years of Solitude" without bothering to read it.

This part of your essay confused me: " hit all the right notes at exactly the right moments, but one could always feel the creator manipulating things behind the scenes. OK, now I need the viewer/reader to cry, so let’s get that swelling music going/kill off the only character portrayed with any sympathy. I cried, but I was resentful about crying, and I was suspicious about the crying. It wasn’t the spontaneous, oh my god sobbing I had in the last moments of a film like The Lives of Others. These were cultivated tears. Franzen had planned for them."

But... you cried! You sound like someone who is really suspicious about just letting herself feel something. It's like you're looking over your shoulder, worried someone will accuse you of being a chump. "Aha! You fell for Franzen's confidence tricks. Wanna buy the Brooklyn Bridge?" If this is the case, I'm sorry. It's also possible you're just way more sophisticated than me. I don't shed regular tears and cultivated tears. I just shed tears. Or I don't. If I do, it means someone or something made me sad.

I am not saying you're wrong. I don't believe reactions can be wrong. If you enjoy relating to novels more via the debris that orbits them (or via your suspicions about what the author is trying to do to you) than via the contents of the works themselves, then that's exactly what you should do. It's just bizarre to me. Why do you care so much about "the build-up of attention, everyone in the literary world pretending that Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time..." As you say, "surely one should just get over it, read the book so that one can make an informed opinion on the matter." Well, one shouldn't read the book unless one wants to. But discussion about a book is not the book itself.

If I were in your shoes -- if there was a book I didn't want to read -- I would just not read it. I can't imagine not reading it and then writing an article about how I didn't read it. There are tons of books I haven't read. There are tons of book I will never read. Some of them are probably bad; others are probably good. But I haven't read them, so I'm not going to write about them. And I'm not going to write about why I'm not reading them, because not having read them, what could I possibly have to say except, "I judged the book by its cover," which is what you did -- or, rather, you judged the book by its coverage.

"Whereof one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence."



Saturday, September 11, 2010

my hell

A: you're wrong.

B: no, YOU'RE wrong.

A: no, YOU'RE wrong!

B: no, YOU'RE wrong!

ME: this isn't solving the problem. You've both used rhetoric, appeals to emotion and (sometimes) sound logic to try to convince each other, but neither of you is budging. A, I think you're just going to have to live with B believing what he believes. B, the same with you for A.

B: Stop siding with A!

A: Stop siding with B!

Me: I'm not taking sides!

A: Well, you should! B is wrong. If you don't see that, you're as bad as he is.

B: If you're not with me, you're against me!

Me: but you guys have been fighting forever. Meanwhile, puppies are dying. Do you WANT the puppies do die?

A: Hey, I'm not the one killing the puppies! That's what B is doing.

B: Don't pin that on me. You're the puppy killer.

Me: B, I have to admit, I have felt the way A feels many times in my life. I'm not saying he's right or wrong. But it's a very powerful feeling. I wasn't able to just get over it, and I doubt A can either. He's probably always going to feel that way.

B: Oh, so it's MY fault?

Me: No. I'm not saying that. I'm just saying A -- right or wrong -- is probably going to feel the way he feels. Just as you are going to feel the way you feel.

B: But A is WRONG!

Me: We've done that already. Puppies are STILL dying.

A: And it's B's fault.

Me: I know you think that, and I'm not saying you're wrong. But try to understand that B was abused as a child, and...

A: Oh, so that gives him a free pass?

Me: No. It's not about free passes. But the fact that he WAS abused as a child makes him the way he is now, and...

A: STOP excusing him.

Me: I'm NOT excusing him. I'm just explaining why he's the way he is. If you're right, then there's no excuse for the way he's acting. Fine. You have the moral high ground. You're right and he's wrong. But where does that leave you?

A: If he's wrong, he should admit that he's wrong.

Me: But he's NOT going to admit that, because he doesn't think he's wrong.

A: But he IS wrong.

Me: Not to him, he isn't.

A: That's not my problem.

Me: You're right. But puppies are still dying.

B: Because A is KILLING them!

A: Because YOU'RE killing them!

Me: do you see how you're at an impasse? A, what if you just assume that B is wrong but there's no way to possibly get him to see that. View his wrongness as a force of nature. B, think of A the same way. Okay, you have opposing views, and neither one of you is EVER going to convince the other one he's wrong. That's just a fact. That's life on Planet Earth. Since "that's the way it is," shouldn't we accept that and work to figure out a way to co-exist DESPITE our differences?

A: No, because B is WRONG...


At some point, I realize that A and B just want to fight with each other, that they need to fight with each other, or that they don't know how to stop fighting with each other. Sometimes you just have to let people fight.

The fact that they're fighting is just as much of a force of nature as their two views. So if I take my own advice, I have to just accept living in a world in which their conflict is eternal.

I try to take that advice, but I fail, because doing so forces me into such a bleak view of human nature, I don't want to live on this planet any longer.

Also, I think it's false. SOMETIMES diplomacy works. Sometimes. It's rare, but it happens. So if I quit putting myself in this position, I risk failing to solve something that can be solved.

But I have a hard time figuring out which conflicts are solvable and which aren't. I really WANT to fall into a belief that they're either all solvable or all hopeless, because either of those beliefs would make my life so much easier than the messy, complicated truth.

Or I wish I could just join a team. For all their fighting, both A and B are much happier than I am. Much more confident. But I am not a team player. I can't root for a team just because it's my team. I don't know how to do that.

Friday, September 10, 2010

suspend THIS!

So I've been discussing with various people the challenges of bringing a Irish pub alive onstage -- coping with laws that don't allow smoking in theatres and dealing with ways to fake beer so that (a) it looks real and (b) it has low-or-no alcohol content, so the actors can actually get through the play without falling over.

I've gotten lots of great advice. But -- inevitably -- I've also gotten this:

"The audience knows they're at a play. There's some suspension of disbelief there already. I know you want to make it as realistic as possible, but give your audience a little credit. No one's going to stand up and yell, 'Hey! He's not really drinking/smoking that!' any more than someone is going to stand up and yell, 'Hey! We're not really at a bar in Ireland, are we?!'"

My least favorite phrase int he English language is "suspension of disbelief." Please people STOP using it. It's usually an excuse for shoddy work. "Oh, we don't need to go to all that trouble, because the audience will suspend their disbelief..."

When I hear that, I have an overwhelming desire strap the person who says it to a chair and refuse to release him until he answers some questions: "Explain to me EXACTLY what you mean by 'suspension of disbelief.' Explain the mental state of the person before he suspends his disbelief, explain to me exactly HOW he does suspends his disbelief, and explain his mental state ONCE he's suspended his disbelief... Go on. I'm waiting...

"And do you mean that, after he suspends his disbelief, he actually BELIEVES the fake-looking beer really IS Guinness, or do you mean he thinks, 'Oh, well, it's just a play. That's obviously fake, but I don't blame the director for that.'?

"Because I don't care if the audience 'blames' me or 'understands why I can't use real cigarettes.' I'm not looking for sympathy. I'm not trying to get the audience to understand the challenges I'm up against. In fact, I would much prefer it if they didn't think about that.

I'm trying to tell a story here. If they're thinking, 'Well, I don't blame the director... what else could he do?' then they're thinking about me and not the story. My goal is for them to actually believe that what their watching is real -- as much as is humanly possible.

"I'm not doing The School Play. I know that when you go see little Johnny perform in 'Oklahoma!' you don't really care that he has a mustache drawn on with magic marker. You even think that's cute. That's because you don't really care about 'Oklahoma!' You just care about supporting your kid.

"If I asked you to suspend your disbelief and actually BELIEVE that the mustache is real, could you do that? What if I offered you $1,000 if you could do it?"

I think you're reading the phrase too doesn't mean you actually believe. It just means you've temporarily silenced the skeptic inside your mind and dont care. Or even notice.

It's fine if you don't care, but my question is "Why don't you care?" I totally get it if you don't notice. Of course you don't care about stuff you don't notice. But if you do notice the beer looks fake, there are only two possible responses as far as I can see:

1. you notice and you care.
2. you notice and you don't care.

If you NOTICE a flaw -- a telephone pole in a movie set in 1343 -- and you don't care, what does that mean?

I think it can only mean, again, one of two things:

1. When you noticed the flaw, you weren't in a dream-like state of belief. If you were, you'd experience cognitive dissonance. Huh? How can there be a phone pole in medieval France? Rather, you were watching the movie completely (or partly) aware of the fact that it was a fabrication. Being awoken from a dream isn't painful if you're not dreaming to begin with.

2. You WERE in a dream state, and the flaw did wake you up, but you don't mind that experience. Maybe the dream was a bad dream, so you're actually happy something snapped you out of it. Or maybe you enjoy meta-dream stuff, so while you liked the dream, you enjoy thinking of the mechanics behind the dream just as much.

Those are fine ways to experience stories, but they aren't MY way. Most people who view stories that way are either academics (or were trained, in school, to think like academics) or folks who don't take stories all that seriously to begin with. Stories, to them, are just bits of fun to pass the time.

I have no problem with those people, and I don't think I'm superior to them, but I'm not like them. I watch movies, read books and see plays to BELIEVE. To DREAM. And if you wake me out of a dream, I can't just will myself back into it. That takes time and trust.

It's not a conscious decision, so don't notice is more accurate than don't care.

Clearly sometimes audience-members are aware of errors and sometimes they aren't. I know that they sometimes aren't, because I've pointed out errors in movie...s and heard people says, "Really? I didn't notice that." On the other hand, obviously sometimes people DO notice.

So if the guy is claiming people will suspend their disbelief and you're saying that means they won't notice certain things, you're right -- sometimes. It's obviously a gamble.

Which is why I don't get my director friends who say, "Oh, it's okay if the gunshot doesn't sound right. The audience will suspend their disbelief." If, as you suggest, they mean, "the audience won't notice," how do they know? It's much more likely that some audience members will notice and others won't.

Also, if you mean "We can get away with X because the audience won't notice," why not say that? "Suspend their disbelief" is much less clear -- if that's in fact what it means.

It's hard to nail down. It's like finding something to be funny. You can't always explain why joke 1 makes you laugh but joke 2 doesn't.

I agree it's hard to nail down. I think that's because there are so many variables involved. Bob, Jane, Mike, Mary, Ed, Amy, Phil and Marcus all see the same movie. It's set in World War II, and yet at some point you see a cell phone in one... of the actors' pockets.

Bob isn't bothered because he doesn't notice.

Jane isn't bothered because, though she doesn't notice, she at the movie more to hang out with her friends than to take it seriously.

Mike notices, but he likes seeing mistakes like this. He imagines the guys on "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" poking fun at it and that gives him pleasure.

Mary notices, but she likes to think about the director while she's watching movies. She sort of rates him and she goes. She praises him for some things and blames him for others. She finds minor gaffs excusable. Since her pleasure is mostly about a relationship, she isn't bothered by small, excusable human errors, the same way you wouldn't be bothered if you went to a party and noticed the hostess had forgotten to dust a tiny spot on the table.

Ed is thrown by the cellphone, but the next ten minutes of the movie are awesome. He generally has an easy time falling into dream states, so he quickly forgets all about that moment when he was jerked out of the dream.

Amy is an academic. She's used to thinking about symbolism, themes, comparative studies, etc. She isn't bothered by the cell phone, because she doesn't much care about being caught up in plots or caring about characters. In fact, she can justify the phone as some sort of post-modern effect.

Phil is a mixture of all the above types, depending on his mood at the moment, and depending on the movie.

Marcus watches for plot and character. He wants to believe. If he's lucky, he just won't notice the cellphone. If he notices it, he's going to be troubled by it. In which case, someone might tell him to suspend his disbelief (people have told me this many times!). How is he supposed to do that, exactly?

Thats why I think humor is analogous. You can't choose to laugh at a joke you don't find funny.

So perhaps the real problem is when people add 'willing' in front of 'suspension'

Yeah, I think you've nailed the problem. Of course people DO wind up believing all sorts of unrealistic things while watching movies -- that's part of the fun. But it either happens or it doesn't. You can't force it.

You CAN, perhaps, influence it in certain ways. If you go in all grumpy, you'll probably find more problems than if you are in a good mood. So maybe there's some way you can go in with an open, positive mind. But that's affecting your reaction in a gross way. You can't -- or at least I can't -- affect it moment-by-moment, especially when I don't know what's going to happen next.

It's not like I can say, "I know that cell phone is coming, so I'll put myself in the right frame of mind for it..." At least I can't do that the first time I see the movie.

If we're going to take "willing" out of play, then "suspension of disbelief" is a useless term, except as a description of what sometimes happens to people. If you can't will it, it's pointless to tell people to do it. It's also pointless for storytellers to expect people to do it -- or to assume they will.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

you are the owner of your actions

In an online discussion about free will and determinism, someone wrote he didn't much care about whether people are to blame for their actions, because "I'm not much of a blamer, myself."

He also wrote "You are the 'owner,' of your actions, even if they are predetermined. (Even if you were determined to do them, you still did them. No one else did.) So why aren't you the moral owner as well?"

My reply:

I am curious about a couple of things you wrote:

1. "I'm not much of a blamer myself."

I understand the sentiment. I'm don't consider myself a judgmental person. I certainly don't walk around thinking (or saying) "he's a bad person ... that's all her fault ..." constantly. And I have surrounded myself, for many years, with friends who are generally kind, loving people, so it's not like I have tons of opportunities or reasons to blame.

But that's just luck. If I saw someone stab a child, I would have no problem blaming him. Isn't that true for you? Or are you really saying, "If I saw someone stab a child or push his brother off a bridge, I wouldn't blame him. I'd have neutral feelings about his actions"?

Unless that's the way you feel, I'd say you -- like me -- are just lucky that you haven't run into many extreme situations lately. You and I also avoid having to think about such things, because we aren't employed as cops, judges or lawmakers.

2. "You are the 'owner,' of your actions, even if they are predetermined. (Even if you were determined to do them, you still did them. No one else did.) So why aren't you the moral owner as well?"

Let's imagine some form of free will exists in the world, at least for the following thought experiment. Now, imaging these two guys, Bill and Mike:

Bill sees some money on his friend's coffee table -- a big stack of bills. His friend is in the bathroom. He is tempted to pull a $20 bill out of the stack and pocket it. His friend won't realize it's missing for a long time, and by the time he notices, he won't be able to link the theft to Bill. Bill knows it's wrong to steal, but he really wants the money. He considers the wrongness of it vs. his desire. In the end, he thinks, "Why not? I haven't done anything selfish in a while. And it IS my birthday next week!" And so he chooses to take the money.

Mike is in the same situation as Bill. He sees a pile of bills on his friend's coffee table, and his friend is in the bathroom. He is tempted to steal a $20. He is unable to feel that doing so is wrong, because when he was a baby, he had a small brain tumor, and it destroyed the part of his brain that halts such impulses. Without even thinking about it -- or being able to think about it -- he reaches out, grabs a $20 and pockets it. He doesn't even remember doing it afterwards, because it's such a reflex action. Later, he finds an extra $20 in his pocket, but he doesn't remember where it came from.

Now, imagine Jane. She somehow knows what the two guys have done. She says to the same thing to both of them: "You fucking thief! You stole from your friend! Your FRIEND! That's a horrible thing to do to anyone, but it's worse to do it to someone who trusts you. You should be ashamed of yourself! You are a bad, bad person!"

Now, do you have any sense, as I do, that Jane was somehow unfair to Mike -- moreso than she was to Bill (if she was unfair to him at all)? I really want to say to her, "I understand why you're angry, but he couldn't help taking the money..."

It's not that I feel Mike should just get a free pass. There may be murderers who can't help murdering, and that sucks for them, but we still need to lock them up -- just to protect the rest of us. But I don't feel like they're on par with someone who cold-bloodedly chooses to kill his child. I at least feel some sympathy for the guy who can't help killing -- but none for the guy who CAN help it but chooses to kill anyway.

This is where things get complicated if free will doesn't exist. In a universe without free will, there really isn't much difference between Bill and Mike. Though it seems like Bill had a choice, he didn't. He is just as trapped as Mike, even though he didn't have a brain tumor. He is just trapped by some other internal phenomenon. There is no possible way he could have not stolen in that moment, just as there's no possible way Mike could not have stolen. If I really come to grips with that, it seems just as unfair to chastise Bill as it does Mike.

Hopefully, we don't blame people for being gay or black. That's beyond their control. Why do we blame people for choices? Because we (a) tend to believe in a mind-body separation (we don't think of the mind as physical, like skin color) and (b) we think that choices ARE under people's control. But if free will is an illusion, they're not.

Now, this whole conundrum is odd in a way, because it assumes that the blamer (e.g. Jane or us) HAS free will. Most discussions of free will and ethics make this mistake. And many people have a really hard time even seeing the mistake or realizing they're making it.

When I ask someone "If free will doesn't exist, do you think it's okay to blame people?" I suspect he models my question this way:

Imagine that we have free will, but we discover an alternate universe where the inhabitants are fully determined. We have a magical telescope that allows us to view that universe, though we can't touch it or talk to it. We can just watch.

In that universe, we see "clockwork" citizen Bleep killing "clockwork" citizen Bloop. Should we blame Bleep for killing Bloop, even though we can clearly see that he was manipulated to do so by the "cogs and gears" of his universe and that he couldn't possibly have chosen otherwise?

[b]Should we CHOOSE to blame Bloop?[/b] Should we exercise our free will by choosing to blame him? Should Jane have chosen to blame Bill and Mike? Should we choose to blame thieves and murderers? All these questions assume we have free will, and that the free-will/determinism debate is about OTHER people -- not us. (We don't ask "Should rain fall?" because we know it has no choice BUT to fall.)

Even when it's about me, I tend to split myself into two people. "Since there's no free will, is it really my fault that I stole that money?" What I really mean is, "Since there's no free will, should I really CHOOSE to blame myself for stealing?" Which we can simplify to "Since there's no free will, should I make a choice?" Which is absurd. It's a contradiction. If there's no free will, then I won't make a choice. Or at least I won't FREELY make a choice.

If there's no free will, it's silly to ask if we should or should not blame criminals -- or if we should or should not punish them. (Again, that implicitly posits a universe in which criminals don't have free will but we do.) If there's no free will, we will or we won't blame or punish criminals depending on whatever we're determined to do.

do I have to do EVERYTHING?

I work closely with people who are not systematic workers.

Broken televisions would bamboozle them. I mean, what do you do if your click your remote and the TV doesn't turn on? Here's what I do: I think about the components in the system, which are me, the remote control, the TV, the power cord and the wall outlet.

First I check me. Am I actually pushing the right button on the remote? Yes. Okay, so maybe it's the remote. Maybe its batteries are dead. So I pop some new batteries in (maybe after first testing them in some other device). Darn! The TV STILL won't turn on. Okay, I check the TV itself: is there anything covering the remote-signal receiver? Can I turn it on WITHOUT the remote? Nope. Hmm... maybe it's the power cord...

Now, if I keep checking these things and get all the way to the wall outlet and confirm it works, then I'm screwed. I've tried everything I can try, and now there's nothing for it but calling in a repairman. But I can do so knowing that I've tried everything I'm qualified to try. When I hire the repairman, I won't be wasting money. I'll be hiring an expert when an expert is needed.

I know some people are better at thinking this way than others. The fact that I'm good at it is, perhaps, one of the talents that helps me program computers. People who are bad at systematic thinking aren't stupid or bad -- but some of them are LAZY!

Say my broken-TV-analysis steps never occurred to you. Fair enough. But say you call me on the phone, complain that your TV is broken, and I ask you about the outlet, the chord, the TV itself, the remote and whether or not you're sure you're pressing the right button... and you say, "Whatever. I can't be bothered to check all that stuff"?

That's fine. That's your right. But you're not paid to watch TV. What if you WERE paid to watch TV and still refused to go through my steps AFTER I pointed them out to you?

At least once a week, something like this happens at work. And though I complain a lot about my current job, I've noticed this same thing at other jobs.

I'll finish my part of a project and hand it over to whoever is supposed to work on it next. Let's say it's some guy named Dave.

I've written this complex program that Dave can control with a little text file that contains instructions. My program follows his instructions. For instance, if he wants my program to run every day at 3pm, he's supposed to add "startup=3:00pm" to the text file. Maintaining this file is Dave's job, not mine.

Inevitably, Dave will come to me and say, "I made some changes to the text file and now nothing is working." I ask what he means by "nothing is working." Usually, he says something like, "All I see is a blank screen."

I ask, "Well, did you see a blank screen before you made your changes?"

"No. Before I made them, everything worked fine."

"Okay, so the problem must be in one of the changes you made."

After a long pause, Dave says, "I made, like, a hundred changes. I don't remember everything I did."

At which point I really want to say, "And this is my problem because...?" But I don't. I say, "Well, here's what I would do in your shoes. I'd remove every line from the text file and then add them back in one by one. Keep doing that until you get a problem. Then you'll know exactly what line is causing the problem."

Dave just stares at me.

I go back to work, and an hour later, Dave says, "It's still not working."

I ask, "Did you do what I suggested? Did you try the lines one by one?"

"No. That would take too long."

No, it WOULDN'T take too long. If he'd started doing it when I asked him to, he'd be done by now. In any case, it takes the time it takes. If I skip checking the remote control and the problem happens to be in the remote control, I'll never solve the problem. Too bad if it "takes too long" to check the remote control. Life sucks sometimes.

The Daves of the world always look at me incredulously when I suggest they delve into a problem systematically, as if there MUST be some other way. As if they suspect that I have access to some sort of magic power tool that I'm hogging all to myself.

But I do this sort of systematic problem-solving every day. Sometimes several times a day. If I didn't, many problems would go unsolved and I'd lose my job. Sometimes it sucks to have to check everything, and sometimes I don't feel like doing it, but them's the breaks!

The Daves in my life are usually designers and managers. I feel for them somewhat, because they don't have to be systematic (in this way) in most of their work. But they're asking me to build complex systems for them, and they want to interact with (and control) those systems. And -- sorry -- when you have a problem with a complex system, you HAVE to be systematic in your attempts to fix it.

But they just WON'T. So in the end, I have to do it. And I know they think I SHOULD do it -- even if it's not my job -- because, after all, I'm a programmer and it's my area of expertise. Except that's bullshit! Checking-everything-carefully is no one's (and everyone's) area of expertise.

It's fine to pass the buck to someone else because you're not qualified to carry it. It's not fine to pass the buck to someone else because you're lazy.

Friday, September 03, 2010

are determinists irrational, wrong or both? or are they right?

Here's my response to this video:

This is my understanding of Stef's argument: he is trying to discredit Determinism by assuming it's true and then showing that its logical conclusions are nonsensical or impossible to swallow.

1. Given: The future is set.
2. When you argue, you assume you can change the person's mind.
3. If you can change a person's mind, then the future is not set.
4. Therefor, your assumption that you can change someone's mind is wrong.
5. Therefor, you will never achieve your goal of changing someone's mind.

I think there's a troubling truth buried in what he's saying. But before I get to that, I'd like to examine some of his premises.

2. When you argue, you assume you can change the person's mind.

Is this always the case? I don't think it is with me. Sometimes I'm arguing almost as a reflex action. I know Stef is talking about a rigorous, logical debate -- not chest-beating. But if you've used logic for years, you can often employ it without thinking too hard about doing it or why you're doing it.

I often argue to work through something. I may not care about convincing you as much as I care about figuring out something for myself. You become a tool to help me do that.

However, those are minor objections. In general, I agree with you that people who call themselves Determinists (myself included) often argue with the goal of changing someone's mind.

3. If you can change a person's mind, then the future is not set.

This is not true. Here, Stef is (maybe unintentionally) playing on ambiguity in the word "change." Just using that word sounds as if we've already rejected Determinism. If someone chooses to change his mind (based on listening to your argument), he must have free will. But notice how I slipped the word "chooses" in there. (To be fair to Stef, he didn't use that word. I am claiming it's implicit in his argument.)

Change occurs whether free will exists or not. Stef likes to bring up rocks. So imagine a rock rolling straight down a hill. If you try to predict its course, you'll say it's going to land roughly parallel to where it started, but at the bottom of the hill instead of at the top. But what if another falling rock hits it on its way down. That second rock may "change" the first rock's course. All "change" means in this sense is that objects can affect each other. The first rock veered to the left instead of going straight down BECAUSE the second rock hit it.

Now, if the universe is determined, it also means that our original prediction was just wrong. We predicted that the rock would end up parallel to where it started. We did that because we were unaware of the second rock. Truthfully, the second rock didn't change anything. It didn't alter history. It just did what it was determined to do which led to the first rock doing what it determined to do. There was NO chance that the first rock could have EVER landed parallel to where it started. In fact, the concept of chance is meaningless.

In a determined universe, it's NOT true that a specific coin has a 50% chance of landing on its head or on its tail. We may have a 50-50 chance of GUESSING how it was determined to land*. But if it lands on its tail, that's how it was "fated" to land. If we could rewind the universe and watch it land over and over, it would always land on its tail.

*In a determined universe, it's more accurate to say that 50% of our guesses we're fated to make will wind up accurately predicting the way the coin will fall.

But it's still true that the rock went left BECAUSE it was hit be the other rock. Why? Because (a) the other rock hit it and (b) rocks have certain properties that cause them to be affected when they are hit by other solid objects. (If a rock hit a cloud, the cloud probably wouldn't change course.)

Humans are "built" to be affected by certain inputs. Those include "arguments" from other humans. Rocks aren't built to be affected by those same inputs. Stef says it's crazy to yell at a rock. That's correct. But the reason it's correct has nothing to do with free will or Determinism. It's correct because rocks have no internal mechanism for receiving or processing arguments.

My computer is a Deterministic device. But it can't respond to me waving at it.

So Stef's clam (or my rewording of it) that "If you can change a person's mind, then the future is not set" is nonsensical. You can CAUSE a person's mind to do certain things by doing certain things to that mind. No one -- free willer or Determinist -- is arguing that human minds can't receive and process inputs, and that they're not changed by those inputs.

Now, here's where I think Stef is onto something: even if it's possible for one person to cause another to reach some conclusion, in a deterministic universe, the causal person is himself caused. In other words, I'm not really arguing with you "to change your mind."* I'm arguing with you because I'm determined to argue with you. And though the sounds I make will likely cause some sort of behavior on your part, you're ultimately going to do what you're going to do -- just like the coin.

*My desire to change your mind might be a causal factor that makes me argue with you. By saying "I'm arguing TO change your mind," I am stacking the deck. Alas, our language is full of traps that assume free will. What's true is that (a) I have a desire to change your mind; (b) I'm arguing with you. Maybe (a) caused (b).

Stef is right that Determinists often assume everyone is determined except them, which is wrong. You most often hear that argument in this form: "If Determinism is true, should we punish people who commit crimes?" What that really means is "If Determinism is true, should we freely CHOOSE to punish people who commit crimes?" Of course, if Determinism IS true, we will or we won't punish people who commit crimes, depending on what we're determined to do. The question creates a world view in which everyone is determined except for the questioner. I agree with Stef that's absurd. (It's also a common mistake.)

I believe we (including me) are determined. When we argue, we are determined to argue. And when the clockwork universe causes us to argue, the sounds and gestures we make often cause various behaviors (and internal states) in the people we're arguing with.

Finally, I'd like to look again at (my version of) Stef's argument:

1. Given: The future is set.
2. When you argue, you assume you can change the person's mind.
3. If you can change a person's mind, then the future is not set.
4. Therefor, your assumption that you can change someone's mind is wrong.
5. Therefor, you will never achieve your goal of changing someone's mind.

Let's assume that we completely agree with this. Okay, well then it proves that Determinists are irrational. That's fine, but that doesn't prove anything about whether free will exists or whether the universe is deterministic. If I say "Rocks fall downhill because invisible gnomes pull them down," that's irrational, but the fact that it's irrational does not change the fact that rocks fall downhill.

At most, Stef is saying something interesting about Determinists (they can be inconsistent). He is not saying anything about whether the universe is deterministic. He is not giving a shred of evidence for free will. Saying that believers in something tend to be (or even MUST be) irrational says nothing about whether the thing they believe is true or false.