What do people mean when they say they believe in God

I recently came across the 2017 Pew Research Center survey of more than 4,700 U.S. adults which found that of those who say they believe in God, 30% say they believe in some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe rather than the God of the Bible. Among those who say they do not believe in God (aka atheists), 47% say they believe in some other higher power or spiritual force. What do people mean when they say this? And do atheists and theists mean the same or different things?

Before discussing this, I first present some similar data for the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada (the mother country and two other English speaking ex-colonies).

A 2020 YouGov poll in Britain found that 27% say they believe in “a god”, 16% say they believe in the existence of a higher spiritual power, but not a god, 41% do not believe in a god or a higher power and 18% don’t know.  Among British Christians, just over half say they believe in God, 16% believe in a higher power, 10% don’t believe in God or higher power, and 16% don’t know.

The 2019 Australian Community Survey found that 29% of Australians say they believe in a personal God and 32% say they believe in some sort of spirit or life force. Around two in 10 (21%) do not believe and 18% remain unsure.

A very recent Canadian survey carried out in November 2022 found that just over a third of Canadians believe in God or gods (33.6%), with a further 32.1% saying that they believe in a higher power or spiritual force, but don’t necessarily believe in a god or gods. More than one-in-five (22.1%) don’t believe in any spiritual power. 

Personal god(s) versus an impersonal higher power

Survey questions probing beliefs about “god” vary widely in wording and you don’t have to look at many surveys before you realize that question framing, wording, context dramatically affect responses.  What do people (and survey writers) mean by “God” or by other powers or forces. Here are some of the phrases I have come across that are contrasted with god or gods: higher power, spiritual force, life force, fate, karma, universal consciousness, the Absolute, the ground of being.

A personal god or goddess is a deity who can be related to as a person, instead of as an impersonal spirit or force, such as the Absolute, or the “Ground of Being”. A personal god is conscious, sentient, has will and purpose, and is capable of feelings.

A god that is not personal cannot be worshiped or prayed to, let alone answer prayers. Only a personal god dispenses rewards and punishments in this life or an afterlife. This is not something an impersonal force would do.

An impersonal force or spirit is usually much less defined for people who say that is what they believe in rather than a personal god.  It can refer to impersonal forces such as karma or fate, or to some guiding force underlying the universe, or perhaps to a universal life-force or to a universal field of consciousness. The “god” of pantheism is an impersonal god (God is everything) as is the god of panentheism (God is in everything).

The god of deists is a creator god who does not intervene in or react with the universe after its creation. I find it quite puzzling why someone would bother thinking up this type of god. I assume it must be because many people seem to have a compelling need to make up a reason for the existence of the universe in the absence of any evidence or proposed mechanism.

The apparent need for a creator is claimed by many theists to be an important reason to believe in a personal god, though clearly an impersonal god or force could also be responsible for creation. God-did-it or The-Force-did-it are equally unhelpful non-explanations for a postulated creation. And who knows, possibly some as yet theory of everything that combined all the known physical forces in a single theory, and included an explanation for consciousness, might also contain an explanation for the existence of the universe. And those who say they believe in a universal life force might say, aha, that theory of everything is exactly what we have been talking about.

Christianity and Judaism conceptualize a God who is both universal, like The Force, and personal. The Abrahamic God is able to be everywhere at once. He has all energy and power; in fact, he created the universe. At the same time, he is able to visit individuals, speak with them, express his feelings, thoughts and opinions to them, and do things for them in a very personal way.

I have no knowledge of Islamic theology but was surprised to find that Wikipedia describes Islam as rejecting the notion of a personal god as anthropomorphic. This is certainly in conflict with my impressions from what I have heard and read various Muslims say and with the data from the Integrated Values Survey which I discuss below. Based on limited data for Muslim countries, Muslims have the highest level of belief in a personal god of any of the major religions or culture zones.

An analysis of global survey data on belief in a personal god

In my previous analysis of the worldwide prevalence of and trends in atheism and religiosity (see here and here), I used questions in the World Values Survey and the European Values Study asking whether you believe in God (Yes/No/Don’t know), but also “Are you a religious person” (Religious, Non-religious, Confirmed Atheist) and questions on frequency and type of religious practices, and on the importance in your life of religion and God. The combined data of these two survey programs is referred to as the Integrated Values Survey (IVS) covering the period 1981-2020 and 105 countries.

The IVS includes a question on whether belief is in a personal god vs. a spirit or life force in surveys in 54 countries, predominantly in Europe. The surveys for the USA and Canada that included this question were carried out in 1981 and 1990, when the prevalence of atheism was lower than now.  This will obviously impact the prevalence of those who believe in a personal god.  The UK included this question in five surveys across the period 1981-2018 and I plotted the distribution of responses separately for theists (those who said they believe in god) and atheists (those who said they did not believe in god). As can be seen in the graphs below there is very little change in the distribution of responses across time within each group. 

On the assumption that this is generally the case in other countries, I have estimated the distribution of beliefs in 2023 as follows.  I estimated the distribution of beliefs within each of four religiosity categories (practicing religious, non-practicing religious, non-religious, atheist) using the pooled IVS survey data for each country for the entire period 1981-2020.  I estimated the prevalence of each of these religiosity categories by projecting previously estimated recent time trends for 2015-2020 three years forward to 2023. To be a little conservative in the projections, the projected rates of change were adjusted downwards 20%.  The distribution of beliefs for each of these categories was then weighted by 2023 prevalences of religiosity categories and added to give an overall estimate of belief prevalences by country and culture zone in 2023. Table 1 gives the results tabulated by culture zone.

* See Endnote for definitions of culture zones

Belief in a personal god is lowest in the Sinic East (based on data for China and Japan), the Indic East (based on data for India) and the Reformed West (based on data for 10 countries).

Despite Wikipedia’s documented description of the God of Islam as a non-personal god, the survey data above show that the Islamic East has the highest prevalence of people, at 90%, who say they believe in a personal god. The only survey in the Islamic East which included the meaning of belief question was for Turkey.  Its possible Turkey is non-representative of other Islamic countries. However, I also analysed the prevalence of belief in personal vs. impersonal god by religious affiliation and there are many Muslims in other countries outside the Islamic East. The table below tabulates the prevalence of beliefs by religious affiliation. Muslims still have the highest level of belief in a personal god.

* Note that the prevalences in this table relate to the 54 countries which included the belief question in surveys and may not accurately reflect the belief distribution in all members of a religious affiliation globally.

Countries ranked by prevalence of belief in a personal god

For the 54 countries with data on the distribution of beliefs concerning god(s), I also estimated the prevalence of beliefs in 2023 using the same methods as above. The following table ranks countries from lowest to highest prevalence of belief in a personal god.

A number of key points to note about these results. Two of the three countries with very low prevalence of belief in a personal god are China and Japan. The other is Czechia.  China has high prevalence of non-religious and atheists and its main religions are non-theist. The main religions of Japan are Buddhism and Shinto. Buddhism is non-theist and Shinto, while it has many gods, these are mostly sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility.

As expected, levels of belief in a personal god are low in most of the formerly Protestant countries of western and northern Europe, where levels of atheism are also high. My estimate for the UK that 22% believe in a personal god is somewhat lower than the earlier 2017 estimate of 27%, but probably not inconsistent given the continuing decline of religion in Britain since then.

My estimate that only 49% of Americans believe in a personal god in 2023 is also reasonably consistent with the Pew Survey of 2017’s finding that 56% of Americans believe in the God of the Bible, given the IVS data for America that shows and acceleration in the prevalence of atheism in recent years, likely in response to the increasing right-wing extremism of Christians in the USA. At the bottom of the table are some predominantly Orthodox Christian countries and two Muslim countries where the prevalence of belief in a personal god is around 70% and 90% respectively.

Some questions and conclusions

I will look a little more closely at the distribution of beliefs in atheists and theists in the Reformed West. These are the largely Protestant countries of western and northern Europe, characterized today by a low proportion of the population practicing religion and a large minority or majority of the population who are atheist. This culture zone includes Britain, Australia and Switzerland as well as the Scandinavian countries. The table below shows the distribution of beliefs for theists and atheists in the Reformed West.  Only 39% of people who say they believe in God believe in a personal god. A higher proportion (43%) say they believe in a spirit or life force and 15% don’t know what to think.

Among atheists (those who say they do not believe in God) 25% say they believe in a spirit or life force and only 42% are clear that they do not believe in God, spirit or life force.

I am not surprised and somewhat comforted by the low level of belief in a personal god among theists. It’s the personal god who is responsible for most of the unacceptable behaviour of religious people in trying to impose their views of moral behaviour on others and in promoting hatred and discrimination against others.  An impersonal force is not going to care about your sexual preferences, the colour of your skin or whether you believe in it, let alone judge you and send you to heaven or hell.  Premodern beliefs and values assocated with concepts of a personal god are increasingly hard for modern well-educated people to accept.

Given the continuing decline in religious belief, I can hope that the proportion of people who believe in the God of the Bible continues to drop. It is already less than 50% for Americans if my projection is reasonable, and around 20% for the UK, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands. I don’t have data from IVS for Australia, but the proportion of Australians who believe in the God of the Bible will be less than 27% now. For both the Reformed West and North America, the countries where Protestantism has been the leading form of religion, it is now the case that less than half the adult population believes in the God of the Bible.

One quarter of atheists (those who say they do not believe in God) also say that they believe in a spirit or life force.  Are these beliefs similar to those of the theists who say they believe in a spirit or life force? I have not come across research looking more closely at this, but I suspect there are differences.  I think its likely the theists who say they believe in a spirit or life force are those who have rejected the mythical bearded father figure in the sky but are not yet ready to fully let go of belief in a god. Their impersonal god is likely a fuzzy ill-defined thing, perhaps with residual “personal” characteristics eg.  God is love, or god is creative power.

The atheists who believe in a “spirit or life force” may include some who have stepped away from theism but not entirely comfortable with letting go of any belief in something “larger than themselves”.  But it may also include those atheists who are not out-and-out materialists or reductionists. For example, Buddhist atheists, and some others, might believe that non-dual consciousness is some sort of universal field or ground of being.  

From time to time I come across atheists or philosophers, even atheist philosophers, who assume that all atheists must be materialists or believe only physical things exist. This is clearly not the case, since the proportion of atheists who positively state that they do not believe in god, spirit or life force is relatively low, ranging from around 25% in the USA to 30-40% in other regions where Christianity is the dominant religion. Other atheists may simply have some vague feeling that there is something more to reality that they don’t want to pin down and conceptualize as something with specific attributes, or simply don’t know what to think, or they may have some well-developed view of reality (in their mind) which might involve some non-physical field or force (universal love, consciousness etc). It would be interesting to interview people and find out more about what they mean when they say they believe in a higher power or other similar phrase, and how this might differ between theists and atheists.

Endnote. Definitions of culture zones used to group countries

I am using the 10 culture zones defined by Welzel [1], with one modification. Because Australia’s and New Zealand’s culture values are much closer to the countries of the Reformed West than to those of the USA and Canada, I have included Australia and New Zealand in the Reformed West and renamed the New West as North America. The culture zones are defined as follows:

Reformed West — Western European societies strongly affected by the Reformation: Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, plus Australia and New Zealand;
North America — USA and Canada;
Old West — Mostly Catholic parts of Western Europe being core parts of the
Roman Empire: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembrg, Malta, Portugal, Spain;
Returned West — Catholic and Protestant parts of post-communist Europe returning
to the EU: Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia;
Orthodox East — Christian Orthodox or Islamic parts of the post-communist world,
mostly parts of former USSR;
Indic East — Parts of South and South East Asia under the historic influence
of Indian culture: Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste;
Islamic East — Regions of the Islamic world that have been parts of the Arab/Caliphate,
Persian and Ottoman empires;
Sinic East — Parts of East Asia under the historic influence of Chinese culture: China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam;
Latin America — Central and South America and the Caribbean;
Sub-Saharan Africa — African countries south of the Sahara.


[1] Welzel C. Freedom Rising. Human Empowerment and the. Quest for Emancipation. 2013. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/freedom-rising/80316A9C5264A8038B0AA597078BA7C6

Powerlifting after total knee replacement – Part 1.

I discovered I had osteoarthritis in both knees in early 2015. I found strength training very helpful and I took up powerlifting, competing at national level from 2017 to 2021 in the 60-64 then 65-69 year age category. I had a total knee replacement (TKR) of the left knee in March 2022. 

Before doing the TKR, I spoke to my surgeon about what I would still be able to do with a TKR and also searched the web for information. My surgeon echoed the standard advice that high impact activities such as running and jumping should be avoided completely, as should activities that involve aggressive pivoting (tennis, basketball, most martial arts). A few specifically mention Olympic weightlifting as involving high impact and should be avoided (for example here). Even so, I have come across people who have continued to run or do martial arts after joint replacement.

Skiing is sometimes mentioned as an activity that is feasible after joint replacement, though often with the caveat “only if you are already an experienced skier”. My doctor made a point of saying that I would be fine to ski again, once he knew that I was an experienced downhill skier.  I was particularly interested in whether I would be able to continue strength training, powerlifting in particular, after joint replacement. My surgeon said flat out I should not try to lift heavy weights after joint replacement and the internet search I did found only a handful of examples of people who had done so. But I found lots of advice from doctors and physios to avoid any heavy lifting. Some of this was clearly nonsensical. For example, here is advice from an orthopedic and sport medicine centre in 2019: “You’ll need to mind your artificial knee for the rest of your life. Avoid lifting anything more than 20 pounds.” Or another physiotherapist who advised to never deadlift after joint replacement.

A world record squat of 525 kg nine years after TKR

The most startling example of powerlifting after TKR I came across was Vlad Alhazov. He is a Russian-born powerlifter who set a world record for equipped squat (multi-ply) in 2008, squatting 567 kg (1250 lb).  However, the following year while attempting 590 kg, his left knee caved resulting in his needing a full knee replacement.  Nearly a decade later, he returned to powerlifting, this time raw (unequipped) and in 2018 set a world record for squat (with knee wraps) of 525 kg.  His squats can be seen here.   His best deadlift is 375 kg, limited by grip strength. With straps he has lifted 442.5 kg. But this man is clearly not only crazy, but a freak of nature. So his experience may well be a very unusual outlier.

The other thing I discovered from my searches is that there are almost no long-term studies of outcome for people who do continue participate in “strenuous sports” or high impact activities such as running. TKR tends to be done predominantly in older people and very few older people do serious strength training. I was unable to find any follow-up studies at all for strength training, let alone long-term ones.  So, it’s possible that the usual medical advice is not evidence-based and coming from a lack of understanding or experience with strength training.  After all, advice from health professionals with no experience of strength training is often of the form “squats are bad for the knees” and “deadlifts are dangerous for the back”.

My total knee replacement

I went ahead with TKR of the left knee in March 2022. My strength training helped me recover relatively rapidly and I worked hard with a physiotherapist over the next two months to recover full function and range of motion of the knee. In particular, the physio got me doing various forms of scaled bodyweight squats, including single leg squats that were quite intense.  I decided that there was no reason I could not start squatting with light weights to a bench (for safety if I lost balance or control of the bar).

My left knee, three weeks after surgery

On the day the photo above was taken, I started barbell training again, doing 3×5 box squats with the empty bar (20 kg) to somewhat above parallel (touching the bench). A week later I was squatting 3×5 at 60 kg somewhat above parallel. Two months after surgery, I also started doing Romanian deadlifts, initially 50 kg for 8 reps, increasing to 75 kg for 3×8 at three months.

I was somewhat concerned about the potential for damage to the stability of the prosthesis or wear on the polyethylene cartilage replacement and decided to do a more systemic search for evidence and for examples of people doing strength training after TKR.

An unsystematic search for examples of strength training after TKR

The currently common advice is very conservative (understandably) and not based on evidence. The first step toward overturning an excessively conservative recommendation generally involves uncontrolled observational studies. If researchers observe that an allegedly dangerous behavior doesn’t appear to result in the predicted bad outcomes, it is a first step towards controlled cohort studies of the behaviour.

Using google searches and social media searches I found 13 examples of deadlifts and 15 of squats after joint replacement, with some information on the weight lifted and on the lifter.  The majority of these examples were TKR of one knee. For the deadlifts, there was one hip replacement, one TKR+hip, two double TKR and one double TKR+hip. For the squats, there were two hip replacements, one TKR+hip and three double TKRs.

The table below summarizes the data for these lifters.

The figures in red were missing and estimated either from appearance (for bodyweight and age) or based on averages for the non-missing data. Where the weight lifted was for multiple reps, I estimated the 1 rep max (1RM) using an online calculator, and ignored the fact that true maxes may be higher than the numbers reported. Sources for the data are listed at the end of this blog post.

It is important to emphasise that these data in no way are a representative sample of people’s experience after TKR.  People who self-post videos and results to the internet are more likely to be people who have been training seriously before and after joint replacement, and people who are lifting heavy weights and want to post about their progress.  For almost all the examples, there is data for a single time point only and the pattern of results cannot be interpreted as providing any information about rate of progress with time after joint replacement.

With those caveats, I did of course plot the results to get some sense of them. To do so, I converted all the results to 1 rep max results, and then adjusted them using Wilks weights for bodyweight and McCulloch weights for age, so that the adjusted 1 rep maxes relate to a 50-year-old person with bodyweight 85 kg. Also, for the sake of comparability, I plotted males only (there was only one woman in the dataset) and excluded Vlad Alhazov (apart from being an outlier, he was the only data point with more than 3 years since surgery).

Here are the results for males excluding Vlad, with of course linear trend lines that should absolutely not be interpreted as saying anything about progress with time since surgery.

I was surprised to see a couple of men who were lifting moderately heavy weights within a month or two of surgery, and also just how heavy on average the weights lifted were.  The median adjusted 1RM (for 85 kg 50 year old) were 157 kg for deadlift and 155 kg for squat. Of course, this is almost certainly due to self-selection of experienced lifters who thought their results would be of interest to others.

I am one of the data points. Five months after my left TKR, I also had a replacement of the right hip, so my data is for TKR + hip.  Twelve months after the TKR and 7 months after the hip replacement, I deadlifted 150 kg and squat 120 kg (above parallel) at age 70.

Views are changing on strength training after joint replacement

In my recent internet searches, I came across a number of research papers reporting medium term follow-up studies for people who had continued to run or participate in various sports and found that their outcomes were no worse than those who were not doing those activities.  I also found several medical and physiotherapy websites that explicitly recommended resistance training after joint replacement.  Part 2 of this post will look more closely at these recent studies and at data on joint replacement failure.  In the meantime, I will conclude this post with a couple of quotes:

According to Beacon Orthopedics and Sports Medicine:

“Patients are often most surprised to learn that they are not only permitted to lift weights but are encouraged to lift weights after receiving a joint replacement. In fact, lifting weights is the best thing a patient can do for the prolonged life of their artificial joint.

“When done with proper form, weight lifting—also called resistance training—strengthens muscles and increases bone density, all while being relatively easy on the joints. With that said, improper form can severely damage joints, so it is imperative that you use proper form to ensure the longevity of your artificial joint.”

Dr Luke Peterson, knee replacement physical therapist, explains that strength training has huge benefits, resulting in more knee stability and bone density and firmness of knee implant in bone. It is important to use good technique, slow progression and start low intensity and build up slowly.

Kevin Stone, orthopaedic surgeon, writing in 2015, said that “After your knee replacement, our advice is to exercise more than you have in years. Focus on total body muscle building and weight optimization. You can likely return to most sports when you are fit enough to protect your joints.”

If you would like to contribute to my unsystematic dataset, please make a comment with some information on your age, weight, surgery, and time since surgery, as well as 1 rep max for squat or deadlift.

Data sources

1.      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuiOXkq5nn4&t=583s

2.      https://youtu.be/LZSgavGGwao

3.      Matt Vincent. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLHuwD_4c2Y

4.      Shelley Kresan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuiOXkq5nn4&t=583s

4.      Shelley Kresan. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuiOXkq5nn4&t=583s

5.      https://youtu.be/xRCnO5Sr5bs

6.      James Burnett. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuiOXkq5nn4&t=583s

7.      Colin Mathers. Blog post

8.      Cameron Bucek. https://games.crossfit.com/athlete/225539

9.      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuiOXkq5nn4&t=583s

10.   https://youu.be/bA25mwVIP1g

11.   Vlad Alhazov . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzOXefrlWYM

12.   https://youtu.be/VjL7Q9rwdRQ

13.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08mOL1amDNw

14.   https://youtu.be/YSVsIlHjY5M

15.   Rob Schmidt. https://youtu.be/dtozQJ6A5Is

16.   https://forums.t-nation.com/t/total-knee-replacement-and-squatting-again/246850

17.   Michael Clark. https://www.elitefts.com/training-logs/total-knee-replacement-required/

New World record set in Swiss Powerlifting Championship

My younger son Felix Strong trained hard this year for the Swiss Full Powerlifting Championship in Lausanne on 25 March. He competed in the T2 (16-17 year) age category having turned 17 a month earlier, and in the 75-82.5 kg weight class. 

Felix sets a new world record of 245 kg for the unequipped deadlift during a full powerlifting competition

He did extremely well, setting new Swiss records for all three lifts and for the total: squat 172.5 kg, bench press 110 kg, deadlift 245 kg and total 520 kg (1146 lb). His deadlift was almost 15 kg higher than the current world record of 230.5 kg and the Swiss Drug Free Powerlifting Federation has submitted it to the world body (WDFPF) for approval as the new world record. Short videos of his three lifts are below.

In a full powerlifting competition, the athlete has three attempts for each lift. If he sets a record on his third attempt, he can request a fourth attempt to see whether he can improve his record. Fourth attempts do not count towards the powerlifting total.  Felix squatted 165 kg on his third attempt, and so his powerlifting total was 520 kg, also a Swiss record.

The hammer he carried with him raised a few eyebrows. Was it for deep tissue massage? Or dealing with other competitors? Or just to hammer a lug, which kept sliding out, into place on his belt?

Degrees of separation: Erdös, Einstein, Bacon and more

A basic Buddhist insight is that everything is connected, nothing exists in isolation.  The technical term is “emptiness” and the Heart Sutra expresses it as “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” One pop culture expression of this insight is the Six Degrees of Separation idea. 

This is the idea that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other. As early as 1967, Stanley Milgram tested this idea in his small world experiment, where the goal was to send a letter from a random person in Kansas to a random person in Boston via a chain of friends. The letters on average reached their destinations after five and half people. Incidentally Milgram never used the term “six degrees of separation”. This was popularized in a 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation and a 1993 film of the same name starring Stockard Channing, Will Smith, Donald Sutherland and Ian McKellan among others.

The concept has been popularized in a number of offline and online games. This Wikipedia article gives a nice overview of these, as well as more serious attempts to estimate average degrees of separation in various contexts. Wikipedia itself has become the focus of another popular six degrees of freedom game, which my sons have told me about playing, in which the player attempts to find the shortest link path between any two given Wikipedia articles.

I’ll focus below on the Erdös number (mathematicians), the Bacon number (actors), various extensions of the Bacon number, plus a couple I’ve made up myself because I score well on them (what better reason could there be). Disclaimer: none of these numbers say anything about a person’s career success, or social influence, they just shine a light on the wild and wacky ways that we can be connected and that connections are often closer than we would think.

The Erdös Number

Just for fun, mathematicians like to quote their Erdös number, the degrees of collaboration distance from Paul Erdös, one of the most prolific modern writers of mathematical papers. Someone who has co-authored a paper with Erdös has an Erdös number of 1.  Another author’s Erdös number  is one greater than the lowest Erdös number of any of their collaborators.  Some years ago, when bored with work, I decided to try to work out my Erdös number. I found paths through two different co-authors that gave me an Erdös number of 6.

A couple of years I published with a co-author who reduced my number 5. Chatting to colleagues, I boasted that my Erdös number had dropped to 5, the medium number among professional mathematicians, and one of them asked what an Erdös number was. I explained, and he obviously went back to his office to see if he could work out his, because he returned a few minutes later to say that his was 3, and I was 4 (one less than the median for mathematicians. 

Here is my Erdös pathway:

  1. Erdös, P.; Babu, G. Jogesh; Ramachandra, K. An asymptotic formula in additive number theory. Acta Arith. 28 (1976) no. 4, 405-412.
  2. Mukherjee, S., Feigelson, E.D., Babu, G.J., Murtagh, F., Fraley, C. and Raftery, A.E. Three types of gamma ray bursts. Astrophysical Journal 1998; 508, 314-327.
  3. Le Bao, Josh A Salomon, Tim Brown, Adrian E Raftery, Daniel R Hogan. Modelling national HIV/AIDS epidemics: revised approach in the U Estimation and Projection Package 2011. Sexually transmitted infections 2012, 88 (Suppl 2), i3-i10.
  4. Colin D Mathers, Ritu Sadana, Josh Salomon, Christopher JL Murray, Lopez AD. Healthy life expectancy in 191 countries, 1999. The Lancet 2001, Vol 357: 1685-1691.

The Erdös number has been criticized as having a temporal bias. The further a person is in time from Erdös (who died in ) the higher his Erdös number will be on average. However, this irrelevant, the Erdös number is nothing other than a measure of the degrees of separation from Erdös and of course it must increase with time. Measures of career impact are available that are based on citations, not degrees of separation. The sciences have widely adopted the H-index which is a measure of the number of papers published and widely cited.  The H-index has its limitations also as it varies by discipline and length of career.

The Einstein Number

Since my original research field was physics, I was curious to see whether physicists have an analogous index for collaboration distance from a famous physicist, such as Einstein. I have only found two web pages (here and here) that mention degrees of separation from Einstein, one in terms of personal encounters and the other in terms of papers cited by a paper (not co-authorship as for Erdos). Einstein has an Erdos number 2, since he wrote papers with Ernst Straus, and Straus co-authored 20 papers with Erdos. Here is one example:

  1. Albert Einstein and Ernst G. Straus. The Influence of the Expansion of Space on the Gravitation Fields Surrounding the Individual Stars. Annals of Mathematics 1946; 47(4): pp 731-741.
  2. Paul Erdős and Ernst G. Straus. On products of consecutive integers, Number theory and algebra, pp. 63–70, Academic Press, New York, 1977.

So I automatically have an Einstein number of 6 via Erdos. I also found a separate path, avoiding Erdos, which also gives me an Einstein number of 6.

And a path consisting only of physics papers, giving me an Einstein number of 7, as follows:

  1. Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli, Non-existence of regular stationary solutions of relativistic field equations, Annals of Mathematics, ser. 2, 44 (1943) 131-137.
  2. Wolfgang Pauli, L Rosenfeld and Victor F. Weisskopff . Niels Bohr and the development of physics. New York: Pergamon Press (1955) – 195 pp.
  3. John M Blatt, Victor F Weisskopf. . Theoretical nuclear physics. New York: Chapman and Hall (1952) – 896pp.
  4. JM Blatt, Stuart T Butler. Superfluidity of an ideal Bose-Einstein gas. Physics Review (1955) 100: 476-480.
  5. Stuart T Butler, Robert M May. Production of Highly Excited Neutral Atoms for Injection into Plasma Devices. Physics Review (1965) 137: A10–A16
  6. Robert M May, Neil F Cramer. Energy loss of fast test ions in a plasma in a weak magnetic field. Physics Letters A (1969), 30: 10-11.
  7. Colin D Mathers, Neil F Cramer.  The Effect of Ionization and Recombination on the Resistivity of a Partially Ionized Plasma in a Magnetic Field.  Australian Journal of Physics  (1978) 31: 171-9.

Kevin Bacon and the Bacon Number

In a 1994 interview, Kevin Bacon mentioned that he’d either been in a movie with everyone in Hollywood or someone who had worked with them. The comment morphed into a popular game for movie buffs connecting actors to Bacon, via a chain of the movies they have made together.

A valid Bacon number is assessed through co-starring roles in mutual films, television programs, and documentaries verifiable by the Internet Movie Database. Kevin Bacon has a Bacon number of 0, anyone who has appeared in a movie or television program with the actor has a Bacon number of 1, individuals who have appeared with one of Bacon’s co-stars (but not directly with Bacon) have a Bacon number of 2, and so on. Sometimes, this is relaxed to appearances in a movie, rather than co-starring role.

Two random examples of politicians with low Bacon numbers: Donald Trump has a Bacon number of two from his cameo in Home Alone 2, and Vladimir Putin has a three.

According to the Oracle of Bacon, based on actors appearing in movies and TV shows (excluding news, reality and talk shows), the distribution of Bacon numbers is as follows:

An astonishing 2,759 actors have appeared in movies with Kevin Bacon. The average Bacon number 3.03 and only 888 of the 1,375,157 actors had a Bacon number of 7 or greater, that’s less than 0.1%.

Erdös-Bacon Number

Because some people have both a finite Bacon and a finite Erdős number because of acting and publications, there are a rare few who have a finite Erdős–Bacon number, which is defined as the sum of a person’s independent Erdős and Bacon numbers. The Bacon number used here is often the broader form counting onscreen filmmaking collaborations rather than only actors in starring roles.

Natalie Portman has a Erdős-Bacon number of six, second-lowest among professional actors, as does Danica McKellar. The actor with the lowest number is apparently Albert M. Chan, who appeared with Bacon in Patriots Day. His number is four. Colin Firth’s number is seven. Coming from the other direction, Carl Sagan’s number was four. Stephen Hawking’s is seven.

The lowest number that anyone is known to have is three, held by mathematicians Daniel Kleitman and Buce Reznick. Daniel Kleitman, for example, was a math advisor for Good Will Hunting (which is two steps from Kevin Bacon via Minnie Driver’s appearance in Sleepers) and appeared in the film as an extra.

Elon Musk, who is neither a scientist nor an actor, has an Erdős–Bacon number of 6. In 2010 Musk had a cameo in the film Iron Man 2. Since actor Mickey Rourke played a role in both Iron Man 2 and in Diner where Kevin Bacon aso played a role, Musk has a Bacon number of 2. In 2021 Musk coauthored a peer-reviewed scientific paper on COVID-19 together with Pardis Sabeti, among others. Since Sabeti has an Erdős number of 3, Musk has an Erdős number of 4 (same as me) and consequently an Erdős–Bacon number of 6.

I don’t have a Bacon number, and the only way I could get one is if my friend James, a professional documentary producer, could be persuaded to put me in one of his documentaries. He has a Bacon number of 3, and he just needs to offer me a part in his next film.

Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number

Legendary heavy metal band Black Sabbath is famous for having more members (35 touring and session players) than albums (19). So of course there is a Black Sabbath number for people who have connected with Black Sabbath through musical performances.

To have an Erdos-Bacon-Sabbath number, you must have: co-written a scientific paper with someone who eventually connects to Erdos; appeared in a film with someone who eventually connects to Kevin Bacon; and performed musically with someone who eventually connects to Black Sabbath. A perfect EBS number would be three. No-one has that number. The lowest known number is 8, held by Stephen Hawking, futurist Ray Kurzweil; and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin.

Natalie Portman (actress) and Brian May ( of Queen fame) both have EBS numbers of eleven. Lower EBS numbers have been claimed for both (solid 10 for Portman and 8 for Brian May, the latter through a dubious Erdos connection).

Handshake separation from Adolf Hitler

And one I won’t be adding to my CV is my 2 degrees of (handshake) separation from Adolf Hitler. Back in 2003 when I was visiting Germany, I met and shook hands with an elderly woman who had shaken hands with Hitler when she was young.

Cora Minnett — pioneer SF writer and confidence trickster

In researching my Warren ancestors (see my previous post about them), I discovered that my great-great-great grandfather, James Warren (1804-1884) had a granddaughter Minnie Warren Jones, who achieved fame and infamy as a pioneering feminist science fiction author and confidence trickster.

Minnie Warren Jones, born in 1868, was the daughter of Eliza Warren (1840-1902) and James Jones (d. 1903). This account of her life (as far as it is known) and her literary career and other exploits draws heavily on the research of Steve Holland[1]. She took to the stage in 1888 using the name Cora Minnett Vane, after leaving school at age 19.

She married Adolphus J. Braggett (1864- ) in Sydney in 1892 under her real name[2] and left him a few years later. Adolphus married Teresa S McGinn in 1897, so presumably he and Minnie divorced[3]. She returned to the stage as Cora Minnett and “took companies round in Australia”. Her advance agent for her theatrical companies was a Mr. Cowell and he subsequently became her secretary and manager. In 1900, she published The Haunted Selection and other verses, a 310 page book of poetry. She also performed as a clairvoyant under the names Cora Vane and Cora Jones.

Cora went to England in January 1910 and was listed in the London telephone book as a Journalist and Author living at 117 St. George’s Square. In England she began writing novels under the names Cora Minnett and Pellew Harker and articles for Answers, the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Ladies’ Home Companion. She also placed an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph as a clairvoyante. She had cards prepared which described her as a mystical and dramatic entertainer and an aurapathic delineator—an occult study involving the aura emanations from the human body. In all she published six more book in 1911 and 1912.

One of her novels is of particular interest as a noted example of early feminist utopian science fiction[4]. There were large numbers of utopian novels written by and featuring women in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century England and America, which expressed the growing frustration of women with their place in society, as essentially the legal property of men. In The Day After To-morrow (1911), America in 1975 has become a country where women enjoy equality[5]. Like other women writers of this genre, Cora Minnett did not envision a society where the structures of power had otherwise changed, and even imagined America had become a monarchy, and the homes of the future were still reassuringly Victorian[6].

Both her works published in 1912 deal with the occult. The Girdle of Kaf (1912) is a verse afterlife fantasy set in the eponymous district of Hell. As with many female writers of this period, she wrote under a pseudonym and also wrote as a male under the name Pellew Hawker.

Books as Cora Minnett
The Haunted Selection and other verses (verse). Melbourne, Victoria, McCarron, Bird & Co., c.1900.
The Day After To-morrow. London, F. V. White & Co., 1911.
Lucky, with Pellew Hawker, illus. A. MacNeill-Barbour. London, F. V. White & Co., 1911.
The Model Millionaire. London, W. J. Ham-Smith, 1911.
Fortune-Telling by Numbers. London, C. Arthur Pearson, 1912.
The Girdle of Kaf (verse). London, W. J. Ham-Smith, 1912.

Books as Pellew Hawker
God Disposes. London, Stanley Paul & Co., 1911.
Lucky, with Cora Minnett. See above.

She also developed a scheme to sell land in Australia to people interested in migrating there and began writing about it[7],. She rented an office at 110, The Strand, and produced a pamphlet entitled Australia, the Land of Golden Opportunity. She supposedly had plans to set up to set up a company called The Anglo-Australasian Development Company. However, only one company appears to have been established, The Federated Mining Development Company (West Africa) Ltd., in September 1913, which owned a £25 option in West Africa.

In September 1912, she went to Canada to supposedly to compare the prospects in Canada and Australia. It was later revealed that she had travelled to Canada with an introduction from Lord Strathcona for, she said, the purpose of studying life in Canada and writing a novel about it. She received payments from a number of people.

She got many people, some eminent, interested in her schemes, and some of these paid her money in return for promises. She also took advantage of the women’s suffrage movement by inviting women to her house, talking about the vote and then turning the conversation to business and persuading them to put money into her companies. A Mr. White invested £373 and subsequently sued her for the return of his money. Letters from Minnett to White referred to him as “Dearest” and “Darling”, signing herself “your loving partner, Cora” and writing “Yet, dearest, in the interest of our mutual business and actual future happiness, I must ask you for more money, and a considerable sum—at least £350.”

Another investor was to prove Cora Minnett’s downfall. Walter Robson was a cashier in the London office of the Commercial Bank of Australia[7],[8]. In 1912, she told him about her proposed company. In February 1913, Robson loaned her £500, expecting the money to be repaid in 1914 along with a share of the profits from her company; he then provided her with other sums of money in bank notes—£700, £1,000, £500, and £100.

Robson was stealing the money from the Bank and, although she and Herbert Cowell moved the money to various accounts, one in the name of Cora and Bertie Minnett, it was tracked down. When confronted with this, Cora and Herbert, presenting themselves as brother and sister, claimed that they had spent all but £100, for which Herbert wrote a cheque. The Commercial Bank of Australia took them to court in February 1914 to obtain an injunction restraining the defendants from dealing with the accounts. The lawyer for the Bank described Cowell as Minnett’s dupe who mascqueraded as her brother. She kept him and he was a dummy director in one of her companies.[9]

In his decision, in March 1914, the judge noted that Robson had been stealing from his employers before meeting Cora Minnett; although she must have known that something was wrong but refrained from making any inquiry. When asked to attend a meeting by the Commercial Bank of Australia, the couple had immediately withdrawn £500 and deposited it in Herbert’s name at another bank. The day after, they had withdrawn another £500 from another account and tried to set up an account in a company name, without success. The accounts were frozen. The judge also noted that it was not part of the case to decide whether the defendant’s schemes were only intended to get money out of her friends, although the Bank’s lawyer was of the opinion that the whole of Minnett’s career in England was on the borderland of criminal enterprise. Minnett subsequently went to the Court of Appeal but her application was turned down as she could not offer security for the costs of her appeal.

Curiously, Cora Minnett published a story and poem titled “The Failure” on 16 April 1914 in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette.[10].

The Failure.
By Cora Minnett.

Away in the silent bushland of Australia, there is a lonely hilltop covered with rough iron stone boulders, and grim gum trees, whose mild branches seem a fitting shade for the tragedy that once was played out beneath their muttering leaves.

At the foot of one huge gum stands a boulder on which a cross and a date have been rudely engraven — but no name. Beside the boulder is a mound covered with bush flowers and ferns, that nature’s warm hand has planted as though in solace for the pulseless broken heart sleeping beneath.

Who sleeps there, no one knows, but the people around the district call him the “Englishman”. He was found there one morning dead, with his fair head resting against the hard rock, and his blue tired eyes gazing curiously out to the West. A young man with delicately chiseled features, and hands that had not always been accustomed to work.Hhis clothes had once been good, but were old and worn. A “billy” and a “swag” were near, but nothing to tell who he was. Only the blue unclosed eyes and fair hair, to make the rough sympathisers realise he was English, and some last words written in that language. They found a sheet of paper clutched in one hand, on which some lines were traced: “I am tired and weary and broken. I want to lie down and rest. Oh, for wings, to drift out of this world, away beyond the clouds and the sun, somewhere, somewhere — to rest.”

They laid him to rest at the foot of the boulder, under the grim gum-tree; but people say that sometimes, in the summer dusk, a form is seen hovering above the nameless rock, with eyes that turn to the West.

Whether this be so or not I cannot say, but, strangely enough, when I heard the story, an irresistible impulse made me take a pencil, and write the following lines in an absolutely spontaneous manner, and with the impression that someone named “Jack Harvey” expressed the sentiments — certainly not myself. Possibly, they may convey a message from out of a long silence, for the date on the nameless rock is one in the early 90s:–

I am tired and weary and broken,
I want to lie down and rest.
The Sun in his gold and purple,
Is drifting out of the West.
And I — I’m looking and longing,
Longing to sink with his beams,
Borne to a wakeless oblivion,
Wrapped in those tender gleams.

For I’m tired and weary and broken –,
Broken on life’s hard facts.
Behind me a tuneless record,
Before me the old, worn tracks.
And I know them — Oh God — I know them,
My feet have touched every part,
Seeking some of life chances,
Fresh hope, each time, in my heart.

Seeking, and fighting, and hoping —
Deeming my chance nigh won,
Only to find fate pushed me
Back to where I’d begun.
And so I’m tired and weary,
I want to lie down and forget,
Forget there’s a world and people,
Forget there’s despair and regret.

O Clouds, that are rolling westward,
O Sun, that is mellowing low,
O Wind, that sways the big trees,
Take me away — where you go!

Is it a place where I can rest,
Where the touch of a tender hand
Would smooth the memory of life away,
And teach me to understand
Why I met only winter’s blight,
And failure’s weary fret?
O Winds, take me up in your arms tonight,
Let me sleep and forget. Let me sleep and forget.

According to Steve Holland[7], Cora Minnett was listed at her London address until 1918. She seems to have disappeared after that time and no-one has found any further information on her. I did not find any death records for her under her real name or any of her known aliases in Australia, England or the USA.


[1] Steve Holland (2009). Cora Minnett. Bear Alley Books blog. 3 June 2009. Retrieved 25 Feb 2023 from http://bearalley.blogspot.ch/2009/06/cora-minnett.html

[2] Ancestry.com (2023). Australia Marriage Index, 1788-1950, NSW Pioneer Index – Federation Series 1889 – 1918. Adolphus J Braggett and Minnie W Jones, Registration Number 857.

[3] Ancestry.com (2023). Australia Marriage Index, 1788-1950, NSW Pioneer Index – Federation Series 1889 – 1918. Adolphus J Braggett and Teresa S McGinn, Registration Number 4832.

[4] John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Third Edition, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/minnett_cora (accessed 27 Feb 2023)

[5] Lewes, D. Middle-Class Edens: Women’s Nineteenth-Century Utopian Fiction and the Bourgeois Ideal. Utopian Studies, 4: 1, 1993, pp. 14–25. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20719144. Accessed 26 Feb. 2023.

[6] Albinski NB. The Laws of Justice, of Nature and of Right: Victorian Feminist Utopias. Pp50-68. In Jones LF, Goodwin SMW (eds.). Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative, pp 50-68. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1990.

[7] Sequel to Bank Frauds (1914, March 2). Queensland Times (Ipswich, Qld. : 1909 – 1954), p. 5 (Daily). Retrieved February 27, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article120420266

[8] Cashier’s Lapse. (1914, March 4). Maryborough and Dunolly Advertiser (Vic.: 1857 – 1867; 1914 – 1918), p. 2. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article90603650

[9] Cora Minnett Sued. (1914, March 5). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 – 1931), p. 15. Retrieved February 27, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article5418742

[10] Cora Minnett. The Failure. News & Notes (1914, April 16). Northern Territory Times and Gazette (Darwin, NT: 1873 – 1927), p. 15. Retrieved February 25, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3276976.

My Irish Palatine and German Ancestors

I have two convict ancestors who were transported to Australia from England and Ireland in the early nineteenth century. See here for the story of Thomas Wilson. My other convict ancestor, William Warren (1765-1850), came from Wexford in southeast Ireland and was my 4th-great-grandfather. His wife Eleanor Jeakle (1773-1849) remained in Ireland when her husband was transported to Australia in 1816.  I was recently updating my family tree and an Ancestry.com hint led me to a family tree which showed that Eleanor Jeakle had German grandparents who lived and died in the Rhineland-Palatinate.

Family trees on Ancestry.com often contain spurious information because people accept hints based on no more than similarities in names and dates, without checking for evidence of relationship. I researched the German grandparents and indeed found that there was absolutely no evidence of a relationship my Irish ancestors. However, in doing so, I came across a website that talked about the Irish Palatines and their emigration from Germany in 1709.  And there in a list of families who settled at Old Ross near Wexford was the name ‘Phil Jeakle’. I was astonished. The link to the Rhine-Palatinate that seemed too fantastical to be true was in fact probably true.

Philipp Jeakle (Jäkell) – emigrant from the Rhine-Palatinate in 1709

I did some more due diligence and found that Jeakle/Jekyll/Jekell was a common surname in the Old Ross and New Ross parishes where the Palatines settled, and that Jäkel/Jökel/Jekell/Gäckel were reasonably common surnames for  births and deaths for that period in the Rhine-Palatinate. Note that ä is pronounced identically to the “e” in Jekell. I then found a list of names of the Germans from the Palatinate who came to England in 1709. Among the arrivals in London in May 1709 was Philip Bekell together with his wife, son and five daughters.

There is no other surname similar to Jekell in the list, and Bekell does not occur in the Irish Palatine name lists or in the birth and death records of the Palatinate. The webpage with the list explicitly warns that there may be transcription errors from the old records.  Given all this, and the matching forename Philip, I think we can conclude with fair certainty that the German immigrant was Philipp Jekell/Jeacle. The 1709 record notes that he was 53 years old (so born in 1656), a husbandman and vinedresser, accompanied by his wife, a 10 year old son, 12 year old and 8 year old daughters, 6 year old twin daughters, and a fifth presumably younger daughter.

The Palatine emigration from the Rhineland to Ireland

Throughout the Nine Years War (1688–97) and the War of Spanish Succession (1701–14), recurrent invasions by the French Army devastated the region of Germany known as the Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz). The French Army pillaged and destroyed numerous cities (especially within the Palatinate) and created economic hardship for the inhabitants of the region, exacerbated by a rash of harsh winters and poor harvests that created famine in Germany and much of northwest Europe. There were nearly 700,000 military deaths and even more in the civilian population. For more information on Palatine history and the events leading to the Palatine emigration of 1709, see the article Palatine History by Lorine McGinnis Schulze, appended at the end of this post.

A View of the Palatine Camp form’d in White Chappel Fields, (c) Trustees of the British Museum

The mass emigration in 1709 to England, of mostly impoverished people, was triggered by the promises of free land in the American Colonies. Between May and November 1709, some 13,000 Germans travelled down the Rhine River to Rotterdam and boarded ships bound for London, England, in the hopes of being transported to America. Around 3,000 of them were sent to America in 1710; and around 5,000 remained in England, many entering the English army. About 3,000 of them were sent to Ireland in September 1709. They were settled as tenant farmers on the Southwell Estate near Rathkeale, County Limerick, and in a second colony at Gorey (20 families) and Old Ross (15 families) in Wexford County. Surnames of these new settlers in Wexford included names such as Fissel, Hornick, Jekyll, Poole, and Rhinehardt (Wikipedia).

Each of the Palatine families was allocated eight acres of land at a nominal rent of five shillings per acre and leases of “three lives”. This was much less than the 30 shillings per acre that other tenants paid. They were also given a not inconsiderable grant of 40 shillings a year for their first seven years in residence. This caused hostility among the local community, and by February of 1711, only 188 of the 533 Palatine families remained on the lands allotted them and 300 had gone to Dublin to seek other work. In all, about 1,200 Palatines remained in Ireland. A significant number of the Palatines emigrated to North America (and particularly Canada) or returned to Germany. After a visit from John Wesley, many of the Irish Palatines converted to Methodism and quite a few of them chose to leave for North America in 1760.

Those who remained in Ireland retained their language and customs as late as 1830, and by 1840 it was said that they could still be distinguished from the Irish population by their names. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, there was no trace of a German dialect left in the Palatine settlements, and their German names were mostly changed in form.

Irish Palatine Heritage Centre, Rathkeale, Co. Limerick

Philipp Jëkell: Palatine settler at Old Ross in 1709

Philipp Jëkel was 53 when he took his family to Ireland and so was born in 1656. I searched the Rhineland-Palatinate birth records and found a record of a Philipp Ludwig Jäckel  (also transcribed as Jaeckle) born in Frankfurt on 16 September 1656 to parents Philipp Jeremias Jäckel and Catharina Elisabetha Jäckel. Frankfurt was within the Palatinate in the 18th century, though the Rhine River, about 30 km west of Frankfurt, now forms the eastern border of the Palatinate. This is quite probably the right Philip Jekell, but this cannot be confirmed.

Eleanor Jeakle’s father George was born about 1748 in Wexford County, but there is no information on his parents. Based on the birth dates, his father was probably the son of Philipp Jëkel, ten years old in 1749 and who would have been 49 at the time George was born. That would make Philipp Eleanor’s great-grandfather.

John or Jacob Poole: Palatine settler ancestors of William Warren

In researching the convict William Warren’s Irish ancestors, I also found that his grandmother was Emily Elizabeth Poole (1728-1804). I remembered seeing the name Poole in the list of Palatine settlers. John and Jacob Poole are listed in 1710 as heads of households in the Palatine settlement at Gorey, Wexford. By 1720 a third Poole, William Poole, believed to be a son of John or Jacob Pool, is listed as head of a Wexford household as well. Emily Poole was probably the daughter of William Poole rather than his father or uncle (John and Jacob). She was born in Toombe, which is a little over 5 km southwest of Gorey. By 1850 some of the family moved from Gorey Wexford to Old Ross where Emily Poole may have met her husband William Henry Warren (1710-1770).

Irish Palatine farmhouse

A quite unexpected connection to Germany

My paternal grandmother was an Engel whose grandfather George Peter Engel (born in Frankfurt in 1821) migrated to Australia in 1849. I was not expecting to find German ancestors on my maternal grandfathers side. I have 6th or 7th-great-grandparents  from two German Palatine families who emigrated to Ireland in 1709, and one of them may well have also been born in Frankfurt. And have learnt quite a bit about European history in the 18th century that I knew very little about, apart from a very sketchy awareness of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). And that mainly through reading and very much enjoying Michael Moorcock’ 1981 novel, The War Hound and the World’s Pain, set during the Thirty Years War.

Cover artwork for The War Hound and the World’s Pain



by Lorine McGinnis Schulze
Olive Tree Genealogy http://olivetreegenealogy.com/
Copyright © 1996

[This article has been published, with my permission as Irish Palatine Story on the Internet
in Irish Palatine Association Journal, No. 7 December 1996

The Palatinate or German PFALZ, was, in German history, the land of the Count Palatine, a title held by a leading secular prince of the Holy Roman Empire. Geographically, the Palatinate was divided between two small territorial clusters: the Rhenish, or Lower Palatinate, and the Upper Palatinate. The Rhenish Palatinate included lands on both sides of the Middle Rhine River between its Main and Neckar tributaries. Its capital until the 18th century was Heidelberg. The Upper Palatinate was located in northern Bavaria, on both sides of the Naab River as it flows south toward the Danube and extended eastward to the Bohemian Forest. The boundaries of the Palatinate varied with the political and dynastic fortunes of the Counts Palatine.

The Palatinate has a border beginning in the north, on the Moselle River about 35 miles southwest of Coblenz to Bingen and east to Mainz, down the Rhine River to Oppenheim, Guntersblum and Worms, then continuing eastward above the Nieckar River about 25 miles east of Heidelberg then looping back westerly below Heidelberg to Speyer, south down the Rhine River to Alsace, then north-westerly back up to its beginning on the Moselle River.

The first Count Palatine of the Rhine was Hermann I, who received the office in 945. Although not originally hereditary, the title was held mainly by his descendants until his line expired in 1155, and the Bavarian Wittelsbachs took over in 1180. In 1356, the Golden Bull ( a papal bull: an official document, usually commands from the Pope and sealed with the official Papal seal called a Bulla) made the Count Palatine an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire. During the Reformation, the Palatinate accepted Protestantism and became the foremost Calvinist region in Germany.

After Martin Luther published his 95 Theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, many of his followers came under considerable religious persecution for their beliefs. Perhaps for reasons of mutual comfort and support, they gathered in what is known as the Palatine. These folk came from many places, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and beyond, but all shared a common view on religion.

The protestant Elector Palatine Frederick V (1596-1632), called the “Winter King” of Bohemia, played a unique role in the struggle between Roman Catholic and Protestant Europe. His election in 1619 as King of Bohemia precipitated the Thirty Years War that lasted from 1619 until 1648. Frederick was driven from Bohemia and in 1623, deposed as Elector Palatine.

During the Thirty Years War, the Palatine country and other parts of Germany suffered from the horrors of fire and sword as well as from pillage and plunder by the French armies. This war was based upon both politics and religious hatreds, as the Roman Catholic armies sought to crush the religious freedom of a politically-divided Protestantism.

Many unpaid armies and bands of mercenaries, both of friends and foe, devoured the substance of the people and by 1633, even the catholic French supported the Elector Palatine for a time for political reasons.

During the War of the Grand Alliance (1689-97), the troops of the French monarch Louis XIV ravaged the Rhenish Palatinate, causing many Germans to emigrate. Many of the early German settlers of America (e.g. the Pennsylvania Dutch) were refugees from the Palatinate. During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Palatinate’s lands on the west bank of the Rhine were incorporated into France, while its eastern lands were divided largely between neighbouring Baden and Hesse.

Nearly the entire 17th century in central Europe was a period of turmoil as Louis XIV of France sought to increase his empire. The War of the Palatinate (as it was called in Germany), aka The War of The League of Augsburg, began in 1688 when Louis claimed the Palatinate. Every large city on the Rhine above Cologne was sacked. The War ended in 1697 with the Treaty of Ryswick. The Palatinate was badly battered but still outside French control. In 1702, the War of the Spanish Succession began in Europe and lasted until 1713, causing a great deal of instability for the Palatines. The Palatinate lay on the western edge of the Holy Roman Empire not far from France’s eastern boundary. Louis wanted to push his eastern border to the Rhine, the heart of the Palatinate.

While the land of the Palatinate was good for its inhabitants, many of whom were farmers, vineyard operators etc., its location was unfortunately subject to invasion by the armies of Britain, France, and Germany. Mother Nature also played a role in what happened, for the winter of 1708 was particularly severe and many of the vineyards perished. So, as well as the devastating effects of war, the Palatines were subjected to the winter of 1708-09, the harshest in 100 years.

The scene was set for a mass migration. At the invitation of Queen Anne in the spring of 1709, about 7 000 harassed Palatines sailed down the Rhine to Rotterdam. From there, about 3000 were dispatched to America, either directly or via England, under the auspices of William Penn. The remaining 4 000 were sent via England to Ireland to strengthen the protestant interest.

Although the Palatines were scattered as agricultural settlers over much of Ireland, major accumulations were found in Counties Limerick and Tipperary. As the years progressed and dissatisfactions increased, many of these folk seized opportunities to join their compatriots in Pennsylvania, or to go to newly-opened settlements in Canada.

There were many reasons for the desire of the Palatines to emigrate to the New World: oppressive taxation, religious bickering, hunger for more and better land, the advertising of the English colonies in America and the favourable attitude of the British government toward settlement in the North American colonies. Many of the Palatines believed they were going to Pennsylvania, Carolina or one of the tropical islands.

The passage down the Rhine took from 4 to 6 weeks. Tolls and fees were demanded by authorities of the territories through which they passed. Early in June, the number of Palatines entering Rotterdam reached 1 000 per week. Later that year, the British government issued a Royal proclamation in German that all arriving after October 1709 would be sent back to Germany. The British could not effectively handle the number of Palatines in London and there may have been as many as 32 000 by November 1709. They wintered over in England since there were no adequate arrangements for the transfer of the Palatines to the English colonies.

In 1710, three large groups of Palatines sailed from London. The first went to Ireland, the second to Carolina and the third to New York with the new Governor, Robert Hunter. There were 3 000 Palatines on 10 ships that sailed for NY and approximately 470 died on the voyage or shortly after their arrival.

In NY, the Palatines were expected to work for the British authorities, producing naval stores [tar and pitch] for the navy in return for their passage to NY. They were also expected to act as a buffer between the French and Natives on the northern frontier and the English colonies to the south and east.

After the defeat of Napoleon (1814-15), the Congress of Vienna gave the east-bank lands of the Rhine valley to Bavaria. These lands, together with some surrounding territories, again took the name of Palatinate in 1838.

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My son sets powerlifting records at age 16

I equipped a garage gym during the Covid-19 lock-downs at the urging of my older son and my younger son has now also caught the strength training bug. My older son is focusing on Olympic weightlifting, which involves explosive lifts to chest or overhead. The competition lifts are the snatch and the clean and jerk. My younger son has shown an aptitude for powerlifting with its three competition lifts: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift.

I suggested he compete in the Swiss Drug Free Single Lift and Powerlifting Championships 2022 on 25 September. He set new Swiss single lift records for bench press (95 kg) and dead lift (210 kg) in the 16-17 year age category and the under 82.5 kg weight category. The short video below shows his 210 kg deadlift.

Three months later, Felix competed in an informal powerlifting competition in Geneva on 17 December. He improved all three lifts with a squat of 160 kg, bench press of 107.5 kg and deadlift of 230 kg. This short video shows the 230 kg deadlift. He also lifted 240 kg, but there was some slight hitching before lockout, and I’m not sure it would count as a valid lift in a formal competition.

240 kg deadlift in December 2022

He has been training with a strength training coach for more than a year, now. His coach tested his progress a week ago and he succeeded in squatting 170 kg and bench pressing 110 kg, still at the age of 16 years.

For the deadlift, he lifted 225 kg without any trouble. He then attempted 240 kg followed by 250 kg. In both these lifts, he got the bar moving off the floor but could not get it past his knees. He is close to being able to lift 250 with some more training. He successfully lifted 240 kg for reps a couple of days ago using the trap bar.

Skiing in the French Alps

I spent the first week of January at Les Gets in the French Alps during the unseasonal spring weather. No snow and no lifts running. We drove 20 minutes further up the valley to ski on two-week old heavy wet snow at Avoriaz, and a couple of days it was even raining on the snow. A taste of what global warming has in store for us.

Over the last week, it has snowed heavily on the mountains around Geneva, and in Geneva itself. So my younger son and I went up to Les Gets for the day and had a wonderful day skiing on fairly fresh snow in brilliant sunshine. The temperature was about -6 C when we got there about 9.30 am and rose to a little above zero in the middle of the day in the sunshine. Here are some photos.

My son is ready for a day skiing
View west towards Geneva, 60 km away beneath the clouds.
Looking south towards Mont Blanc, with summit covered by clouds
In the centre can be seen the Pointe Percée, highest peak of the Aravis range
Another view towards the French Alps from the piste
I wore my mountaineering goggles as the sun was very bright on the snow

Consciousness and free will – Part 2

“Free will is an illusion so convincing that people simply refuse to believe we don’t have it.” Jerry A. Coyne (Professor of Evolution and Ecology) commenting on Sam Harris’s book Free Will. An Australian Professor Daniel Stojar is an example of the many people who simply refuse to believe we don’t have free will, saying “It seems as obvious as anything that we have free will. ….. We are free to move our finger. That is neither determined nor random — it’s a choice we can feel in our bones.”

How universal is this belief that we have free will in the ordinary sense, not in the philosopher’s compatibilist sense?

The general public

Surveys of lay public views on free will have been difficult to interpret because of differences and limitations in how the researchers conceptualized and thought about free will. For example, Nahmias and co-authors (2005) carried out a study in which they presented what they saw as a deterministic scenario and asked respondents if the person acted of their own free will. Most say yes, and they interpret this to mean people think free will is compatible with determinism. I think the simpler explanation is that they think people act with free will (in the ordinary sense) even when they are told to consider a scenario in which a computer can predict the act. In fact, some people explicitly rejected that the computer could predict and had to be told to assume it would. But many probably thought that and didn’t make an explicit objection.

Recent research provides clear cross-cultural evidence that a majority of the lay public believe in free will in the ordinary sense – that we are the conscious authors of our own choices. Sarkassian et al (2010) found that subjects from the United States, Hong Kong, India and Colombia exhibited a surprising degree of cross-cultural convergence in belief in free will. An online survey of adults in the USA and Singapore found that 82% of US respondents believed in free will and 85% in Singapore. Other studies have found that few lay people appear to conceptualize free will in the compatibilist sense.

The fact that the Christian religion explicitly requires free will to justify the concepts of sin and eternal punishment, and that the majority of people in Western countries have this Christian cultural background at minimum, means that almost certainly the term free will is not interpreted in a compatibilist way by most people in countries with a Christian history and probably those with predominantly Muslim culture.


David Bourget and David Chalmers surveyed 1,972 philosophy faculty members at 99 institutions and received results from 931 of them. Most of the universities were in English-speaking countries and in other countries were chosen for strength in analytic philosophy. Before getting to free will, I note that they found 73% of philosophers were atheists and 56.5% were physicalists re the mind.

The survey found that 59% of philosophers were compatibilists, 14% libertarians, 12% thought there was no free will, and 15% had other views. As libertarians believe in free will in the normal sense, and compatibilists do not, this means that 71% of philosophers do not believe in free will (in the ordinary sense) and only 14% do. For the sake of figures that add to 100%, I will assume that the 15% “other views” split in the same proportions between free will and no free will, so that overall 84% of philosophers do not believe in free will in the ordinary sense, and 16% do.


Following publication of an article on free will, Scientific American conducted a reader poll and found that 59% of the 4,672 respondents endorsed the idea that free will existed and 41% thought that it didn’t. This is clearly a self-selecting sample of readers of Scientific American, who I would assume to be more determinist than the average person and so have a lower percentage believing in free will. From the respondent comments, it seemed clear to me that most people were interpreting free will in the normal sense not the compatibilist sense.

As noted in my previous post, Einstein did not believe in free will. Other scientists, eminent and not eminent, who have concluded that we do not have free will include evolutionary biologists Charles Darwin and Jerry Coyne, physicist Stephen Hawking, the psychologists Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, and neuroscientists Wolf Singer, Chris Frith, Anil Seth and Sam Harris. Indeed, a number of philosophers have publicly complained about all these upstart scientists who pontificate on free will without any understanding of the lengthy debates that philosophers have had.

However, its probably not the case that scientists in general do not think we have free will. Some look for chinks in the determinist view in the unpredictability of complex chaotic systems or the unpredictability of quantum events. Roger Penrose is a prominent example of the latter. And many, not given to introspection or meditation simply do not question their felt experience.

Graffin and Provine (2007) carried out a survey of 149 eminent evolutionary biologists on their beliefs about free will and religion. Their questionnaire offered evolutionary scientists only two choices on the question about human free will: A, all organisms are locally determined by heredity and environment, but humans still possess free will; B, all organisms are locally determined by heredity and environment, and humans have no free will. To the authors’ surprise, 79 percent of the respondents chose option A for this question, indicating their belief that people have free will despite being determined by heredity and environment. Only 14 percent chose no free will, and 7 percent did not answer the question.

They considered whether the respondents who chose option A were thinking of free will as choice in the compatibilist sense, but noted that this view was not mentioned in the interviews with selected respondents or in the many comments generated by the free will question.

One of the authors had been polling his undergraduate evolution class each year on belief in free will. He found that year after year, 90% or more favoured the idea of human free will for a very specific reason: They think that if people make choices, they have free will. The professional debate about free will has moved far from this position, because what counts is whether the choice is free or determined, not whether human beings make choices. People and animals both certainly choose constantly. Comments from the eminent biologists suggest that they were equating human choice and human free will. In other words, although eminent, the respondents had not thought about free will much beyond the students in introductory evolution classes.

Free will and moral responsibility

Sam Harris discusses in some detail the issue of how belief or lack of belief in free will affects people’s judgements of moral responsibility and impacts decisions about penalties and punishments by society. He makes the point that a person remains responsible for their acts whether or not they have free will, and that society should impose appropriate consequences for a number of reasons: to deter such acts in future, to protect society from dangerous people, to compensate others for harm incurred. What would be different is that there would no longer be a justification for punishment as retribution for making a wrong choice. All of this struck me as sensible and, like Harris, I think that we would be better off as a society in eliminating retributive punishment for the sake of retribution alone.

Last week I was discussing free will with a friend who said that he had also come to the conclusion that free will was an illusion. He had explained this to his teenage children who responded that in that case they no longer had to do their homework. I was quite puzzled about this reaction, it made no sense to me at all except as a typical teenage response of seeking to use anything they could think of to try to avoid unpleasant activities. But logically, I could not see why ceasing to believe in free will would lead you to stop doing things you had been doing up till then.

In do a review of the empirical literature on free will belief, I discovered a large body of research which has shown that changing a person’s belief in free will does result in behavioural change. Studies using deterministic arguments to undermine people’s belief in free will have led to a number of negative outcomes including increased cheating and aggression. It has also been linked to worse job performance, a reduction in helping behaviours and lowered feelings of gratitude. As with my anecdote about children and homework, I have trouble understanding why this would happen.

One strand of explanation looks at belief in free will as necessary to supply the requisite motivation to maintain a strong sense of ethical duty and responsibility ( an argument made by Smilansky here). Others assume that people decide if there is no free will “they cannot be held accountable, no one’s to blame, and everything’s permitted, right?”  Which of course, does not follow at all.

Both these proposed explanations would apply only to people for whom the threat of punishment or the promise of reward are primary determining factors for actions. These are people at stage 1 of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. People at stage 2 and stage 3 of moral development would not change their behaviour if they ceased to believe they had free will.

A third interpretation of people changing behaviour when they cease to think they have free will is that they are confusing determinism with fatalism. That what will happen will happen and their choice of action will make no difference to the result. Again, this is a completely incoherent reaction.

A number of philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and Saul Smilansky have concluded that, in Smilansky’s words “We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth” about free will”. Smilansky is convinced that free will does not exist in the traditional sense—and that it would be very bad if most people realized this. He argues that the fact that free will is an illusion is something that should be kept within the ivory tower.

Nietzsche called free will “a theologians’ artifice” that permits us to “judge and punish.” And many thinkers have believed, as Smilansky does, that institutions of judgment and punishment are necessary if we are to avoid a fall into barbarism. Like Harris, I think that relinquishing a belief in free will in the ordinary way could allow society should move away from barbaric and ineffective punishments based on retribution, in favour of evidence-based penalties and other responses which protect society, deter bad behaviour and maximise rehabilitation.

Its difficult not to conclude that free will is a concept with religious roots that should have been discarded ages ago. Accepting this would also free us from hatred. Blaming people makes us angry and vengeful, and that clouds our judgment. Harris’s book makes this argument in more detail as does a 2016 article in The Atlantic.

The philosophers however are probably right in thinking that the illusion of free will is so strong that there is really not much need to worry about possible negative consequences of people seeing that it is an illusion. The general population in most countries has a long way to go before most adults are beyond Kohlberg Level 1 or 2 morality.

Consciousness and free will – Part 1

Like most people, it seemed obvious to me that we have free will and up until about three years ago, I had not thought about it much or questioned it. Then I read Sam Harris’ small book Free Will (2012, Free Press) which made the case that we do not have free will. In my previous posts on consciousness, I noted that Annaka Harris, David Chalmers and Anil Seth all had some discussion of free will in their books. So I re-read Sam Harris’s book, now with a much deeper understanding of its relationship to consciousness, and came away largely convinced that he is right in seeing free will as an illusion.

Free Will is a very short book, 66 pages of main text amounting to around 15,000 words. It is very well written and jargon-free and makes a very strong case that free will is an illusion. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. Well worth reading, whatever your views on free will.

For most people, consciousness not only involves a sense of self but also the feeling of being in control of your actions, of being the author of your thoughts. In other words, you have free will, the ability to consciously choose among potential decisions or actions. I refer to this as free will in the ordinary sense. This idea of free will emerges from a felt experience, and most people do not question it. That included me until relatively recently.

Three main positions on free will

Harris notes that in the philosophical literature we find three main approaches to the problem: determinism, compatibilism and libertarianism. Determinists believe that our thoughts and actions are fully determined by internal and external background causes and free will is an illusion. Compatibilists accept determinism and redefine “free will” as being free from any outer or inner coercions that would prevent the person from acting on his actual desires and intentions.

Libertarians (no relation to the political philosophy) believe that free will occurs outside of physical causation, whether as the causal action of consciousness on the physical brain or perhaps via metaphysical entities such as a soul. While both determinists and libertarians believe determinism and free will are incompatible, I will refer to libertarians in this review as incompatibilists to avoid confusion with the extreme right-wing political libertarians. Harris notes that our modern understanding of brain and behaviour strongly supports a determinist view and that “today, the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist”.

David Bourget and David Chalmers surveyed 931 philosophy faculty members at 99 institutions in many countries and found that 12% of philosophers were determinists, 59% compatibilists, 14% incompatibilists, and 15% had other views. Leaving other views aside, this means that 71% of philosophers do not believe in free will in the ordinary sense and only 14% do. This means that almost three quarters of philosophers agree with Sam Harris’ case that (ordinary) free will is an illusion, except that some are quite angry with him for not accepting their redefinition of free will as the freedom from coercion (more of this later).

Objective evidence

Harris’s case rests on objective, scientific observations on the one hand, and subjective evidence from introspection and meditation on the other hand. The scientific evidence includes:

  • Observations that brain activity occurs a significant time interval before conscious awareness of the intention to do something.
  • Given the right experimental manipulations, people can be led to believe that they consciously intended an action, when they neither chose it nor had control over their movements.
  • Hypnotized people who are asked why they have done things that were suggested by the hypnotist will confabulate reasons for their actions that have nothing to do with the actual reason.

To this I would add the experiments done with split brain patients, where an action is requested to one side only of the split brain. When the patient is asked via the other side of the split brain why they did that action, the other side will invent a plausible reason that it believes.

Subjective evidence

Sam Harris devotes more of his book to discussion of our subjective experience, arguing that free will is not only an illusion, but it doesn’t even correspond to any subjective fact about us. Introspection soon shows us that thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. Seeming acts of volition merely arise spontaneously and cannot be traced to a point of origin in our conscious minds. As an experienced meditator, I am well aware that my thoughts appear spontaneously in my mind, and I can no more decide what I will next think or intend until a thought or intention arises in my mind. To directly observe this is to understand that we are not the authors of our thoughts and actions in the way that people generally suppose. You might respond that you can think connected chains of thought, but meditators know that these arise and cease for reasons outside our conscious control.

Part of the felt experience of free will is to feel that you could have chosen to do something other than what you did, to think the thought “I could have done otherwise” after doing whatever you did do. But it is not possible to go back and make a different decision. This is an untestable belief. The perception that you could have, is actually an understanding that you could make a different decision if similar circumstance arose in the future. And that is likely true, particularly if what you did do last time had undesirable consequences. Read Harris for a fuller discussion of this.

What do the authors of the other books on consciousness that I have been reading think about free will? Anneka Harris agrees with Sam Harris and summarizes the same case, probably just as well since she is married to him. I briefly discuss the views of the other authors below.

Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennet is a compatibilist who agrees with Sam that we do not have free will and our choices are determined, not free. But he redefines free will as the freedom to do what is determined and is very aggressive about attacking Harris for claiming there is no free will (even though Harris is talking about the type of free will he agrees is an illusion). Einstein expressed this compatibilist view very clearly as follows:  In a 1929 interview in The Saturday Evening Post, he said: ‘I do not believe in free will. I believe with Schopenhauer: we can do what we wish, but we can only wish what we must.’

Dennett has written a book Freedom Evolves (2003) in which he defends his compatibilist view that that the concept of free will should be redefined so that it no longer involves a free choice among alternatives but rather refers to our freedom to do that one thing that we must wish to do, in other words our freedom from coercion. I think even this definition is incoherent, since if there is external coercion, it is just one of the external determining factors in the determination of our choice (either to change it because we are coerced, or to not change it and suffer the consequence of the coercion). As Eyal Moses’ 2010 review of his book stated:

“For Dennett, the significance of free will is that it is the basis of morality and moral responsibility, of engaging in moral judgment and holding people responsible for their actions. His thesis is that while free will in the ordinary sense is an illusion, these consequences of free will are real and compatible with his deterministic model of the universe, so free will should be redefined to refer to these consequences. Dennett suggests that calling an action “freely chosen” should not mean that the person had some other possible alternative action (which Dennett claims is never true), but rather should mean that we are justified in holding the person morally responsible for that action.”

Dennett has written a long, condescending and incoherent review of Sam Harris’ book. Harris has responded to this here, and Daniel Miessner has written a devastating critique of Dennett’s arguments and examples in his review of Harris’s book. Miessner summarizes Dennett’s position as (1) We have free will because we feel like we do and (2) It’s useful to hold people responsible for their actions, so we must tell people that free will is real.

If you want to dig a little deeper into the issues around understanding the true nature of free will, I can recommend reading Dennett’s review, Sam Harris’ response and Miessner’s detailed critique.

David Chalmers

Chalmers made a fairly strong case in his book that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of mental functioning and itself has no causal role. But he resisted drawing this conclusion, saying he is agnostic and hopes to find some subtle role for consciousness in causing behaviour.  Annaka Harris identifies such a potential causal role for the behaviour of someone who is reporting on their experience of meditating on their empty consciousness (formless awareness). Its hard to imagine how a zombie could exhibit such behaviour.

Chalmers examines a number of potential strategies for avoiding epiphenomenalism but concludes that none of them justify rejecting the conclusion that consciousness is mostly epiphenomenal, perhaps with some subtle exceptions.  This clearly is fundamental to the issue of whether or not we have free will, and I find it odd that Chalmers does not discuss free will directly. He is on record as saying he does not have strong feelings about free will. For some reason, he appears to act coy around expressing a view on free will, though he is clearly sceptical and tending towards compatibilism, saying in the Scientific American interview that “If it just means you can do what you want to do, then, well, that seems pretty straightforward. If it’s the ability to do something completely non-deterministic, well, I don’t know if we have that.”

Anil Seth

Anil Seth also comes down very clearly on the side of no “spooky free will” (free will where consciousness causally intervenes in the flow of physical events). He discusses in some detail how intentions are formed in the brain before we become aware of making a decision and the very strong feeling that our “self” has made the decision and is causing the action. He is also a compatibilist, also quoting Schopenhauer in slightly different words “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

But Seth, somewhat like Dennett, is clearly unwilling to state that free will is an illusion.  Indeed, he says that the conscious experience of volition is as real as any other conscious perception, such as a visual experience of colour. I find it somewhat difficult to take him seriously after he has just reviewed at length all the neurological experiments showing brain activity a significant time before a conscious volition is experienced and that people will experience volition if they are fooled into thinking they are controlling a series of events or the real cause is hidden from them.

What Seth actually means by saying the experience of volition is “real” is that it is indeed an experience we have, even though it does not reflect a reality in which our “self” makes choices from a range of options, any of which the self could have chosen. Seth argues that the reason we have this experience of volition is that it is indispensable to our survival and assists us to realize that we can learn from our previous “voluntary” actions, to possibly make a different choice next time. He may well be right.

In conclusion

The objective evidence, well discussed in some detail by Anil Seth, and the subjective evidence, well laid out by Sam Harris, and which I have also examined in some depth, together make a strong case that free will in the ordinary sense, is an illusion, or as Sam Harris puts it more strongly, even the illusion of free will is an illusion. It seems to me very likely that not only are free will and the sense of a conscious self illusions, but that consciousness is largely along for the ride, and plays at most only a limited causal role in behaviour and thought.

I have not touched on the implications of this for moral responsibility. Sam Harris spends quite a bit of time discussing this in his book, and Daniel Dennett sees moral responsibility as necessary and that it justifies redefining free will so people can be told they have it. There is quite a body of empirical evidence around this issue and I will examine it, as well as evidence on the free will beliefs of the general population and specific groups, in Part 2 of this post on free will.