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Author Topic: Free will or determinism
caladbolg1125
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I'm sure this conversation's been had before here considering the prolific rate of posts from both believers and non-believers but I have not taken part in any of those, at least not seriously, and would now like to do so. I've heard the devout say that we certainly do have free will and that when we choose to do good, it is glorious in god's eyes. Yet, I've also heard from the devout that "everything happens for a reason." This is not something I find particularly comforting. It's not just Christians who subscribe to determinism. Heck, its not even just the religious who do this.

Its not hard to guess why either. Giving over responsibility to god, fate, or even natural laws, as some are wont to do, can give one a sense that no matter what happens, one will be taken care of. This bothers me in a few different ways.

For one, it seems childish to abdicate responsibility like this. Measuring one's own affect on the world can make it seem like things are deterministic in that things almost never respond the way one intends. But this is not to say that one's own free choice has no affect on the world, neighborhood, universe. Pick a scale. This brings me to my second reason for disliking determinism: it cannot be observed. The universe is such a complex set of forces across so many scales that to say everything follows from what came before in an orderly and predictable (though not necessarily predicted) manner is incredibly naive. I've heard the argument that god does know what will happen because his mind is such that in can encompass the whole of creation. Fine, whatever. This would make god so great that I would not be able to percieve him. The question of his existence is irrelevent since such a being would only be knowable to one such as myself in the bounds that he has created for my existence. That is to say, I know that at least a part of god exists because I see that part, an expression of his mind, as the physical universe. Either he exists and is by definition greater than what can be known or the universe exists by itself ad infinitum in all directions, spacial and temporal. Such a being I no longer strive to know. He either is or isn't and I would much rather find the value in religious teachings in what they have to say about the world I live in, which they do.

Back to determinism. Anyone who studies weather patterns with a simulator knows that even knowing all initial factors, the weather is never exactly predictable. Running a simulation under the same parameters on the same machine seperated only by the time at which the simulations are ran will produce different results. Trends may appear, but a simulator that accurately simulates weather patterns will never show the exact same sequence twice. The truth of the universe... One of the truths of the universe (for there are many) is that the future is not deterministic. To believe that it is would be misgiuded at best and potentially damaging.

Plus, as the arrogant, proud species that we are, we generally like to have an effect on our world. It does something for the psyche that we can act in spontaneous ways and cause change in our world. We are bound by our genes and upbringing, but we, like any complex system, are capable of spoteniety. With this potential for free will comes a note of responsibility. Act as you will with certain rules in place. Chose what they are. Act by social convention while defining that social convention. Its one of the tenents of the US's existence. Make your voice heard so that you are not bound by what someone else thinks is right.

Now I notice that I'm outside my intent with this thread, which was to discuss free will and determinism. Have at it. Am I wrong (like I have to ask)? Did I hit the nail on the head? Was it the nail I intended to hit? Philosophic carpentry is tricky business.

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philnotfil
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God is smarter than the computers we are using to predict the weather [Smile]

God knowing what we are going to do does not affect our free will unless he tells us.

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DonaldD
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I think your hammer may have crushed your thumb.

[Smile]

Two things leap out immediately: a) your inability to see and evaluate all the variables is not an argument against the existence of a system and b) you are using macro-level physical observations as a kind of metaphor against determinism which - if it exists at all - exists at a sub-atomic physical level and would affect not only our ability to make what we think are decisions but also would affect our ability to even evaluate the deterministic nature of these decisions.

BTW this
quote:
Running a simulation under the same parameters on the same machine seperated only by the time at which the simulations are ran will produce different results.
is not true of any modern-day computer system, unless you are accidentally excluding certain input variables or pre-existing states from your analysis.
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scifibum
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I've spent some time musing about how foreknowledge of events (on God's part) can possibly be compatible with the idea of free will. I ended up concluding it's only possible if free will is reduced to meaninglessness: God knows what we will "freely" choose to do, because he knows all the starting conditions and parameters. In other words, we freely make deterministic choices. (I don't think they can be reconciled.)

You can be religious and believe in free will, I think, but I don't feel optimistic that you can simultaneously posit a God with perfect foreknowledge unless you embrace a paradox or otherwise perform some cognitive gymnastics.

I think people resist the idea of our behavior being deterministic because it seems on the surface to negate the concepts of right & wrong, good and bad. If we can't "choose" our actions then how can we be held accountable for them? This misses the point, which is that accountability and the very value systems that we perceive and use to inform our choices are part of the deterministic picture. Whatever it is that opens the "share" gate and closes the "kick" gate in our mental pathways, doesn't negate the moral difference between the two. Morality and "free will" don't require each other. Morality after all is simply a construct. Whether it predates human consciousness on this planet is irrelevant.

My will isn't free. That doesn't stop me from overall being a pretty decent person because of the intricate operations of the logic gates in my head, which function to guide me in relatively beneficial actions. And it does absolve, to some extent, the actions of some of those people whose circuitry is too jumbled up to come up with correct, moral choices. And punishment of evil is part of the logical function of good. It's an evolved function; good wouldn't be good if it didn't succeed, and setting up obstacles and pitfalls for evil actions is an evolved function of goodness that helps it to do so.

Free will is an illusion, but the illusion is as good as that which it pretends to be.

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Viking_Longship
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From a religous point of view I believe in free will. It's part of my religion. Orthodox teaching says that actually Mary could have refused to bear the Christ and Judas could have not betrayed him.

On a practical note one time, in front of my Bishop I told a fellow parishoner that we need to be careful advising people to wait for "the one" since that is predetermination which we don't believe in. My Bishop backed me up. (I will acknowledge I was borrowing from sister's methodist pastor there)

From a biological point of view I'd suggest that the best expression of "free will" is the genetic mutation which is supposed to make evolution possible. (A process that I am not forbidden to believe in by my church btw)

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Gaoics79
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quote:
Back to determinism. Anyone who studies weather patterns with a simulator knows that even knowing all initial factors, the weather is never exactly predictable. Running a simulation under the same parameters on the same machine seperated only by the time at which the simulations are ran will produce different results. Trends may appear, but a simulator that accurately simulates weather patterns will never show the exact same sequence twice. The truth of the universe... One of the truths of the universe (for there are many) is that the future is not deterministic. To believe that it is would be misgiuded at best and potentially damaging.
I am assuming that when you say "determinism", in the context of science and nature, you are talking about the notion that everything that happens in the universe is a matter of strict cause and effect.

To the non-religious person, this is conceptually like a line of dominos, going all the way back to the big bang. The molecules and atoms react to one another, in a set pattern. To the religious person, the concept is probably the same, only substituting the hand of God for the big bang.

In either case, choice is illusory. You think that you chose to eat corn flakes for breakfast this morning rather than eggs, but that "choice" was really the inevitable result of a super-complex system of cause and effect. Given the exact same set of parameters, you would always "choose" corn flakes, no matter how many times the sequence was repeated.

The problem with your weather example is that it misses the point. I don't think anyone seriously argues that our ability to measure weather patterns and our ability to process the results of these measurements, are perfect. So obviously, given imperfect methods, you'll never be able to perfectly predict a system, even one existing in a deterministic universe.

This isn't evidence against determinism, so much as evidence of our own technical limitations.

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caladbolg1125
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Complex systems are not deterministic. I misspoke (mistyped) when I said that a simulation of weather patterns changes just by resetting it. It seems this would not be true of digital computers. But small, seemingly insignificant changes can and do have profound impact that is outside our ability to determine before hand. The quickest way to simulate a complex system is simply to let it run.

Regardless, the science of complexity has plenty to say on free will even if the science behind it is too new to be definitive. Its when you get to the boundary between pure order and pure chaos that things like free will happen. By which I mean a system is not totally predictable in every action it takes, but over time trends appear. A human has a certain set of choices that it can plausibly make. If he could choose from an infinite number of actions, he would freeze trying to evaluate them all. Instead, we have guidelines that direct decision making. Such guidelines could include personal survival, familial survival, hunger drive, sex drive, the list goes on. So our choices become limited by what is beneficial. Also, our environment is not unlimited. Our choices are limited by what is available. Considering the abundance of our environment and the myriad of ways that one can satisfy one's needs and desires, even with the limitations some decision making must take place. We are not so limited that we make the same decisions all the time, but certain trends appear. For instance, one could reliably predict that a person will have to eat at some point to continue living. If he lives in a society like ours, however, one could not reliably predict that he will eat, say, Italian food on a given night. With some observation, one could try to guess this based on the frequency that he eats Italian food, but this becomes a statistical likelihood and may or may not reflect the reality of his meal choices. So it is determined that he will eat but he exercises free will in choosing what he will eat.

Free will is no illusion. Many decisions we make are arbitrary. Another example is language. Apparently, the human brain is well formed to create and use language. Yet, what exactly constitutes the language varies highly from culture to culture. It can be determined that a group of humans put in isolation will form a language, but it is uncertain what form that language will take, until it happens of course.

As for the metaphysical stuff about god's existence, I'm abdicating such a search. If he does exist then he is greater than what I know and am and there is nothing I can do greater for him than be. If he does not, it does no harm to me. Some claim to receive purpose from god. I'll make my own thank you very much.

Donald, yeah, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle does a better job of turning determinism on its head than my fledgling attempts. But that does not mean there are no macro level examples a la the science of complexity.

[ March 24, 2008, 05:05 PM: Message edited by: caladbolg1125 ]

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caladbolg1125
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Jason, what of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle? When information at any scale becomes mutually exclusive to another bit of information, how does cause and effect handle it?
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Gaoics79
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Caladbolg1125, if I may make an observation, you seem to be equivocating here between our own technical inability to predict the outcome of events in complex systems with the question of whether or not an event in a complex system is predictable, or pre-ordained in the first place.

Five hundred years ago, it was impossible to predict when a person would be exposed to the plague. But this wasn't due to the inherent unpredictability of disease exposure, but to the fact that people had no idea what caused the disease, so they could not predict when someone would be exposed. They lacked the technical proficiency to make the prediction. Today, we can predict with 100% certainty that if certain elements aren't present, namely the particular bacteria and a means of transmitting it to the human host (the flea, for example), there is no chance of a human getting the plague.

I don't know if anyone who thought about it would pretend that we have the technical proficiency to measure a super-complex system like a human society to such a degree that we could predict the development of language.

What is so magical about language, or the weather, that makes it inherently unpredictable, when less complex questions can be predicted fairly easily?

Let me put it another way: I can calculate 10 x 10 in my head fairly easily. And I can calculate 50 x 50, or even 120 x 64. And there are undoubtedly people who can calculate bigger and bigger numbers, even with decimals and fractions. But at a certain point, even a math prodigy cannot calculate a number in his head. Even a computer can be overwhelmed by too much complexity. Does it follow from this that because we can't calculate 10347463483493593535636.82442724 / 3123312123.33126 in our heads, the answer is therefore incalculable?

I'm not saying I know for a fact that the universe is deterministic, or that free will doesn't exist, but I just find the examples you're using to be rather poor.

[ March 24, 2008, 05:23 PM: Message edited by: jasonr ]

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Gaoics79
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quote:
Jason, what of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle? When information at any scale becomes mutually exclusive to another bit of information, how does cause and effect handle it?
You'll have to break this down for me, because I'm not really grasping your argument. I have heard of this principle, and if memory serves me correctly, it states that it is not possible to observe something without changing it. The act of observing certain particles actually modifies the particles, so that no matter how we try, we can never observe a particle as it is, only as it is made by our act of observation.

Now, what is your point exactly?

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scifibum
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I do think, caladbolg, that you are confusing our inability to exhaustively account for all the causes and effects in a system with their lack of existence.

Who knows, there may be an element of randomness or "free will" that we can never account for, no matter how well we can measure and simulate a system, but we're nowhere close to being able to come to that conclusion when it comes to things like language development or what to eat for dinner. Brain science has a looong way to go.

In the meantime it seems more reasonable to me to assume that there are concrete physical causes for macro-level phenomena such as these, but that we don't have the ability to account for them at this point.

Unless your point is that "free will" = "whatever we can't currently account for with algorithms."

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DonaldD
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quote:
Free will is no illusion. Many decisions we make are arbitrary.
This is circular reasoning. From a determinist perspective, they only seem arbitrary because a) we are incapable of knowing the exact state of the physical world at any given point and b) even with such knowledge, we couldn't process that data in any meaningful way.

Determinism may or may not describe reality, but the fact that we humans are too stupid to do the calculations is not an argument against it.

As to Heisenberg - again, this goes to our lack of knowledge. Heisenberg posits that measuring the position or momentum of a particle makes the other variable uncertain. This has nothing to do whether the interaction of all particles is causally predetermined, just that we will never be able to prove it one way or another.

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caladbolg1125
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wiki

quote:
In quantum physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is the statement that locating a particle in a small region of space makes the momentum of the particle uncertain; and conversely, that measuring the momentum of a particle precisely makes the position uncertain.
The information of a particle's position and momentum are mutually exclusive. My point here is that even with perfect knowledge of causal relationships at macro levels, this principle at a micro level is difficult if not impossible to reconcile with determinism.

More tomorrow. Real life calls.

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DonaldD
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Again, you are conflating the macro and the micro. From a deterministic perspective, there are no causal relationships at what you are thinking of as the macro level, since the macro is simply an average/combination of all the micro and sub-micro activities.

And once again, the fact that we cannot ever have perfect knowledge is not an argument either for or against determinism; it definitely isn't an argument against reconciling Heisenberg's principle with determinism.

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Everard
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"The information of a particle's position and momentum are mutually exclusive. My point here is that even with perfect knowledge of causal relationships at macro levels, this principle at a micro level is difficult if not impossible to reconcile with determinism."

No, information of a particle's position and momentum are not mutually exclusive. Knowledge of precisely where a particle is, and its momentum, simultaneously, is not possible, to within a certain tolerance. (Interestingly, this has nothing to do with our technical ability to observe a particle).

Determinism says that one event is caused by the preceeding events, and that given an initial set of conditions, the outcome is certain.

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle tells us that we cannot know both position and momentum simultaenously (along with several other pairs of variables), but it does not tell us that a particle does not have exact position and momentum and a given moment.

More precisely, heisenberg tells us tthat the standard deviation in measurements of position times the standard deviation in measurements of momentum is greater then or equal to hbar divided by 2.

So there is some minimum error that we can achieve in a system of measurements.

This tells us that the particle we are attempting to measure has a precise position and momentum... we just can't exactly know those values.

But because it has a precise position and momentum, any future events dependent on the particle may be determined.

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vulture
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quote:
Originally posted by Everard:

But because it has a precise position and momentum, any future events dependent on the particle may be determined.

May or may not have a precise position and momentum. Nothing is absolutely required either way in QM, beyond conformity with Bell's inequalities: if there are hidden variables, they have to be non-local. And to explain what that means...

Hidden variables: systems in QM are described by a wave function, and it is a mathematical inevitability that that function can't contain more information than allowed by the uncertainty principle. If there are no 'hidden variables', then that is the lowest level description of reality, presumably the one that actually tells you something about how reality is. If there are hidden variables, then they can encompass extra information, such as exact positions and momenta, but with the extra information 'hidden' (hence the name) conforming to the uncertainty principle.

Non-local: loosely translated in this context, cause and effect in violation of the light-speed limitation of relativity. So for example, in a non-local hidden variable theory the momentum of a particle can be affected by the state of particles outside its light-cone: particles that in all other physical theories should have no effect on it.

Bell's inequalities rule out local hidden variable theories (i.e. ones that conform to relativity). The remaining alternatives are therefore non-local hidden variables or no hidden variables at all.

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kenmeer livermaile
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The socks the dryer eats: Schrodinger's Sox.
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Everard
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"May or may not have a precise position and momentum."

I'm not sure I entirely agree with that, but its a non-important argument, and I am entirely certain that you have a deeper level understanding of the mathematics, so I will concede the point for the purposes of this discussion [Smile]

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KnightEnder
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Don't we have "free-will" within certain parameters?

KE

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kenmeer livermaile
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If yo mama lets you...
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KnightEnder
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Yes, marriage even further narrows those parameters. [Smile]

KE

[ March 24, 2008, 08:10 PM: Message edited by: KnightEnder ]

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vulture
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If you'll forgive the thread necromancy (since it seemed to have died off) my necromantic powers recently unearthed a copy of the post I remember making on some ancient thread now lost to the archives a few years back on the subject, which I now quote here for your edification and amusement (and because it gives a very brief outline of the main thrust pf the Dennett book I mention for those who are interested).

quote:

It seems intuitively obvious to most people that if determinism is true, then we don't have free will (where determinism is the concept that the future state of the universe is entirely determined by its present state). Skipping over the issue of whether our universe is actually deterministic (randomness due to e.g. radioactive decays doesn't seem obviously like a source of free will to most people anyway), we can look at whether something resembling free will can co-exist with determinism.

A 'toy' argument can be made using computers, which are undeniably deterministic (barring certain exceptions such as random cosmic ray strikes flipping bits, or being connected to a source of genuine randomness such as a geiger counter). Consider a computer set up to run two chess programs (A and B) playing chess against each other. The computer is programmed to make a bell sound when A wins and a buzz sound then B wins (not terribly important, but makes a useful illustration later). We'll also note that like many such programs, A and B make use of pseudo-random number generators to chose between closely matched plays e.g. when it can't tell if move X or Y is better, it will randomly select between them (and also to randomly select from the stock of standard openings it understands).

Suppose A is better at chess than B, and wins the majority of the time. We might look at why A wins. Maybe B is very poor at developing its pieces and gets itself trapped in cramped positions. Maybe B relies too much on its queen, but is none the less willing to swap queens and put istelf in a position in which it plays badly.

The point of determinism is that who wins is determined by the pseudo-random number generator. Once the PRNG is seeded, the sequence of numbers it will generate is inevitable, and thus each step of the game is necessarily fixed by the PRNG - replay the game with the same PRNG seed and you will get exactly the same game over and over again. At move 27 B will fail to spot that castling is a good move every time.

Was it possible for B to have castled at move 27? One answer is that since replaying the game with the same PRNG seed will lead to B failing to castle. But suppose that castling is a move that B is capable of determining as best if it searches the move-tree more deeply, but is unable to do so due to time constraints (it is close to the end of the game, and B has very little time on the clock). In a game played without clock rules, where B has more time to search deeply, B finds the castling move and goes on to win the game it previously lost. There is a sense in which B could have castled. Or if we play the game to the start of that move and then reseed the random number generator, we might find that maybe 10% of the time B does stumble across the castling move. Maybe there is no way in which B could have castled - the benefits of castling would always remain hidden from it due to limitations in how deeply it searches the tree, or defects in its board evaluation algorithm, in which case we would be more comfortable saying that there was no way B could have castled, even though castling was a legal move - it wasn't a legal move that B was ever going to consider as best.

The question of free will and determinism is the question of which other actions are possible. Was it possible for B to have castled at move 27? The argument that it is impossible since that in the actual game that reaches that position, B didn't castle is arguably uninteresting.

(not sure if this was the whole post, but it's all I found while trying to dig some annoying software out of my laptop).
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kenmeer livermaile
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I remember this post.
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vulture
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quote:
Originally posted by kenmeer livermaile:
I remember this post.

Congratulations.

Have a cookie [Big Grin]

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KnightEnder
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I don't remember it, but I'd like a cookie.

KE

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vulture
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quote:
Originally posted by KnightEnder:
I don't remember it, but I'd like a cookie.

KE

No suitably configured neurons, no cookie.

Sorry, but them's the rules.

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KnightEnder
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Damn!
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kenmeer livermaile
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"Damn!"

Great story about MIles Davis. 1968 or so. John Mclaughlin and he go to see the Monterey Pop Festival movie, the one that introduced Hendrix to so many, where he did the lighter fluid thing etc.

MIles watches Hendrix and all he can do is keep turning to McLaughlin and say, "DAMN! DAMN! DAMN!"

McLaughlin is cracking up telling this story.

Good times.

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DonaldD
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You want cookies, go to a pron web site KE
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kenmeer livermaile
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*sigh* Dropping out of high school, I didn't get to take a date to pron.
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kenmeer livermaile
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"You want cookies, go to a pron web site KE"

Especially one about Girl Scouts. [Wink]

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