Saturday, July 26, 2014

the triviality of human significance

Like a cockroach, propaganda can survive. That category includes some of the undying arguments against materialistic naturalism. As I've said previously here and here, I define materialistic naturalism as a philosophical stance that contains two overlapping statements. First, if anything supernatural exists, then it is as equally indetectable and irrelevant as if it's nonexistent. Second, anything that does exist originates in material/physical stuff. I write "stance" because I recognize that these sweeping propositions aren't exhaustively proven like facts. Rather, the propositions match known facts and additionally presume that unknown facts will match just as closely.

Today's propaganda cockroach is the argument that materialistic naturalism enforces a total loss of human significance. It sounds like, "Without supernatural entities or metaphysical factors, nothing grants humans greater significance than anything else. Since a single atom cannot be significant, humans composed solely of atoms cannot be significant. Since significance is bestowed by a qualified external judge, humans cannot be bestowed with significance in the absence of supernatural entities. Since something must be relatively central and influential in the universe in order to be significant, humans cannot be significant unless physical laws assign those exceptional qualities to humans. Since something must be relatively long-lived or imperishable in order to be significant, the material of mortal human lives cannot be significant whenever the scale of the universe is considered massively old by comparison. Since significance is often an intangible feeling, tangible things cannot be the sole background of significance." And so on.

Although this overcomplicated line of reasoning might have enticed me once, I have less patience now for the "question" of human significance in materialistic naturalism. In my current perspective, its answer verges on "trivial", similar to the simplistic trivial solutions of a mathematical problem or proof. For instance, the subsets of set Q are the sets only of members that are also members of Q. The problem of finding the subsets of Q that fit particular criteria can be...hard sometimes (in fact, theoretically proven to not presently have a uniformly feasible general solution). But Q is a trivial subset of Q; after all, Q is a set of only members that are "also" members of Q.

Essentially, the trivial pragmatic reason behind the greater significance of the tiny materials within humans is that the materials are within humans. And the trivial reason humans are so significant to us is because we're human. My head is significant to me because it's my head. My brain is significant to me because it's my brain in my head. My brain cells are significant to me because my brain cells are in my brain in my head. Comparable "logic" applies to humans other than me. Their brain cells are significant to me because their brain cells are in their brains in their heads. Certainly I would acknowledge the awful significance of their tiny brain cells functioning worse, perhaps due to a degenerative disease.  

Furthermore, this trivial definition of human significance isn't in conflict with the finite realities of the small space-time position and impact of human lives. It's not hampered by confinement to a single off-center planet in a single off-center solar system in a single off-center galaxy. Nor is it hampered by the limited number of decades between birth and death. The more insightful question isn't whether grander knowledge of the whole universe reduces significance. It's "Why would anyone think it reduces significance?" Why was there such a staggeringly disproportionate estimate of significance to start with? If significance to the whole universe shrinks as the estimate grows more accurate, then nothing is "lost" except the former believability of the outlandish fictional estimate. Humans have only been "demoted" from a noble rank that was never theirs in actuality anyway. How shocking it is to not assume that humans aren't the pinnacle or purpose of the whole universe.

Even so, I can appreciate one of the possible motives for seeking to expand significance and anchor it firmly in external realities: objectivity. I admit that the opposite strategy is more subjective in nature. If significance is derived from human judgment, then it's probably bounded correspondingly by provincial human concerns. And given the multitude of humans and human concerns, it will probably be constructed in a multitude of varieties. But the quest for objective significance is fruitless. Perfectly objective significance would be somewhat detached from human standards. Yet if significance were somewhat detached from human standards, then humans wouldn't be likely satisfied with it. Just as one human's measurement of significance might not be satisfying to another, neither might an inhuman measurement of significance. To name the obvious example, someone might reasonably disagree with "objective divine writ" which calls them a negligible member of a permanently insignificant out-group...

In contrast, I don't understand a second possible motive for rejecting materialistic naturalism: the absurd poetic demand that a thing's explanation must have identical human significance as the thing itself. Depending on the context and goal, either the thing or the explanation might have more applicable significance. The activity of reading about the Krebs cycle shouldn't need to feel energetic for the information to be acceptable. Memorization of the chemical bonds of serotonin doesn't need to alleviate depression. The numerical magnitude of the neuron threshold potential doesn't need to trigger memories of Grandmother. Accurate representations of low-level complex realities don't somehow invalidate or replace the significance of human-level experiences. The explanation's significance is independent. Its amount of "mystery" isn't vital to preserving the experience's significance. Detailed studies, consistent with materialistic naturalism, don't diminish it. Likewise, shadowy conjectures, inconsistent with materialistic naturalism, merely decorate it. A decisive event in someone's personal history affected them vividly and had long-lasting ramifications. That's why they weighed its significance so heavily, no matter the alleged comparative contributions of natural processes or ineffable Fate, no matter the individual's vocation of scientist or clergy.

That objection is related to the mistaken assertion that someone who follows materialistic naturalism cannot claim that human significance is an important question. I don't wish to give that impression. I would never state that the question's trivial difficulty is accompanied by trivial importance. Identifying precise manifestations of human significance is a valuable undertaking. I think it's commendable to deliberately evaluate one's own wide-ranging effects, not from an unearthly vantage point, but through reference to one's own powers and chosen ideals. Why is a chosen ideal a worthy benchmark of significance? The answer is trivially obtained: it's worthy by whatever rationales that caused it to be chosen, of course. It's meaningful via straightforward ties to the realities of specific human experiences. It's not dependent on stupendous otherworldly significance, grounded in mystical afterlives and deities. Why does it need to be? Why isn't it enough?  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

social network connectivity problems

Recently I've been reminiscing about the individualized experiences that nudged me out of my former faith-beliefs, as opposed to the intellectual or philosophical factors. Although I repeat that I wasn't driven away by other followers' actions toward me, it's also fair to say that I almost completely lacked a comfortable sensation of "belonging". To the extent I did, it was too faint to motivate me to try to squelch my genuine objections. I've read de-conversion stories in which former followers were slow to acknowledge their creeping doubts because of their close interpersonal connections to their religious community. Or they suddenly left because of painful community conflict.

I don't fit those extremes. Generally speaking, I was just someone who didn't manage to connect meaningfully with other followers. I'm not seeking to provoke pity or assign blame. My musings on the causes are probably permeated by hindsight bias. I suspect that, as with a lot of realities, the contributors were varied and linked. Certainly my uncoerced conscious choices were one component. I'm only outlining some emotional/social/psychological mismatches that affected me, whether or not they were inevitable, whether or not I was partially responsible.

Of all these frictions, the top must have been my minimal participation in the wide range of social events. It partly stemmed from my default guarded disposition. I have a nigh-irresistible compulsion to freeze or withdraw in threatening contexts, such as when I'm interacting with someone whom I want to impress. Its intensity is comparable to a biological drive. The second part was my sincere absence of curiosity for the minutiae of others' lives. I cared for their abstract wellbeing, but I couldn't force myself to care about the details. I wished them the best. I was willing to help on request. That didn't mean I thought about them. Unlike the stereotype of churchgoers, I was never tempted to gossip, because it bored me. Casual talk was more like a chore than, well, literal chores—I'd rather be handed a task to facilitate the social event than be in the middle of it.  

I worried about this aversion regularly. I wasn't selfish, but I wasn't friendly either. I claimed to be integral to a community allegedly bound together by a supernatural level of love. So why wasn't I captivated by the community's usual set of tiny triumphs and catastrophes? It seemed to me that the spiritual ideal was to eagerly devote myself to involvement in their lives. So why weren't my impulses actually progressing toward that ideal? I was advised to treat them as well as I would treat Christ. So why didn't I value time with them?

The predicament was exacerbated by divergent interests. Although I was an independent adult, I chose churches based on adherence to my parents' religious tradition, not based on degree of similarity with the attendees. Indeed, this single-minded criterion of "deep" agreement on doctrine brought me to a church in which I was isolated by my differences in every other aspect. My acquaintances from church were happily simple. When I apply that label, I'm not insulting them—they wouldn't consider the label an insult at all.

They worked hard but they weren't rich. Their spending habits were careful. They did crafts and their own repairs. They played softball, basketball, golf. Inside they played tabletop games with cards, dice, boards, dominoes. In accordance with the overall judgment that most national entertainment was clearly soaked in evil, they didn't keep up to date with current TV or film. If they read, they preferred undemanding subjects. They weren't fascinated by most recent electronics. They admired pastimes in lightly-tamed wilderness "created by God for our pleasure": camping, fishing, hiking, hunting. Living simply was in their ethos.

I've exaggerated and generalized a lot. My main point is that in my typical time as an adult follower, I was "odd". I had little in common with my counterparts. Apart from the church's prearrangement, we didn't have separate informal reasons to associate. What would we have done or discussed if we did? In effect, I was like an outsider who was on the inside. I could hardly complain about being excluded from group activities that everyone knew I wouldn't enjoy.

Earlier I commented that I chose churches based on shared doctrine. Despite those efforts, my relative "oddness" as a follower also applied to conversations about Christian teachings. I was known as excessively analytical, unusually insistent about clarifying vague details, purposefully hesitant to make easy assumptions, and strangely concerned with the supporting justifications for ordinary ideas. After I asked a question and received an answer, I had a habit of then asking the second essential question "Why?" I wasn't rebellious or troublesome. I respected my mentors' education and commitment and practical experience. Nevertheless, such respect didn't imply that "Because I said so" was acceptable even from them. I was well aware that the long history of Protestantism was the successive toppling of quite fallible human authorities.

I could cope with someone saying "I don't know" or "It's tradition" as long as they spoke with sympathetic candor. The retort that irked me far more was the gentle insinuation that my inquisitiveness was the problem. For unlike the majority of assertions about vitally important realities, somehow faith-beliefs had the unique privilege of claiming trust without rigor. They were permitted to be ill-defined and entirely dependent on perspective. Some hinted that the supernatural didn't consist of reliable realities which could be represented symbolically. I sometimes heard that daring to think about them too much was a mistake; it would produce nothing more than destructive doubts.

To the contrary, they were to be felt and obeyed. Faith-beliefs were for the "heart" not the "head". They were more like a set of inspirational stories than puzzle pieces to assemble into something coherent. God was a gut feeling, and the supernatural was the special case in which gut feelings were all-sufficient. To become effective followers, personality types like mine needed to learn to disconnect their thoughts from their emotions, and their knowledge from their actions. They were obligated to quarantine sections of themselves in several compartments, so the sections wouldn't battle. And so they wouldn't clash with instinctual followers who didn't have misgivings.

Compartmentalization was the implicit path, if I was to persist in being serious about my faith-beliefs' ideas. And it was useful not only for seriously accepting the ideas but for seriously doing them. It was a valuable weapon against thought crimes. As far I knew, particular thoughts were abominable: pride, hatred, lust, etc. I figured that whenever I sensed those thoughts' low-level precursors, the imperative was to flee, ignore, suppress.

I suppose I grew skilled at it. The downside was that it wasn't good for me. I definitely didn't benefit from an invincible excuse to indulge tendencies toward passivity and harsh self-judgment. Given my individual mild nature, I wasn't at risk of evil acts like selfishness or hostility or promiscuity to start with. Rather than stigmatizing the related urges, I needed to hear that I shouldn't underestimate myself, pretend to never be upset, or try to squash every sexual attraction. I realize the interpretation was self-serving: I used the notion of Christian thought crimes to further ingrain traits which I should've undermined instead.

Eventually, this zealous approach backfired in the area of romance. If the definition of lust was mere mental contemplation of erotic desires outside of the confines of an official church marriage, then the legal reasoning was straightforward: an unmarried follower couldn't think that way about anyone for any reason. In addition, since an official church marriage was the goal of all romantic relationships, then nobody should attempt one unless they were willing for it to lead to marriage in the near future, such as a year later.

By following this reasoning, I self-righteously thought that I was obviously more earnest and God-pleasing than my peers. When they formed relationships that included sex, they were wrong. And if they avoided sexual activity, they were at best forming relationships that were futile; they weren't yet old enough to consider marriage. The superior route was to give up on the whole enterprise until the arrival of maturity and financial independence. I was already avoidant, so I didn't think it was impossible.

In retrospect the outcome was predictable. All my peers who had "foolishly" learned by experience how to start and maintain relationships were the ones who successfully dated and married. But when I abstained and constantly denied and denigrated my feelings of attraction, I failed to develop adequate skills and confidence. I customarily disregarded and devalued the concept of myself as a romantic partner. I had a conditioned reflex to reject viewing anyone else as one, either. After years, I couldn't abruptly flip a switch to reverse it.

With good intentions, I'd adopted a moral attitude that was much more appropriate for the model of marriage as a formal transaction. It wasn't suited for charming someone into a freely defined equal partnership, which had the gradual destination of marriage. Somehow I'd been led to act as if I were in a different society than, well, mine. I'd been instructed to resist my society's pattern but not how to feasibly replace it. Exactly how was an unmarried human expected to never think a lustful thought when they were finding a spouse, anyway?

Worse, the passage of time once again placed me in an "odd" cohort of follower. I was the one who had strangely consented to advice about distancing myself from romance. Yet all along, the better response had been to internalize the one command  "no sex" but otherwise develop like anyone else. The ones who did this were now married. As spouses, especially with children, they were the church's main constituency. Marriage and parenting were the major topic emphases for adults. I was always welcome, but the circumstances of my life were often irrelevant to the lesson.

However, unmarried members were envied for their greater availability. They had more time to spend outside their households. They had the potential to reach out to more of The Lost. And the basic method of evangelism was to be vibrant and encouraging. Wherever they went and whoever they met, God's goodness was meant to shine through followers. Onlookers would then wonder what the followers had, and then wish that they weren't bored outsiders. They'd see the followers doing good and then blame God for it. When the opportunity arose, followers were to offer heartfelt explanations of their own beliefs and autobiography. They were to spread the truths that they had tested for themselves. (To readers disgusted by the sanctimony, I apologize.)

Needless to say, I didn't fill this mold either. I wasn't overflowing with joy...or any other sentiment about my faith-beliefs, really. I didn't literally adore Christ. I couldn't claim with candor that I was seeing the supernatural "at work in my life". I wasn't sure which parts of the Bible were metaphorical or obsolete. I didn't know how a follower could thoroughly confirm that the Holy Ghost was in them and thereby shielding them from divine wrath (we didn't perform or require glossolalia). I was disturbed by the terrible events that God routinely allowed. And even if I had been certain about what to say, my standoffish demeanor wouldn't entice anyone to listen. I'd die of starvation if I worked in sales. Yes, I held some faith-beliefs, but I wasn't passionate about them most of the time. I wasn't interested in pestering someone else to change their mind.

On the other hand, I know that not all religious groups are intent on evangelism. I imagine I would have merged more smoothly into those. It's difficult to picture an alternative universe in which I migrated into a more fitting gathering, perhaps in another location altogether. Would I have stopped attending it so readily? Would I have relished participating in a more "modernized" form that discards most faith-beliefs? Would someone there have noticed my "lapse"? Would I be drastically different, then or now?

I don't know. Maybe there isn't a conclusion to draw. Maybe I wouldn't have built substantive bonds in any case. I'm glad that atheists/humanists are alert to the need for personal networks that can compete with the kind offered by established faith-beliefs. But for me, that happens to be a non-issue. The prospect of no longer qualifying as "odd" is a step up all on its own. There's no contest.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

ethics pretzels

Sometimes I read puzzled internet commentary about the incomprehensible ethics of religious followers, as if questioning how they can reach and embrace ethical statements which are almost laughable...or palpably loathsome. From my present vantage point, I can sympathize with the bewilderment. But I also can recall the time when my sympathies were switched, and my personal ethics were entangled in my former faith-beliefs.

I cannot justify such a mindset. Nor do I want to justify it. I can try to describe it, though. Like the previous entry, this one has a tighter focus because I'm analyzing my distinct religious history. I don't claim to represent the full diversity of Christianity throughout time and space.

My best qualities weren't substantially different then. I had a lot of the same ethical senses and standards: candor, empathy, fair play, compromise, self-responsibility, creativity. I had a lot of the same abilities to think logically—I couldn't have performed my job if I didn't. The critical factor was more like defective routing. 

My faith-beliefs channeled my judgment through a circuit of deductive loops. That circuit could mimic an impression of logical steps, but the overall path was circular. It twisted and bent back on itself. Its rationales were codependent. It served to provoke feelings of reasonableness purely within the context that it furnished for itself. It was made to be self-isolated and self-reinforced. Its shape wasn't the expected straight line from axiom to conclusion. It was pretzel-shaped. Applying it to ethics baked "ethics pretzels".

Rather than list many examples, I'll cover broad categories. One of those was the ethics lessons that were perplexing, to put it mildly. Even as a child, my concealed first response to some lessons was confusion or distaste. Why would a moral lesson smell so immoral or strange?

Pretzel-shaped logic came to the rescue. Every human sinned, but not necessarily in identical ways. To each of them, a sin could appear to be "doing right in your own eyes". Ergo, every human's native perception of morality was probably not perfectly attuned. If a new lesson smelled immoral to someone, then the lesson wasn't necessarily at fault. Their fallible egocentric conscience could be the explanation. They needed to learn that their moral lenses were too smudged for them to estimate simple ethics for themselves.

To twist the argument further, if not every human was in close agreement with a moral lesson, then their discomfort was proof that the moral lesson wasn't subjective and relative to human preferences. An unlikable reality had more credence simply because of the unlikelihood that anyone had invented it to please themselves. Through this perverse reversal, a moral lesson that didn't smell moral at first was more likely to be objective and absolute, i.e. "genuinely" moral. 

In other cases, the lessons I heard were blatant teachings of the church community's conventional norms. Of course their norms weren't in the Bible, and nobody claimed that God had sent the norms to them via a prophet. Nevertheless, they treated their norms with equivalent sternness. This ethics pretzel relied on the premise that since God never changed, God had to be an incurable traditionalist about virtually everything. It was in favor of outcomes which happened to be part of the status quo. The norms in turn regulated the status quo, so God must have implicitly endorsed the norms, regardless of whether the norms were dogma. A typical pretzel ingredient was the outcome of correct family life. God was "obviously" a major advocate for correct family life. Therefore norms that could be connected tenuously to correct family life were unconditionally backed by God's approval. (Items such as the rampant polygamy of Israelite kings and the Apostle Paul's proud singleness were left out or pronounced exceptional.)

And then some ethics pretzels were more abstract, specifically God's behavior. Given that God had explicitly prescribed lots of mandatory animal sacrifices a long time ago, presumably there weren't any less bloody alternatives to enabling God's toleration of human evildoers. Christ was the designated final sacrifice for this purpose. Left to themselves in the afterlife, the souls of human evildoers still couldn't be tolerated by God, so their default fate was God-forsaken and hellish. Human souls could achieve God's toleration of them by reusing Christ's final sacrifice through spiritual union with it. To someone who has been taught it for years, this ethics pretzel has a peculiar self-consistency.

To everyone else, its thinly stretched complexity is much less credible, and its persuasive value was additionally lowered by the endless technical disagreements among Christian subgroups. God's nature somehow demanded ultimate violence in order to dispel its wrath, yet the sole fully sufficient target of that violence was itself. Its expression of mercy was to throw itself in the path of the bullet which it was also firing. It was loving, but it was incapable of forgiveness without venting its aggression too. It didn't wish to cast out humans, but it certainly would if they weren't shielded by Christ.

No matter its baffling pretzel foundation, this juxtaposition was at minimum an undeniably potent instance of carrot-and-stick motivational strategy. A secondary payoff was the momentous emphasis placed on a malleable nebulous goal. Spiritual union with Christ could be precisely defined in a multitude of concrete methods, and followers were inclined to listen to the all-important goal's details ("...earnest faith in Christ means that you'll care about this and act like that...").

Ethics pretzels were baked for topics outside the faith-beliefs as well. Although the Bible was missing lectures from Christ about supply-side macroeconomics, the most Christian economic regime was synonymous with the least amount of oversight and taxes. The regime's ethically superior economy wasn't intelligently designed, but it naturally evolved from the numerous gradual adaptations of selfish participants who competed over finite resources to survive in various niches. This highly moral regime didn't enforce restrictions on ego or greed, and it was intentionally indifferent about its losers or about intangible and/or long-term side-effects.

The roundabout defense for it rested on incredibly naive shallow comparisons such as moral consequences and wealth. Just as each individual's freely chosen virtuous decisions led to a better world, wealth was an indication that an individual had made virtuous decisions in their economic activities. This comparison wasn't groundless, but it had wildly varying amounts of accuracy. In countless situations, an individual's admirable attributes and deeds were in fact partially responsible for their wealth. They wouldn't be as wealthy without their prudence, conscientiousness, flexibility, diligence, considerateness, self-denial. Hence this ethics pretzel curled wealth into a straightforward reward of a market participant's virtue. As a result, aid to the impoverished curled into undeserved rewards for lack of virtue, and taxing the wealthy at a steeper rate curled into a punishing reduction of their well-earned rewards.

Notwithstanding its popularity among the well-off, it was one huge exercise in overgeneralizing. It was grievously incomplete in its willful ignorance of realities that didn't fit its ideal. Counterexamples to it were legion. Wealth was inherited, not only directly but indirectly through miscellaneous advantages. A worker's virtue was irrelevant if they worked in an outdated occupation. For others, a chance opportunity or accidentally perfect timing were part of the start of their success. Some may have worked very hard and consistently...but due to their unsophisticated skills their job had a minuscule wage. Or maybe income was spectacular...on the condition of performing unethical acts to get it, or sabotaging competitors, or conspiring to subjugate the whole market. On the other hand, some may have accumulated sizable wealth...prior to the unpredictable calamity that demolished the bulk of their assets and/or their ability to work. None of these factual scenarios disturbed or complicated the ethics pretzel. Like the rest, a facet of its appeal was that, despite its winding turns, it's a single unbroken line nonetheless. Its form doesn't include nuances such as disparate pieces or layers mixed together. It's sheer elegance in its simplicity.

A telling flaw in this ethics pretzel was its coexistence with innumerable alternate pretzels, in differing places or times, in which Christianity was woven with equal ease to support managed egalitarian economic regimes. As I conceded before, I recognize that I cannot cover the complete set of alternates, such as speedy annihilation of the unsaved dead in place of lasting separation from God. In general, the great pretzel divergence began almost as soon as the religion did.

The shortsighted reactions were councils and creeds, not to mention heresy trials. But forced uniformity defeats the larger aim of an ethics pretzel, which is to redirect the forces that could potentially goad a follower out of the faith-belief. Like an ant crawling on it, the follower's restlessness is absorbed in traversing across it to nowhere new. In that way, it's a teammate of apologetics: more likely to reassure and cement followers than to entice the resistant unconverted. If a wider selection is available for matching the taste of every follower, then they're more likely to remain satisfied. It averts the oft proven danger of broadening the intellect and sensibility of a follower; they may tire of pretzels. ("I'm sick of searching for convoluted pretexts for ethics that seem too narrow now.")

Saturday, June 28, 2014

the legend of miraculous resolve

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. —G.K. Chesterton
When I've mused on my dismissal of my faith-beliefs, I've usually emphasized the intellectual and philosophical causes. I've avoided a narrow focus on the minutiae of my own history with religion, which is intertwined with tiresome sectarian details. But by doing so, I wonder if I'm leaving the wrong impression. I dismissed my faith-beliefs after living them. I wasn't a disembodied being of pure thought. My dissatisfaction wasn't confined to the logical consequences of an abstract set of theorems and counterexamples.

Despite appearances, the dismissal of my faith-beliefs was the end of a story. Fortunately for me, that story was admittedly dull in its lack of drama or plot or trauma (I once described my apostasy as "reluctant"). The primary antagonist was neither oppression nor hypocrisy but the creeping meaninglessness of my faith-beliefs. While I found meaninglessness embedded in the underlying ideas, around the same time I found it in the story of my sincere attempts to comply with the rules of conduct. A prime example was an empty theological promise which I'll grandly name the legend of miraculous resolve.

This story's setting was hardly original. I suspect that my experiences were extremely average among the American subculture of weekly churchgoers (including attendance at midweek and holiday events). My parents devoted their family to a traditional strain of evangelical-ish Protestant beliefs. We presumed the eternal existence of the Trinity, positive and negative destinies for souls after biological death, inborn sin, salvation via faith in atonement, authority of scripture, etc. Outside of church itself, we prayed together, consumed a lot of Christian-themed media and products, performed some charitable activities, and tied morality to God.

On the other hand, we didn't live in isolation. We attended public schools. We weren't outspokenly political. We weren't forbidden from "secular" stuff, although in practice much of it was off-limits due to content. Roughly speaking, our understanding of the Bible was neither extremely literal nor extremely metaphorical. I don't remember being taught creationism. All of us read regularly, though I chose scientific topics more often than the rest. I was generally permitted to read any educational book because facts weren't considered dangerous or objectionable like sex/violence/swearing/blasphemy. In retrospect I realize that the tenor of our Midwestern Christianity was indeed midway between the stereotypes of hard-line domineering churches in the South and flexible lenient churches in the Northeast.

Oddly, this middle road even pertained to prevailing opinions about miraculous divine intervention. Everyone believed in the miracles that happened long ago on unique occasions in the Bible, yet they never assumed astounding miracles would ever happen to them. It was common knowledge that heavenly intervention was understated and mysteriously fickle. They offered off-putting rationalizations such as the following three. First, the most saintly believers praying the most faith-filled prayers seldom got beneficial coincidences, much less stupendous miracles; why would anyone arrogantly presume God's favoritism in their situation instead? Second, salvation from depravity/sin/Hell was already a huge undeserved gift; to start further negotiations was like pestering God for cheap trifles. Third, unwavering contentment was a sign of a mature believer who valued the spiritual realm more than the temporary physical realm; endlessly begging for instant improvements of one's circumstances was both a sign of unreasonable greed and a missed opportunity for building character. Praying on behalf of cancer patients was proper; questioning why the cancer didn't always go into sudden remission was not.

However, they were less tentative about supernatural adjustments in the broad category of subjective phenomena. I covered this a bit when I criticized treating mood shifts or epiphanies as informative evidence. But in my particular past, notable episodes of "spiritual transcendence" weren't a major occurrence or pursuit. They didn't match my stuffy personality. And they weren't encouraged by the teachings and style of my family's stuffy church tradition. That tradition would've tolerated them while still tending to view them as frivolous distractions from substantial activities such as Bible study or altruism or rejecting temptations. Its preferred manifestations were more down-to-earth and methodical and productive. In place of mind-blowing mental fireworks, the recommended plea was superhuman aid for living a "more Christian" life: a miraculous level of resolve.

To reiterate, miraculous resolve was much more significant than an respectable wish. It was a prerequisite for the expectation that authentic Christians should be changing perceptibly over time. Christianity was portrayed as a thorough commitment with dynamic consequences. Just as Christ's love for humans entailed horrendous self-sacrifice, really loving Christ in return entailed dedicated effort too. Officially, mere salvation was a designated starting point: it was a follower's initial connection to the Trinity. From then on the follower's ongoing godly connection implied that they were constantly molding their souls and lives closer to church ideals (for the curious: the term was "sanctifying"). Of course, like the opening Chesterton quote said, this project was difficult when taken seriously. No wonder casual followers were glad to settle for their unambitious moderate religiosity...if they were aware of the more challenging doctrine at all.

Hence miraculous resolve was the counterpart to the intentionally fanatical standard. The method to obey God better was as predictable as a one track playlist set on repeat: "more God". It was another ramification of the Trinity. Not only had God died in order to appease God, but God was the key to remaking oneself to love God through relentless obedience. The wellspring for "victorious" living wasn't natural human willpower but supernatural deliverance. A duty of faith was to seek greater faith. In fact, the theological system stated that external reinforcement was necessary. The innately "depraved" earthy self couldn't suffice for attaining abnormal God-pleasing conformity. The sinful self, the flesh, had to symbolically die to give way to a replacement spiritual self that communed with God; that was the ritualized symbolism of adult baptism. Strict as they were, these specific ideas weren't especially exotic or far-fetched or controversial. The contrast of living by the spirit versus living by the flesh was a recurring theme in the rather dry "church correspondence" section of the Bible. It was reflected in the similarity between the words "carnal" and "carnivorous" (and carne asada, but that's not important right now).

Summing up, if I trusted the accuracy of my church tradition, then miraculous resolve was neither an unreachable dream nor an optional attachment. It was an indispensable tool. It was a defining characteristic of earnest followers. It was integral to acting on the basis that the god in my faith-beliefs was a reality. Therefore I began trying to embrace the concept. I had plenty of flaws to target. I asked God for miraculous resolve. Then, when I didn't feel any powerful help forthcoming, and so I failed again, I asked again. Later, when my mentality and motivations remained the same, and so I failed again, I asked again. Afterward, when I defied the limits of my talents and predisposition, and so I failed again, I asked again. By my estimation, reliance on miraculous resolve had yielded...nothing. There were no spectacular long-lasting transformations. I didn't sense an infusion of mana or chi to fuel my decisions. The routine pull of negative emotion wasn't neutralized or counterbalanced. Sometimes the outcomes corresponded to my notion of God's will, and sometimes not. In either case, my resistance hadn't multiplied. The sides continued a close see-sawing rivalry.

Obsessive begging for miraculous resolve was shown to be useless. I was apparently assigned full self-responsibility to be the best individual I could. As I write this now from an outsider's viewpoint, I certainly recognize that this plight isn't as devastating as I thought back then. It's, well, just ordinary human self-management, familiar to anyone who has tried to reverse bad habits like unhealthy eating. Many generalized strategies abound: 1) planning beforehand to handle contingencies and to dodge tough situations altogether, 2) tweaking the options so that the right one requires less effort than the wrong one, 3) contriving rewards and punishments for oneself, 4) diverting attention to a harmless alternative, 5) anticipating and responding to future satisfaction or disappointment with oneself, 6) rehearsing or pre-committing the decision, 7) leveraging social pressure, 8) developing self-denial in less weighty contexts, 9) visualizing goals repeatedly, 10) self-monitoring by tracking and recording progress, and more. Faith-beliefs are independent of these strategies. Christians frequently use and spread them, albeit along with hazy religious allusions and warmed-over Bible quotations. When old-fashioned Christians have a craving to ridicule popular forms of Christianity, they may suggest unfavorable comparisons to insipid inspirational self-help.

No matter how useful and sensible these practical strategies were, I couldn't stop noticing that they were substitutes nonetheless. I'd been led to believe that I was supported by an omnipotent god which longed for me to succeed at the task of not angering it. Moreover, all the tales indicated that it had invigorated numerous humans historically; it had done it so much that one of its names was "Holy Ghost". It demanded nothing more than the faith of eager recipients. It didn't have a good excuse for turning down this small-scale self-contained petition: no subtle negative side-effects were applicable. Empowering a follower would have the side-effect of definitively confirming the follower's belief in its current existence, but surely that qualified as a positive. One of its principal long-term objectives was extending its rule over humans. Facilitating the subservient decisions of a willing follower was an outright fulfillment of that objective. An opposite approach of indirectness or aloofness was pointless and potentially counterproductive. Forcing a human to build an autonomous reservoir of resolve would risk the discovery that their god wasn't essential to moral action...

I couldn't imagine plausible explanations behind God's everlasting refusal to play an active and caring role in my flailing renovation of myself. I proceeded to check and recheck whether I wasn't doing enough, such as periodic fasting, to express my goodwill and devotion. Eventually I stopped fixating. I figured that, for whatever incomprehensible reason, God was delighted to watch me strive to outwit myself...and lose repetitively when my willpower inevitably ran out or when it just temporarily fluctuated. Based on the disheartening results, I slowly quit hoping that the Christian god would assist my endeavors to follow Christianity.

The next stage was pondering if miraculous resolve was a legend all along. Maybe "God filling and supervising the soul" amounted to a presumptuous mythological description of an exceptional level of compulsive preoccupation with Christian concepts. Maybe it was an ingrained habit of envisioning God more or less continually: a conditioned response wrapped more tightly around every impulse than a "WWJD" bracelet. As long as the follower said their well-trained reactions felt like a circuit judge was in their brain keeping them in line—nudging them to do good and guarding their motives from evil—then they proclaimed a spirit thing was at work inside them. But such well-trained reactions had been introduced and nurtured by unremarkable humans through unremarkable techniques.

By itself, this somewhat cynical speculation wasn't fatal to my faith-beliefs. Yet the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. It was an additional crack in a cracked structure. I'd allowed myself too much candor while I listened to too many unsettling signals. Knowledgeable experts had no need of supernatural hypotheses in their various domains. Unbiased research hadn't exposed a testable difference between corporeal brains and spooky souls. Cases of divine intervention were unreliable and ambiguous. Worshipers' sensations of exhilaration transparently hinged on their surroundings—they didn't feel spiritual unless the service met their opinions of True Spirituality. Given the loud endless debates among Christian groups, "absolute biblical" morality didn't deserve its supposed reputation of a fixed collection of well-defined rules and principles. In related news, their shared reverence for the Bible's "unchanging" and "unmistakable" message didn't coerce them to agree on the message's extracted contents.

Frankly, the data were pushing me toward the substantiated theory that my faith-beliefs' god turned out to be shockingly indistinguishable from a nonexistent god. This trend was corroborated by the demotion of miraculous resolve to a legend. If the legend were accurate, then the implications would be dazzling and incredible, after all. It was the endorsed direct encounter with the Holy Ghost. It was the foremost evidence that the Trinity was an irrepressible influence on the present. It achieved far more than good intentions, polite manners, and compassionate donations. It was the turbocharged engine that effected the uncanny emphatic goodness of followers in comparison to The Lost, i.e. non-Christians. It was incompatible with the proposition that a profound spiritual link to a god didn't have any effect. It was contrary to the "humble" statement "I'm a sinner saved by grace, so God doesn't mind if I stay the same forever." It was rebirth. It was an inward perpetual fountain of living water. It was the unstoppable progress of the pilgrim. It was the ultimate proof, superior to every type of apologetics and impossible to discredit. It would lead to the question, addressed only in reference to Christianity, "When the followers of this god persistently overflow with an unnatural sacrificial love for humanity, how could this god not be the one that's true?"

Yep. Uh-huh. Right.

Since this saccharine vision sounded nothing like the known behavior of the majority of Christians who existed outside of sanitized stories, the category of "legend" was quite appropriate. Clearly, the inability to obtain miraculous resolve was widespread—not a fault of mine alone. So the defectiveness of my faith-belief went beyond formidable metaphysical objections. It didn't pass its own test. It consistently undershot its own ambitions. It didn't seem to function in accordance with its advertised design when it was put to strenuous use.

An objector might reasonably accuse me of devaluing the entirety of Christianity because of awful Christian individuals, like devaluing Chopin because I heard an awful piano player. In the Gaussian distribution of Christians, some are very good, some are very bad, and the bulk are nearer to the median. That misses the relevant point: if Christianity is actually turning commonplace humans into saintly incarnations of sacred power and control, then the Gaussian distribution of Christians should be drastically skewed. The correlation of "Christian" and "good" should be systemically extreme. If not, then perhaps the Christian factor, and by extension the Christian god, is not a predictor of goodness. Good Christians must be good via their individual resolve, which to be fair was cultivated in the midst of their cultural religious context. When they strive to meet their chosen ideals, they end up relying on their own might (as I said more than a year ago, their religion is their Dumbo feather of ethics). Chesterton's quote could have another line at the end: "But when the difficult ideal had been tried, the might of God was found wanting."

Monday, June 16, 2014

gyroscope interrupt

I happily concede that my analogies for meditation and mindfulness are shockingly...artificial. Normally, the analogies are more, uh, "organic": plants, animals, bodies of water, weather. I don't attach much importance to this disparity, because it stems from an incidental gap of history. Analogies aid communication within a context. Long ago, the teachers of mindfulness meditation chose palpable references which they and their followers knew. For their era and expertise, those references happened to often be organic. In the same way, my utterly artificial analogies reflect my technological era and expertise.

For instance, recurring mindfulness begins to function like a gyroscope interrupt. Seriously.

To start with, equilibrium is already an indispensable metaphor for mental states. If someone isn't feeling a fierce emotion or obsessing over a compelling idea, then they're said to be centered, unperturbed, neutral, level, placid. In a word, they have equilibrium which is still. Mental phenomena, both positive or negative, are likened to disturbances of equilibrium. Someone may say that they feel flattened, unsteady, turned upside-down, struck off-balance, etc.

When devices measure changes in equilibrium, a gyroscope might be involved. It has a part that can tilt somewhat independently. That part has its own ongoing form of momentum such as a freely rotating wheel. Due to its momentum, it's less influenced by attempts to divert its tilt. And since it can have a somewhat independent tilt, the rest of the device can tilt to a greater degree around it, and that difference in degree is the measurement.

Without knowing the full rationale, all this ingenuity might appear to be a convoluted answer to a simpleminded question. Obviously, many times in everyday life, changes in an item's equilibrium immediately affect its varying relationships to nearby items. The surface of a ball rises and drops when it rolls. When a vehicle's back wheels slide, the driver sees the oncoming road jerk sideways. But these measurements are external and relative. If nearby items are unavailable or hidden, then the gyroscope can measure equilibrium shifts anyway. Its reference item is within. Its operation is a reversal of perspective. An apparent movement of the device's inner parts signifies outer movement of the whole device.

Neither do humans have an inborn infallible point of reference for estimating disruptions to their mental equilibria. They need to intentionally develop a stable persistent memory of complete psychological calm. It functions as their "gyroscope of stillness". They can review it regardless of whether their usual self-evaluation is itself impaired, like an airplane pilot that reviews a gyroscope regardless of whether the horizon is obscured. To recall stillness is to cause sharp awareness of anything else happening at that moment, because it contrasts with stillness.

Meditation itself contributes in two ways. First, it resets and reinforces the gyroscope of stillness to fit its particular ideal. The beginner's preexisting concept of stillness might have been mediocre or vague in comparison. They may not have fully understood and felt the stillness required for steadily observing only their breathing for twenty consecutive minutes. Of course, someone who's proficient needs regular resetting and reinforcement too; without intervention, an ambitious target fades and the corresponding scale of perception narrows again.

Second, meditation contributes opportunities to ingrain the act of reviewing the gyroscope of stillness. It's a setting and time period dedicated to repeating that specific act. Its circumstances are easier than normal in order to thoroughly prepare for tougher circumstances. It allows for transforming the act into a well-rehearsed habitual skill...or a learned instinct. As with training in general, over time, laborious conscious concentration leads to semi-automatic routine.

Once this act is ingrained, it can readily work in many situations other than meditation. In those situations, attention is mainly elsewhere, so sudden broad awareness of internal status is an intrusion on it. For devices, comparable intrusions can consist of a signal called an interrupt (noun). An interrupt forces the device to switch from its main task to processing a response. Most likely, a major part of the response is to just store a data-filled "to-do note" for the very near future—waiting for whenever the relevant task will have its turn. The last step of the response is to resume the main task from before the interrupt.

While each interrupt response should be small and temporary work for the device, it's nevertheless incredibly rapid by human standards. During Tetris, an interrupt represents every time that the player orders the falling block to rotate or shift. If they pressed a button or key, then the movement of an underlying component notifies the device's central processor(s) with an interrupt. Without it, the game would simply continue to compute the block's progress along a predictable path (actually, the predictable path relies on a timer interrupt so that the rate of the block's "fall" is appropriate for the difficulty of play).

But inside a device that can serve a wide range of purposes, numerous diverse components can send streams of interrupts as well. In fact, recent mass-market electronic devices might even include a cunning miniature gyroscope-based sensor. When the gyroscope detects motion, the device is alerted by an interrupt. Hence, the overall effect of the gyroscope interrupt is that the device can react to abrupt disturbances of its equilibrium no matter what else it's processing.

In similar fashion, the gyroscope interrupt is like a subject experiencing mindfulness while they're not in the altered state of meditation. For example, when they're irritated by a problem, they not only perceive the problem and invent solutions; they notice their irritation. When they're angered by another's selfishness, they notice bodily tenseness and an urgent impulse to retaliate. When they're envious or greedy, they notice inaccurate beliefs about the causes of lasting contentment. When they're striving to cling to wishful notions about their pure motivations, they notice the existence of opposite sentiments. When they're churned by undercurrents of anxiety, they notice the resultant nervous motions of their limbs.

Furthermore, like the gyroscope interrupt, at minimum the effect of recurring mindfulness is passive information. A versatile device could be programmed with many varied "interpretations" of raw tilting motions...complete disinterest included. Likewise, someone who has recurring mindfulness chooses how to treat each subjective phenomenon which arises. Maybe they could analyze it and theorize its source, or approve it and put it into action, or deny it and watch it evaporate, or estimate it and deliberately compensate for it.

All these options have an implicit common prerequisite: forthright acknowledgment. If they want to choose an option well, then their initial duty is confronting the phenomenon honestly and directly. To do that, they must ignore their distracting protective rationalizations. They're obligated to risky candor about their whole momentary selves. For someone clinging to the belief that they're perpetually upright and unruffled, the readings communicated by their gyroscope interrupt are worthless.  

Monday, June 02, 2014

embodiment

And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good—Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?  —Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 
(I'm well aware that ZMM merely quoted/paraphrased the statement.) I noticed a possible oversight of my last entry's analysis. It was targeted toward the meaningfulness of intangible and intricate goals. But many goals reside at the opposite end of the spectrum. A goal can be plain and straightforward. It can be a transparent object or outcome which needs no elaboration. It could be called an embodiment of a human concern, value, or desire. An embodiment's meaning is presumed to be beyond question. Nobody would typically expend much effort to dissect its allure, except for the purpose of making philosophical points...or to make a blog entry that reiterates the philosophical points of many many past blog entries. The justified meaningfulness of a tin roof sundae is not normally controversial.

Nevertheless, embodiment in its unsophisticated form is too poorly-defined to serve as a sturdy counterexample to the last entry. A contributing factor to its vagueness is its absence of a compelling physical rationale. Specifically, any embodiment is composed of matter. And the matter behaves in the same regular patterns as the matter in anything that isn't an embodiment. It doesn't contain specialized particles. Nor does it interact with its surroundings in non-physical ways. Although its independent existence is physical, its supposed property of "embodiment" doesn't originate in those commonplace physical properties. A convincing literal interpretation of embodiment would require testable notions on precisely where and how it happens physically. A tin roof sundae doesn't exhibit a field of gluttony carried by the glut-boson.

So the usual ghostly concept of embodiment probably isn't seriously intended as a reductive attribute of the object. Instead, it has to be contingent on hazy mysteries in the subjects who sense the embodiment: a non-physical product of adding somewhat non-physical subjects to physical objects. But that concrete definition isn't workable either. According to the best available findings, the tenable hypothesis is that all known subjects are also composed of matter behaving in the same regular patterns. Thoughts appear to be internal events in brains, and persistent memories appear to be internal structures in brains.

Moving along, the combined premises are that the embodying object is a first assemblage of matter in one location, and the subject perceiving the embodying object is a second assemblage of different matter in a second location. Then the cause of the experience of embodiment must derive from the second assemblage mirroring the first and proceeding to trigger further reactions. Clearly, the mirroring is exceedingly subtle. But its subtlety doesn't imply obscurity or triviality. It's encoding the convoluted sometimes-intelligent symbolism that's central to the prosperity of the human species as a whole. Encoding is the more nuanced form of "embodiment". It's less mystical albeit no less cryptic. It hints that the frequently useful distinction between outer form and inner content might fade at the innermost levels of comprehension. As Douglas Hofstadter has suggested, "Content is fancy form." Ultimately, decoding isn't just the preliminary stage of unwrapping a chunk of information; the decoding itself, and whatever the decoding triggers, is what the information means. A blog entry is an embodiment of the ideas which the blogger wanted the reader to reconstruct in their own brain at the time they decode it.

Hence, in these terms an embodiment isn't an exception to the ordinary nature of meaningfulness. It's an instance that's particularly vivid and reflexive to the subject. It likely includes a specific mix of strong emotions, as opposed to abstract evaluations of hypothetical paybacks. But as Antonio Damasio might say, emotions could represent evolution's rapid nonverbal information processing.

For some humans at some times, the tin roof sundae from earlier may be an undeniable (irresistible?) embodiment of desire. Yet the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. For a subject who recently finished eating one, is the offer of a second an embodiment? What if the subject is allergic to peanuts? What if the subject is tormented by guilt over their dessert choices? What if the subject has never consumed ice cream, perhaps because their native culture is isolated in a hot climate?

In general, each subject's well-established set of emotional associations constitutes their personalized set of provocative embodiments. To them, their set can feel imposing and difficult to modify. However, not even the most close-minded simpleton could claim that their set couldn't have turned out differently in different personal circumstances. They couldn't claim that their set is uniquely "right": optimal, unchanging, and unbiased. The matter of a subject has been influenced by countless interactions that are genetic, familial, cultural, environmental, etc. The superficiality of an emotive state can mask its tangled root causes. Throughout their lifespan, the subject was consciously and unconsciously primed by a varied array.

Similar clarifications hold for alleged intellectual embodiment too. An alleged intellectual embodiment is an idea that the subject immediately trusts without deep consideration. The first type is "common sense" embodiment, in which a society collectively pushes a belief's validity. It might be integrated tightly into habitual customs, or self-sustaining traditions, or revered authorities, or prevailing public opinions, or group identities. Grand scale inertia is an apt metaphor for beliefs that are said to embody common sense. Someone may start by doubting a common sense belief. After facing unrelenting shame and ridicule for their lack of common sense, they eventually abandon their doubts and accept it. Later they grow accustomed to assuming its accuracy. The next time the cycle repeats, they fill the defensive role of scoffing at doubts about the conventional embodiments of common sense.

The second type of alleged intellectual embodiment is based in logic. Beliefs of this type are portrayed as widely affirmed axioms that lead to inescapable logical consequences. In effect, the axioms are treated like embodiments of conclusions that certainly follow. If X is acknowledged, then Y must absolutely be acknowledged as well. The embodiment supposedly forces X and Y to be an inseparable pair.

Two problems can arise, though. The first is when the logic is simply flawed or incomplete, but the subjects either don't know or don't care to know. They may be relying on their crucial implicit assumptions to fill the logical gap that they don't notice. They may be unaware that they're thinking within a restrictive context, such as egocentrism or ethnocentrism, and overgeneralizing beyond it. They're misled by an illusion of reasonableness and thoughtfulness. After all, according to their own viewpoint, they indeed seem to be following an irrefutable argument. And they're more susceptible if the intellectual embodiment is teamed with an emotional embodiment. In that case they start with the deduction they wish and then eagerly embrace all the minimally credible axioms or data that they can stretch. If they're honest they may label the final result as an iffy inference, not a chain of careful reasoning.

The second pitfall with logic-based embodiment pertains to proofs. A proof shows how a final statement is embodied in many prior statements. Despite its correctness, it can be complex and/or excessively condensed. If so, then potential learners may fail to recognize the sequential embodiment. In essence, they discern the start and the end of the proof, but they don't discern the start embodying the end.

Again, this situation isn't rare. A topic's "obvious" implications aren't always grasped equally well by every subject, especially when the subject is 1) unmotivated in confronting the topic (prompting teachers to lecture "Apply yourself!"), 2) previously committed to ideas that contradict the implications, 3) unaccustomed to the topic or its style of analysis, 4) saturated with mistaken information about the topic. A proof's logical embodiment amounts to the assertion, "Anyone would reach the same series of realizations as I." With candor, the assertion is, "Each subject should reach the same series of realizations as I, if they're sufficiently vigorous and open-minded and knowledgeable and not off track."

Someone who insists on a logical embodiment could respond that its sole verification requirement is the mechanical operation of "pure reason". They could demonstrate by filling in omissions and dividing large steps into numerous interlinked tiny steps. They could communicate every bit of every painstaking progression. In fact, they might need to present the exhaustive form to their demanding peers to obtain affirmation.

Unfortunately, this response flatly disregards the potential learner's obstacles. The trouble is more fundamental. On the previously mentioned premise that subjects are matter, then their mental deliberation is active work. It consumes energy and synthesizes patterns. If a lengthy proof is a walking path to reach the finish, then the work to reenact the proof is the effort to walk the path. Since reenacting the proof is a physical act occurring in a physical context, reasoning isn't an out-of-body trip through a fanciful realm. There aren't beings of "pure reason" to confirm the validity and relevance of proofs...though humans have invented devices that can similarly consume energy to synthesize pattern, thereby mirroring thought on smaller scales.

Humans have differing finite quantities of willingness, time, attention, preconceptions, stubbornness, training, and talent. In the material universe, chaos happens, so to speak, and complete comprehension of a proof might not succeed. That won't stop an objector from offering "critiques" which don't address the innards of the proof. Rather, they could fabricate an excuse to dismiss it categorically. Or they could quit partway due to disinterest or discomfort with the proof's statements. Or they could willfully leap to the pleasing assumption that the proof has simplistic nonthreatening weaknesses—weaknesses that they prefer to attack in place of the proof.

Thus the underlying nature of intellectual embodiment is like emotional embodiment. And the practical countermeasures are alike. Disputing the actual embodiments is not necessarily the best strategy. To do so is to insist that every subject ends up with comparable reactions to comparable objects or outcomes. The better strategy might be manipulating the sources of embodiments: reactionary processes within subjects. A subject should be molded to "naturally" sense that something embodies a feeling or idea.

Of course, that strategy isn't unusual or exclusively sinister. Leading someone to expand their emotions and thinking could be seen as empowering them to see new options. For centuries, well-rounded education has encompassed both information and transformation. Pupils are taught more than the facts. They're taught the mindsets, or mental tool sets, which have acquired and refined those facts. They're taught contexts and unifying principles. Feeding them high-quality answers is mixed with enabling them to find high-quality answers for themselves. Ideally, when they know an answer, they can appreciate how and why the answer is known; perhaps they should have a full understanding of the answer's question before they ever receive the answer.      

The approach is applicable to a range of topics, but ethics is the most notable. As a supplement to just declaring the goals and actions that embody superior ethics, an advocate could strive to enrich others' moral imagination and criteria for judgment. Directly overwriting others' verdicts is less promising than the indirect strategy of inducing them to contemplate wider impacts, unfamiliar cases, and individuals unlike them.

It's reminiscent of the ancient practice of perpetuating ethics via plentiful thought-provoking narratives. Narratives illustrate the contrast between right and wrong, furnish opportunities to rehearse ethical scrutiny, and encourage the in-born impulse to conscientiously simulate another's standpoint. Some narratives, chiefly for children, include blatant cues of the ethics lesson, to the extent that follow-up discussion questions are redundant. To actually ask the questions is analogous to asking where a line of dominoes will end...right after watching the tedious setup of the entire line.

As with the preceding examples, subjects' ethics are reinforced intentionally and unintentionally. When they happen to agree independently about the ethical meaningfulness of a thing, they may erroneously credit the thing as an impersonal embodiment of ethics. The more plausible explanation is the reverse, in which their agreement stems from duplicated processes of feeling and thinking that were independently embodied inside the material of each of them.

It's easier to observe when the subjects are sharply divergent: namely, a contemporary subject and the figure in the opening quote, Phaedrus. These two are extremely unlikely to be in agreement on all their acceptable embodiments of human virtue. Faced with the discrepancies, each of them would more than likely insist that, yes, their counterpart evidently does need to ask for guidance about what is good and what is not good.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

meaningful goals

Often, an idea's meaning organically sprawls and blurs, and the resulting gain in the idea's flexibility more than offsets its loss of clarity. But when clarity is indispensable, unequivocal limits are required. A reasonable source of those sharp limits is the idea's verified implications. What are its distinctive relationships with other ideas? How does it affect human thoughts, observations, and actions? What are its intended contexts, because the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated? What must someone think and do to assess confidence in its accuracy? In essence, what is its total ascertained "overlap" with known realities, an overlap which might be complex, indirect, or abstract?

However, at first glance, such strict earthbound limits seem to be poorly suited to some ideas. For instance, goals are meaningful ideas precisely because goals don't match the deficiencies of known realities. And the mismatches are essential for illuminating which actions are necessary to enact the goal. Therefore an inflexible enforcement of narrow-minded limits would incorrectly classify goals as meaningless, due to the fictional aspects.

Unsurprisingly, the solution to the dilemma is to be more realistic by acknowledging the nuances of meaning. Even when meaningfulness is carefully pinpointed, it might belong at neither extreme. Its place might be in the middle of the long gradient between nonsensical and obvious. Indeed, the middle usually includes the interesting ideas, including goals. Each prospective goal varies in meaningfulness depending on the magnitudes of its relevant details.

To be specific, the meaningfulness of goals could vary by feasibility, i.e. the goal's overlap with the expected results of one or more definite plans. Or it could vary by ordinariness, i.e. the goal's overlap with typical contents and events. Or it could vary by salience, i.e. the goal's overlap with human desires. Or it could vary by presumption, i.e. the goal's overlap with shaky unproven premises of any kind. Or it could vary by modesty, i.e. the goal's overlap with circumstances which exist already.

By these measures, goals with greater aggregate meaningfulness could be termed "ideals". Goals with lesser aggregate meaningfulness could be termed "fantasies". So an extremely improbable goal, or a goal that's dependent on extremely improbable conditions, is closer to a fantasy than an ideal. A goal that fundamentally alters numerous things simultaneously is closer to a fantasy than an ideal. A goal that's based on mysteries is closer to a fantasy than an ideal. A goal that disdains immediate needs is closer to a fantasy than an ideal. A goal filled with unknown midpoints is closer to a fantasy than an ideal.

Of all the hints that distinguish ideals from fantasies, the quickest is the goal's origin. Ideals are more likely to start with known realities and then incorporate diligently considered tweaks. Fantasies are more likely to start with ethereal paradises and then assume that desperate effort will be enough to bridge the gap. Ideals are more likely to start by examining planet Earth in its current form. Fantasies are more likely to start by creating an imaginary alternative. Ideals are more likely to start with estimates of impacts and costs. Fantasies are more likely to start with nonnegotiable ultimatums.

The plain tactic of anchoring meaningfulness to solid referents doesn't eliminate amazing visions of better human lives; to the contrary, it's a fine way to choose the worthier ones.

Friday, May 09, 2014

wholly holey holy moods and epiphanies

Spirituality was once the first unified theory of everything. But in current U.S. society, it's increasingly rare to refer to objective phenomena as "spiritual". Eclipses, comets, and stellar and planetary motion aren't spiritual any more. Illness isn't spiritual any more. Atmospheric changes aren't spiritual any more. Although many may still aver that their spirituality can affect these objective phenomena, they don't generally claim that it's completely responsible. They don't claim that it's an alternative theory with the same relevance as gravitation, microscopic organisms, and air masses.

By contrast, it's more customary to assign spiritual significance to subjective phenomena, i.e. direct experiences which originate primarily from the brain's own information processing. A "spiritual" subjective realm may compensate for a nonspiritual objective realm. So long as a faith-belief is embedded in evocative subjective events, its dubious objective effects can be an afterthought. Its followers may opt to disregard whether their faith-beliefs are able to predict or change the temporal world. Instead they may emphasize accounts of holy encounters between their souls and their preferred sacred realities. However, from an impartial viewpoint, the supposed evidence provided by these anecdotes has extensive holes.

They may list episodes when they felt waves of ecstatic emotion after prolonged singing and praying. Or when they felt strong empathy for perfect strangers after contemplating otherworldly love. Or when they felt total inner calm during a crisis after confessing the sovereignty of their benevolent god(s). Or when they felt their sense of identity merge with a larger group and its history. Or when they felt their self-doubt shut down. Could an inaccurate faith-belief play a role in vivid incidents as memorable as these? Are there holes in this argument?

Answer: yup. Though logic disqualifies all faith-beliefs from being true at once, competing followers have sincerely reported almost identical sentiments. So have participants in many idealistic nonreligious gatherings such as political rallies. So have audiences at performances of fictional narratives such as cinema or plays. And the creators of partially nonfictional narratives admit that they intentionally sacrifice accuracy in order to leave a deeper impression. Strong instinctive reactions aren't conclusive. To be provocative a stimulus only needs to conform to a potent archetype, not conform to a truth.

Another hole is inconsistency. The psychological impact on an individual can shift drastically. Over short timescales, they may "not be feeling it" whenever they're abnormally tired or distracted or depressed. Over long timescales, they may have been "powerfully moved" semi-regularly for a couple years, but a decade later they complain about "just going through the motions". Of course, these shifts are ordinary...for experiences with predominantly internal causes. Experiences with predominantly external causes, such as collision with a brick, don't vary nearly as much according to the subject's state.

But it might not be adequate to suggest reasonable doubts about the inferred meaningfulness of a follower's profound feelings. They might change the topic to profound epiphanies. Quoting Merriam-Webster, an epiphany is a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way. In this case, the proposed source of the epiphanies is supernatural. At first, a follower pleaded for an answer and/or scrutinized teachings and texts. Then a metaphysical insight abruptly upended their thoughts...striking them like a thunderbolt from Zeus. It was unconventional, yet it was well-suited to the question. It didn't arrive at the end of a chain of logical reasoning, yet it was convincing. It wasn't a careful summary, yet it provided a tidy frame for the known facts. Finally, its content was an exact match with the subject's particular faith-belief. Is a natural explanation plausible? Are there holes in this argument?

Answer: yup. The retorts to supernatural epiphanies fit the same template as the retorts to supernatural moods. Though admittedly rare from day to day, creative epiphanies happen in too many diverse contexts. Discrimination on the basis of faith-belief is nonexistent. Indeed, the topics aren't necessarily connected to faith-beliefs, and the subjects aren't necessarily serious followers of faith-beliefs. For some, the most momentous example was their dismissal of their previous faith-belief! Once again the upshot is that this universal occurrence can't be a clue which favors a specific supernatural source.

Moreover, perhaps the experience of epiphanies is a difference of degree, not of kind. Sustained introspection confirms that human thoughts in general often are unforeseen, untraceable, and disruptive. Like trivial distracting thoughts, grand thoughts could sometimes be the final product of extended unconscious information processing. For instance, a prominent theory about the REM sleep phase is that it reinforces recently added long-term memories.

In addition, since the operation of the brain's various functions is so interconnected, perceptual priming is a potential counterpart to flashes of creativity. Someone didn't "instantly" recognize a novel idea until: 1) their intellectual perception was primed sufficiently, 2) the interfering noise of the rest of their brain activity dropped to a low level, thereby allowing the idea to build to an attention-gathering size. In fact, this conjecture closely corresponds to a well-known two-step technique for knowledge work. Step one is absorbing a puzzle's data with intense depth, breadth, and repetition. Step two is being still, relaxed, and open-minded. With luck, the undisturbed brain might improvise an innovative synthesis by "playing" with the dense raw pieces which were fed into it earlier. It's certainly a mystifying information process that hasn't yet been recreated artificially, but nobody should hastily presume that it's unnatural.

Consequently, its personalized expressions are unremarkable too. The straightforward source of its style and content is none other than the subject's own expectations. Each subject's brain is already trained with the patterns of their faith-beliefs. Those patterns proceed to shape both intuitions and interpretations. The resemblance to their studies and imagination is hardly accidental. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Doubly so whenever the nails are subjective phenomena...

Worse, the overzealous attempt to treat an epiphany like a proof might present an utterly undeniable hole. The novice mistake is trusting a hunch that permits transparent pragmatism. If anyone can possibly link the supernatural message to a limited set of doable checks, then inaccuracy could be measured and demonstrated. That's precisely why it shouldn't be in a detailed, risky form such as, "Judgment day is August 29, 1997." It should rather be in a more abstract, cautious form such as, "Unrestrained selfishness isn't an effective strategy for long-term self-actualization." 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

the other kind of pluralism

A thorough philosophy is more than a canned set of axioms. It produces an influential mentality in its followers. and the mentality in turn affects their approach to various topics. For instance, in my case I'm compelled to be more careful about my terms. First, instead of writing "mind", I try to be more precise by writing either "brain" or "soul" depending on context. If I'm purely describing immediate mental experiences, I might choose unassuming words such as "thoughts" or "awareness". Second, when I'm writing generic observations I prefer "human" over "person", to reflect the humility of my species and thereby lessen bias. I may often minimize human capabilities, but my sole intent is to counteract presumptuous self-assurance and self-importance. It's not personal.

Third, I prefer to state opposition to "faith-beliefs" rather than "religions". The hair-splitting distinction is relevant because religions are so broadly defined in practice. Sometimes a religion has specific ideas and traditions that don't require faith in disproved/unproven assertions. Some of its followers may be as equally suspicious of such assertions as I am, especially if they characterize their religiosity as strictly limited, moderate, casual, or ethnic/cultural. Furthermore, just as not all religious dicta qualify as faith-beliefs, not all faith-beliefs are consistently categorized as religious. For example, whether or not someone says that they're affiliated with any religion, I'm still unimpressed by their faith-beliefs in destiny or cosmic consciousness.

Compared to the previous three, my fourth and last quirk is both subtler and much more pivotal. For nouns related to knowledge, I purposefully lean toward plural forms: "truths", "realities", "proofs", "judgments", "implications". Also, I typically pair the plural noun with a past action (participial adjective): "verified", "observed", "confirmed", "tested", "checked". My labored "past action pluralism" is no trivial accident. To the contrary, it repeats my central theme!

That theme is easier to describe by contrasting it with its more familiar and comforting opposite. When nouns related to knowledge are all singular all the time (and maybe capitalized too), then knowledge can be naturally unified. All those nouns become equivalent labels for one unique and comprehensive wad of stainless knowledge. To bypass the wrinkle of which noun is most appropriate, and to save time, I'll use the short name "IT". IT's value is its simple existence as the independent source of meaning. The accuracy/realism of a human's thought is narrowly defined as how well it conforms to IT. If humans disagree, then the relevant question is never how they reached their conflicting conclusions. Instead, the straightforward criterion is which (if any) of the conclusions doesn't clash with IT. IT isn't contingent on a context of ongoing human evaluation or effort. Essentially, thanks to IT, the work of knowledge is almost accomplished. The remaining requirement is to unconditionally accept every bit of IT. If universal IT doesn't answer a particular question, then the question itself is invalid or misguided. Obviously, given that IT is all knowledge, anything which isn't integrated in IT is surely incorrect. Of course, each differing philosophy could have its own highly restricted ways to identify, derive, analyze, and apply IT...and to sort genuine IT from imitations.

Now, I can express my philosophy's theme concisely: there is no IT. Or, stated differently, IT is a worthless fictional abstraction. Knowledge isn't a singular destination. It isn't a singular technique of measurement. Nevertheless, the absence of IT doesn't doom humans to untrustworthy thoughts and futile plans. Humans can act to probe for knowledge. That includes perception and thinking, because thinking is an action by the brain—which is the most natural explanation of why thinking correlates closely to observable physical activity within the brain, and why disturbing the brain profoundly disturbs the act of thinking. They may act in several ways and compare the results to increase their certainty. They may collaborate and/or argue. They may model their perceptions with mathematics.

Each of these numerous possible acts are small and occur inside discrete contexts, so the knowledge gained by each is also small and discrete. Perhaps knowledge of X is tentative and it's supported by scant human actions. Assuming Y is supported by an altogether separate set of actions, knowledge of Y might be a much less risky basis for future action than X. Therefore, combining X and Y into a homogeneous whole like IT is inappropriate.

Ultimately, when knowledge is divided up according to supporting actions, the more fitting form of expression is "past action pluralism". In place of The Truth, there are tested truths. In place of The Reality, there are observed realities. My current knowledge isn't a uniform monolith. It's a mosaic formed out of a multitude of knowledge pieces (presumably encoded by patterns of connections among nerve cells). My learning, logic, experimentation, speculation, etc. have contributed miscellaneous pieces and consequently removed others that no longer fit. Some pieces are firm and some are shaky. Some are opaque and some are transparent. Some I borrowed and some I made. To claim otherwise would be disingenuous.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

reexamining faith in Lost after loosing my faith

To start with, the title is an intentional joke. I didn't misspell "losing". Like many others, I didn't "lose" my faith. I didn't set it down subconsciously and forget where I left it. I dismissed it with full awareness. I released it from me. I didn't lose my faith, but I did loose my faith.

Coincidentally, the loosing happened in parallel with the TV show Lost. Although it was a gradual process, I was certainly much more dedicated to my former faith at the start of the first episode of Lost in 2004 than I was by the end of the final episode in 2010. Of course, I'm not insinuating a causal connection. Contrary to the sentiments of countless Internet complaints, the progression of Lost from season to season didn't drive me to the eventual conclusion that a merciful god probably doesn't exist. It couldn't, because my appreciation of my faith shrank much more over time than my ongoing appreciation of Lost. I'm a fan who saw every episode at the time of broadcast and who frequently wished that the next could be aired sooner. On this very blog, I recorded my reactions on a handful of occasions. I can't claim that every part of the show was great, but at least it kept renewing my curiosity and interest. It continued to swerve and zigzag. 

Hence I developed a nonchalant attitude about Lost's infamous storytelling technique of explaining mysteries with further mysteries. For me, the warning sign was the writers' admiration of Stephen King. In his books, mystifying events verge on commonplace. The main action consists of what the characters think and do in response to situations which they might never comprehend completely. Compare that to a book of mystery or science-fiction, which is more likely to end with the discovery of a credible albeit thinly-stretched explanation of the story's initially baffling phenomena. Lost's writers have been forthcoming and unwavering about which model they strongly preferred: they wanted to make an unsettling ambiguous show. They advised their audience to accept if not enjoy its enigmatic nature, because its setting/history wasn't intended to function as a massive frustrating brainteaser. In essence, they advised them to have faith in the story's hidden logic rather than become distracted with endless questions. And that's what I did—I continued watching without expecting firm clarifications. I permitted it to be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. 

While this endless discussion about questions and answers and mystery and faith occurred, the show's characters performed an analogous discussion. They followed faiths (and doubts) of all kinds, and their interactions with faith changed over time. The prevailing consensus was that Lost treated the theme of faith, and more importantly its various forms and followers, with fewer pessimistic stereotypes than the typical drama. Religious commentators were pleased to see examples which didn't oversimplify faith as solely hypocritical, ridiculous, or dangerous. At the time, as a religious viewer, I shared their enthusiasm. But I still felt occasional twinges of irritation at Lost's hodgepodge version of metaphysics, in which my specific faith was juxtaposed with the frank existence of incompatible powers and practices and beings. To be clear, even then I was rarely disturbed by "fictional" supernatural concepts used by fictional works; the irritation stemmed from the show's apparent willingness to jumble its mythology with the "true" supernatural concepts I absorbed in my upbringing. A few times I remember thinking, "Lost isn't showing faith as I understand it. Faith should be calm confidence in the real god, not thin justifications for reckless behavior and hasty conclusions."

Naturally, as my serious attachment to faith dwindled, my irritation evaporated too. As I now apply my current interpretation of faith to reexamine Lost's interpretation of it, I have a new set of impressions. Beginning with the obvious, the paranormal happenings on Lost island don't qualify as objects of faith. The method of faith isn't necessary. Just as the many characters on Lost know that the island has unexpected inhabitants, such as polar bears and a society of people, they know that another inhabitant is an unnatural cloud of smoke which acts with unnatural speed and strength and emits unnatural loud noises. Similarly, they know that human bodies heal miraculously on the island, and that a subset of them display uncanny abilities. On Lost island, the same bizarre things are routinely demonstrated in unplanned/uncontrolled conditions to one or more sane (?) observers whose reports are in agreement. Therefore, hallucinations, illusions, and statistical blips don't suffice as standard explanations. Strictly speaking, it's not a show in which "faith" is productive for investigation or analysis. It's a show in which faith is superfluous for admitting that otherwise inexplicable occurrences are confirmed instances of the supernatural.

Nevertheless, my diminished regard for faith hasn't shifted my opinion in a purely negative direction. Now I have greater fondness than before for the willingness of Lost to sometimes illustrate faith's potential to deceive and control followers. Sincere faith-based commitment is a potent source of leverage. An antagonist can exploit it to push followers toward actions which they otherwise don't understand and/or wouldn't do. It's a prime strategy of both Benjamin Linus and the shape-shifting cloud of smoke in its human forms, the most notable of which is "Christian Shepherd". Linus does it to assert and maintain control over island society. The cloud does it to, uh, almost everybody who could be marginally useful to its lengthy plan, including Linus. To be fair, the two also employ additional tactics of manipulation, and in any case their targets might need some coaxing anyway...unless the target is Mikhail. Faith isn't mind-control. Even so, they use it to deflect sensible questions. An undeniable downside of Jacob's aloofness and vagueness is that pretenders have the opportunity to "clarify" his statements or impersonate him or speak "on his behalf", thereby borrowing his authority for the pursuit of their own goals. Reapplying this insight to nonfiction is left as an exercise to the reader.

Moreover, the explicit misdirection of followers in Lost is paired with exploration of a more implicit aspect of a mindset dominated by faith: superstitious thinking. Of course, anyone can think superstitiously about virtually anything, but faith can often act as a channel and fuel source. In Lost, it drives the characters to ponder repeatedly whether their circumstances are fated. They scrutinize their experiences in order to estimate the anthropomorphic intentions of "The Island". Again, through its freedom as a story, Lost can invert normal expectations and outcomes so that superstitious thinking really "works". Pushing the button in the hatch turns out to be the right course of action...well, except for when a plane must crash, in which case the button is pressed late at just the right moment. Obeying a compass bearing carved on a stick is a profitable decision. Recreating the Oceanic flight with an Ajira flight succeeds. Suicide attempts fail. A sequence of numbers reappears everywhere. Streaks of fortune give rise to peculiar "magic box" metaphors. Multiple visions and dreams, manifesting on and off the island, are constructive sources of information and instructions. A strikingly high proportion of the passengers on a single plane somehow have had intersecting histories and social networks. Last but not least, they were all purposefully touched by one particular man, in widely separated places and moments. By the final season, the bewildered characters' complete conversion to superstitious thinking is understandable.

Superstitious thinking usually infers false rules for perceiving and manipulating realities. However, Lost's supernatural aspects don't always require unhinged guessing. In several different contexts, knowledgeable figures refer to existing sets of formalized unbreakable "Rules".  Although the details may seem arbitrary and largely unspecified, the audience can easily guess one overall motivation of the Rules: sustaining the show's comprehensibility, suspense, and dramatic conflict. Rules outline the limits of magic charms and forbid powerful characters from immediate victories. Without the Rules to interpret and restrict strange elements, the audience could feel disconnected and confused by the unruly effect of those elements. They might feel that their protagonists are simply victims of uncontrollable chaos. Indeed, the Rules are a fine example of the underestimated challenge of crafting a faith that satisfies a range of psychological cravings. It needs to balance solid tenets and unearthly mystification. Prospective followers want to think that realities contain exciting unknown wonders, but not at the cost of becoming totally powerless, insignificant, and aimless. Due to the Rules, Lost characters can learn and respond. They know that "whatever happened, happened". They know that "dead is dead". They know that the island has a convoluted history. They can pour out ash circles and activate sonar fences. They can turn frozen donkey wheels. They can move a stone cork. They can stab Jacob. They can examine research stations, shacks, lighthouses, temples, and caves in cliffs. No matter how outlandish, the Rules of the island sift followers. By definition, followers think and act based partially on the Rules. And after someone directly communicates Rules, such as "save the island or the world is doomed", then abstract speculations about destiny are beside the point. Naturally, the remaining question is whether the communicator is credible. Once more, the "prophets" of supernatural Rules in Lost score much more highly in credibility than their counterparts in nonfictional history.

All things considered, clearly I have a revised judgment about the relevance of faith in Lost. On the one hand, Lost was a welcome representation of the human experience of faith. On the other hand, Lost was still a product of dazzling creativity, and consequently it sometimes was an extremely false analogy. Nobody should use Lost to imply that all humans are fulfilling prearranged roles in ludicrously complicated plans. Neither should they use it for picking "lucky" numbers...