Sunday, September 18, 2016


When I look back, I'm endlessly amused by the striking differences in my entire set of intellectual sympathies. I get the sense that I'm now someone else than I was in the past—but of course the passage of time already implies that I am, and so is everyone else. As always, the differences show up through a common reference point.

One of the divisive questions that triggers a new reflexive response in me is, "How can an atom be enough to give rise to subjective experience?" A previous version of me regarded this as an excellent argument to stump the disciples of materialistic naturalism. Today, I regard it as too misguided and narrow to have a simple answer. Faulty, messy preconceptions are dissolved in it. It's a symptom of confusion not purely about the essential complexity of subjective experience but also about the boundaries of conceptual levels.

I know I can't speak for everyone who's superficially, or even thoroughly, on my "side". Be that as it may, I've noticed that "we" tend to endorse conceptual levels as alternatives to soul/reality dualism(s). The whole gamut of subjective experiences, which I enjoy mislabeling "mentality" for short (take that, dictionaries), inhabits a conceptual level different from the conceptual level inhabited by the atoms in the question. Mentality isn't a delusion, but neither does it exist as a disparate kind of core reality. It functions as a category that's useful for thinking about some phenomena. This category is apparent at practical scales, where it's more like an average or a summarization of other levels. The items in the mentality level aren't existing apart, because the underlying stuff within all the levels is the same. The levels are like a set of various lenses for studying the stuff.

Fortunately, this picture has numerous familiar precedents and counterparts: weather is one of my favorites. Water droplets are everywhere in the air, floating, moving, and interacting. Yet it's unusual to hear the question "How could a droplet be enough to give rise to a cyclone?" posed as a philosophical puzzle or to hear the suggestion that a cyclone is the sign of something uncanny residing in, and psychically directing, masses of droplets. (Although elemental spirits have arisen time after time in culture.) A cyclone isn't said to be present in each of the droplets in its interior. It's understood to be a sizable grouping of swirling masses of droplet-containing air. It doesn't stop being a cyclone because individual droplets would be seen under great magnification. The conceptual level of droplets happens to be unfeasible for, say, predicting where the cyclone is headed or how much longer it will persist; there are too many droplets and too many effects occurring simultaneously among them. This is partly why cyclones are hard to decipher. The greater ease of analyzing the cyclone at another conceptual level doesn't force the belief that it's a mysterious manifestation from unknown sources.

This is a tidy arrangement to apply to questions about mentality. Mentality's conceptual level is like the cyclone's, and the atom's is like the droplet's. An initial obstacle to accepting this is that mentality doesn't always appear to be as complex as the cyclone. And on occasion it appears to be disconnected from the rest of reality. These impressions are deceptive. Upon steady investigation, either indirectly through modern technologically-aided observation, or directly through meditative introspection, mentality's fa├žade of simplicity consistently evaporates. During many usual conditions, it's a bubbling stew of sensations, emotions, cogitations, wishes, simulations. The nervous system's work to keep it going and feed it continual information is considerable. Nerves extend to the body's very edges and in total consume energy at a high rate. Other creatures have been shown to have some of the characteristics of mentality, which is one more hint that the human variant is a collection of abilities as opposed to a single capacity. The result is that we shouldn't expect a trifling number of aloof atoms to produce and fill mentality. But we should expect to discover what we have: complex outputs corresponding to a complex throng of coordinated components, analyzable at multiple conceptual levels. The project to better trace the specific workings is still in progress, but knowledge is only increasing about the distinctive roles of portions of the brain, for instance.

And yet, reflecting on this "cyclonic" metaphor might hit a second obstacle. Granting that mentality is an aggregate effect doesn't explain the appearances of it acting as a cause. Some of its prominent manifestations are obsessions of varying intensities including addiction. How can they be in the level of mentality and be so influential too? To be dominant and persistent, they must be causing real changes. Their felt importance must be coupled to material importance on other levels. The features of present/past mentality must in some way act as causes of features of future mentality.

As I see it, like the first, this second obstacle is less of a problem after a closer look. A cooperative formation of low-level components certainly does have the potential to provoke an occurrence which is observable at a higher level, and then this occurrence in turn has its own effects that provoke changes back in the components in formation. Actually, this abstract pattern is indispensable in plenty of contexts. The humble thermostat inevitably gets drawn into this topic, as probably the quintessential example. Low-level materials inside it detect shifts in the temperature of its environment. It ends up activating or deactivating the high-level heating or cooling facilities of the environment. Eventually when the environment's temperature shifts again, the thermostat detects the new shift and performs a different action. The thermostat's low-level materials affect, then are affected by, the high-level environment's temperature.

The comparison is very limited in its usefulness. Mentality is more subtle and quick than a thermostat—though body temperature regulation is part of it and extreme temperatures disturb mood. The relevant similarity is that the low-level components of mentality, such as neurons (and all the neuron segments, and all the molecules in the segments, and all the atoms in the molecules...), work together to assemble a breathtaking overall product, and in the process sway low-level components as well. So mentality doesn't exude a peculiar, extra, general-purpose force which is capable of inhabiting and directing "nearby" substances. Solely because it is the group behavior of low-level components, it's capable of manipulating them or their peers.

This is plausible if there's already a suspicion that the components' behavior has the side effect of altering themselves. Perhaps an exchange between them spurs small adaptations in both the sender and the receiver: they grow "closer", i.e. more apt to repeat the exchange. Thus the mental activity of obsession itself "rewires" a creature in such a way that the obsessive thoughts are more likely to return. Thinking habits matter...and thinking habituates matter.

Friday, September 02, 2016

the emerging backfire

I went through several stages as I ejected the poorly grounded ideas of my upbringing. Despite the gaps in-between, each stage encouraged the next. The whole progression had its own momentum like an inevitable chain reaction. To make this comparison is to invite the question of this reaction's catalysts. However, many of my catalysts aren't unique. Others have already been explained these over and over. Since I began looking around the internet, reading related books, etc., I've been reassured that I'm part of a sizable category of American adults who've walked the same path out of their outdated beliefs, seen the same information, been in a few of the same experiences, found the same flaws. This category isn't really new, but it's more visible than before.

As I look back, though, I think I can claim a catalyst that's probably on the obscure end of the spectrum. I didn't have strong antagonism against argumentative atheists. I wasn't interested in them and I avoided them. My antagonism was against the fashionable emerging church subculture. This name is more than a little misleading to the uninformed, given it's (proudly) not an official church organization. It's closer to a loose aggregate of people, from a range of backgrounds, who share and spread similar views. They employ maddening pieces of philosophy to surgically extract, alter, and replace selected parts of old religious assertions. By self-indulgently modifying, or at least muddying, these unacceptable parts, they can obtain a creed (er, "spirituality") that's viable for them.

Their popularity is in agreement with the trends of personalized consumer choices, the ability to spontaneously collaborate via the internet, distrust of big, coercive, "top-down" hierarchies, appreciation of smoothly blending complexities rather than oversimplified, all-or-nothing dichotomies, and the good intention of not granting unconditional authority to a lone source. They may or may not also consider themselves religiously unaffiliated; in either case they favor unusual descriptions. They're anxious to not be lumped together with average religionists. (Likelier than not they would feel that the term "emergent church" is too abstract and general to adequately capture the independence and specialness of their individual viewpoints.)

This was intolerable. I was certain they must be far off track. They were questioning the conventionally understood ways of structuring and justifying my religion's tenets. To do this they were probing and dismantling the crucial premise that the tenets, as well as anything supporting these, symbolized factual and unambiguous meanings. For as long as the meanings were regarded as unstructured mush sculpted by the interpreting person (and indirectly the person's culture), then the meanings were open to endless revision. Furthermore, because they saw ideas as so malleable and difficult to circumscribe, oftentimes they hinted or plainly stated that the exhaustive details of what they believed barely mattered to them. To the contrary, the full role of religion was restricted to the promotion of basic human decency—excluding all behavioral rules that were too off-putting or contentious or narrow-minded.

The effect was that I was pressed into rigidly insisting on the opposite: an ironclad, continuous line of meaningfulness. Everything was intertwined in my countering vision. It wasn't coherent to substitute any portion. The right actions flowed from the right thoughts. The right thoughts flowed from the right beliefs. The right beliefs flowed from the right understandings of the religion's underpinnings. And finally, these underpinnings were capable of engendering the right understandings, provided someone was pursuing the understandings properly (well-done "exegesis"), such as not inserting their "bias". Religious statements were really proposing real features of, and real actions taken by, real things. Accordingly, the statements had real consequences. The supernatural domain was out there, and it operated under the system of rules I subscribed to.

I didn't perceive the corner I was backing into. I wished to soundly reject the emerging church's adaptations, preferably by establishing that these changes were neither valid nor necessary. In pursuit of that goal, I tacitly depended on the assumption of a superior alternative, namely the fixed target that was being missed. Therefore, I was assuming that the strict doctrines I'd been taught had an exceptional level of accuracy and relevance.

...and yet, in the middle of this, I was starting to wonder. Did I know for myself whether my positions were trustworthy enough to be applied in this way? I was too scrupulous to be satisfied by a glib "We disagree so I'm sure you're wrong." I needed to examine the points submitted and identify why and how I was right instead. I sought to learn from the opposing outlook by defeating it. I wasn't keen on fearfully dodging its concerns.

It turned out that my expectations were much too high. Like a new seminary student—but not nearly as dedicated or well-read—I slowly registered the ramifications of two facts. First, over my religion's recorded history, it had been shaken by successive debates about its own core claims. Second, these debates tended to recur; they were never permanently decided by clear-cut solutions reached through irresistible data and reasoning. I admitted that the emerging church's ramblings weren't completely unfounded. I'd inherited one of many end results from the old debates. I was accustomed to this synthesis, so it had appeared "obvious" to me.

Ultimately, I was unable to marshal anything indisputable to elevate my particular set of religious claims. I couldn't do it through tight logic, in the style of a mathematical proof. I couldn't do it through referencing decisive observations, in the style of a controlled investigation or experiment. The remaining route was to argue in the manner of a, ahem, theologian: mash up some discrete strands of thoughts and sources, express a principle that seemed to be compatible with this mash, and exploit some analogies to convince others that the principle was literally believable. I could try to paint a convincing picture of my doctrines' relatively greater fidelity to the religion's main messages. But I couldn't be confident that I was communicating pristine truth. I couldn't escape the equivocal pattern of discourse, "On the one hand...on the other hand..."

Earlier I wrote that this contrast acted as a single catalyst along the way. The emerging church's publications didn't push me out of my old identity or its ideological commitments. Their scribbles didn't purposely prepare me for my later conversion to materialistic naturalism. While I didn't embrace their notion of flexible meaning, their efforts nudged me to take a sincere inventory of what precisely my unbending meanings were attached to in the first place. Once I did, it became a steadily strengthening habit...

Monday, August 29, 2016

hauntings of all kinds

The concoctions of homeopathy are seldom recommended by those who align themselves with materialistic naturalism. Uncontroversial chemistry and physics guarantee that these highly diluted doses don't contain the slightest speck of the original ingredients. So the sole possibility is that these ingredients have left behind an unspecified aftereffect, which persists and does medicinal work without the physical presence of the former ingredients' matter or energy. These incorporeal aftereffects are central to the products' effectiveness...yet no phenomena fitting these characteristics have ever been confirmed to exist. In general, this or any practical application of incorporeal but locatable stuff could be labelled a haunting.

Unfortunately, not everyone commonly recognizes that the shakiness underlying this topic's reasoning has a multitude of parallels. There are proposed variations of hauntings in diverse contexts. Obviously, one is when the spirits of the deceased loiter in badly maintained historical houses. Another less grim context is the haunting of living creatures' bodies by life energy. Then there's a combination of these two referred to as possession: spirits of the deceased haunting living creatures' bodies without their consent. Or, the personal haunting might be invited and helpful, as in requesting a friendly, powerful thing to gently occupy, advise, and enhance the requester's own spirit. Maybe the haunting is of the interior of a place of worship, because its activity is inferred from the atypical communal behavior of a crowd during their worship rituals. Maybe the haunting is of objects that have been put through blessing/anointing/consecrating ceremonies. Like homeopathic products, the proposition is that these hauntings have undetectable active factors which are distinct from physical causes.

Without a doubt, the foremost haunting of all is the soul—a category also including every non-figurative definition of "the mind". Souls are said to be intertwined with a person but not as something material inside them. This is analogous to the healing stuff intertwined with a homeopathic product but not as something material inside it. Souls are said to be normally confined to the person but cannot be pinpointed or interacted with using anything material. Similarly, the healing stuff in the homeopathic product is confined to the inner contents—a consumer must ingest the product—but the healing stuff cannot be pinpointed or interacted with using anything material. Souls are said to mysteriously encode and store bits of data without modifying states of matter. (This is a unique difference from the usual media of information encoding and storage.) Likewise, homeopathic products mysteriously remember the original ingredients without the use of lasting changes to the set of remaining molecules.

The pitfall is that parallels are suggestive but not irrefutable. Ideas' resemblances don't force someone to treat them as a single class. The wonder of compartmentalization allows for rejecting the reality of some hauntings while defending others. Someone's preferred hauntings may seem utterly reasonable at the same time that an array of alternative hauntings "are just silly". Again through compartmentalization, it doesn't matter whether the verification methods and results that back their preferred hauntings are roughly comparable to the methods and results backing the disliked hauntings.

An instantaneous change of mindset isn't the realistic, likely outcome when compartmentalization reigns. The moderate hope is to weaken it and compete with it: to tempt someone to freshly reexamine their previously accepted ideas with unflinching eyes. Pondering these ideas' counterparts might facilitate that. If an idea is in some sense like that one over there, how is it known to be more accurate than that one, i.e. better grounded?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

lackluster constancy

To the extent I was able, I chose to discard an entire web of poorly grounded ideas and related practices. But the reality is that I still occasionally encounter them, depending on circumstances outside my control. Within these encounters, I'm surprised by the many large changes in how I react now compared to then. I notice different features than I did, and I more swiftly notice these features' inadequacies. One that struck me recently was the monotonous preoccupation on constancy, whether the context is a song or a preferred passage from a text. It never does X, it always does Y, and its characteristic Z is timeless. A mystical being's quality of constancy is often repeated, elaborated, and praised. But from my current perspective, the manifestations of this quality appear lackluster at best. Its plausible interpretations don't amount to much:
  • If the being's warm internal feelings for humanity are said to have excellent constancy, then the next question is immediately clear: "Yes, and...?" It's not too demanding to proceed to ask what the expressions of those feelings are. Constant feelings that don't lead to anything at all are as inconsequential as wavering feelings that don't lead to anything at all.
  • Or perhaps the constancy is seen concretely in innumerable cases of prosaic aid day after day. The issue is that minor beneficial events are apparent coincidences. Some could be expected to happen to anyone at proportional rates, regardless of their loyalties or rituals. The constancy, or semi-regularity, of these nice but slight non-miracles isn't that remarkable to a disinterested observer.
  • In a less concrete but still very meaningful direction, there could be constancy in the undercurrent of inspiration, encouragement, and determination. Throughout the problems in the life of the grateful devotee, they've been reassured and strengthened by their concept of their specific being. They might say that it's been alongside them, beckoning them forward, or even firmly pushing them to make improved decisions. This emotional support is understandably valuable. However, it's not uniquely valuable. A virtually unlimited set of concepts could do this in someone's head, although the concepts which would serve one person wouldn't necessarily serve another. A sophisticated "anchor" concept with some constancy in consciousness doesn't require that it represents something that, well, exists.
  • A less excusable version of abstract constancy is the fossilization of the whole concept in itself. It's redundant for a speaker to declare that a being "never changes" while they openly reject every potential revision to their very ideas about it. Admirably keeping the same form for eons is less of a feat when that's its designated nature. Its stagnation is an echo of the stubbornness of the person imagining it. It has constancy because they imagine it in a manner that has constancy.
  • Nobody will be shocked that I'm most appreciate of the interpretation of constancy that invokes mystical beings the least: the constancy of mutual human compassion and cooperation. There may be side comments that a being is operating through people's actions as if they're its tools, but one would hope that the people receive some gratitude too for their selflessness. Constancy of care, delivered again and again from person to person, is indeed a precious phenomenon. Songs about this ("Lean On Me"?) make more sense to me than endless songs about the wonderfulness of some idealized being. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

consider the leaves

It's challenging to convey the dreadful anxieties that might be associated with seriously evaluating doubts about lifelong bedrock beliefs. The emotions are reminiscent of a free fall with nothing to grab onto anymore...or the protective roof of your existence being torn off...or the creeping realization that your faulty compass has been misdirecting you for the past two days (weeks, months, years). The prospect of this experience is partly why cognitive defenses only need to be passable smokescreens.

Fortunately, a more moderate version is available. In place of boldly considering that a supernatural thing is an outright fake, there's the gentler suggestion, "What if it went on leave temporarily?" Phrased differently, is it having a time of rest? Because this is solely a metaphor to spur clarification, taking leave doesn't need to be an "official" logical possibility for the thing. It's a frame of reference for constructing a set of illuminating questions. Any of them which are, allegedly, obvious to the point of offensiveness should also be harmless to answer: 
  • To start, what would be the contrasting indications that the thing either is on leave or isn't? What would be different during the leave? If the thing is fills a unique position like some workers do at companies, its leave would become noticeable somehow sometime. Would usual tasks not be completed? Would it verbalize advance warning of its leave, and to whom and how? If its leave were entirely sudden and unannounced, how would this surprise secretive leave nevertheless affect—or not at all affect—the normal course of oblivious people and objects?
  • How would the end of the leave be known? Would the end be for certain? At the slightest ambiguous sign, is it probable that some of the thing's admirers would be too eager to presume that the leave is over? Could they unintentionally deceive themselves? What would sort out their self-deceptions from the genuine end?
  • Most radically of all, what if the thing has already been on leave for a long while? Or it's been on leave intermittently in the past? What were the observable boundaries of these intervals? Are the "data points" for these boundaries appropriately global/cosmic in scale? Lastly, if it hasn't ever been on leave, how can that be substantiated, preferably even by dedicated cynics?
Any number of the preceding questions might have responses of varying soundness. This is okay. The major aim isn't to make believers speechless; it's to go through the exercise of reviewing the questions and responses. In the process, this review rigorously bares and tests the belief's distinct justifications. Putting a belief to work answering straightforward questions yields insight into what it's made of. Like the supernatural things themselves, the beliefs shouldn't be permitted to remain on leave from practicalities forever.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

speculative gratitude

Some beneficial acts don't receive the appreciation they deserve. Preventions are in that category. Although they decrease the risk of a tragic event, the result might earn barely any credit. A tragic event which doesn't happen is an invisible nonevent, so the prevention's valuable role is superficially invisible too. If the event has several complex factors affecting its occurrence, one might be tempted to wonder how much that single prevention truly helped to stop it. Worse, a tragic event which does happen casts immediate doubt on a prevention's effectiveness at reducing risk; it didn't "work". In an unfair twist, it will do that whether or not the prevention's promoters were completely upfront that risk wouldn't be eliminated.

In the more noticeable examples of prevention, the act is discernibly connected to a chain of causes and effects. It readjusted the path of this chain like a railroad switch connecting up alternative train tracks to form a redirected route. The original risk and the lessened risk are clear-cut. It's often seen better in retrospect. For instance, having a spare item is a prevention that's utterly justified right after the first item is lost or broken. Not having the spare would have led to the event of lacking the item. The prevention has ensured that the lacking "reality" is now contrary to fact: it's a happily avoided counterfactual. The happier deviations that define it, and the preventions that introduced these deviations, are demarcated, specific, and identifiable.

This imaginative mode of understanding is abstract, but another word for a counterfactual is a story. Storytelling commands human awareness. When a counterfactual is backed by a vivid story, its features come alive. It recruits the showier layers of consciousness. The appeal overshadows levelheaded estimates of low plausibility. A possibility might be highly unlikely, but if it feels real enough then it gives the impression that it was previously on the verge of coming true—until a decisive prevention intervened.

A last important analytical link is the prevention's performing agent. As surely as each counterfactual is linked to the prevention that rendered it a mere counterfactual, each prevention is linked to whatever agent put it into action. Hence, for a given agent, its unique influences and abilities effectively limit the preventions that have been or could be performed. If it were one average U.S. citizen, they wouldn't be individually praised for preventing armed conflict on the other side of the Earth (or scolded for not preventing it).

On the other hand, this commonsense limit breaks when the agent is omnipotent yet covert. An agent with these qualities could do virtually anything, but it doesn't openly affirm its miracle work when/if it ever does. The ramification is that there's no firm basis for distinguishing exactly what it has done and what it was aiming for. So the range of its hypothetical past preventions isn't inherently restricted. Did it act to prevent counterfactual scenarios P, Q, R, S, and so on? ...Maybe. It could have been involved.

When it comes to converting newcomers, there's a drawback in too thoroughly extending the concept of prevention to such an agent. If the agent constantly receives adoration motivated by the nonexistence of miscellaneous counterfactuals, then gradually it looks less and less like an objective, independent entity. It looks more and more like an idolized empty shell with medals pinned to it for invented reasons. Anyone can spin myriad tales of prevented tragedies large and small. These aren't narrowly targeted proofs of an agent's undeniable deeds. It's not persuasive to hear expressions of personal gratitude for personal speculations regarding deflected personal calamities. The endless trend is hard to miss: whenever a person can envision a way that their existence could have been worse for them, they won't run out of rationales for applauding the agent they hold responsible.

In addition, it has a second drawback that newcomers may spot. The belief ends up sounding greedy in a closely related "optimistic" form. According to the agent's own principle of making the believer's existence less bad, it probably isn't flatly opposed to making their existence more good too. If it is said to have intentionally steered away from unreal adverse events they envision, then shouldn't they ponder why it has intentionally not steered toward unreal enjoyable events they envision? To be sure, not starving merits recognition. But it's a benevolent sculptor of the cosmos, after all. Why quit there? What would have been so terrible about having a small fortune?

Monday, July 18, 2016

litter litmus

Of all the litmus tests to measure the inclination to avoid causing harm, littering is admittedly a low priority, relatively speaking. If I were somehow forced to choose exclusively between someone passing the test of not littering or passing the test of not attacking another, then of course I would choose the latter. If an incredibly bizarre situation implied that littering would reduce the threat to someone's life or body or property (distracting a predator?), then I wouldn't object. But the pettiness of normal, unforced littering is actually the main point of why I view it as an informative litmus test! Specifically:

First, the gain from littering is pitiful. The bother of transporting the piece of litter to a nearby receptacle is usually almost nothing. Someone who had the ability to transport something with them before it became "litter" doesn't abruptly lose that ability; empty containers take less effort than full ones. It's easier to comprehend an uncharitable decision when the reward from it is significant and prone to dominating the decision-maker's thoughts prior to the act. Littering can't fall back on that explanation.

Second, the gain from littering is temporary, but the undesirable effects of it will last longer. It's short-sighted. The minutes, perhaps hours, that littering spares someone are outweighed by the long time in which the litter will have the opportunity to irritate.

Third, the future impact will be (or would be) borne by people who are unknown. To show benevolence toward familiar people, especially people who will potentially repay the benevolence, isn't as revealing. In a sense, reluctance to litter is a sign of solidarity with "society" as a whole, because it's impossible to know who in society will be affected. Not littering is an individual tribute to the "common good".

Fourth, closely related to the third, not littering might signify that someone identifies with a guiding concept of model behavior. It might embody the willingness to ask the larger questions, "Would this decision be something that an ideal decision-maker would carry out? If everyone made this decision, what would happen? Would I approve of someone else making this decision?"

Fifth, circling back to the admission from the opening paragraph, the repercussion of littering is minimal. So, its form of injury is gentle and easier to overlook. The level of consideration it's associated with is greater than the baseline level associated with not stealing, for instance. Not ruining the pleasantness of the setting they're in is a more stringent standard of avoiding "harm" to them.

Day by day, I doubt that regular littering, or for that matter regularly not littering, is a conscientious selection, reassessed again and again. To the contrary, I'd primarily blame influences which are more or less automatic: personal habit and social custom. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. I wouldn't be surprised to find that litter and littering could be unquestioned parts of someone's learned way of life. Consequently, they would see litter itself as innocuous, and the litmus test I'm rambling on about wouldn't occur to them—it wouldn't function as a test. From my perspective, that's a sadder result than failing it.

Monday, July 11, 2016

results may vary

It's common to receive plenty of captivating stories in reply to the straightforward question, "In your personal history, what have been some detectable effects of the existence of _____, the supernatural concept you follow?" And it's as equally common for the stories to have several dubious characteristics. Like a placebo pill relieving pain, the effect in the story might have been largely subjective in nature. Or it might have been embedded in a highly complex situation affected by an inseparable mixture of factors (e.g. the economy?), and the exact role played by delicate supernatural guidance would be impossible to distinguish by a disinterested observer. Or a repeated effect might occur sporadically. Granted, irregular timing isn't a clinching argument against an effect's validity. Nevertheless this characteristic should arouse suspicion. Coincidental rare events could happen independently, at the same rates, during the same time period, with equal probability.

To the questioner, an effect with unknowable timing seems like an awful motive to persistently follow a concept. After the concept's effects have failed to turn up time after time in the past, why would someone feel inclined to currently choose to follow it again? The key to understanding is to examine the choice from the viewpoint of the storytelling followers instead. In the moment they aren't choosing whether to renew their embrace of the concept; they're choosing whether to quit embracing it. They intensely remember the stories of when the effects have occurred before. And yet they know from experience the many cases in which they haven't.

Ergo they've intuited that those many cases of nonoccurrence have been temporary. So, they can eagerly disregard a recent sequence of cases of nonoccurrence whenever they contemplate the current choice. That choice presents two possibilities: if they continue on then the effect might reoccur, but if they quit now then it certainly won't. If they continue, they might be blissfully vindicated in the present; these vindications aren't definite but do occur often enough to leave fresh memories. If they continue and the effect isn't there, then at least there'll be more chances in the long as they keep those chances "alive" by refusing to stop in the meantime. They're led to wonder if this will soon be the time that some kind of corroborating effect reappears.

If the description sounds familiar, there's a good reason. It's an example of the widely applicable principle of a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. It's a strength, not a problem, for the effects to vary intermittently. The variance "trains" someone to retry no matter what. The lackluster statistics that the schedule generates can't compete with the pleasing surprises that the statistics are summarizing. A broken pattern attracts attention to positive results while a steady pattern deflects it.

Moreover, the schedule encourages two tendencies that feed itself. First, because it boosts someone's alertness so that they won't miss any effects that come along, they're more prone to categorize events as effects than to not. Events on the margin will be called effects, so the margin will in effect be redrawn in a lenient manner. And then it could be redrawn again, etc. Second, because a larger set of samples has a greater yield of unlikely outcomes, they're moved to merge their monitoring with peers who are also looking for effects of the same concept. Therefore, when any one of them monitors an effect and reports it, everyone can count it. Through their sharing of one another's occurrences—but not the stunningly boring news of each nonoccurrence, of course—they have a steadier supply to feed their commitment, even if the effects in their own lives aren't that steady.

The lesson here is to be prepared for a muted reaction to pointed questions about the fitful temperament of the effects that someone has narrated. The storyteller already realizes the long-suffering patience this characteristic demands. Their ongoing inability to forecast the next (supposed) manifestation of their concept's existence is partly why they're reluctant to give up on it too quickly.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

define faithless

Until I subscribed to materialistic naturalism, I didn't fully appreciate the rhetorical disadvantages it can have. So many other perspectives have been dominant throughout history. One of the subtler aspects of this historical domination is language. Words' various denotations and connotations lend greater support to one side. Productive discussions are more difficult. (Peter Boghossian has stressed this deceptive slipperiness of common words.)

"Faith" is one of these tilted words. It has accumulated diverse meanings and contexts of usage. It's happened to such an extent that, depending on the applied definition, I'm not technically "faithless". Apparently, I'm not faithless in the following broad ways.
  • loyalty. This kind of faith appears more often in the word "faithful". Whether the focus is a group or a cause, it refers to an undivided commitment. It requires refusing to betray/abandon the group or cause, especially when that would be easier or more profitable, or when competing pressures arise. Of course, the list of potential loyalties that need no supernatural frame is a lengthy one. Advocates of materialistic naturalism can be faithful to them without any contradiction whatsoever. In my experience, they have above-average contrarian tendencies and they prize their independence, but they're as loyal as everyone else to the groups or causes which they deliberately join. 
  • not capricious. This kind of faith is about not being controlled by whims. It's holding firm to an idea, not continuously dropping and picking it back up as the mood strikes. But the total opposite is undesirable as well: never ever discarding ideas is possibly a sign of aloof, complacent stagnation. Like the majority of faults, it's easier to perceive either incorrect extreme in others than in oneself. My winding path to materialistic naturalism was prolonged, careful, and informed. The very end represented a huge distance from the very start. But it wasn't capricious. 
  • reliable communication. This kind of faith is akin to credibility. It's the dedication to uphold one's own statements—to fulfill promises. It's backing statements with actions whenever applicable. It's paying the statements' costs. And I would say that this principle is more compatible with my current view than my former one. It fits well with the principle of estimating ideas' accuracy precisely according to the quality and quantity of corroboration. Both principles express that ideas should neither be held nor expressed in a manner which is isolated from realities and efforts. Just as prospective truths should be evaluated by linking them to the consequences they have (or in fact don't as the case may be), personal statements should have consequences on the speaker's behavior.
  • trust. This kind of faith is directed at trusting other people or collections of people. It's not trusting them to exist, but trusting that they will do good. It's trust that they will make admirable decisions or at least struggle to enact their good intentions. Sometimes this faith in the person derives from an ongoing reciprocal relationship with them. If so then this faith might have been confirmed repeatedly for years. Faith in someone who has shown their goodwill is hardly a groundless leap in the dark.
  • positivity. People plan, but they can't eliminate unfavorable chances. This kind of faith is the choice to not obsess on these risks. I'm fine with this, because someone may highlight the happier outcomes in their imaginations while they acknowledge the realistic odds of each and they prepare for misfortunes. This contemplation isn't worthless if it provides them motivation and guidance. And after they've already done all they reasonably can, having faith in a beneficial outcome causes no harm.
  • acceptance of imperfect proof. This kind of faith consists of proceeding on the basis of provisional ideas. It may be argued that any idea without invincible authority implies that someone must take it on faith; therefore faith is something everyone uses all the time, and it's hypocritical to not embrace it in the argued context. The error of this conclusion is that the category of ideas with imperfect proof is wide and mixed. This indiscriminate mass of ideas represents a crucial gradient of differing likelihoods. These differences are decisive. If validating an idea with "merely" a 90% likelihood qualifies as faith...then yes, I suppose I'm not faithless. But it's ludicrous to propose that an idea of 90% likelihood successfully earning my "faith" logically forces me to respond similarly to ideas of 10% likelihood.
  • awe. Some commonly try to associate awe with faith in specific beliefs—probably theirs. Either the awe inspires the faith, or the faith provokes and enables the awe, or awe and faith are more or less synonymous. They may murmur, "How can you not have faith? Don't you feel awe?" The honest answer is that I do—right before I cheerily skip the presumption of blaming it on something mysterious. At times one can be awestruck by an astounding yet demystifying explanation. Real objects of awe, i.e. things much grander than the scale of human existence, are everywhere. Classifying episodes of awe as faith would end up classifying me again as not faithless. (Or, ugh, "spiritual".)  
  • interest in paramount ideas. Right along with awe, some associate faith with any strong interest in paramount ideas. That's faith's "territory". They characterize faith-based thinking as deep, profound, introspective, elevating contentment over greed, and searching for luminous beings and not this crude matter. So reluctance to indulge in faith is shallow and mundane. The snag in this self-congratulatory generalization is that it conveniently ignores the opposite result: when less reverence for obtaining answers through faith is an effect of the determination to systematically investigate the questions. If thoughtful, fervent interest in paramount ideas is exclusive to faith, then I'm not faithless. 
Now that I've rambled on a while about not being faithless, am I a "person of faith" in the usual smug sense of that label? I'd rather not call myself that, and I suspect nobody else would find it helpful. I realize that by the most prominent definition I'm thoroughly faithless: I lack religious affiliation and all of its numerous expressions. 

My complaint is how this definition of faith is unintentionally accompanied by the peripheral faith definitions I listed. Placing people under the heading of faith grants them a halo (ha!) side-effect of hinting that they possess the qualities in the faith list. And barring people from it hints that they might not. I imagine the practical impact will shrink, as the social status of the concept of a person of faith continues to dwindle. If that vacancy were later filled by the scrupulously vague concept "person of patchwork spirituality", I'd judge it to be an improvement regardless.

Lastly, I'm compelled to mention the faith definition that writers with my view frequently prefer to underline: the practice of willfully neglecting, or only superficially pretending, to judge a given idea's accuracy via the means of neutral inquiry and analysis. Becoming progressively more and more faithless by this notion of faith nudged me to reexamine my opinions. I like to have faith that more people will be faithless in this regard too.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

introspect at your own risk

I've previously described connections between my present philosophy and the habits of thinking that I've absorbed at my software job. The catch is that all these habits of thinking are closer to suggestive comparisons than definite proofs. Others might not be that impressed. They might have an abstract technological job too but they routinely restrict the job's thinking style to work topics. Or they may attempt to apply it in directions that I oppose but they prefer ("a functioning program of high complexity implies a programmer"). Or they may explain with varying levels of credibility that this entire perspective is too specialized and mechanistic, so its metaphors are completely disqualified. They may ask, why am I seemingly obsessed with surveying the details of marvelous ideas, when the ideas feel so wonderful in rough outlines?

One answer to that question is...that the obsession is partially an offshoot of another habit to add to the list. But this one is undoubtedly more widespread to projects outside software: estimating prospective risk. For planning any ambitious project, it's essential to start as early as possible to uncover and compensate for risks to success. Fantasizing about the advantages it will have after completion is allowable, but sooner rather than later someone needs to confront tedious questions about the grounds for its potential existence. What will be the signs that it's done? What will it be made from? Who will make it? How many weeks will it take them? How many overlooked mysteries remain about its behavior? In one sentence, what are the actual risks of actualizing it?

The habit of estimating prospective risk doesn't mean that the estimator is incapable of dreaming of improvements. It might mean that like me they grow...leery of suggestions which are massive yet ill-defined. The effort to take a risk inventory demands sharper clarity, because the larger or fainter it is, the more risk it carries. Until the team determines what it will be expected to do, they don't know the constraints they will be working to satisfy. And they can't productively speculate about the risks of achieving the constraints. Itemizing the conditions to make something physical depends upon sketching the contours of that something with high specificity. Whether the thing discussed is a project or not, whether it's awe-inspiring or not, the habit of estimating prospective risk urges the question of the tangible requirements it would need to fulfill for it to be real.