Saturday, March 07, 2015

meditation and the Spock stereotype

The sad passing of Leonard Nimoy has temporarily raised the public profile of his most famous role: Spock of Star Trek. And although the character was many-sided and complex, it's more commonly referenced as a shallow stereotype. Typically, to compare anyone with "Spock" insinuates that they're out of touch with their feelings; they're obsessed with attempts to be impassive, analytical, objective, inflexible, rule-driven, unimaginative, risk-averse. Regardless of Spock's perennial popularity, in most cases the comparison probably isn't a compliment.

Concern about being too much like Spock is eerily similar to some of the uninformed concerns about the side effects of meditation—even the minimal, undogmatic kind previously covered by this blog. "If I train my brain to notice my emotions and direct my attention, won't I cut myself off from some of the most compelling parts of human experience? If I'm more conscious of what's going on in my head, won't I act...uh...self-conscious? If all my cares are demoted from controlling me, won't I lose the capability to be caring? If I realize that my aims are more like products of my mindset than like lasting, solid prizes, won't my actions start to seem worthless?"

Fortunately, meditation doesn't produce those fearsome effects. It can't because it doesn't force any changes in the practitioner. Ideally it yields them greater understanding and composure. It loosens the grip of their impulsive thoughts. It provides more opportunity for them to make thorough, well-justified decisions, which are more free from the self-imposed tyranny of narrow and/or unidentified mental patterns. They don't extinguish their emotions but soberly recognize then supervise. They can't choose the immediate involuntary reactions of their brain and body, but through unclouded comprehension they may choose how to respond to those reactions.

They're more able to remain calm in a wider variety of situations. Yet a calm demeanor doesn't imply that they're indifferent or unfeeling. They're only displaying the outcome of observing their agitation and simply permitting it to evaporate by itself, as if it were excess steam. They've acquired skills to selectively filter its final expression. As such, they're not subject to a stark dilemma of restrained Spock or unrestrained brute. They can decide which of their inclinations are worthy of which further actions—and possibly forming habits.

Additionally, they can consider the context of the present moment during those decisions. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. Obviously, behaving like a strait-laced Spock stereotype isn't always appropriate. Some moments warrant bubbling excitement, wide smiles, and easy laughter. Deeper familiarity with one's moods, gained through meditation or meditative-like practices, allows one to deliberately value, embrace, and trust their moods on such occasions. The opposite embattled strategy of guiltily shunning, fleeing, and squashing one's moods can't claim the same flexibility.

And to emphasize the realities of the present moment is to be more effective during either extreme or at times in-between. The competent completion of an unpleasant but necessary task (on Monday?) benefits from the absence of distraction: the doer isn't preoccupied by their wish to be doing something else altogether. The enjoyment of a leisure activity benefits from the absence of distraction, too: the doer isn't preoccupied by their dread of a future task (on Monday?). At differing moments they're either a clearer-headed "Spock" or a clearer-headed "anti-Spock"*.

*not a mirror universe Spock

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

freer free will

Free will is one of the many concepts that I started seeing differently after dismissing my faith-beliefs. Before, I treasured it as a central support of my perspective. It was the seldom analyzed glue that uneasily joined self-determined choices and physical causation. It consisted of the intentionally nonspecific boundary between the chooser and, well, everything else: their past, their surroundings, their companions, their instincts, their ideas, and even their own body matter. Through that unknown mechanism of separation, it established their pure autonomy over their final choices...

...and rationalized assigning them irresistible blame if those choices were in error. That wasn't a side-effect. It was essential for making an obsession with punishment seem more sensible. Without free will, choices could be traced to particular involuntary factors that affected the chooser; the quality of their choices could stem from how fortunate they were to experience a sufficiently good set of factors, such as a worthy, caring mentor. But with free will, each immoral choice was not an outcome needing correction but an independent evil deserving harsh punishment. It wasn't a sign of curable problems in the chooser's ethical judgment. It was a sign that evil itself had "infected" them. Their moral "purity" was suspect. They were willingly evil. And the range of acceptably aggressive responses to evil were well-known: attack, expulsion, avoidance—achieved by any means.

Moreover, this thorough obsession with individual punishment, enabled by individual free will, wasn't considered a contradiction to the concepts of mercy and grace. It was a teammate. Mercy and grace were so spectacular and imperative because the punishment of evil was so drastic. Obviously, a generous offer to substitute sincere faith in place of earned punishment isn't enticing without first conceding the existence and applicability of earned punishment! Systems of faith-beliefs can exploit this strategy to often appear positive regardless of the horrifying subtext. "Rejoice. Just by following these faith-beliefs, you too can obtain the favor of immensely powerful supernatural beings. (You didn't know that you needed to? Otherwise, by default you'd have faced their entirely appropriate fury about your disgusting, completely voluntary evilness.)"

I didn't fully appreciate the delicate conceptual relationships until I quit my faith-beliefs. From the other side, with my former assumptions dropped, I can see the shakiness of the whole. As previously mentioned, with more candor I realize that my ideas of free will were kept purposely vague and self-flattering. I thought that my status as a follower was primarily due to my deliberate choice of it in childhood. Yet that choice had been informed and encouraged for years beforehand. During that time I hadn't carefully pondered whether my parents' god was evidently good and worthy of sacrificial commitment. I had passively absorbed the ambient message that it certainly was. Then, I carried out the corresponding choice that had been laid out starkly in front of me.

To varying degrees, I repeated that strategy constantly while I was a follower. My ideas of good choices had already been fused to my ideas of supernatural, transcendent, generalized morality. In practice the exercise of my beloved free will had the characteristic tendency of relinquishing thorny choices. According to that measure, my choices were less free at exactly the same time that I had more faith in the accuracy of the notion of free will. I "freely" oversimplified actual ethical dilemmas by deferring to prefabricated rules, attitudes, and principles (i.e. preparing and consuming ethics pretzels). I was outsourcing.

I wasn't like an existentialist who attempts to embrace as many contextual details and consequences as they can prior to arriving at an "authentic" choice. I did almost the opposite: I hastily reapplied unquestioned precepts that came from someone else. In effect I copied someone else's choices as if I were cheating on a school quiz. My free will was tame. I was hampered from choosing for myself based on my own best efforts to understand and empathize. The goal of my analysis was focused on determining which option seemed more aligned with orthodox faith-beliefs, not which option seemed more ethical to me. I'd internalized the opinion that excessive unbounded choosing would've been a grievous, arrogant, rebellious misuse of free will.

On the other hand, I acknowledge that followers of faith-beliefs don't necessarily have a similar level of subservience. They may view their faith-beliefs as one source out of many. They may be relatively nonconformist and fussy about the morals they pluck out of their faith-beliefs. They may largely ignore or heavily adapt their faith-beliefs' morality altogether—especially if they mostly don't have faith in their faith-beliefs' accuracy anyway...in which case their faith-beliefs implicitly are inspirational cultural myths, not active faith-beliefs. Of course, their earnest disagreements on morality could eventually contribute to reconsidering whether to follow or to study their faith-beliefs at all.

Monday, January 19, 2015

transitive corroboration not enigmatic authorities

The last entry considered the shallow misconception that dissenters from faith-beliefs insist on evaluating each statement like a scientific hypothesis. But that exaggerated misconception distracted from the actual recommended evaluation strategy, which was much simpler: evaluate the quantity and quality of corroboration. Corroboration happens through many strategies, and not all are applicable to all statements. Realities form a mosaic, so corroboration has many diverse data sources too. It can be complicated in practice. It involves careful judgment. Anyone who's been part of a jury would agree.

However, for the sake of contrasting the attitudes of typical dissenters from followers, one aspect is key and worthy of elaboration: the corroboration of secondhand statements. Candidly, for the majority of statements, neither of the two groups ordinarily has feasible opportunities to obtain firsthand corroboration. They must rely on secondhand statements filtered by additional criteria. The problem is that this common dependence on secondhand corroboration can lead to false comparisons ("We're not so different, you and I!") and then to misunderstandings and stereotypes.

Within the mentality of loyal followers, the supreme criterion for a secondhand statement is nothing more than the authoritativeness of whoever produced it. Thus they think that they differ from dissenters over nothing more than which authorities to revere. Followers of faith-beliefs can mistakenly suggest that every variant of atheism qualifies as a faith with competing cosmic dogmas and stories and laws. Or they can mistakenly suggest that disregarding uncorroborated statements is the same as closed-mindedness. Of course, "postmodern" followers are the most enthusiastic about this; according to them, statements stem from an authority's narrative, different authorities have different narratives, and no narrative is more broadly correct than any other.

But this notion of indisputable authorities is precisely backwards or at least too gullibly lopsided. Truthfully, they might often be valuable sources for corroboration...if their corroborating statements are themselves corroborated. Despite their proud claims to the contrary, they aren't immune to the need for corroboration. A more elementary version is that you must show your work to earn full credit, no matter who you are. An authority shouldn't be allowed to curtly dictate that a statement is accurate without justification.

Essentially, during the exceedingly normal task to accumulate and estimate corroboration, authorities aren't transcendent oracles who mysteriously take over and finish it. They're more like unavoidable extensions of the one gathering corroboration. For instance, perhaps Fred can't corroborate a statement for himself, but he can communicate with Barney to discover what Barney did to corroborate it. If Barney refuses to deliver an account of what he did, or if the account is as unbelievable as a chat with The Great Gazoo, then Fred isn't obligated to accept Barney's uncorroborated corroboration. But if Fred accepts Barney's account, then Fred hasn't necessarily anointed Barney as an authority (Grand Poobah?). Fred has merely borrowed Barney's plausible corroboration. Mentally, he's permitted Barney—Barney's account, anyway—to represent what he would do if he could corroborate it himself. Fred can generalize from Barney, unless he reasonably supposes that he might encounter incompatible results if he were in Barney's place.

This kind of virtual transference has lots of precedents in mathematical contexts. The logic is applicable to a variety of relationships between amounts. Whenever X is equal to Y, and Y is equal to Z, then X is equal to Z. If Miami's noonday air temperature is hotter than Nashville's, and Nashville's is hotter than Fargo's, then Miami's is hotter than Fargo's. Relationships having this characteristic are transitive. Fortunately, corroboration is transitive much of the time, like it was for Fred and Barney. Realistic examples of transitive corroboration are immensely complex, with one corroboration stacking on another stacking on another, with contradictions and errors sneaking in. Needless to say, Barney's corroboration might be more convincing in conjunction with Betty's and Wilma's matching corroborations. Fred could feel still more confident that he would probably discover indistinguishable corroboration if he could imitate their efforts. Transitive corroboration is akin to a mathematical proof with numerous intermediary steps, which anyone can review whenever they wish. Or it's akin to a chain with numerous, compact, easily visible links.

It's far from original or revolutionary. Yet it clashes with the traditional directions associated with a few problematic topics: to not seek corroboration at all, not seek corroboration in the usual manner, not expect corroboration to either be obvious or to exhibit any testable pattern whatsoever, not presuppose that everyone will or can experience corroboration similarly, not overanalyze or even presume to understand someone else's corroboration, not urge that corroboration be lucid or universal or coherent, and on and on. In short, such directions blatantly ensure that corroboration is fundamentally non-transitive...and therefore unthreatening.

That leaves only the alternative from earlier: enigmatic authorities. When they decline to offer any explanation, the quality of their corroboration is unknown. Else they may offer an explanation, but its details include "methods" that are explicitly individualized...or rare...or ambiguous...or involuntary. Specifically, they may describe an extraordinary message which suddenly appeared in solely their brain. They may narrate an unsettling dream and proceed to clarify what the bizarre images really meant. They may proclaim that they sensed a statement's authenticity via an extraordinary personal ability granted to them by a god. They may assert their god's true opinion on the basis of their intuitive connection with it. They may revise a moral rule by opinionated, subjective, metaphorical reinterpretations of sacred texts. They may glibly argue that their idiosyncratic preferences are superior due to their ineffable wisdom or spiritual accomplishment. They may frame a particularly welcome surprise as a divine signal written just for them.

Their rationales are perfectly opaque to further investigation or refinement by their listeners. The options are to wholly assume or reject the statements/corroborations. Transitive corroboration isn't like that. Its priceless value is its effectiveness at weeding out uncorroborated pretenders and incompetents. It's why the statements of some authorities are genuinely (verifiably) more accurate than the rest. It's why someone can't selfishly choose the "right" authorities/websites/books to corroborate their prejudices about realities—well, they can if they don't mind that their ideas might be partly or entirely fictional (*cough* politicians). It's a deep change of perspective that's harder to recognize than its outward result of the dismissal of faith-beliefs.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Hypothesis or not?" is not the instructive question

Lawyer: So does this theory of evolution necessarily mean that there is no God?
Professor Frink: No, of course not...It just says that God is an impotent nothing from nowhere with less power than the Undersecretary of Agriculture, who has very little power in our system. (chuckling Frink noise)      —"The Monkey Suit", The Simpsons
I've noted before that misconceptions clump together. So the stereotype that dissenters of faith-beliefs have a pitiful lack of imagination is often paired with a second: that they narrow-mindedly interpret every statement like a literal scientific hypothesis. "As someone with a broader viewpoint, I don't pretend that everything can be analyzed through scientific means. I recognize that science has its limitations, and perhaps my faith-beliefs do too. That's why I'm unimpressed when critics scoff that my faith-beliefs are 'inferior hypotheses'. To the contrary, my faith-beliefs are significant because the topics aren't restricted by empirical methods. When I'm worshipping or praying, I'm not a scientist measuring outcomes to test a hypothesis. It sometimes seems to me that you people spend a lot of time, especially on the Web, elevating science into an object of adoration. Just as I have my favorite celebrities and lecturers and books, you have yours. I believe what my favorites proclaim, and so do you. I confess that I approach everything through the lens of my faith-beliefs, but you do the same with science. That devotion explains your determination to misconstrue my ideas as hypotheses and mix up your science with my faith-beliefs."

Surprisingly, I sympathize a little with this stereotype's complaint. I don't wish to phrase my opposition as a war between science and religion's competing hypotheses. I'm not eager to verbalize a stark choice between "sides", assign every statement accordingly, and pressure everyone to align themselves with the correct side. The effort to classify statements into domains is a diversion. I prefer to emphasize the question of each statement's credibility. What is its meaningfulness? How is the accuracy of its meaningfulness demonstrated in practice, especially in comparison with the many inaccurate statements which resemble it? What if someone could take the time to put aside an alleged war between ideologies and only try to judge as impartially as possible whether their dear statements could be mistaken?

To reiterate, these inquiries apply to statements from science as well as religion. The more central quarrel isn't about which team is generally "better" and therefore right. We don't follow statements made by scientists purely because science is great and we love science (whatever that means). We're guided by practical definitions of trustworthiness. The process matters. Statements from a science "domain" are trustworthy to the extent that each is backed by a sufficient, public, repeatable process. The pivotal point isn't the mere acknowledgment that science can be persuasively accurate; it's understanding why that is.

In this context, dedication to science is less about allegiance than about a crucial side effect: full appreciation of scientific standards. Those can inform the predominant manner in which someone sifts through the credibility of statements. They can't subject every statement to thorough science itself—exhaustive and meticulous observation, theorizing, experimentation, publication, peer review, etc. In that sense, they can't handle every statement like a hypothesis. Nevertheless, once they can recognize how science laboriously earns trust in its statements, then they can contrast it with the various alternative ways that humans try to inspire trust...such as manipulation or simply the overbearing, blunt command "Trust me!"

The final goal is a paradigm shift. They can stop selectively asking, "Is this statement 'scientific'? Should I act like a scientist when I ponder it?" They can switch to consistently, honestly, fearlessly asking, "Regardless of the domain this wondrous statement comes from, can anyone reasonably explain why I should believe it, and how I could possibly verify its particular details?"

Monday, January 05, 2015

lack of imagination

An awful yet predictable characteristic of a stereotype is that it exemplifies "common sense" to those invoking it...but it can actually be ludicrous to those it targets. One example is the curious stereotype that dissenters of faith-beliefs supposedly lack imagination. As a follower of faith-beliefs might say it, "I believe that realities have literally miraculous origins. Anyone without faith-beliefs like mine must have a dreary life. They're earthbound. They're stuck with long lists of facts about what they can only sense directly. They can't hope for unending comfort after the challenges of living. They can't rely on benevolent, unnaturally potent beings such as angels to help them. They can only absorb a multitude of disconnected events, often accidental; they can't discern a gigantic, purpose-driven story in which to situate the events. They just see objects in space, things in motion, governed by unintelligent, uncaring processes. If they would attempt to see beyond mundane minutiae, then they would appreciate the fulfillment of envisioning my incredible faith-beliefs."

Regardless of how insightful the stereotype appears to them, it has four glaring shortcomings on closer examination. First, it fails to agree with another favorite stereotype of theirs: bohemian artists, i.e. free-spirited, rebellious iconoclasts. (Some have an irritating habit of grouping themselves into an elite, extra-special subset of humanity called "creatives".) They produce works that aren't always "respectful". They might dare to ignore the supernatural plane, ridicule it, or intentionally portray it "incorrectly". They may be atheists by their own unashamed admission, or at least they express religious ideas that are exotic or wishy-washy. In any case, unlike the stereotype, they plainly combine their rejection of proper faith-beliefs with an abundance of wild imagination. It fuels their fiction.

Second, the stereotype fails for many experts in sciences and mathematics. Throughout history, advances in such fields have depended on imagining stuff that couldn't be observed via ordinary perception. Excellent theories proposed formidably abstract yet testable and precise concepts. Through the logic of mathematics, those led to corresponding calculations for estimating future effects or for tracing past causes. Contemporary sciences and mathematics include entire ethereal domains. As with energy (or quantum mechanics, aagh), some are so intangible that opportunists try to deceptively link them to unrelated, informal, hypothetical notions. The point is that leaps of imagination were part of uncovering these far from obvious concepts, and imagination is part of understanding or expanding them too. Not all who have these skills are also consistent dissenters of faith-beliefs. Nevertheless, more than enough fit the description for the sake of tarnishing the stereotype.

Third, the stereotype fails to acknowledge that imaginative faith-beliefs have been...commonplace. In proportional terms, faith-beliefs that align with natural human inclination are unimaginative. Diverse societies have had them for ages. The more innovative path is the readiness to consider realities that diverge from this ancient template. It might require imagination to ponder an unseen god authoring everything. But it requires novel imagination to not presuppose a human-like author with a human-like soul. It might require imagination to insist on a grand plan uniting every single moment of chaos—not to mention a high tolerance for frequent bewilderment. But it requires novel imagination to not presuppose large-scale satisfaction of a human craving for orderly structure. It might require imagination to defend the doctrine that humans are exceptionally important and empowered (ensouled?). But it requires novel imagination to not presuppose that human supremacy and intelligence are self-aggrandizing signs of nobility wisely delegated from a higher authority. In short, conventional faith-beliefs reflect and impose human concerns. Imagination is picturing possible truths which aren't so derivative of those restrictive expectations.

Fourth, the stereotype fails to employ an appealing strategy to reach outsiders, in my opinion. It might inspire committed followers, but it doesn't present a tempting incentive to start following faith-beliefs. I could be mistaken, but I doubt that most potential initiates are primarily impressed by the existence and benefits of invisible ideas. Their default area of interest is their own lives: their difficulties, their communities, their ethics, their needs, their aims, their "significant" personal events. To place too much emphasis upfront on the details of another realm is to answer questions they aren't asking. To cast the spotlight on stupendous images of otherworldly perfection is to show a passive, remote, hollow creed. Substantial faith-beliefs should have ramifications on stuff that has substance. Granted, nobody can deny the obvious psychological value of an additional source of extra motivation to confront problems and to invigorate self-renewal. Yet that rationale isn't compelling either when numerous alternatives could similarly provide productive motivation without similar demands for unearned confidence in ineffectual statements about powerless myths.

In the end, even if the stereotype were accurate, a lack of imagination might not be worse than the opposite risk of excessive imagination backfiring. For the more that a creation is fed, the greater the chance that it could start to seem independently real and then proceed to domineer the thinkers who animate it!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

a critical mass of faith

Not long ago, I explained that determined followers of faith-beliefs may not fit the two opposite stereotypes of an uninformed/misinformed dupe or a well-informed swindler. They may be a chimera made of both—a complex yet mutually beneficial combination. They want to believe, and so they devise and/or seek persuasive justifications purely for themselves. And each time they face a new contradiction, they use swindler-like ingenuity to somehow neutralize it from affecting them. Because they prize the continued acceptance of their faith-belief so much, they're willing to overlook their own transparently self-serving mental labor, which they knowingly performed to provide customized evasions of their own doubts.

Such "chimeras" may have learned, after endless trial and error, that they should be reluctant to attempt to mine their faith-beliefs for definite claims about tangible things or events. Instead, they should emphasize their appreciation of the mental effects of their faith-beliefs, e.g. mood changes and private, vague epiphanies. One particularly fruitful concept is a critical mass of faith: the minimum degree of devotion necessary to enable convincing results. If someone's faith could be below critical mass, then their sincere complaints about their faith-beliefs having no noteworthy consequences become easy to explain, rather than perplexing. Even their honest descriptions of their lackluster subjective experiences aren't problematic. They're unsatisfied because they aren't trying hard enough, not because their god is nonexistent. (It's revealing that the demand for fanaticism is seldom expressed to evangelistic targets or novice followers. To the contrary, like anyone approached for a new membership offer, they're more likely to hear that getting started is painless and low-cost.)

The crux is that someone without the critical mass of faith cannot offer a reliable opinion about the accuracy of the corresponding faith-beliefs. They haven't really taken a good sample, so they're uninformed and unqualified. Why pay attention to their negative feedback? (I'm reminded of that time I responded to the suggestion to give prayer a try.) Clearly this ploy's first benefit is an excuse to minimize the criticisms of large numbers of troublesome outsiders, including "moderate" followers of the same faith-beliefs. It's also convenient for discounting the public followers who eventually rejected their faith-beliefs altogether: their faith must never have reached critical mass. Therefore the rejection itself becomes less threatening. It can be an unremarkable consequence of the former follower's failure to ever grasp the "self-evident core". Most absurdly of all, they might face this unverifiable diagnosis despite many previous years of zealous, self-sacrificial commitment and conformity. That whole time, they must have been "only pretending" to be a follower.

The second benefit of requiring a critical mass of faith is that it greatly increases the odds of discernible outcomes within the follower's thoughts. A critical mass of faith involves constant obsession over an idea. And the constant obsession trains the follower's brain to spontaneously produce it. The process is like an echo. Shouting long and hard will set up the shout to return back. Moreover, such an eerie internalized impression isn't unreal in the strictest sense. Like other inner human experiences, it certainly exists...as a manifestation of brain activity. (That's why I've already agreed that I can't hastily categorize these experiences as mere na├»ve illusions.) An engrossing work of fiction doesn't need to present confirmed realities to provoke startlingly vibrant emotions and sensations. To some degree, the overall spectacle could be sufficiently potent to seem more like an alternative rather than an imaginary reality: "I felt like I was there." Similarly, when the brain emits bouts of "spiritual" phenomena, the subject may not be exaggerating much about their palpable perception of it. The brain has an undeniable abundance of interconnections. Why couldn't roughly the same visceral areas be approximately activated via an imaginative conceptual path—especially after that path has been purposefully cultivated by the unceasing efforts of the loyal follower? In this extremely limited way, critical mass makes their faith-belief a little more virtually real...from their perspective.

The third benefit of requiring a critical mass of faith is that it indirectly presumes interpreting available information through the most supportive slant. Once someone is in that state, they're probably not impartial. Almost by definition, they're primed to underline the strengths of their faith-beliefs and put aside the weaknesses. "If you had a critical mass of faith, you'd observe perpetual proof of these faith-beliefs everywhere you look. With your soul in the right condition, you'd be finding divine fingerprints all around." In addition, it's a rationale for continuing to accumulate faith. To be disturbed by contradictory information is to illuminate the need to simply add more faith, until the contradictory information is safely contained. Understandably, this recommendation encourages ambitious mid-level followers at the same time that it repulses dissenters. Ambitious mid-level followers gladly trust that greater faith will (mystically) unlock "advanced" comprehension of subtle truths. On the other hand, to exasperated dissenters, the requirement of greater faith to gauge knowledge correctly is like a requirement to first push down on one side of a scale before reading the weight! Or maybe it's like squinting more and more until four fingers could appear like five.

Ultimately, the common thread among these benefits is easy to spot: fortification of the follower's faith-belief to the point of self-sustaining invulnerability. While they're entranced by their critical mass of faith and its indispensable importance, they're unreachable from the outside. They may still choose to lay it down, of course, in a gesture of humility. Humility is admitting that there's nothing about oneself—including a critical mass of faith—which is independently sufficient for a superior, error-free source of unimpeachable truths.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

unit testing the brain

The previous time I used a peculiar tech metaphor for regular insight meditation, I likened one of its lasting aftereffects to a gyroscope interrupt. (It trains the practitioner's brain to reflexively identify disturbances to equilibrium.) This time I have a metaphor for the meditation session: "unit testing". In software development, unit testing is systematic, frequent, independent retests of distinct units of software. The rationale behind it is not too different from one-by-one retests of the bulbs in a defective strand of Christmas tree lights. Done properly, unit testing rapidly detects problems on the manageable level of circumscribed software units. Hence, developers can potentially pinpoint a unit's problems before it disrupts the smooth functioning of the whole program, i.e. the intact strand of units.

This hopeful goal entails two requirements in practice. First, the units need to be limited. Unit testing is more useful if the units are small and narrowly directed. At the same time, the humble units need exact connection points, because they only accomplish large, worthwhile tasks by assembling and collaborating. Second, once software developers have suitable units, they need an alternative test mode with purposeful procedures to isolate, run, and check the units. As already stated, the aim of unit testing is to temporarily avoid confusing interference from other units. So the procedures of unit testing should easily uncouple a unit, send it prearranged substitute connections/inputs, and measure differences between outputs and expectations. Again, the chore of retesting one Christmas tree bulb is comparable. One bulb can be conveniently retested due to a single clear outcome to evaluate, a known socket "interface" for the electricity it depends on, and a corresponding bulb tester device which can use the same socket.  

Just as unit testing is valuable for disentangling complicated software, insight meditation is valuable for disentangling the much more complicated activity of the brain. Without unit testing, software can be a massive jumble of intersecting parts. Each part can have many obscure overlaps with the rest. Turbulent brain activity presents similar difficulties. If the corresponding "units" are mental phenomena of all kinds, then the normal mode of these units is to combine, follow in quick sequence, and mask one another. Too much is happening. Subtle understanding is infeasible, because distinguishing the units is difficult.

Like unit testing, insight meditation is a quieter, concentrated mode than normal. Through extreme focus and calm, it deliberately decreases and slows the brain's churning. Then, like unit testing, it disconnects and studies individualized units. When each mental phenomenon arises, it's not granted attention beyond bare perception. Therefore it doesn't capture and transport attention somewhere other than the current moment.  In another modern metaphor, it's one out of a large fleet of buses that arrive at the meditator's bus stop, halt for a short time, and then leave; the meditator sees a bus very well but they repeatedly choose not to enter it and take a trip. By doing this, each phenomenon is more noticeable than it would normally be. It can be checked without the distractions that normally overshadow it.

Over time, a particular insight is inevitable: the units of brain activity are both numerous and diverse. Some of the categories are sensations, feelings, drives, aversions, memories, judgments, plans, statements, inferences, compulsions, worries, fantasies, assumptions, etc. Other liberating insights are that these units are in fact separable, and a solitary unit is much less imposing. Although some units are undesirable and uncontrollable, someone who experiences them isn't obligated to make them worse. They aren't obligated to ruminate on them and engage in a downward spiral. They aren't obligated to despise them for being what they are.

Furthermore, a unit might not only be unpleasant but also ungrounded...or perhaps nonsensical! In essence, it might be the equivalent of a buggy unit. Long-term, it might be contributing to unproductive, destructive patterns of thoughts and actions. But it's unidentified, unexamined, and unverbalized, until insight meditation yields the opportunity to recognize the bug and its full nastiness. It probably won't immediately vanish once it's been recognized; falsehoods can be persistent. Nevertheless, it can be counteracted or disregarded when it's recognized again later.

Some may object that the metaphor of unit testing is appallingly reductive and mechanistic. I don't mind. I've never claimed otherwise about my usage of insight meditation. I'm not interested in converting to different spiritual journeys, paths to enlightenment, lifestyles or cultures or laws or deities or words. I'm not interested in my soul. I'm interested in better teamwork with the sole brain that I have during the sole life that I have. 

Friday, December 05, 2014

the chimera of dupe and swindler

I've noticed that especially blunt criticisms of faith-beliefs frequently feature two separate kinds of figures: dupes and swindlers. The dupes are the unsuspecting victims of deception and manipulation, who may have many excellent qualities. The swindlers are the knowledgeable charlatans, who purposely employ persuasive trickery to primarily obtain selfish goals.

In relatively straightforward faith-beliefs, such as medicinal scams, this is adequate. But in breathtakingly elaborate sets of subtle faith-beliefs, such as the set included in a long-lived popular religion, an intriguing third kind appears: a chimera of dupe and swindler. They've witnessed the murky tangle of undisclosed complexities and flaws beneath the simplified well-polished public surface of their faith-beliefs. Nevertheless, they still work tirelessly to promote and protect their ideas. Their own persistent devotion is equal to their audience's...or greater.

Their nimble mixture of dupe and swindler characteristics echoes concepts from the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. I ought to let its timeless prose speak for itself.
Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical [...], and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. But stupidity is not enough. On the contrary, orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body. 
[...] no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness.
Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
It need hardly be said that the subtlest practitioners of doublethink are those who invented doublethink and know that it is a vast system of mental cheating. In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion: the more intelligent, the less sane.
The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. [...] Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in [...], then he is all-powerful and immortal.
The usual caveat for comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four applies. The book contains an exaggerated self-aware, villainous, insatiable tyranny. I don't suggest that the typical actual religious community is driven solely by an identical craving for exclusive domination—that's more apropos to the "cult" category. The ones in my personal history certainly didn't fit that narrow mold.

No, the discomforting similarity lies in their usage of baffling crimestop/doublethink to reconcile contrary information to unshakable ideas. It's the busy mechanism uniting the chimera. Their dupe side has as much dedication as if the ideas were genuinely sturdy and unquestionable. But their swindler side acts on the principle that whenever they're handling their ideas, they must exert constant care and finesse to ensure credibility and attractiveness. Inside everyone's thoughts, including their own, the swindler side exists to outwit, charm, and isolate the dupe side.

While the pure dupe answers a sensible question about accuracy with a mistaken "yes" and the pure swindler with an informed "no", the chimera fits neither category because they leave the question unanswered. They evade it by attacking its validity. Or they minimize it by attacking its significance. Or, strangest of all, they swallow it by just deciding to disregard its airtight logical consequences.

They wouldn't think of themselves in these terms, of course. A benefit of the balance between their two sides is that it maintains their positive self-concept. In addition to the swindler side's work to preserve the dupe side, the dupe side legitimizes the swindler side. Since their dupe side earnestly believes in the worth of the ideas they're trying to spread, they can feel unashamed about their swindler side using a range of shrewd tactics on newcomers. Like enthusiastic fishermen, they're open to baiting their hook with virtually anything, provided the fish is caught. "I'm intimately acquainted with the downsides of the ideas I'm offering, but it's more important to start by provoking interest however I can."

Furthermore, at least some of them can feel less concerned about the initial stage of bedazzlement—the come-to-Jesus moment—because it doesn't represent their endgame anyway. From their perspective, their sincere final goal isn't the same as a swindler's. Their measure of success isn't converting targets into ignorant needy exploitable dupes. It's converting them into "sophisticated" chimeras like themselves. They want to raise determined followers who willingly and skillfully squelch their own doubts. The hope is that the novice chimera will develop their two sides simultaneously. Their dupe side will grow as they pursue gratifying transcendental/emotional/social stimulation. Their swindler side will necessarily grow as they steadily encounter the common deficiencies of their ideas and learn the common rationalizations for each.

Later, after a chimera becomes advanced and stable, they may settle on a form of belief that's almost depressingly lackluster. The gap between idea and practice might be wide indeed. They'll trust adored holy texts...but only via an intricate strategy of extensive interpretation and refinement. They'll seek a miraculous level of moral resolve...but only via a gradual process of sustained self-discipline and total fixation. They'll praise the otherworldly camaraderie of a faith community...but only as an ideal which every earthly community is far from achieving. They'll petition one or more supernatural forces for help...but only with extremely low expectations. They'll preach that these one or more supernatural forces wish to improve human existence...but only a little at a time via followers' clumsy actions. They'll declare the wonderful blissful rewards of being a correct follower...but only arriving after death. They'll describe the present joy and contentment that comes from their ideas...but only via the escapism of consciousness-altering rituals and inspired imaginative visions of intangibles. They'll vigorously defend the specific doctrinal stances of their specific tradition...but only along with the uneasy awareness that their tradition is itself the highly debated creation of limited biased human predecessors. They'll report the guidance they receive regularly from the supernatural realm...but only via cryptic faint "signs" or sudden inscrutable mental impulses. They'll relentlessly press onward on a mission assigned to them by a god...but only with the unforeseeable risks that they somehow misheard the mission assignment, or that the incomprehensible god may have purposefully assigned them to a mission which was doomed to failure.

For most of the religious leaders I've met, this admittedly confusing mentality is a closer approximation than the notion of sinister puppeteers cynically pulling the strings of the gullible. Sometimes I've read the suggestion that such experienced followers "really know that they're asserting nonsense to the uninitiated". But I don't necessarily find that suggestion to be any more convincing than the frequent inaccurate suggestion that dissenters like me "really know that supernatural item ______ exists". When I can observe the strenuous psychological exertions they perform to keep their faith from dying altogether, I don't conclude that they're faking. Besides, the more honest among them confess that they too have moments of doubt (time periods when their intellectual arguments are more than smokescreens). To the extent that they muddy the thoughts of their audience, they're repeating what's already been done to them...often by themselves.

Regardless, I'd prefer that they were neither dupe, nor swindler, nor any chimera of the two. The better outcome would be nobody accepting unsound ideas for unsound reasons.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

precious idioms

I've suggested that the search for meaning shouldn't end at a sprawling list of ill-defined unchecked conjectures. When an earnest searcher goes on to consider each proposal, they shouldn't be deterred from asking pertinent follow-up questions. They should be permitted—perhaps encouraged—to probe and clarify each proposal's descriptions, justifications, and implications. They can't be expected to commit to a belief before they've had the opportunity to investigate to their satisfaction that the belief is solid. (Momentary "acceptance" of a belief purely to trial it isn't the same—a commitment involves basing future thoughts and actions around it.) I named this sensible guideline "the demand for meaning". Openly or tacitly, widely or narrowly, sooner or later, faith-beliefs repudiate it to survive.

Regardless of its constant usefulness, this measure of meaningfulness is limited. It doesn't illuminate why many beliefs are also so precious and heartfelt. Plainly, some beliefs in practice are a lot like idioms: they have additional meanings beyond their testable definitions. To varying degrees, a belief's mere content might not communicate its weighty symbolic effects on followers. The clue is their quick-draw defensive reactions to perceived "affronts"...which could amount to polite counterarguments of enigmatic metaphysical topics.

This phenomenon can show up even in a bitter distinction between slightly divergent sets of followers, especially in a context of long history and proud honor. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. Within context, the largely peripheral distinction functions as a precious idiom whose meaning is exclusion and conflict. Whether it's simple in concept or not, its more prominent meaning becomes all the past friction that has surrounded it. In fact, it's a more suitable candidate for lasting discord if it can't have a definitive resolution. If it could be settled quickly and conclusively then both sides wouldn't be able to persist in thinking that they were right. In that sense it's like a box: when it's more empty of clear inherent meaning, the more room it has for external meanings to be placed into it.

On the other hand, precious idioms can be pleasant too. Faith-beliefs don't need to be accurate in order to represent a range of inspiring sentiments. Part of my reluctance to reexamine mine came from familiar comfortable associations like those. From inside that mindset, religious allegiance and participation signified dedication to numerous worthy ideals. It was essential to being upstanding (at first, thinking I was atheistic was akin to thinking I was a Cylon). To carefully follow beliefs such as "God exists as a Trinity" was one path to exemplify "goodness". These acted as one-dimensional idioms for loyalty to the basic notions of tradition, family, community, morality.

This tangled knot of unstated presumption explains why followers and dissenters may talk past each other. Appearances to the contrary, a faith-belief could be more than a shaky philosophical proposition to be dismantled. It could be an emblem of the follower's tangential concerns. For example, they hear dispassionate explanations of discoveries in cosmology, geology, and biology. But they think, "I'm being told that human lives are insignificant." They hear unassuming ethical arguments that don't depend on faith-beliefs. But they think, "I'm being told that my religion by itself doesn't make me an ethics expert."

Moreover, faith-beliefs of comparative unpopularity are more likely to not be precious idioms of most followers. Hell, i.e. perpetual fruitless punishment, is not an idiom for many follower's attitudes about proportionate justice. They don't wish to apply the same overall strategy to their own societies, by horribly torturing petty criminals for as long as possible. So, since Hell isn't a precious idiom to them, they're less willing to vigorously defend it. The evilness of divorce, except for infidelity, is a second case. It's certainly not an idiom for followers who feel that they have the irrevocable rights both to pursue happiness and to determine when a freely chosen relationship degrades into a barrier to happiness. In the "Bible-believing" churches I attended, divorce for miscellaneous reasons was more often treated as a tragedy than an evil act, despite the biblical quotes in which Christ flatly states that he thinks it is. Some faith-beliefs are idioms for ideological battle and essential self-concepts and wishes: official war banners for followers to rally around and preserve and, well, at least be very touchy about. Others are more like outlying pawns that are negotiable without surrendering the "core" stuff.

The point is that productive conversation about idioms requires tedious care. Like cutting off a device's electricity before in-depth maintenance, the idiom's links need to be weakened first. In effect the follower needs to recognize that their precious idioms are idioms. Although their faith-beliefs are their own idioms for valuable goals and motives, they need to see that credible critiques aren't necessarily intended as nefarious attacks on those very human strivings.

Diverse experience and attempts at empathy can spur this realization. Greater cultural knowledge contributes, and so does friendly contacts with followers of different beliefs. The more that they directly observe the unthreatening universality of human strivings, as well as the variety of idioms connected to them, the more they may be capable of listening seriously to the flaws of their particular idioms. A square hole could be filled with squares of any color. When they're reassured that their faith isn't an indispensable anchor of their humanity, then they're more ready to start heeding thoughtful questions about it. Lower stakes facilitate clearheadedness. Of course, depending on their situation, the potential consequences of questioning faith might still be high for any number of reasons. But they can quit worrying that doubts would make them subhuman or leave them totally aimless.

Yet this discovery of common ground isn't always nice. Sometimes, intentionally or not, multitudes of idioms point toward humanity's unethical inclinations. Needless to say, if a faith-belief is used as an idiom for unflinching brutality, then dissenters should be less concerned by the follower's anxiety of maybe not having a replacement idiom for it! Similar lack of hesitation applies to idioms of arrogance, greed, oppression, cruelty, inequality, suffering, self-degradation, despair, ignorance, destruction, hatred.

Fortunately, subgroups of followers frequently condemn such outcomes too—in complexly calibrated ways. With a measured mixture of queasiness and sympathy, they may say that their fellow followers have some of the Right Ideas, but they're messing up the Right strategy of extracting idiomatic meanings. "My beliefs only symbolize good things, because I say so. And I myself decide what those good things are." If they wrote a book, it might be like the odd Frank Schaeffer one that I responded to...

Sunday, November 02, 2014

the prejudice of 1-D vision

Mistrust of outsiders is normal...if often depressing and unfounded. Understanding outsiders is more difficult simply because of missing common points of reference. The greater level of uncertainty feeds anxiety and wariness. It presents an opportunity for contemptuous stereotypical assumptions, which has the more or less intentional side effect of boosting self-serving admiration among the insiders ("Unlike them, we break our hard-boiled eggs on the big end").

So it is in the case of mistrusting outsiders based on their religious beliefs. But I've sometimes noticed an intriguing quirk in it. Outsiders who publicly choose to not follow any religious beliefs receive greater mistrust than outsiders who follow differing, perhaps exotic, religious beliefs. According to the insiders, both types are incorrect. Why aren't both equally disturbing?

I wonder whether an important factor is an ingrained habit of measuring everyone's beliefs along exactly one dimension: the degree of conformity to the unique set of Right Ideas. This continuum underpins the continuum of mistrust. The earlier split between insiders and outsiders is a simplification of a gradual scale...or a pecking order. Everyone is sorted unambiguously into line, as if according to ticks on a ruler, or numbers marked on their foreheads, or temperature readings ranging from hot to lukewarm to cold.

The maximal insiders hold specialized authoritative religious ranks through some combination of choice, talent, ancestry, or popularity. In decreasing order, the next group is the zealots, who are fanatically faithful and eager to sacrifice almost anything. After them is the group of partisans, who are committed and dependable but not necessarily single-minded or enthusiastic. The trailing group is the nominal insiders, who are highly selective in what they believe and contribute, and who are neither dedicated nor interested to large segments of the Right Ideas.

Proceeding farther, the top group of outsiders is the dropouts, who are former insiders with faded half-hearted loyalty to the Right Ideas; they may eventually return to being insiders, although they may prefer to switch to a more fitting variant of their original beliefs. Behind them is the neutral group, who haven't ever heard the Right Ideas in an appealing form, but they're promising candidates who are receptive to discussion, guidance, and persuasion. At the minimum is the resistant group, who emphatically avoid and repel serious detailed conversations about the Right Ideas.

To be even less conformist than this, someone needs to criticize and dispute. For instance, they could definitely qualify by explicitly rejecting the essential philosophical foundations of the Right Ideas. Then they occupy an identifiable relative slot in this 1-D vision, despite their total opposition to the entire basis of it. Like the Off setting on a volume knob, nevertheless they're treated like they're actually the same as level 0. Rather than having deeply contemplated ideas of their own, they're pictured as just lacking everything that's valuable or meaningful.

Worse, regardless of their intent, their antithetical positions happen to suit the role of a villain in the insiders' vision. Merely expressing negative judgments about the Right Ideas can reduce them to targets of animosity. When worth or goodness is measured by degree of agreement with specific precepts, then someone with too little agreement—or outright disagreement—can end up "worthless" or "evil". To object too directly or forcefully is to invite unflattering associations with the other opponents that exist in their beliefs...no matter how nonsensical. ("I assume you spread subversive arguments on behalf of the infernal masters you adore?")  

In effect, the insiders are under the impression that 1-D vision can supposedly accommodate principled nonbelievers more easily than believers who follow a different conception of Right Ideas. These alternative believers can't be situated using the chosen singular dimension. They don't have any clear relationship whatsoever to the (only) Right Ideas; someone who repudiates the Right Ideas does. Therefore, assuming they know their place and accept it quietly, the alternative believers tend to be tolerated at a cautious metaphorical if not literal distance.

The remedy is obvious, but I'll mention it anyway. Instead of attempting to mistakenly cram nonbelievers into a 1-D vision of religious beliefs, insiders would gain greater understanding if they broadened their perspective and permitted subtler comparisons.