Saturday, April 12, 2014

reexamining faith in Lost after loosing my faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 23, 2014

ubiquitous priming

Speculation about the operation of the brain is tricky. It defies easy analogies. But perhaps ubiquitous priming is a worthwhile one. In psychological studies, priming refers to the effect of stimuli on future responses to related stimuli. The earlier stimuli "prime" the psychological subject like priming a water pump or an engine. For a short time after priming, subjects respond more readily to similar stimuli.

In contrast to the brain's complex computations, priming has an easier analogy available: context. In human thought and behavior, the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. Priming/context tailors results according to the situation. It's more complicated than a one-to-one mathematical function or a row of light switches. It's closer to sowing many seeds in proximity and allowing the plants to entangle. 

In the same way, priming/context could be ubiquitous, occurring at differing levels. As reductionist as it sounds, pieces of brain have surrounding pieces to act as context. One brain activation "primes" its counterpart because it contributes to overcoming its activation threshold in the "present" or in the "near future"—keeping in mind that these slivers of time are much smaller than the smallest human-perceptible instant. And thereby a small cluster of brain activations primes the clusters connected to it. And larger clusters prime larger clusters, and so on into greater sizes.         

Also, ubiquitous priming is an analogy of the value of the brain's structure. An item of information isn't just encoded in isolation but encoded to be additional priming for more items. From inborn instincts, information primes the brain for behaviors that are advantageous for natural selection. From cultural lessons, information primes the brain for the culture's focal points. From language, information primes the brain for the grammatical distinctions to match tense/mood/aspect/etc. From memories since birth, information primes the brain for recall of crucial episodes. Indeed, pushing the analogy into hyperbole, exactly how much of a human's identity, such as their preferences and goals and coping styles and experiences, can be thought of as their largest context, meaning their whole unique set of brain structures for ubiquitous priming? 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

glimmers of pragmatism in faith

I've mentioned the process many times. As pragmatism spread through my thinking, it thoroughly hollowed out my faith-beliefs. But my experience doesn't imply that the same outcome will happen to everyone else. To the contrary, followers of faith can tolerate or even adopt glimmers of pragmatic-like ideas. As usual, by "pragmatism" I specifically refer to my own somewhat informal variation on pragmatist philosophy, which I've described in previous entries.

The first manifestation of pragmatism in followers of faith is also the most familiar. Generally, they may act with admirable pragmatism whenever they wish to certainly accomplish something. This rule of thumb is especially active if they don't isolate themselves from the methods of contemporary culture. In response to serious illnesses or injuries, they turn to modern medicine. In response to financial risks, they buy insurance policies. In response to the loss of the ability to work due to age, they invest in long-term retirement plans. In response to the labor market, they pursue education in non-religious knowledge. They may quote the peculiar folk saying, "God helps those who help themselves." The lesson is clear, although it's seldom stated plainly: in practice, pure reliance on the supernatural is a secondary tactic, a back-up plan, a last resort, a fail-safe that might fail after all.

However, the lack of grand gestures by something supernatural isn't necessarily an obstacle to a faith. Its followers may compensate by incorporating pragmatism in a second and ingenious way. They may propose a calculated pragmatic definition of "supernatural intervention". After fortunate events, they officially designate small well-verified bits of natural realities as camouflaged specimens of covert supernatural adjustments. Previously I characterized this watertight theory as The God Of Loaded Dice. It miraculously transforms a temporary coincidence of several beneficial events into more than rolling a yahtzee; instead those individually unimpressive events are pieces in a single supernatural feat. Of course, part of its appeal depends on the well-known human craving to impose patterns onto shapeless data, and their related lack of intuition for the combined probability of numerous outcomes.

A top candidate for pragmatically defined "supernatural intervention" is the tangible aid provided by a follower's supportive community of faith. Human behavior is complex, unpredictable, spontaneous, reactive, etc. Therefore it doesn't appear obviously far-fetched to speculate that the supernatural is somehow contributing to the unknown mixture of factors driving anyone's specific actions and thoughts. And presumably the degree of supernatural influence on a follower is proportional to their degree of faith. Indeed, a third case of relative pragmatism is the tradition of measuring a follower's degree of private faith by verifying their public actions. "By their fruit you will recognize them." Followers are proven through demonstrated conformance. They must swear allegiance, obey the rituals, reply to the formal prearranged questions with prearranged answers, and recite the dogmas. When they refuse, then they're no longer acknowledged as followers. Like anyone else, their brains cannot be directly read by their peers, so these pragmatic definitions of their commitments are simply unavoidable.

Furthermore, some followers of faith may employ this approach on a larger scale to deflect tiresome doctrinal in-fighting. If any follower's degree of faith is identified by their actions anyway, then perhaps minutiae of doctrine don't matter much at all. This mindset has the motto "orthopraxy over orthodoxy". It's a fourth form of pragmatic thinking in faith: followers resolve to care very little about the total accuracy of their elaborate concepts of the supernatural domain, except for the meaningful impact of those concepts on their present experiences and actions. They ignore "deep" questions in their faith, which are under eternal debate among countless sects. They may reject most of their faith's complicated and debatable taboos altogether. Essentially, they admit that many of their faith's fine-grained distinctions are neither certain nor relevant—hence not applicable to doing the faith. They categorize the minor details of their faith according to a scale of pragmatism. The end result varies depending on how strictly they apply their scale. For some, the outermost margins of their faith are the sole parts that are unimportant and/or "open to interpretation". For others, only a select handful of their faith's most central beliefs are indispensable to proper compliance.

Nevertheless, thanks to human creativity, the meaningfulness of faith-beliefs could still be more loosely defined. Followers may suggest that their own entire faith isn't a more accurate reflection of realities than any other...except as judged on some pragmatic basis. This is a fifth application of pragmatism to faith, and it's the most thorough yet. Such followers no longer assert that any part of their faith is the closest representation of supernatural realities. Rather, their faith's solitary claim of greater worth is its better effect on humanity. They may summarize their viewpoint as, "The symbolic content of my faith is almost completely irrelevant, so long as it inspires happiness/hope/love/peace/clarity/etc." At this stage, faith is fairly characterized as a means for its followers, not an end in itself. If the faith they follow fulfills its purpose(s), and doesn't interfere with anything else, then they blatantly don't mind whether its statements are uncorrelated with discovered realities.

Ultimately, pragmatic judgment of faiths enables yet another progression. When faiths are treated as metaphorical tools, followers (tool users?) may reckon that the most sensible strategy is to place all faiths into a unified metaphorical toolset. Unfortunately but predictably, this yields a supernatural domain which is stunningly incoherent. It's incapable of producing singular logical answers to the most basic of questions. How many beings are there and what unearthly powers does each one have? What's responsible for evil? What happens in the afterlife? How did the universe begin, and how will it end? For followers of faith fusion, such straightforward questions must be dodged somehow. Like me, perhaps they unimaginatively respond, "These stories are fanciful human creations, which are sometimes useful for illustration or inspiration, but none are useful for directly representing realities. As fictional works, it's neither necessary nor feasible to expect the group to be reconcilable."

On the other hand, perhaps some followers may try to save their incoherent faith fusion through the unconventional retort, "The supernatural Something is real but also wholly ineffable. All faiths are incomplete attempts to reduce and control it. Any human idea about it can never be more 'correct' than the alternatives." Although their retort sounds intriguing and indisputable, it suffers from the fatal flaw of overreach. Its defeat of analysis is self-defeating. If every mental model of the Something cannot be checked for even partial accuracy, then the Something is literally unthinkable, indescribable, and alien. It admittedly succeeds in dodging every further question, but only by disqualifying every possible answer. It declares an uncertain amount of uncertainty, which sets it apart from pragmatic items of precisely limited uncertainty such as physics' Uncertainty Principle. Worse, under the presumption that all human ideas really achieve zero information about the Something, the most sensible course of action is to always disregard the pattern-less Something. Attempts to ponder it or base plans on it are futile and therefore wasteful.

Or, maybe they themselves don't follow their claim consistently, so it shouldn't be interpreted too seriously. Despite what they say, maybe some of them follow a faith that contains ideas, no matter how hazy, unsettled, or implicit. It could resemble an indistinct "Ietsism-plus", where Ietsism strictly-defined is the minimalist faith that "Something supernatural exists but we know nothing else about it." I once praised Ietsism for its unassuming humility about its knowledge, in comparison to many other supernatural beliefs. Accordingly, forms of Ietsism-plus are less praiseworthy. As soon as a follower begins to state Truths about their Something, they're back to admitting that it's disingenuous to call all faiths equivalent, because the faiths now have differing levels of accuracy depending on compatibility with their Something-Truths. To take one example of many, I imagine that a typical follower of Ietsism-plus may opt to preach a Truth that the Something is strongly in favor of life (don't bother asking them how they acquired this Truth). Then the controversy immediately begins. Doesn't this Truth imply that the faiths that don't outlaw war are less correct approximations about the Something than the faiths that do? What about veganism? What about executing wrongdoers? When pivotal practical details aren't brushed aside, followers of forms of Ietsism-plus probably aren't as sincerely committed to the notion that it's both possible and valuable to fuse all diverse faiths into a unique hypothetical crowd-pleasing Something.

Notwithstanding the purposeful vagueness of their Something, it shares at least one characteristic with the gods of other faiths: for whatever reason it "coincidentally" reaches most of the same ethical conclusions as its follower(s). This is why debates between much different faiths cannot be won through all participants invoking the common justification, "Because my god thinks so." Instead of that, they likely switch into a more persuasive and objective mode of argument...one which is (drumroll please) pragmatic. They try to identify concrete measurements and effects of their ethics' superiority: who will be helped or hurt, whose rights take priority, what rules are feasible, etc. Pragmatism acts as a neutral territory for everyone to meet. For this reason and others, I'm thankful that it isn't exclusive to my point of view, and that it can be of use to followers of faith in many ways.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

orderly abstract intelligence is a highly principled remix

When arguing against the natural evolutionary origin of humanity, flattery doesn't hurt. Consider the entire class of arguments which praise the uniqueness of humans in comparison to other biological organisms. For if humans are so incredibly special, then how could they be products of natural processes? How could their distinctiveness arise from an evolutionary continuum?   

Most often, the topic of human uniqueness focuses on intelligence and behavior. Does any other animal do _____? Is any other animal motivated by ______? Can any other animal easily solve puzzles like _______? And if not, then how are humans different? Expressed in a single debate-ready question: what is the mechanism behind the human flair for abstract intelligence, as opposed to the earthy intelligence demonstrated by "lower" animals?

Of course, in the context of evolution denial, mentioning this mysterious question probably isn't intended to lead to physical answers; the questioner is probably insinuating that the question has an equally mysterious metaphysical answer. However, regardless of the intent behind it, the question is still intriguing for anyone who accepts materialistic naturalism. Clearly there isn't yet a proven definitive answer to it—everyone will notice when there is one, because it will lead to unmistakable artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, informed speculation is necessary to fill the gap.

So speculate I shall. I concede that humans' abstract intelligence must operate somehow. My current thinking is that the question is framed to be subtly misleading. It deliberately hints that abstract intelligence is an additional centralized semi-independent ability which only human brains possess. In this view, the non-abstract, i.e. concrete and animal-like, portions of the brain receive and refine sense data and primal drives. Then those results flow into the supplementary "humans are awesome" brain part (e.g. the antiquated hypothesis of the pineal gland's function), where abstract intelligence performs miracles on the information.

This simplistic paradigm is unlikely. My current impression is that abstract intelligence acts more like an energetic remix of concrete intelligence. It's a complex set of coordinated interactions with all the types of concrete intelligence; it reuses, repurposes, redirects, even reprograms. It achieves unprecedented combinations. Although it's certainly a novel innovation in brain design that obviously produces drastically exceptional output, it's not built as a completely distinct type of intelligence. This more complicated paradigm is compatible with the known structure of the human brain, which indeed includes lengthy and numerous interconnections among the various parts that are devoted to identifiable types of concrete intelligence. The prefrontal cortex is a famous site for the junctions of these prominent interconnections, thereby creating excess routes.

It's not difficult to imagine the routes guiding the flow of data. But what if abstract intelligence also consists of routes for the flow of delegating reasoning? What if it's partly a metaphorical engine for translating data from one type of concrete intelligence to a second, and enabling the second's specialized processing on the initial data? What if the primary strategy is to "summon help" from diverse intricate types of concrete intelligence that have evolved for eons? For example, invoking the visual cortex to examine an abstract image as if it had originated from the eyes. If this were accurate, then it's an amusing instance of inversion of control, like the tail wagging the dog. When the triggered "lower" intelligence sends the solution back to the dispatching junction, the solution itself triggers yet another flow. I suppose this abstract give-and-take could last for a while, as intermediate solutions provoke further intermediate solutions.

On the other hand, unhampered conscious remixing of both data and reasoning would be chaotic. Under normal conditions the operation of abstract intelligence isn't a subjective experience of total bedlam, so presumably the remix obeys any number of organizing principles. The first could be the presence of fresh salient external data. Perhaps such data interrupts and overpowers most abstract loops of brain activity. Evolution surely has rewarded brains which prioritize sudden pertinent events in the organism's surroundings.

The second organizing principle could be the bonds supplied by narratives. Narratives furnish a strongly coherent context for abstract intelligence, and the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. In fact, I suspect that narratives are extremely influential and versatile tools for steering human thought at all levels of abstractness. Narratives derive strength from three features. First is language. The decoding of language systematically and rapidly activates swarms of ideas. So any organizing principle that harnesses language already has extensive access to the brain. But note that strong narratives can also be nonverbal. The second strong feature of narratives is episode. Like episodes in reality, episodes in narratives can have wide-ranging effects simultaneously. An episode isn't one thing, sensation, or concept. It's a blend of many in a momentary span of time, and the blend can cause any number of cascading reactions in the brain all at once. And in effect the blend reinforces the mutual association of all the data in the specific episode, according to the proverb for behavioral conditioning: "neurons that fire together wire together." The third strong feature of narratives is sequence. Narratives present the episodes in a particular sequence, and thus sequencing is an indispensable clue for comprehending and extracting relationships among episodes. The sequence is raw material for countless examples of abstract intelligence. It may tie together otherwise disparate data items: the sequence of merging any collection with a count of two and any collection with a count of three yields a collection with a count of five. It facilitates replaying or reciting: even a familiar telephone number demands more effort to state in reverse. I'm deeply interested in the precise representation of sequences in the "massively parallel" brain, because generally parallelism and sequencing are hard to reconcile.    

The third organizing principle could be timing. This includes forms of external synchronization such as tempo, rhythm, and repetition. Perhaps insistent timing effectively filters brain activation patterns, through direct disruption of patterns that don't match the timing. Moreover, timing seems like an unavoidable factor in the brain's coding of information. Nerve cells need to activate in timed groups—each nerve cell is too simple to encode information by itself. Each cell's contribution to the "meaning" is interdependent on other cells activated at that time, like a single minuscule display-dot that at one time is part of a "B" and at a later time is part of a "6". Timing shows up significantly in more ways, too. Overall brain activity has a customary timing, such as alpha waves or beta waves. During conversation, unexpected timing of phrases is considered highly distracting...and a sign of non-native speakers. During abstract data handling, timing is related to the boundaries between separate items: the start of the following item shouldn't be timed before the end of the preceding item. I wonder if it might encode data containment as well, via several coinciding timings of differing lengths. The larger enclosing unit could have a long timing, and the smaller enclosed units could have shorter timings that begin and conclude within the longer timing of the larger unit. Needless to say, music of all kinds is a prime example of the operation of this organizing principle.
          
The fourth organizing principle could be remodeling: restructuring the brain in order to act as a better-fitting model of specific information. As previously mentioned, remodeling ultimately occurs at cell level, when each cell's selective activation has lasting (or should I say memorable?) side effects by activating another cell. At coarser levels of detail, remodeling is merely a cumbersome synonym for learning—not just learning greater motor-nerve control over the body but also over inaccurate abstractions. Brain remodeling is like continuously redrawing a map by trial and error, whether that entails erasing mistakes or adding more information. Drastic changes are less possible at older ages, of course. Meanwhile, at a still-coarser level of detail, remodeling is societal and cultural. Explicitly and implicitly, culture introduces fundamental abstractions and then introduces more and more elaborate abstractions by remixing its fundamentals. Naturally, the preceding three organizing principles are effective tools for brain remodeling. For instance, a ritualistic chant may be a sensory experience that expresses a narrative and is always repeated according to predetermined timing. Remodeling nurtures and vitalizes abstract intelligence's potential. From generation to generation, remodeling ensures that the total cultural products of abstract intelligence are communal. The teaching, modification, and preservation of culture comes from a long-lived population of humans who remodel each other's brains.

After accounting for the constraining influence of organizing principles, it's more plausible that orderly abstract intelligence could occur through remixes of brain impulses. In this way, the mass of unintelligent pieces is neither a disjointed mob nor a rigid clockwork. If it were the disjointed mob, then it couldn't make any coherent cumulative progress. If it were the predictable clockwork, then it couldn't adapt to imperfect or surprising data. The inner workings of a principled remix lies in the middle between these extremes. That mode in the middle really isn't any more obscure than the two extremes, so perhaps it's unhelpful to use the magical-sounding term "emergent" just to describe its large-scale pattern effects. Something similar occurs all the time in other huge dynamically-structured groupings which incorporate small interactions among individual items or subgroups: colonies of eusocial insects, Internet routers, political movements in democracies, buyers and sellers in economies, cells in multicellular organisms, air masses in weather. For these common groupings, usually nobody objects to the simultaneous existence of the whole and also every item. Strictly speaking, the whole itself is an extant grouping and therefore it and its effects aren't emerging. The appearance of emergence is a side-effect of enlarging the viewing scale. The contents of abstract intelligence "emerge" from a large-scale view on innumerable synaptic teams.

Then the relevant follow-up question is how this applies to the experience of emergence in the brain. The other cases of large-scale observation have obvious observers and methods, such as an economist collecting many surveys or a weather satellite tracking many clouds. The counterpart in the brain could be one more organizing principle: resistance. If a cell at a somewhat central position resists activation until it receives a multitude of synchronized signals from other cells, then it distinguishes between small-scale and large-scale activation. Its activation "represents" a trending pattern. The resistant cell "ignores" a tiny impulse sent by lone cells but it "observes" a relatively wide signal sent by cooperative cell groups. And this setup could be repeated again, with entire groups of somewhat central resistant cells chained in turn to other groups of resistant cells. In effect, the cumulative resistance builds and builds, until the cells near the end of the chain only activate whenever the sending group of cells is especially plentiful. The active cell groups overcome resistance by forming the necessary alliance, acquiring the necessary key, lowering the necessary drawbridge, switching on the necessary transistor gate voltage. Some of the most influential coalition cells could be the ones which are tied to pain and pleasure, so that relatively neutral sensations or ideas are less likely to dominate overall brain activity. Resistance produces a selective result. Chaotic cell activations normally lose and are filtered out. Normal consciousness is infamously narrow because there can only be few popular victors. On the other hand, the competition is held a multitude of times, so it's also possible for past losers to overcome resistance later. At first, half-baked thoughts might have difficulty leaping the hurdles to consciousness, but once those thoughts have developed further, the resurfacing i.e. "emergence" could be sudden—the half-baked subconscious thought grew into an unconventional intuitive insight which broke into consciousness.

However, for emergence in particular, I realize that resistance and my other organizing principles are more complicated and/or unpoetic in comparison to metaphysical explanations. It's more comforting to propose that orderly abstract thinking is imposed reliably on the disarray from "above", rather than confronting the proposal that it's constructed from out of the "below" disarray using inherently fallible strategies. Unfortunately, reality on its own continues to refuse to conform to human preferences. 

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

applying meditation to tame anxiety

And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?  —Jesus
In every life we have some trouble. But when you worry you make it double. —Bobby McFerrin
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. —Epictetus
'I wish none of this had happened.'
'So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.'  —Frodo and Gandalf
Pardon my French, but Cameron is so uptight, if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in 2 weeks, you'd have a diamond. —Ferris Bueller
I've always been upfront about my superficial commitment to meditation. It's part of my regular schedule out of pure self-interest for my well-being. On one hand, this ensures that my goals for it are modest, attainable, and verifiable. On the other hand, I admit that my shallow attitude is also a distinguishing characteristic of a lousy pupil: namely, underestimating the value of any knowledge that doesn't match short-term motives and narrow preconceptions. And it implies that I'm unwilling to pay the price of attaining greater status than a novice...or a dabbler. My overall impression is that rigorous meditation instruction typically costs more time and dedication than mere money, but all three are limited resources.  

Fortunately, I've confirmed for myself that my routine meditation really does reap a satisfactory benefit. In meditation, my brain repeatedly practices the skill of averting the domination of my attention by numerous distracting thoughts. But unsurprisingly, a lot of those riotous thoughts either provoke or accompany anxiety. Therefore, regular meditation turns out to be a superb tactic for preventing and alleviating the experience of anxiety. And in my pleased opinion, lower anxiety alone is sufficient justification to continue meditating. 

Of course, given that natural anxiety level differs by individual, I can't claim that everyone else would feel exactly as much gain. It seems to me that my susceptibility to anxiety is lesser than a few. I've never been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I've never suffered a panic attack. I can "function" adequately in most normal situations. I can adapt to unforeseen problems rather than shutting down. And my life hasn't been that traumatic.

However, in comparison to so many others I've met, anxiety is a larger hindrance to me. Although it doesn't drastically interfere with common activities, its simmering influence is exposed by my "tense" body language, my usual caution to anything unknown, my aversion to making inconsequential errors, my intense sensitivity to social situations, or my sometimes-disturbing mental reflex of picturing improbable tragedies. To some extent, it's an acknowledged ingredient of my identity. When I state that meditation has lowered my baseline anxiety, I don't mean that now all of my thoughts are unfamiliar or my personality is unrecognizable; I mean that meditation gave me more practice in minimizing anxiety's uncomfortable disruption to my subjective experiences. I'm more attentive to the rise of incipient anxiety and more adept at keeping it from hijacking my chosen focus.

Moreover, just as lower anxiety isn't as equally valuable to all individuals, my adopted form of meditation is far from the sole approach to achieve it. Drastically different mythological beliefs have contained remarkably similar anxiety-reducing strategies, regardless of verification of the rest of the beliefs. Believers may let go of their momentary worries by murmuring short ritual prayers to their favorite deity. They may temporarily detach themselves from the heat of the moment by pondering how their ancestors wish them to act. They may notice a bad aura or spirit in themselves and make a quick incantation to reject its power. They may recite the famous Litany Against Fear, in the book series Dune. They may coolly remind themselves that unpleasant events won't last forever or that pleasant events/companions/things can compensate. Pragmatically/objectively speaking, they may recall that allowing their attention to drift deeply into emotional rumination has previously produced temporary pain and no lasting reward. In general, I question the simplistic assumption that separate cultures cannot invent or express analogous ideas—an assumption usually based on contrasting stereotypes of those complex cultures.

Nevertheless, for multiple interrelated reasons, obviously I prefer the unadorned meditation-based approach that I use. First, it doesn't introduce jumbles of metaphysical complications, especially because I'm accepting it as a discrete activity broken off from its original context. That's precisely why it's inaccurate if not offensive to present myself as even a moderate or secular Buddhist. Second, it doesn't explicitly reinforce a dependence on anything external to myself. It depends wholly on my own effort to cultivate selective tendencies in my brain. Third, it doesn't require specialized companions, settings, or paraphernalia. To be honest, eventually I bought a firm zafu cushion to better support a stable and elevated sitting position, but I started with a stack of (too soft) cushions I owned already.

Fourth, the meditation-based approach doesn't include instructions which appear to be mysterious and arbitrary. I realize that this is another distinction between many of the historical forms of meditation and the "demystified" kind that appeals to me. For example, on basic principle I'm resistant to the notion that particular symbolic parts of other cultures are somehow inherently meaningful or useful to an outsider like myself. I don't understand the reasoning behind the value of droning chants or mantras from languages that I don't speak. Nor of contemplating artifacts such as mandalas that are inconsistent with my perspective on the universe. Given that I never presume that anyone in my cultural background has ever demonstrated the confirmed capability to directly absorb "true spiritual reality" and then communicate it through a perfect set of symbols, it's quite fair to extend an equivalent standard to anyone in foreign cultures. I'm guessing that this is a case in which familiarity breeds contempt. Else why exactly should the novelty of a foreign culture automatically enhance the credibility of its prophets?

Fifth, the meditation-based approach doesn't include instructions which appear to be indirect and disingenuous. By carrying out my meditation session, I'm not aiming to gradually develop a side-effect. I'm increasing my proficiency at what I'm doing: meditation. And that's fine. All my reading material has placed an admirable emphasis on the applicability of meditation proficiency. A brain that manages itself more effectively during meditation is a brain that may manage itself more effectively during the rest of the day.

It works as follows. The sensation of anxiety attracts systematic scrutiny in the midst of dedicated meditation, but it's likely to return at less peaceful times. In meditation, learned responses (ingrained brain-paths) are rehearsed too. With time the responses then tend to activate alongside the perception of anxiety. It's true that I generally can't sit motionless and shut my eyes whenever I wish to respond to anxiety, but my brain can do what it did earlier. No allegedly miraculous panacea is promised; the brain must be prepared by persistent repetition. Like progressive desensitization to phobias, sustained self-control comes more easily to someone who has actually exercised it on a smaller scale, again and again. As I've mentioned in previous entries, prolonged meditation yields the realization that because only each successive instant is accessible anyway, a long period of self-control is very much like a divisible sequence of manageable tiny periods.    

Sixth, the meditation-based approach doesn't include instructions which appear to be trite and/or unattainable. This is a primary reason why some of the other approaches I tried failed to work reliably. Platitudes are dull weapons against unreasonable, disproportionate anxiety. In the middle of a crest in anxiety, logical and accurate verbal statements are as compelling as gibberish. Praying for a supernatural injection of calmness didn't work consistently either—though I suppose such petitions have worked well at various times for various religious adherents, who commonly report "sudden inner peace" as one of prayer's less-ambiguous outcomes.

By contrast the meditation-derived approach provides a doable repeatable plan of action: first isolate the current sensation of breathing and then closely observe the remaining thoughts/perceptions also as phenomena which happen to be currently competing with the sensation of breathing. It doesn't involve words. But in verbal form it says, "Like my breath is happening, anxiety is happening. I'm perceiving it and its simple unimpressive characteristics. It's not a monster or logical debater. I don't need to flee it, hide it, or pretend it isn't there. And I don't need to battle it or destroy it, because it will fade after I don't agree to its demands for constant attention."

Lastly, it doesn't include instructions which appear to be potential future sources of anxiety. For instance, if an approach tames anxiety through logic, then anyone who thereby fails to remove their anxiety could worry that their thinking is abnormally illogical. If it tames anxiety through supernatural intervention, then anyone who thereby fails to receive divine aid could worry that they're not faithful enough to deserve it—though I suppose some of my religious relatives would reasonably object that anyone who's excessively worried by their religion is either believing in the wrong one or not believing properly in the right one. If it tames anxiety through dependence on a soothing trinket, then the owner of the trinket could worry that they might misplace it or that the trinket might degrade.

I concede that the meditation-based approach could possibly lead to some initial anxiety for the beginner, until they become more knowledgeable and reassured and experienced. At some time they will learn or rediscover two ancient invaluable insights: an obsessive ambition to meditate correctly is counterproductive to the whole endeavor, and one or more sincere meditation attempts with steady albeit "mediocre" results are still far better in the long run than nonexistent or halfhearted attempts. To sulk about skipped or disappointing sessions is to inflict additional damage. (Naturally, these motivational insights are relevant to personal habits beyond meditation.)

In any case, I can't overestimate the personal impact of more frequent subjective qualities of lightness and leeway. I'm not as overloaded or constrained as before. When I avoid the pressure of one oppressive concern, I'm left with more attention to respond in the same way to upcoming concerns; hence the shift fuels itself to some degree. And when I more fully attend to my chosen concern, I can complete it with more speed and thoroughness—thus ensuring the present concern will be gone and then remain gone.

Furthermore, greater tranquility over time permits me to project a less exhausting presence. I don't feel as deeply imperiled or driven, so I can relax the tiresome and defensive "mental crouch". It's easier to be welcoming and gracious when I'm not as worried about miscellaneous threats. Needless to say, it's a more pleasant posture for me as well.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

my four guides

Approximately three years ago, I felt newly adrift. I had finally discarded all of my remaining "faith-beliefs" (beliefs based primarily on faith) altogether, because I was ultimately convinced that those beliefs had become meaningless to me.

But it took a while to reach that moment three years ago. Prior to then I had lived through several years of experience and contemplation, as an independent adult, in a world packed with conflicting ideas. During that time, I'd responded by slowly adopting a pivotal yet deceptively straightforward rule: the only certain meaning of any belief is its verified implications, i.e. its eventual impacts on real actions or thoughts ("What do you mean?"  "Let me show you."). I needed to untangle some convoluted philosophical details before I could apply it consistently, but thereafter I couldn't imagine any reasonable and necessary exceptions to it.

And that was the problem! Whenever I began to apply this rule to each of my former faith-beliefs, I consistently concluded that the belief was less and less meaningful. How was it certainly meaningful to propose that I have an immaterial soul, when every indication is much more supportive of a completely physical substrate for consciousness? How was it certainly meaningful to propose that my faith's god was good, when in general every indication of benevolent "supernatural" intervention easily falls into either the category of fortunate natural coincidences and/or the category of actions taken by caring humans? How was it certainly meaningful to propose that the many diverse believers of my faith were all communicating with the same logically self-consistent god, when every indication of divine communication often entailed logical contradictions with other indications of divine communication?

In essence, for a lengthy time period I still identified myself as a believer, but I was persistently irritated by the flaws I started noticing in everyone else's faith-based statements. I wasn't convinced that all my faith-beliefs were certainly false, but I was also unconvinced that all my faith-beliefs were certainly true. By the extreme end of the process (I hesitate to name it an "existential crisis" due to its gentleness), I was willing to apply the rule once again—to myself. How was it certainly meaningful to propose that I was a "believer", when every indication was that I strongly distrusted faith-beliefs which under close examination were entirely unconfirmed, irrelevant, and inexplicable?

So, as I said, I felt newly adrift at that time. I didn't plan to reach that point. It didn't fit my lifelong comfortable level of lukewarm commitment to my family's faith. The inner shift wasn't triggered by a disruptive event such as other believers rejecting me, or an overwhelming desire to do something forbidden by my faith, or abrupt collegiate exposure to modernism. I wasn't angry. I didn't view religion, "organized" or otherwise, to be a poison or virus. Indeed, without my faith-beliefs to fall back on for justifications/rationalizations, I was genuinely unsure about exactly what I should be thinking or feeling about any topic. I still had a few intellectual questions about atheism itself, but really my foremost concern was how to reconstruct my identity. I wasn't looking for negativity. I wanted a sympathetic guide to aid in organizing my thoughts, reassuring me, and modelling this form of upheaval. I didn't wish to read arguments about how hateful/insane/stupid religious believers are...as if I ever had such a low opinion of most of my family and friends, and my past self.

I was in the peculiar position of fully accepting atheism (viz. materialistic naturalism), and simultaneously lacking interest in the statements and activism of all the atheists I'd ever heard of. Of course I barely knew of any atheists other than Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; I'd heard of them in the culture of my upbringing purely because they filled the highly useful motivational role of culture-war boogeymen, through writing books entitled The God Delusion and God Is Not Great. Therefore I frankly wasn't enthused to take the time to read their books while I still clung to my faith-beliefs, and I saw no need to do so once I was already an atheist who had abundant personal experience of religion's benefits and detriments. At least not directly, the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism" didn't affect me before my switch to atheism—neither did YouTube or atheistic websites/blogs.

I couldn't relate to the Four Horsemen. Nevertheless, I wasn't that unique among atheists. Upon further searching I was pleased to discover that contemporary atheism is much broader than I was told.  All across the U.S., others have discarded their faith-beliefs before me and then published their stories. For example, the following four are greatly-appreciated guides who helped me adjust to an atheistic perspective and life.
  • The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (Michael Shermer).....This book boosted my confidence in the necessity of rigorous proof, and it suggested why faith-beliefs are false and popular at the same time. I was surprised and grateful that it included the full story of the author's own religious phase. 
  • Letting go of god (Julia Sweeney)......Sweeney's honest, heartfelt narration of her personal journey was a cathartic relief for me. It reminded me that there's nothing wrong with having strong feelings about discarding faith. Naturally, Sweeney's sharp humor is therapeutic for someone who's facing the loss of psychological support provided by faith-beliefs.      
  • Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists (Dan Barker)......This book infused me with a lot of clarity about what atheism is and how it differs. It covers the author's life, and it covers the weaknesses of a huge range of the frequent/traditional statements advanced by actual Christians, especially related to their Bible. That's to be expected, considering the author is a zealous participant in innumerable debates. For me, a particular strength of this book was its effective ethical reasoning: it underlined that atheists can be conscientious, friendly, compassionate, and happy. Other than some of the abstract argumentation, I enjoyed reading most of this book.  
  • Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason (Seth Andrews)......This book was intriguing to me because the author was somewhat involved with the rise of Contemporary Christian Music ("CCM"), which was more or less the only kind of music my parents bought or played. I can empathize with the author's written reaction to the jarring effect of Rich Mullins' accidental death (in another generation, it was Keith Green who had a similar effect). Like the author, I've been embedded in a religious culture all my life, only to reject its fundamental underpinnings after becoming an adult. In addition to his book, his podcast was a positive encouragement.  

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

the accuracy of an evolved brain

I've encountered more than a few philosophical arguments for faith beliefs. Clearly, I'm no longer convinced by any of these. In fact, I've since realized that the field of apologetics isn't as deeply appreciated by unbelievers as it is by doubting believers, who are quicker to welcome its thin justifications. Nevertheless, like other impractical philosophical topics, these are adequate points for the purpose of frivolous discussion. And a blog is an adequate medium for the purpose of frivolous discussion...

Today's example: "Unlike materialistic naturalism, my religious beliefs assume that the right set of human ideas is utterly accurate. Utter accuracy is possible because human souls aren't vulnerable to the normal imperfections and limitations of physical matter. Also, reality is comprehensible to humanity because both originated from the same source: one or more unearthly souls that value accuracy and think like a human's soul. My explicit basis for accuracy is tidy and comforting and trustworthy. It's a better fit for my preferences than the alternative notion of human ideas existing as mere physical events in a brain. A brain is just a smallish body organ originating from evolution, and evolution obviously isn't a soul which painstakingly engineers accurate thinkers. It's the impersonal tendency to maximize rates of survival and reproduction. So how can anyone be as satisfied with the accuracy of an evolved brain?"

What makes this argument so fascinating to me is that, well, I sorta continue to agree with part of it. I readily concede that evolution hasn't resulted in a brain that always extracts accurate information and then arrives at appropriate inferences. Instead, one common thread in the systematic study of human perception/memory is that humans don't leave information as-is. Nor do they typically analyze information with unassuming mathematical logic. Humans ignore and embellish and filter and overgeneralize. They apply patterns so hastily that they routinely perceive/remember whatever they expect. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated.

This finding is consistent with a survival "goal" of rapid efficient tactical responses. These only require vague short-cut answers which are reached through scarce energy-consuming bodily resources. Without cultural training, an evolved brain isn't an unbiased and dispassionate investigator. Its first question is, "How will the new information affect me here and now?" Humans may proceed to laboriously sift information at advanced levels of reason, but those levels don't replace the primitive level. Hence the religious argument isn't too far off the mark when it expresses anxiety about the basic fallibility of an evolved brain; to the contrary, its mistake is its failure to also acknowledge that its anxiety has been confirmed countless times by real behavior. And those confirmations support evolved brains over aloof souls.

More amusing still, the argument itself amounts to a complaint about the emotionally unsatisfying implications of the opposing conclusion. "I don't like a challenging conclusion very much, so I refuse to think it's accurate." It's undisguised motivated reasoning. But the existence of motivated reasoning is a decisive clue in favor of evolved brains as opposed to aloof souls. As mentioned earlier, it's consistent for an evolved brain to attempt to obtain answers by measuring with an egocentric standard such as "How does this conclusion affect my feelings?" It's not consistent for the same egocentric standard to be measured by an alleged aloof, impartial, abstract, deep, spiritual soul. Generally, according to one of its definitions, faith is a specimen of motivated reasoning: accepting an idea to serve some purpose, regardless of factual proof. Why would humans crave religion's psychological payoffs, such as promises of utterly accurate information, if not due to impulses shaped by evolution? It's subtly self-contradictory when the argument entices the hearer's belief with a relative emotional reward...given that reward-seeking evolved brains are likelier to be, uh, persuaded by such relative emotional rewards.

On the other hand, I might not be expressing the argument most effectively. Perhaps it's intended to present a straightforward logical contradiction: "Unlike my religious beliefs, materialistic naturalism isn't as dependent on the notion of utter accuracy. Therefore it cannot be true because it implies that all statements are false." To which I reply: er...no. Non sequitur. I'll repeat my usual refrain. Real accuracy is a measurement resulting from many various mental and/or physical actions—perhaps more than one, to alleviate the effect of each action's possible defects. Some accuracy is already as "utter" as anyone could ask; despite my lack of an aloof soul I can determine with utter accuracy the quantity of future days in the present month. Meanwhile some accuracy isn't utter but everyone copes; I don't know every last digit of today's balance in all my interest-accruing bank accounts, but I'm sure the amount is greater than ________.

Similarly, the accuracy of the proposition "Human thought is a product of an evolved brain" is measured by actions. When someone observes X, do they observe Y too? Utter accuracy is certainly a pleasant goal, but its frequent absence doesn't eliminate the achievement of lesser accuracy. In practice we don't foolishly presume that any human constructs and emits perfect representations of reality. That's why we take measurements known as "expertise", and why we demand to know what someone means when they speak. It's awfully suspicious whenever someone tries to circumvent their evaluation by saying, "Accept my utterly accurate information because it somehow arose without the action of evolved human brains, unlike every other less grandiose item of information."

Thursday, August 29, 2013

the least repugnant excuse for supernatural inaction

Faith in the supernatural can be difficult to maintain. The more that a believer lives, the more disappointments they experience. Their supernatural entities frequently decline to act, regardless of the quantity, sincerity, or decency of human pleas.

Furthermore, their entities decline to publicly and explicitly explain the full details of their involvement in real occurrences. The sophisticated and subtle reasoning behind the entity's inaction is an additional task left for either the pleader or a zealous human "spokesperson" for the silent entity. Of course, the opposite tactic is explaining that the entity really did respond, but the oblique response appeared to be an ordinary event or it was almost unnoticeable. For example, "A close friend, who knows about my current dissatisfaction, told me about an open position at a different company." Or, "I suddenly felt tranquil."

Naturally, some of these suggested explanations for supernatural inaction are highly superstitious. Did the pleader do something that displeased the entity? Was the pleader too presumptuous? Is the entity's inaction an intentional part of an incredibly complex scheme?

However, one excuse might be the least repugnant: what if a supernatural entity acted nonexistent in order to force humans to make their own significant decisions, confront their own consequences, and develop their own virtues? What if it had the goal of encouraging autonomy, self-responsibility, self-determination, self-discovery? What if it planned to teach humans goodness by permitting them to confirm the terrible alternatives for themselves? What if it considered almost all supernatural actions to be forms of coercion? It's a valid ethical value to permit individuals to meaningfully exercise their individual powers and think their individual thoughts.

On the other hand, this least repugnant excuse still isn't sufficient to override a simpler explanation for inactivity: a supernatural entity that's nonexistent. It raises the same general question as the perennial Problem Of Evil: how inconsistent and/or implausible is it to suppose that discovered reality fits a hypothetical supernatural entity pursuing its hypothetical goals using its hypothetical levels of supernatural powers and knowledge? It's a problematic question whether its hypothetical goal is humanity's happiness or autonomy (or conformity to supernatural diktat for that matter). Existing reality isn't an ideal maximum of any of these human experiences. The observed lack of supernatural action just doesn't match the proposal of an entity with that combination of characteristics.

Specifically, if a supernatural entity has a top goal of teaching and testing humans to decide ethical questions for themselves, then it's illogically overlooking a multitude of chances to promote progress toward that goal. It's evidently not applying its supernatural powers or knowledge to remove the following obstacles, each of which limits the overall experience of humans learning and/or making ethical decisions without coercion.
  • death - There are two options. Either normal life or the afterlife is a better opportunity for humans to develop their ethical decision-making. If the afterlife is, then the entity should mercifully send humans to the afterlife immediately. If normal life is, then the entity should be actively delaying human death regularly. Otherwise, once a human dies, their better opportunity to develop is cut short. Someone may argue that a particular death shouldn't be stopped whenever it's a predictable consequence of the deceased's evil actions, but that exception is counterproductive to the goal. The consequence of one or more evil decisions shouldn't be the total inability to learn or make any more decisions. Fatal mistakes stop ethical development rather than contribute to it. 
  • inaccurate or omitted information - The most ethical decision is typically dependent on many factors of a situation. It might have numerous rippling effects. It might require complicated balances between the desires and claims of several participants. It might overlap between conflicting ethical principles, which aren't equally applicable to the situation. Due to inaccurate or omitted information, an unethical decision can seem ethical to the decision-maker. Deception or fraud can wreck a decision, too. Presumably, informing a decision-maker doesn't qualify as coercion at all, especially when it undoes the spread of misinformation. A supernatural entity which wants humans to make ethical decisions shouldn't hesitate to (intelligibly!) communicate the situation's "big picture" to them.
  • inaccurate or omitted ethical training - A supernatural entity focused on human ethical development implies two assertions. 1) Ethics is a topic that needs to be carefully developed in humans. 2) The entity has definite ideas about what ethical details should be developed. But humans constantly disagree about ethical details, sometimes violently. Moreover, they train their children according to their differing ethics. Unsurprisingly, differing ethical training has a drastic and lasting influence on future decision-making. Yet the hypothetical supernatural entity doesn't intervene to clarify ethical confusion or fix the faults of any ethical training (judged by its ethical ideas). It's like a schoolteacher who shows up in person only on the final day of class to hand out exams to bewildered students. (Add teaching assistants to the analogy if desired.)
  • oppression and interference - Although the supernatural domain could be high-minded, human societies often aren't. A mysterious supernatural ruler might have strong respect and tolerance of independent human decisions, but not all earthling rulers necessarily do. Frankly, a spotless record of ethical decisions isn't enough to ensure beneficial consequences when the decision-maker is vulnerable to unethical associates. Societal context could reward unethical decisions, such as breaking a past agreement to gain a competitive advantage. A pitiful set of constraints could enforce painful dilemmas between ethics or surviving. Or society could forbid the more ethical decision. Whatever the case or the mechanism, human decisions can interfere with one another. Paradoxically, it's more damaging to the process of independent human decision-making to allow some humans to decide to interfere with other humans' decisions.
The concept of a powerful supernatural entity that's idle because it prizes human decision-making is less repugnant than some alternatives. But that doesn't mean the concept is coherent and convincing in relation to the reality that humanity occupies.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

the case of the brain code

As a general rule, a philosophical stance is shaky if one of its most well-respected rationales is an argument from ignorance. In the case of an immaterial soul, the argument from ignorance refers to the mystery of the brain code for information. Defenders of an immaterial soul may try to reckon that this ongoing mystery implies the impossibility of a soulless brain that operates according to boring theories of physics/chemistry/biology. As they may say, if everyone is currently ignorant of precisely how a brain composed of matter encodes the entire range of conscious experience, then isn't it more reasonable to revert to the ancient proposal that a soul is the mechanism instead?

I don't think so, but I willingly acknowledge that a soul could feel more satisfying. I've previously admitted that every objective explanation of conscious experience suffers from a "gap in immediacy". It's like the objective explanation that normal heat is infrared light, regardless of whether humans experience the two categories through differing senses or conscious experiences. In the same way, no matter how much human knowledge discovers about the brain code, the knowledge won't be an "intuitive" match. Broad reality isn't obligated to fit narrow human preconceptions. It's plainly ridiculous to demand that accurate discoveries about the brain code must be as easily teachable as all faith-based explanations.

On the other hand, I also acknowledge that this argument from ignorance is built upon a straightforward hypothetical question: is it possible for an ignorant but open-minded investigator to verify that information is coded somehow in an arrangement of matter like a soulless brain, despite their partial or total ignorance of the code it uses? Of course! Moreover, the number of illustrative metaphors from across human civilization is virtually limitless, especially now in the much-hyped Information Age. In an effort to select a common one that's neither too old nor too new, consider the compact disc. A clever and spectacularly uninformed investigator will attempt to determine whether information is coded on a compact disc. I'll call the investigator by the surname "Japp" (no relation to any other inspectors).

The most obvious solution is for Japp to place the disc in a corresponding machine that's manufactured to 1) read such discs and then 2) produce the encoded information and all its associated effects. Perhaps Japp has access to a laptop computer. As soon as Japp has a conscious experience of the information, such as a high-fidelity audio recording, Japp may report that the disc encodes the information. To be more certain that the information is encoded on the disc rather than in the disc reader, Japp could try repeating the experiment with other discs and other disc readers. This first attempt is like talking to a subject in order to confirm that they can describe the desired information whenever they're asked the right questions; if they can, then the questioner accepts that the information in the subject is coded by the subject's brain.

At this point, Japp might announce success in the small-scale investigation. But in a surprise twist, an objector suggests to Japp that perhaps the information isn't coded in the material of the disc itself. After all, it's evident that the disc is "only an object" and not a conscious experience of information. What if the information mostly consists of a ghost in another "plane" of existence altogether, but it happens to "coincide" with the disc? And the information ghost of the disc manifests because it temporarily possesses the disc reader? (Feel free to substitute "long-lasting quantum effect" for "ghost".)

Ever careful and patient, Japp responds by analyzing the internal structure of the disc and its reader in closer detail. Clearly the reader has a laser component. Japp tries temporarily obstructing and then exposing the laser component, perhaps with some opaque tape. These sneaky manipulations affect the information output of the reader via an extremely close correlation. Next Japp announces that if there is an information ghost, then it's affected by temporarily tampering with the materials of the disc and the reader. Whatever ghostly form that the information has, it's nevertheless dependent on the smooth operation of the material of the disc that's hit by the laser. This second attempt is like feeding a subject a chemical dose that affects the nervous system, such as alcohol; if the subject's ability to produce information is affected, then the outcome indicates that the information in the subject is dependent on the smooth operation of something material, i.e. the nervous system.

However, this demonstration isn't drastic enough. A second objector suggests a more nuanced interaction between the information ghost and the disc. What if it's dependent on the disc because it "flows through" the disc, and therefore the disc acts solely as a channel or conduit? In effect, the matter of the disc still doesn't predetermine the ghost, but the ghost requires the disc anyway.

Japp shrugs and remembers one of the details from the recent analysis of the disc's structure: it contains a definitive sequential order. Some sections of the disc come first, others are in the relative middle, and others are at the end. Japp grabs a tool, mentally divides the disc into seven sequential sections, and wrecks just the fifth of the seven sections. Then the information is reproduced from the disc once again. Unsurprisingly, the conscious experience of the sequence of reproduced information is mostly intact...except for when the information sequence has progressed to about five-sevenths of the whole. Japp notes that not only does the information as a whole correspond closely to the disc as a whole, but a part of the information corresponds closely to a part of the disc. This third attempt is like examining the recently traumatized brain of a subject who has a highly specific problem in their mental capabilities or memories; if the subject's brain shows problems in the corresponding area of that capability or memory, such as an abnormal growth, then the outcome indicates that the information (or behavior) in the subject is encoded bit by bit in the subject's brain. 

Finally, after reviewing the previous discussions, a third objector suggests that Japp hasn't convincingly shown anything important about the original question. What if the contribution of the information ghost is yet more puzzling? Perhaps most of the information, or even almost all of it, is coded by the matter of the disc, but the ghost's role is to furnish an essential core or "organizing principle"? In effect, the ghost is responsible for making the information coherent and interesting. Unless it's proven directly that the material of the disc accounts for every last jot of information, the ghost could be a factor.

Japp groans and proceeds to learn about the engineering of the disc and the reader as well as the computations to transform the bits on the disc into the final information output. Japp delivers a series of lectures. The third objector complains that Japp is obscuring a topic that should be simple: a mundane sequence of information and a mundane circle of cheap material.

Friday, August 16, 2013

sitting in time-out

In my culture, "sitting in time-out" is a familiar tactic of child discipline. The disciplinarian directs a misbehaving child to sit for a while in a designated location, without options for entertainment. Other desired effects beyond punishment are to calm them and to offer them the opportunity to reason about their offenses. (It seems to me that a penalty box is a better-suited sport metaphor than a time-out. It wasn't that awful for me because I could pass the time fairly quickly by daydreaming, reminiscing, silently reciting a song, etc.)

Not too long ago, I abruptly noticed that sitting in time-out has some similarities to the meditation sessions which are now part of my daily routine. Although the comparison appears trivial, it strengthens rather than weakens the case for regular meditation. Given that simply sitting in time-out is considered so challenging and unusual that it serves as a disciplinary tactic, nobody should be too discouraged by the substantial effort and persistence demanded by consistent meditation practice. And nobody should minimize the substantial difference between normal and meditative brain modes.

This is a helpful counterpoint to some of the dubious assertions about the "natural" mind state that I've encountered in meditation-related reading material. While it's true that humans may occasionally transition into meditative modes without trying, those specific periods aren't self-evidently more natural than any other. Most of the time, the untrained brain doesn't produce an empty or quiet consciousness. Not even sensory deprivation can cause it to remain still for a long time. Meditation counteracts its natural tendency, which is to be about lots of emotive stuff (viz. intentionality). The struggle with restlessness isn't an illusion or an "artificial" creation.

Furthermore, a tranquil state is nevertheless vulnerable to the gentlest form of restlessness: spontaneous alternative plans for the current moment. And these plans might not necessarily be exciting, provocative, self-serving, or ill-advised. I've realized that meditation sometimes requires me to temporarily neglect an impulse to perform a worthwhile action. Instead I need to remind myself that like any other activity, I'm more effective at meditation when it receives my full attention. Also, like any other hindrance in meditation, it illustrates the importance of positive feedback loops in the brain. When restlessness has greater influence, it more easily leads to more restlessness, but if its influence is blunted, it's easier to prevent it from escalating at all. Lastly, the refusal to fixate on restlessness makes meditation itself feel more pleasant...rather than feeling like a comparative waste of time or an internal battle of restraint. In other words, rather than feeling like sitting in time-out.

Restlessness can strike not only in different forms but at different times. It can appear as reluctance before meditation starts. It prompts the cognitive and/or emotional equivalent of fascinating open-ended questions such as, "What else could I do with the time consumed? What object or pastime could stimulate and satisfy my desires? What could relieve some of my stress/pressure? What could demand less concentration? What could distract me from confronting my external and internal problems?" This attitude treats meditation like a chore, and it's common knowledge that the thought of a chore motivates a brainstorm of substitute diversions.

Lately, I respond to reluctance by carefully questioning my clarity of judgment. Meditation, or any kind of impassive introspection, reveals first-hand that at any time human mentality is filled with many immediate factors, which arise from many distinct causes. The sole presence of an attraction or aversion isn't enough basis for a wise decision. It's more informative to trace the origin of the present emotional temper. Is there a recent setback or irritation? Is there fatigue? Is there doubt about the level of "progress" in meditation? Is there strong anxiety about something else altogether? Is it a problem with the meditation act, such as the need to experiment with a different posture to avoid pain?

Once I identify the causes of reluctance, then I can solve or disregard those causes. And I can recall two general truisms. First, apart from stable opinions or tastes, human feelings are short-lived and change rapidly. To the extent that my reluctance is a passing whim, it doesn't have the authority to overrule my prior commitments. Second, humans are surprisingly inept at estimating their feelings in future situations. If my reluctance partially depends on a predication of what the meditation session will be like, then it is probably at least partially mistaken. At worst, I can tell myself, "I'm about to meditate right now, whether or not I feel motivated," and then order my body to do each tiny step one by one.

On the other hand, I can refresh my memory about the psychological benefits of regular meditation. Of course, the psychological benefits differ in differing psyches. I don't claim that any of these are certain to develop after any specific length of time. I also don't claim that meditation is the only strategy to get these results, and I don't claim that meditation eliminates the need for other strategies. Psychological well-being isn't my area of expertise...

  • greater ability to ignore distractions during important tasks
  • greater ability to recognize and compensate for bad emotions or moods
  • greater ability to remain calmer in a wider array of situations
  • greater ability to take an unselfish viewpoint
  • greater ability to appreciate an experience for what it really is, as opposed to despising it for what it isn't like
  • greater ability to directly observe the predominant trends of one's thoughts
  • greater ability to avoid harmful short-term impulsive decisions
  • greater ability to cope with setbacks and trauma
  • greater ability to replace rigidity with flexibility, narrow-mindedness with open-mindedness