Sunday, June 07, 2015

strings on me, sometimes near dunes

A commonly noted detail of Avengers: Age of Ultron—whether it was viewed positively or negatively—was an unexpected deluge of assorted cultural references. Unlike the movie's characters, my usual social circle doesn't drop playwrights into casual conversation, so I didn't recognize the name Eugene O'Neill. But at least my steadily aging memory could identify the ditty "I've Got No Strings" from Pinocchio. For the titular puppet, the song was its overly cheery description of its visible uniqueness. For Ultron, the song was a wry motto for the capability to rebel (um, and murder).

Different as these two were, presumably they'd agree that having no strings is a symbol for the reality that humans aren't subject to involuntary control by anything else. And they'd be committing a ludicrous exaggeration. Countless moments every day, humans feel "strings" of psychological pressure to take/reject an action or think/avoid a thought. Meditation systematically exposes the variation and subtlety of such pressures, as I've stated before in past entries on the topic. Miscellaneous phenomena in the meditators' brains are like strings that repetitively pull on them. Instead of reflexively trying to tug back, they passively watch the strings tauten, have as little effect as a thread dragging a brick, then spontaneously slacken thereafter. Realistically sensing and knowing the strings is a crucial gain. Ignorance may permit hollow complacency, but it's useless for lasting improvement. Perhaps the enormous pile of meditation sayings can absorb one more: I meditate until I recover my sight of the perpetual strings on me—which can't happen while I persist either in decreeing the strings aren't there or in mistaking the strings for who I am.

Pinocchio and Ultron aren't alone. The theme of puppet-like control dominates the six novels of Frank Herbert's Dune series—notably without puppets/robots in the storyline. Time after time, the text portrays, or states outright in numerous asides, the disadvantages that plague the wretches who can't perceive their strings and compensate inventively. They're vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and attack. They can't evade the predictability of their actions and thoughts. They settle into the grooves of the expectations placed on them. Their reactions are restricted by their previously established mental associations. They defer to repetitions of idealized pasts. They overvalue rigidity, stability, and constancy, and they chase these conveniences in the ritual shapes of religion and government. They stop asking difficult questions because they prefer the simplicity of "ultimate" answers. They worship authority. They refuse to take on the burden of making original decisions.

Further underscoring the centrality of this theme, a variety of strings show up: addiction, greed/lust, ambition, preconception, pride, fear, aggression, vengeance, indoctrination, threats, persuasion. These are alongside the sometimes less selfish strings connecting to family, romance, camaraderie, society, cultural tradition, mutually beneficial alliances, and the whole human civilization's destiny. The self-aware heroes don't "have no strings", but the strings on them neither manipulate them nor limit them. They view them in a manner that's full, unblinking, and well-reasoned. Thus, their strings don't provoke them into simplistic, heedless, short-sighted responses in the narrow categories of obedience or disobedience or indifference. To the contrary, they imagine innovative yet rational solutions which dismantle destructive cycles. Entrapped by a seemingly unwinnable scenario, they employ their knowledge, savvy, and creativity in tactics that more or less override the underlying constraints.

More profoundly, these momentous decisions act as equally radical rewrites of the deciders' own selves. Their unbridled decisions dictate their selves, not vice-versa. They boldly change who (or what, technically speaking) they are. By discerning then conscientiously defying their strings, they're able to become something totally different. In the middle of the choice, the "self" may be an unduly constricting abstraction to be laid aside. Notwithstanding the series' famously bizarre reinterpretations of religion, that's a lesson that I can respect.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

journey to the center of the laptop

The last time I described how ideas from my software career shaped my present thinking, the topic was the interdependency between the meanings of data and code. The effective meaning of data was rooted in the details of "information systems" behind it: purposeful sequences of computer code and human labor to methodically record it, construct it, augment it, alter it, mix it with more data, etc. But the same observation could be reversed: the effective meaning (and correctness) of the information system was no more than its demonstrated transformations of data.

This viewpoint appeared to apply in other domains as well. For a wide range of candidate concepts, probing the equivalent of the concept's supporting "information system" usefully sifted its detectable meaning. How did the concept originally arise? How could the concept's definitions, verifications, and interpretations be (or fail to be) repeated and rechecked? Prospective data was discarded if it didn't have satisfactory answers to these questions; should pompous concepts face lower standards?

However, not all the software ideas were at the scale of information systems. Some knowledge illuminated the running of a single laptop. For instance, where does the laptop's computation happen? Where's the site of its mysterious data alchemy? What's the core of its "thinking"—with the precondition that this loaded term is applied purely in the loose, informal, metaphorical sense? (Note that the following will rely on simplified technological generalizations too...) The natural course of investigation is from the outside in.
  • To start with, probably everyone who regularly uses a laptop would say that the thinking takes place inside the unit. The ports around its edges for connecting audio, video, networking, generic devices, etc. are optional. These connections are great for enabling additional options to transport information to and from the laptop, but they don't enable the laptop to think. The exceptions are the battery slot and/or the power jack, which are nonetheless only providers of the raw energy consumed by the laptop's thinking.
  • Similarly, it doesn't require technical training to presume that the laptop's screen, speakers, keyboard, touchpad, camera, etc. aren't where the laptop thinks. The screen may shut off to save power. The speakers may be muted. The keyboard and touchpad are replaceable methods to detect and report the user's motions. Although these accessible inputs and outputs are vital to the user's experience of the laptop, their functions are like translation rather than thinking. Either the user's actions are transported to the laptop's innards as streams of impulses, or the final outcomes of the laptop's thinking are transported back out to the user's senses. 
  • Consequently, the interior is a more promising space to look. Encased in the walls of the laptop, under the keyboard, behind the speakers, is a meticulously assembled collection of incredibly flat and thin parts. Some common kinds of parts are temporary memory (RAM), permanent storage (internal drives), disc drives (CD,DVD,Blu-Ray), wireless networking (WiFi). By design this group receives, holds, and sends information. Information is transported but not thought about. So the thinking must occur in the component that's on the opposite side of this group's diverse attachments: the main board or motherboard.
  • To accommodate and manage the previously mentioned external ports and internal parts, the motherboard is loaded with hierarchical circuitry. It's like a mass of interconnected highways or conveyor belts. Signals travel in from the port or part, reach a hub, proceed to a later hub, and so forth. As a speedy rest stop for long-running work in progress, the temporary memory is a frequent start or end. The intricacy of contemporary device links ensure that motherboards are both busy and sophisticated, yet once more the overall task is unglamorous transportation. There's a further clue for continuing the search for thinking, though. For these transportation requests to be orderly and appropriate, the requests' source has to be the laptop's thinking. That source is the central processing unit (CPU).
  • Analysis of the CPU risks a rapid slide into complexity and the specifics of individual models. At an abstract level, the CPU is divided into separate sections with designated roles. One is loading individual instructions for execution. Another is breaking down those instructions into elemental activities of actual CPU sections. A few out of many categories of these numerous elemental activities are rudimentary mathematical operations, comparisons, copying sets of bits (binary digits, either zeros or ones) among distinct areas in the CPU's working memory, rewriting which instruction is next, and dispatching sets of bits in and out of the CPU. In any case, the sections' productive cooperation consists of transporting bits from section to section at the proper times. Again setting aside mere transporting, the remaining hideout for the laptop's thinking is somewhere inside those specialized CPU sections completing the assigned elemental activities.
  • Also considered at an abstract level, these CPU sections in turn are built from myriad tiny "gates": electronics organized to produce differing results depending on differing combinations of electricity flowing in. For example, an "AND" gate earns its name through emitting an "on" electric current when the gate's first entry point AND the second have "on" currents. Odd as it may sound, various gates ingeniously laid out, end to end and side by side, can perfectly perform the elemental activities of CPU sections. All that's demanded is that the information has consistent binary (bit) representations, which map directly onto the gates' notions of off and on. The elemental activities are performed on the information as the matching electric currents are transported through the gates. And since thinking is vastly more intriguing than dull transportation of information in any form, the hunt through the laptop needs to advance from gates 
This expedition was predictably doomed from the beginning. Peering deeper doesn't uncover a sharp break between "thinking" and conducting bits in complicated intersecting routes. No, the impression of thought is generated via algorithms, which are engineered arrangements of such routes. The spectacular whole isn't discredited by its unremarkable pieces. Valuable qualities can "emerge" from a cluster of pieces that don't have the quality in isolation. In fact, emergent qualities are ubiquitous, unmagical, and important. Singular carbon atoms don't reproduce, but carbon-based life does.

Ultimately, greater comprehension forces the recognition that the laptop's version of thinking is an emergent quality. Information processing isn't the accomplishment of a miraculous segment of it; it's more like the total collaborative effect of its abundant unremarkable segments. An outsider might scoff that "adding enough stupid things together yields something smart", but an insider grasps that the way those stupid things are "added" together makes a huge difference.

Readers can likely guess the conclusion: this understanding prepares someone to contemplate that all versions of thinking could be emergent qualities. Just as the paths in the laptop were the essence of its information processing, what if the paths in creatures' brains were the essence of their information processing? Laptops don't have a particular segment that supplies the "spark" of intelligence, so what if creatures' brains don't either? Admittedly, it's possible to escape by objecting that creatures' brains are, in some unspecified manner, fundamentally unlike everything else made of matter, but that exception seems suspiciously self-serving for a creature to propose... 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

MUSHy identity, mission, and investment

Recent blog entries have analyzed why beliefs can thrive in the face of missing or lackluster corroboration...particularly forms of corroboration that are inherently unrepeatable, infeasible, or illogical. Such beliefs can persist indefinitely in the midst of a self-reinforcing group of followers, who are extremely Serious. In a number of instructive ways, the overall result eerily echoes a MUSH: an early internet example of a group of hobbyists maintaining and experiencing a fictional realm together.

For instance, the group itself collectively acts as the sole measurement of "accuracy" for the content. And the deficiency in outside corroboration doesn't reduce the genuinely satisfying mental benefits furnished by the combined contributions of the group and the content. Human culture contains a multitude of comparisons (the internet alone never ceases facilitating far-flung topical communities). A MUSH is especially suitable because it's small, mild, and uncomplicated. It's less predominant and ambitious than its Serious counterparts, yet the telling similarities show how MUSHy those can be.

As already mentioned, mental benefits attract individuals to the group and the content and then keep their attention thereafter. Extracting even more commitment demands the potent incentive of deep-seated connections. One of those effective connections is identity. Once again, a MUSH presents harmless, miniaturized manifestations of the phenomenon. In this case, its content offers lists of fanciful identities for the participants to "inhabit"...during the times when they're logged in and typing. Whatever the size of the role they play, they become familiar with filling it. They know it completely and comfortably. They're adapted to meeting its expectations. Abandoning the MUSH requires abandoning that accustomed (and entertaining) portion of their identity.

The molding of members' identities is typical of Serious groups too, but to a larger extent, of course. Unlike a MUSH identity, perhaps their Serious identity is supposed to be constant, like a mask that can't ever be dropped. Also unlike a MUSH, they may spend the majority of their daily lives surrounded by the group. Details aside, once they have firmly embedded their group role into their personal identities, nonchalant challenges to the content appear as aggressive challenges to pieces of them. When reevaluating an idea entails potentially breaking their identity, they have an excuse to avoid going through with it.

Other kinds of connections complement the connection to identity: a mission is an excellent second kind. Whereas handing over an identity clarifies whom someone is to be, handing over a mission further clarifies what they are to do. An unambiguous mission offers manifold gratifications. Minor or intermediate goals are chances for short-term victory, and simultaneously, grand or virtually unattainable goals are endless reasons to continue striving. With a mission, group members can see a need for their exertions—and themselves. Their actions have weight and direction. They can feel that they're accomplishing valuable progress. They're part of making circumstances "better" defined by the mission objective, at any rate. They're an asset to the team, so giving up would be a disappointing, selfish betrayal of the team's trust. The "missions" pursued during long-term in-depth MUSH participation probably sound uncaptivating at first, but the basic allure shouldn't be underestimated. An amplifying cycle is at work: an intensely felt connection has the effect of motivating greater involvement, and steadily expanding involvement has the effect of intensifying the feeling of connection.

Obviously, missions of all shapes and sizes are pervasive in Serious groups as well. Although repetitive passive contemplation of the content gradually hardens it in followers' thoughts, missions dramatically animate it in their lives. By affecting group behavior directly, the content accrues exciting meaningfulness and importance. For more than a few, inspiring missions might engross them so much that almost all of the content itself is peripheral—inconsequential minutiae that's little more than outdated decoration.

Carrying out a mission implies investing toward it, but more generally, any investments are a third kind of enduring connections to the group and content. Likelier than not, financial investment is only one of several types. In practice the rest might be more burdensome: sacrifices of time, effort, and competing opportunities. The common thread is that each investment raises the stakes. Thereafter, rejecting the group and the content has the expensive price of affirming that these formerly promising trade-offs were worthless all along.

For a MUSH, this risk isn't terribly chilling. Still, it does sway the decision to come back again and again. The time-consuming events and deeds of past sessions are partially intended to set the stage for intriguing future sessions; to walk away and never use that "stage" seems wasteful. Just by investing enough in something, no matter how little it is, the investor transfers a sentiment of ownership onto it. They acquire a well-founded interest in its fate. Additionally, active group socializing is an "investment", though that mercenary mindset is best avoided. Initiating enjoyable group interactions increases the perceived value of the group...for more interactions. After someone has given themselves into opening and preserving reliable companionship, including at shallow or casual levels, they're understandably reluctant to hastily discard it.

By contrast with these low-key instances, the routine investments associated with Serious groups are strict and obligatory. So this policy is plainly strategic, because forcing quick, large investments secures the loyalty of new followers. The more that they invest, the more determined they are to think that their venture is deserving. Moreover, before the investments are actually tried, an above average cost for the group and the content creates a pretense of above average worth to justify the cost. That pretense exploits the usual link from relative superiority to a relatively greater charge—good stuff usually isn't easy or free. On the other hand, the most savvy strategy of all might be a set of (maybe implicit) tiers: starting tiers stipulate low but non-zero investments, yet the group continually prods everyone to progress to tiers of greater investments.

Given the cumulative pull of these deep-seated connections, the relevant question isn't necessarily "How is it possible for Serious groups cluster around ideas with problematic corroboration and then sustain those ideas?", but "How could such groups possibly not exist when broadly similar elements apparently suffice for fueling decidedly unserious groups, like a MUSH that merely clusters around outlandish stories?"

Saturday, May 02, 2015

data : code :: concept : verification

I've sometimes mused about whether my eventual embrace of a Pragmatism-esque philosophy was inevitable. The ever-present danger in musings like this is ordinary hindsight bias: concealing the actual complexity after the fact with simple, tempting connections between present and past. I can't plausibly propose that the same connections would impart equal force on everyone else. In general, I can't rashly declare that everyone who shares one set of similarities with me is obligated to share other sets of similarities. Hastily viewing everyone else through the tiny lens of myself is egocentrism, not well-founded extrapolation.

For example, I admit I can't claim that my career in software development played an instrumental role in the switch. I know too many competent colleagues whose beliefs clash with mine. At the same time, a far different past career hasn't stopped individuals in the Clergy Project from eventually reaching congenial beliefs. Nevertheless, I can try to explain how some aspects of my specific career acted as clues that prepared and nudged me. My accustomed thought patterns within the vocational context seeped into my thought patterns within other contexts.

During education and on the job, I encountered the inseparable ties between data and code. Most obviously, the final data was the purpose of running the code (in games the final data was for immediately synthesizing a gameplay experience).  Almost as obvious, the code couldn't run without the data flowing into it. Superficially, in a single ideal program, code and data were easily distinguishable collaborators taking turns being perfect. Perhaps a data set went in, and a digest of statistical measurements came out, and the unseen code might have ran in a machine on the other side of the internet.

At a more detailed level of comprehension, and in messy and/or faulty projects cobbled together from several prior projects, that rosy view became less sensible. When final data was independently shown to be inaccurate, the initial cause was sometimes difficult to deduce. Along the bumpy journey to the rejected result, data flowed in and out of multiple avenues of code. Fortunately the result retained meaningfulness about the interwoven path of data and code that led to it, regardless of its regrettable lack of meaningfulness in regard to its intended purpose. It authentically represented a problem with that path. Thus its externally checked mistakenness didn't in the least reduce its value for pinpointing and resolving that path's problems.

That wasn't all. The reasoning applied to flawless final data as well, which achieved two kinds of meaningfulness. Its success gave it metaphorical meaningfulness in regard to satisfying the intended purpose. But it too had the same kind of meaningfulness as flawed final data: literal meaningfulness about the path that led to it. It was still the engineered aftereffect of a busy model built out of moving components of data and code—a model ultimately made of highly organized currents of electricity. It was a symbolic record of that model's craftsmanship. Its accurate metaphorical meaning didn't erase its concrete roots.

The next stage of broadening the understanding of models was to incorporate humans as components—exceedingly sophisticated and self-guiding components. They often introduced the starting data or reviewed the ultimate computations. On top of that, they were naturally able to handle the chaotic decisions and exceptions that would require a lot more effort to perform with brittle code. Of course the downside was that their improvisations could derail the data. Occasionally, the core of an error was a human operator's unnoticed carelessness filling in a pivotal element two steps ago. Or a human's assumptions for interpreting the data were inconsistent with the assumptions used to design the code they were operating.

In this sense, humans and code had analogous roles in the model. Each were involved in carrying out cooperative series of orderly procedures on source data and leaving discernible traces in the final data. The quality of the final data could be no better than the quality of the procedures (and the source data). A model this huge was more apt to have labels such as "business process" or "information system", abbreviated IS. Cumulatively, the procedures of the complete IS acted as elaborations, conversions, analyses, summations, etc. of the source data. Not only was the final data meaningful for inferring the procedures behind it, but the procedures in turn produced greater meaningfulness for the source data. Meanwhile, they were futilely empty, motionless, and untested without the presence of data.

Summing up, data and code/procedures were mutually meaningful throughout software development. As mystifying as computers appeared to the uninitiated, data didn't really materialize from nothing. Truth be told, if it ever did so, it would arouse well-justified suspicion about its degree of accuracy. "Where was this figure drawn from?" "Who knows, it was found lying on the doorstep one morning." Long and fruitful exposure to this generalization invited speculation of its limits. What if strict semantic linking between data and procedures weren't confined to the domain of IS concepts?

A possible counterpoint was repeating that these systems were useful but also deliberately limited and refined models of complex realities. Other domains of concepts were too dissimilar. Then...what were those unbridgeable differences, exactly? What were the majority of beneficial concepts, other than useful but also deliberately limited and refined models? What were the majority of the thoughts and actions to verify a concept, other than procedures to detect the characteristic signs of the alleged concept? What were the majority of lines of argument, other than abstract procedures ready to be reran? What were the majority of secondary cross-checks, other than alternative procedures for obtaining equivalent data? What were the majority of serious criticisms to a concept, other than criticisms of the procedures justifying it? What were the majority of definitions, other than procedures to position and orient a concept among other known concepts?

For all that, it wasn't that rare for these other domains to contain some lofty concepts that were said to be beyond question. These were the kind whose untouchable accuracy was said to spring from a source apart from every last form of human thought and activity. Translated into the IS perspective, these were demanding treatment like "constants" or "invariants": small, circular truisms in the style of "September is month 9" and "Clients have one bill per time period". In practice, some constants might need to change from time to time, but those changes weren't generated via the IS. These reliable factors/rules/regularities furnished a self-consistent base for predictable IS behavior.

Ergo, worthwhile constants never received and continually contributed. They were unaffected by data and procedures yet were extensively influential anyway. They probably had frequent, notable consequences elsewhere in the IS. Taken as a whole, those system consequences strongly hinted the constants at work—including tacit constants never recognized by the very makers of the system. Like following trails of breadcrumbs, with enough meticulous observation, the backward bond from the system consequences to the constants could be as certain as the backward bond from data to procedures.

In other words, on the minimal condition that the constants tangibly mattered to the data and procedures of the IS, they yielded accountable expectations for the outcomes and/or the running of the IS. The principle was more profound when it was reversed: total absence of accountable expectations suggested that the correlated constant itself was either absent or at most immaterial. It had no pertinence to the system. Designers wishing to conserve time and effort would be advised to ignore it altogether. It belonged in the routine category "out of system scope". By analogy, if a concept in a domain besides IS declined the usual methods to be reasonably verified, and distinctive effects of it weren't identifiable in the course of reasonably verifying anything else, then it corresponded to neither data nor constants. Its corresponding status was out of system scope; it didn't merit the cost of tracking or integrating it.

As already stated, the analogy wasn't undeniable nor unique. It didn't compel anyone with IS expertise to reapply it to miscellaneous domains, and expertise in numerous fields could lead to comparable analogies. There was a theoretical physical case for granting it wide relevance, though. If real things were made of matter (or closely interconnected to things made of matter), then real things could be sufficiently represented with sufficient quantities of the data describing that matter. If matter was sufficiently represented, including the matter around it, then the ensuing changes of the matter were describable with mathematical relationships and thereby calculable through the appropriate procedures. The domain of real things qualified as an immense IS of unmanageable depth which couldn't be fully modeled, much less duplicated, by a separate IS feasibly constructed by humans.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

the MUSHy psychological payoffs of joint faith-beliefs

I've suggested that the relationship between the content of a MUSH and its group of participants resembles the relationship between the content of a joint faith-belief and its group of followers. First, the group is brought together through their common relationship to the content. Second, the group is also the active source for explaining, refining, and expanding the content. Third, the group itself determines the explicit and implicit rules for what the content is or can be—although everyone probably doesn't have equal influence on these determinations.

On the other hand, the differences are impossible to miss. Consistent with its technological era, a MUSH's outward expression is limited to typewriter-like lines of text data (including rough "images" created out of carefully arranged punctuation). Its inward mechanism is software running on a computer that's exposed to the internet. Interactions with it consist of relatively short bursts of digitized signals speeding back and forth over great distances of transmission lines. The endpoint is marks on a screen. Without question, the experiences of MUSH participants are drastically unlike the typical experiences of followers of joint faith-beliefs. These experiences seem comparatively lifeless, spare, and remote, even alongside the various other experiences enabled by internet connections. Someone could easily assume a corresponding deficiency in the subjective value of these experiences.

However, that assumption is at least a little mistaken. It doesn't recognize that the group supporting the MUSH is completely unforced, so the group's continuing existence signifies worthwhile value. Somehow the group gains a motivating psychological "payoff". It could come in many subtle forms: fascination with the content, companionship with others, gratification of helping to make a wonderful addition, etc. Once again, a MUSH has an illuminating parallel to joint faith-beliefs. Through payoffs that are purely (and admittedly) psychological, it can have appeal independent of its lack of factualness.

This parallel isn't mentioned in order to foolishly claim that the two categories have identical payoffs or that one can substitute for the other. A MUSH is a microcosm, a more modest example in every way. Actually, the thought-provoking surprise is that its payoffs are appreciable nonetheless. Although it's a leisure hobby, revolving around fiction, operating through a primitive's sufficient to spur a persistent human group to maintain its existence. Hence it reiterates major defects in trying to seriously corroborate beliefs on the basis of mental effects: 1) countless other stimuli can produce mental effects of the same kind, if not the same vividness, 2) usually the mental effects themselves are either nebulous, or packed with formulaic echoes of the subject's expectations. Greater intensity of mental effects and psychological payoffs solely position the category of joint faint-beliefs on a farther end of a MUSHy continuum, not reposition it on another continuum entirely. (Phrased in internet popular lingo, it's a which things just got real.)

Likewise, an unending array of human pursuits/ideas could serve as supplementary illustrations that joint faith-beliefs aren't exceptional. The variations are virtually unlimited, with contrasting levels of formality, realism, grandiosity, popularity, exclusivity, zeal, style, intricacy, comprehensiveness, mood, comfort, rigidity, difficulty, age, methodology. In any case, the conclusion stands. The psychological payoffs of joint faith-beliefs aren't satisfactory rationales for countering the possibility that the core is MUSHy after all.

Friday, April 03, 2015

the MUSHy content of joint faith-beliefs

In the Nineties, the fictional land Narnia existed.

The description "existed" might be too strong—more on that later. Without doubt, though, adapted textual representations of it showed up for long time periods on the internet thanks to MUSH software. As suggested by its lighthearted name Multi-User Shared Hallucination, it resembled interconnected advanced chat rooms embedded in an expanding multiplayer "game". Through their role-playing dialogue and software commands, MUSH "players" (world builders?) collectively fashioned virtual realms. By their mostly implicit mutual agreement to collaborate and follow that realm's distinct mythology, they populated/enriched it as they wished without transforming it into something unrecognizable...and therefore no longer appealing to them.

I recalled MUSHes after a point I raised at the start of the the last entry's penultimate item. I noticed that if "[...] followers of deeply organized/defined faith-beliefs still depend on unstated tradition spread through attitudes and norms and conventions," then their efforts to enjoy, preserve, and develop their joint faith-beliefs are analogous to the efforts of MUSH players. Inside the boundaries of a Narnia MUSH, players instinctively know that centaur characters may not carry laser guns or complain about the Seinfeld series finale. One might say that a "Narnia MUSH" with those elements wouldn't be a Narnia MUSH.

Meanwhile, inside the conceptual boundaries of joint faith-beliefs, followers abide by their own collection of unbreakable principles, not all of which are plainly described. For example, in practice they may forbid one another to propose that their supreme supernatural entity could experience surprise. Like MUSH enthusiasts they delineate the content that unites them, so their process and their content are fairly "MUSHy".

Indeed, their content cannot avoid being MUSHy, i.e. socially determined, as long as the customary methods for extending and/or corroborating it are largely non-transferable among ordinary followers. Individuals cannot even imagine how they could fully comprehend, recheck, and reconstruct their joint faith-beliefs without counsel. They cannot explain or recreate the mystical realizations contributed by elite past/present followers. They might have designated texts to analyze, but they cannot plausibly translate the texts into an identical detailed set of joint faith-beliefs, unless they have the necessary supply of standard guidelines/clues/addenda. (At first guess, a Narnia MUSH seems like it would have an utterly simple relationship to its "source texts". No, the "Narnia" lands in the MUSHes, in accordance with players' consensus, purposely improved the book series' original Narnia in a few aspects. Plus, blanks needed filling. Although the series had "Chronicles" in the title, it was tightly focused on the adventures of selected characters, not on an exhaustive account of the lands' history and geography and ecology.)

Consequently, MUSHy content has a self-referential nature. MUSHy content is valid...because the MUSH declared that it is. Each piece of content's acceptability builds on nothing beyond the pooled verdicts of past/present followers and its consistency with the rest of the historical, conglomerated, favorably rated pieces. Coherency is paramount, and it's assessed by trusted insiders. An external or standalone objection to their content is prone to being assessed as incoherent. And that negative assessment isn't necessarily affected by promising bases for the objection, such as alternate readings of their authorized texts or followers who have alternate views than theirs but major tenets in common.

Broadly speaking, MUSHy self-referential pieces of content are cultural realities, which interact with the real mental and physical actions of the culture's members. Sometimes the members are passively swayed by cultural realities. Sometimes they actively adapt the cultural realities in return. Money functions as a medium of exchange because everyone is willing to exchange money. Rulings on legal matters cite previous rulings on legal matters. The conversational rules for a language dialect are laid down by the conversations of the dialect's speakers. A cultural reality is bigger than the humans who live in its shadow...yet its sole toehold on realness is whatever humans do about/with it.

So, Narnia did "exist" in the MUSHes...but only in the shape of a cultural reality. It certainly interacted with the MUSH players like a cultural reality, such as consuming their time and creative attention. While the effects on players are enough to convincingly demonstrate existence as a pastime and as an artifact of bytes, these aren't nearly enough to convincingly demonstrate a land's existence. To be clear, aside from this very blog entry, nobody has contended that the content of the Narnia MUSHes existed in the same ways that a land does.

And that's the pivotal distinction between this analogy and joint faith-beliefs. By definition, faith-beliefs are ideas whose implications cannot be sufficiently verified using substantial corroboration. But faith-beliefs can thrive anyway as ongoing social projects. Like the Party of Nineteen Eighty-Four, followers can reinforce each others' visions. They can share the burden of adroitly harmonizing their earnestly desired faith-beliefs with unverified (or contradicted!) implications. Unfortunately, also like the book, they can become menacing as soon as they aspire to forcibly pulverize the whole outside universe of human understanding into the MUSH they adore...

Monday, March 30, 2015

when my former faith minimized free will

In February I wrote that my decisions were less free while I followed my parents' religion; it constrained my decisions in numerous ways. The amusing twist is that it simultaneously included a cherished and essential faith-belief in vaguely-defined transcendent free will! I was less free while I thought free will was absolute.

Since then, I've remembered several counterexamples to my own generalization. Frankly, the faith-beliefs I learned, as well as the followers I knew, sometimes placed minimal emphasis on the invulnerable independence of the individual human's free will. Of course, this embrace of differing ideas is unsurprising for a set of long-lived faith-beliefs. Realities are messy and varied. Offering opposite alternatives is an excellent strategy for adaptation and survival. It sets up faith-beliefs to always have an applicable answer. A new item of information or a new need might conflict with some of the available ideas, but it might also match at least one. Outlandish theories of conspiracies perform a similar trick: easily reinterpreting a lack of straightforward evidence as "proof" of the formidable conspiracy's strenuous efforts to conceal itself. Anyway, here are some faith-belief counterexamples that demoted and/or counteracted free will.
  • pleas for guidance from omniscient/omnipotent entities...These pleas may be phrased that the entity "help someone see the truth" or "impress on someone the wrongness of their acts". The flaw is that the invoked entity's incredible abilities empower it to act as a master of manipulation. It knows everything about its targets. It has effective knowledge of how to methodically evoke behaviors from the targets. Perhaps it can't eliminate the targets' free will, but it hardly needs to do so. It can apply superb pressure to the targets—possibly with enough delicate expertise that the targets don't suspect. Moreover, the level of subtlety raises a vital question about the specific mental form of the uncanny entity's miraculous "guidance". What forms would be too overpowering to be compatible with the targets' free will? What forms does the pleading follower earnestly expect, assuming their plea is serious and not regurgitated flowery gibberish? Would guidance in the form of a terrifying hallucinatory vision be sufficiently respectful of the target's free will? Or would guidance in the form of unrelenting agonizing feelings of guilt qualify? Regardless, highly valuing the target's individual free will is difficult to reconcile with any plea for a direct, or even a skillfully indirect, intervention within their brain. If the follower pleads for guidance of themselves, then their request to be operated like a marionette remains distasteful. And it has the risk of motivating their unthinking obedience to spontaneous, reckless impulses which they incorrectly attribute to a spiritual source.
  • diabolical deception/temptation...In many ways my background was fortunate, and one of those was no exposure to so-called demonic possession. However, I heard warnings or stories about cunning diabolical sources of deception/temptation. Those sources were said to launch underhanded sneak attacks on humans' free decisions. That explanation was especially unnerving when it was identified retrospectively; apparently a follower often didn't recognize until much later that malevolent forces had intentionally misled or enticed them. If those forces were tirelessly working to sabotage clearheaded contemplation of decisions, then the usefulness of free will was diminished. (On the other hand, an outsider's impression of this interpretation is that it's a convenient, shameless, faith-based substitute for the otherwise embarrassing admission, "At the time, my freely chosen decisions, which I made with full awareness, were simply idiotic and/or contemptible.")
  • divinely controlled destiny...Countless arguments have analyzed the nature of the interaction between human and supernatural influences on "destiny". Despite the unending controversy about the details, the shared truism was that supernatural contributions definitely exceeded and potentially overruled all human contributions, particularly at larger scales. The center of the disputes was the exact extent of humanity's inability to change destiny. In this formal sense human free will was limited at best. Its role was comparable to coloring prescribed areas inside someone else's vast pencil drawing.
  • afterlife decisions...The afterlife was yet another topic of debate. I'll only address what I was taught: the afterlife occurred after the unchangeable final judgment. In moral terms, it came after the whole "test" was finished. Presumably the afterlife either had no more decisions at all or it had decisions of no moral significance. Thus, the immortal soul either no longer had free will or it had free will to decide nothing of importance. According to this interpretation of the afterlife, free will eventually became nonexistent or fruitless.
  • wrongdoing resulting from inner corruption/weakness...Contrary to their proud by-the-book self-portrayal, followers of deeply organized/defined faith-beliefs still depend on unstated tradition spread through attitudes and norms and conventions. Their treasured texts are just raw layers incorporated in an overlapping collage of their active understandings of their faith-beliefs. Thanks to input from sources they trust, over time they infer which bits to disregard or reshape, which clarifications are necessary before accepting overoptimistic supernatural claims, and which excessive statements provide realistic counterbalance of other excessive statements. In this case, the devastating effect of inner corruption/weakness carefully circumscribed the official doctrine that anyone could decide to cease wrongdoing. Specifically, the effect was that someone's will (heart, soul, etc.) could be corrupted/weakened to the point that they couldn't accurately judge morality—or comprehend the correctness of faith-beliefs preached at them. Using biblical terminology, they were the "swine" who were too coarse to appreciate the generosity of "pearls"; they had been "given over" to their depravity. They were theoretically capable of change, but their free will was now too perverted to offer much hope. (They were prime targets of the first counterexample: pleas for supernatural brain readjustment.) Obviously, different groups of followers varied in how enthusiastically they employed this ready justification for discounting outsiders' ability to exercise genuine free will....and therefore the outsiders themselves. Usually they put principled ex-followers into the category. From their perspective, the dissenters' free will must already be unreliably defective. Else, how could they have "decided" to dump their former faith-beliefs after insisting that an idea's accuracy be measured by the verification of its implications
  • parental blame for the decisions of adult offspring...This counterexample is like the previous. The primary, endorsed position was personal responsibility for wrong decisions. Everybody needed to confess their own offenses. Nobody automatically inherited "saved" status. Even so, layered on top of this position was the expectation, or implicit duty, that parents should do all they could to assure their family's unwavering commitment to right decisions. In fact, ritual "dedications" were fairly normal, in which parents publicly agreed to a series of vows regarding their new child's religious instruction. Again, using overworn biblical terminology, "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6) Given this context, parents with less devout adult offspring couldn't escape feeling blamed for it. But by proposing that the parents could somehow instigate the decisions of their adult offspring, the offspring's free will was reduced correspondingly. To split responsibility between parents and offspring was to dangerously concede that an individual's free will couldn't be as "uncaused" as dogma asserted. 

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 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.