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.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Hypothesis or not?" is not the instructive question

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 05, 2015

lack of imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

a critical mass of faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 21, 2014

unit testing the brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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