Sunday, February 07, 2016

living the dream

When I contemplate how my perspective changed—or didn't—as I gave up following insufficiently corroborated beliefs, I could compare it to living in a somewhat unreal "world" shaped by those beliefs. The typical illustrations of it from movie or television sci-fi are the Holodeck on Star Trek starships...and of course the Matrix. The flaw of these illustrations is that they're pictured as too, well, flawless. My principles of understanding metamorphosed into a Pragmatist-ish style years ago. On that basis, the breaking point of my former beliefs was precisely the noticeable flaws between the world I perceived and reckoned and the world that those beliefs should have implied. The seams were there all the time, but I didn't thoroughly realize that.

I consider the closer illustration to be the dream trap in the "Perchance to Dream" episode of Batman: The Animated Series, which I remembered after using Professor X as an illustration of something else recently (because my first exposure to X was also a '90s TV series). At the episode's very start, Batman is ambushed and hooked up to a device that forces him to vividly dream as if he were awake. The illusion is the setting of almost all scenes. It begins with him "waking up" at home. He goes through the day as a Bruce Wayne whose parents are alive and retired. He has imminent marriage plans with Selina Kyle. He's the formal owner though not the manager of his father's company. With his parents alive, he hasn't remade himself as Batman. There isn't a bat cave or any of his other standard equipment. His memories of reality are apparently as clouded to him as memories of a dream typically are.

As it proceeds, this episode includes four details that resonate with my experience. First, the figures around him collectively question Batman's (Bruce in their eyes) questioning. They tell him that these circumstances are totally normal; his frantic disorientedness is the curiosity. They're tenderly concerned about him and his mental state. They aren't callous or coercive or abusive. The dream is a jail, but they aren't acting like jailers. To some extent, their pressure eases Batman toward momentary enthusiasm for his replacement life. I can relate. The impulse to share the same beliefs as the people most important to me, as well as their complacency about the beliefs' accuracy, were partly why I was slow to explore my criticisms. I needed to grow comfortable with ignoring the impression that these criticisms had to be eccentric abnormalities of mine, because everybody else didn't seem as bothered. I was never mistreated or insulted whenever I hesitantly voiced these accumulating criticisms, but I was nudged, however tacitly, toward not disrupting my fellow believers too much with quibbles they didn't focus on.

Second, every time Batman reads something in the dream, the letters and words are jumbled. This is a repeated clue he must not be awake in the real world. In my case, I found that my beliefs were routinely jarring with knowledge obtained from other sources. I wasn't translating that knowledge into gibberish, but I felt like I was forced into viewing it with almost the same level of incomprehension. My beliefs and the outside knowledge were opposed. To continue following the beliefs, that knowledge needed to function to me like lies—or nonsense. And like in the episode, the telling factor was the consistent pattern. Though the issues might be demoted to trifles, the pervasiveness was troubling. It cropped up in multiple fields of independent study. I'd encounter the discontinuity by picking up a book, visiting a website, or turning the TV channel (e.g. I saw the NOVA coverage of Kitzmiller v. Dover prior to the time period I pronounced myself an atheist).

Third is probably the most thought-provoking element: Batman exists in the dream. More specifically, a mysterious "Batman-2", whose appearance is identical, keeps law and order on the streets. Batman—the dreaming protagonist Batman-1—is shaken and intrigued. The times when he says that he thinks that he's Batman, his hearers conclude that he's purely expressing a deeply confused envy of Batman-2. (On the assumption that the whole dream is formed from his wishes, the indication is that he would still wish for there to be a Batman if he weren't the same traumatized person.) Finally, the recurring sight of Batman-2's heroics—the stark reminder of his more ambitious self outside the dream—unnerves him so severely that he decides to instigate a meeting between the two rectangular-jawed men. For my past self, Batman-2 could have symbolized the form of inner reflection that was tightly restricted: adventurously pursuing the trail of signals wherever it led like a stoic, hard-bitten detective would. And it was similarly connected to a persistent, periodic undertone of awareness that my safer identity was predicated on suppressing that part of me. I had the somewhat guilty hunch that I could be someone else: someone who would absorb higher quality beliefs and be less conflicted overall. Just as acknowledgment of the second detail required honesty about the beliefs' contradictions with outside knowledge, acknowledgment of this third detail required honesty about the beliefs' contradictions with my personal best evaluations of accuracy/plausibility/logical consistency.

Fourth is Batman's unequivocal refusal near the end of the story to "live a lie". He's deduced, and received confirmation, that he's dreaming. He knows that he could possibly live a happier (but less interesting or challenging) existence...but he won't. Given his degree of fanatical, sacrificial commitment to his mission, he can hardly decide to give it up. To not be Batman would be unbearable. Pushed to this limit, he rather speedily opts for suicide as a potential escape. It works, obviously. He jolts awake and frees himself from the helmet device responsible. I'm not seriously about to state that I ever took an equally drastic risk. That said, turning away from specific beliefs and habits and in-groups represents killing the markers of earlier self-identity. Altering behavior to align with different beliefs, and bringing on the disagreeable ramifications, is distinct from solely pondering the beliefs.

I appreciate that my history or views aren't archetypal. My application of this episode certainly doesn't argue that its authors intended it to be used as such—not any more than the author of The Silver Chair would've intended the comparisons I extracted from that book. I'm not claiming that "Perchance to Dream" is a unique or ideal usage of the essentially uncomplicated story idea of tempting the hero with a fantasy. At least it's a highly distilled 22 minute example, broadcast widely, on a show regarded well enough to inspire a podcast to analyze it psychologically, for instance. And it's the one that captures the topsy-turvy transition of exposing the falseness of the standpoint passed down to me.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Professor X's true believers

Out of all the people who normally examine a belief's level of verified support before relying on it, more than a few of them subscribe/submit to supernatural beliefs which fail that examination. They might be uninformed, by accident or choice, about the realistic status of those beliefs' support. Or, when their thinking drifts in the proximity of those beliefs they might briskly swap their normal mode of understanding for a flightier one; they're "modal students" who selectively sever their educated wariness from their manipulable hunches and wishes. They may flippantly pigeonhole their secondary mode of unguarded acceptance not as careless but childlike.

In a more creative albeit obscure direction, followers of alleged supernatural realities might narrow their examination of their beliefs' support to the area of souls. By this they sidestep awkward questions about the beliefs' physical signs. (They could make an exception for recasting life's occasional beneficial coincidences as supernatural puppetry; if they do they conspicuously neglect the instances when a beneficial coincidence was badly missed.) They spotlight uniquely immediate parts of pure personal experience, such as heady episodes they've had which were somehow related to the beliefs. Also, they narrow their requests to supernatural beings to changes they'd like to see within souls, though their requests would compromise free will. They might be no less earnest, even as they pare down the expected level of backing for their beliefs. They may be true believers in supernatural realities—perhaps called "spooks" for convenience—which are practically confined to affecting souls.

This interpretation evokes a nontraditional but fairly well-known cultural metaphor: Professor X, who is the wise and seasoned founder of the X-Men team of superheroes. He can't use his legs. His muscles aren't superhumanly strong. He can't easily move (material) objects. But he has immense abilities over others' consciousnesses. He can both read and modify thoughts. Directly steering his own body accomplishes less than indirectly steering the bodies of others. Speaking outwardly, with sound waves, is usefully supplemented by eerie remote communication over longer distances, in such a way that he need not appear in person nearby.

Analogously, supernatural beliefs in the "Professor X subset" constantly underscore spooks' intersections with human souls—while categorically omitting verifiable predictions about consequences on things. True believers tend to report the actions of people who were acting as the spook's "hands". They receive a message from beyond, but it was silently delivered to the interior of their soul...or in lieu of that they received nonverbal inspiration which led them to compose the message. They receive aid in their souls such as inner calm, solace, courage, not tangible aid such as different circumstances. (The reverse is hostile spooks manifesting lies, fear, distrust, temptations.) Learning about a spook occurs through the representation of true believers who are its de facto ambassadors on planet Earth. When it is said to be "on the move", the method it uses is their sacrificial toil. When it is said to be "here right now", the mark of its presence is the modified demeanors of a crowd. The common thread is habitually referring to the kind of feats which Professor X could do. Its imagined shape probably has little similarity to his, but its, uh, uncanny interactions with people do. Needless to say, the abilities attributed to it might exceed his.

The twist is that, like a fictional land motivating a MUSH, beliefs that sway people are by that very fact occupying a smidgen of realness. In a loose sense, when true believers psychologically condition one another to symbols, their brains could act as if supernatural Professor X powers are in operation. Conditioning could start at a young impressionable age, so it harnesses the instinct to imitate older people. It could be renewed regularly (weekly if not daily). The product is hardened certitude in both the performances of the powers and the identities of the spooks performing. Suggestibility is a factor, although the extent of it is often overrated. The pliable chaos of the brain is more than capable of synthesizing marvels for itself. And it's effortless to retrospectively assign blame after the train of thought passes through an odd switch to an unexplored destination.

Yet this smidgen of realness is its own counterargument. A belief's accuracy is separate from the possibility of humongous quantities of people acting as if it's assured. The boundary between error and socially approved "common sense" isn't thick and/or brightly colored. One person's faulty reasoning isn't repaired by merely setting another person's identical faulty reasoning next to theirs. The pattern of these spooks is to stay unseen except through the murkiness of true believers' souls. Doubters have no trouble leaping to the relevant question: what if spooks weren't responsible for any of the listed events in souls...implying that support for the spooks is nonexistent? What if Professor X and his mutant powers were made up, and people's brains weren't under continuous infiltration from outside forces?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

axioms to grind

So many people make decisions through beliefs which are missing satisfactory corroboration. In so doing they adjust how they act and think and—most alarmingly—treat others. Calling them "followers" is more apropos than "believers". Whatever they're called, it's far too simplistic to assume that none of them ever notice the relative suspiciousness of some of their beliefs, on some level, sometimes. They compensate with an an array of strategies, such as contenting themselves with the self-concept of perpetual seeker. Perpetual seekers always openly look for fuzzy beliefs that "speak to them right now" as opposed to beliefs with excellent impersonal accuracy.

Without a doubt, that option wouldn't tempt followers who are more fastidious about their beliefs: they who wish they could detail the sturdy reasoning behind their thinking. Mathematics is the paragon of this formal style. It demands painstaking proofs. The overt exceptions are axioms, which are purposefully accepted as true without proof. Proofs can then build on top of the axioms. Plane geometry is a familiar example.

Axioms generally fall under the principle of parsimony, i.e. few and small, selected with stringent awareness of benefit and cost. The content is centered on universal premises reusable in discrete cases, not on the minutiae of historical facts. It's not rare to work on reducing dependence on axioms by showing that one or more can be proven via the rest or further distilled to essentials. Cursorily proposing more or larger axioms is not the predominant method of reaching reliable, persuasive results.

Followers may opt to equate their most central beliefs to axioms. By analogy, this removes the perceived burden of justifying plausibility. Axioms are invaluable in mathematics, which avoids gaps in arguments whenever possible. Consequently, they can feel more serene about disregarding the realism of the "axioms" in their beliefs, too. And they can retain high standards for ideas beyond those. In words, "All diligent thinking about a topic needs to start with axioms. I start with those, and I can't be expected to reasonably justify why." Axioms impart a respectable-looking loophole.

The tacit error, as usual, is easier to distinguish from outside of the follower's mentality: the discussed beliefs don't mirror the qualities of sensible axioms. People could drive in nails using miscellaneous objects, but not all of those objects qualify as sensible "hand tools". Perhaps the beliefs have inhabited the follower like axioms, because the follower was taught early that the beliefs' accuracy was unquestionable. But in order to properly mimic the axiom category of mathematics, almost all propositions should be left out. If it's quite possible to contemplate a variety of cases without referring to a proposition, and/or it's feasible to estimate/determine a proposition's accuracy through normal means, then a proposition shouldn't be dumped into axioms.

If it is anyway, then its logic withers. It shifts the intellectual status of the beliefs' coherent whole. A system that obliges onlookers, from the start, to adopt an abundance of weighty, uncorroborated propositions isn't a viable axiomatic system. It has a different mathematical analogy: a sequential set of conjectures. Conjectures aren't useless or repugnant, of course; throughout history conjectures have motivated brilliant leaps. Greater candor is the main difference between naming the beliefs axioms or conjectures. Followers shouldn't mislead themselves, or anyone, to depict their beliefs in the image of logically derived proofs which result from "simple" beginnings—little idea dominoes tipping one another. It's worth remembering that tipping over a preliminary domino such as "one or more gods exist" has kept debaters occupied for centuries. So has the next domino, "What are these one or more gods like?"

Monday, January 18, 2016

on a mission to seek and...seek and seek and seek

In response to a huge variety of motivations, some more excusable than others, legions of people choose to base their actions and thoughts on the accuracy of beliefs that lack sufficient corroboration or reasonableness. They direct themselves, physically and mentally, as if the beliefs were well-established. But how do they manage to keep it up, if they're the type who aren't generally receptive to letting shaky beliefs go unchallenged?

Perhaps they may summarily declare that the less credible parts of the beliefs they follow are mere trifles that they don't try to uphold. Or at all times they may voluntarily disengage normal scrutiny in the special case of these beliefs. Or their evasiveness could assume yet a different form: they're perpetual seekers through and through. Seekers in this sense are enamored with seeking. They tend to glamorize uncertainty, elevate questions over answers, and relish subverting all definitions with exceptions. They do show a laudable glimmer of pragmatism in that they would emphasize individual practices instead of unsinkable allegiance to sweeping dogmas. So their outward affiliation might be relatively loose; a subset might be "nones" who don't name any particular affiliation, despite the faith-beliefs they erratically substitute for unflinching materialistic naturalism.

Seekers grant themselves permission to respond to criticisms with nonchalance. If seeking is never expected to meet a goal and/or as a rule the seeker refuses to presuppose a fixed goal, then criticisms are inconsequential. Moving from one belief to the next is one of their few constants. When a belief gradually loses its appeal the seeker blames the belief, not their own developing habituation to it. 

Anyway, they're seeking not testing. They aren't applying universal, previously decided criteria to the beliefs they stumble onto. They're trying on beliefs like shoes, as they're guided by nebulous guesses of what might gratify them for a short while. Implicitly, each belief holds comparatively little weight. None can rise to a supreme rank of believability, because seekers aren't concerned with conscientiously checking the accuracy of the belief. To the seeker, the belief is not a hypothetical reality, strictly speaking. It's a temporary resting spot which cannot be a lasting answer. When told "Your current beliefs are probably inaccurate," the seeker's tepid reply is "No surprise to me—I never had thought that I'd found out anything dependable." 

Unashamedly, then, the seeker way of life exposes its drawback: it's haphazard. It ensures a twisty path winding in no uniform direction and earning no durable prize. Traveling a path of this shape is a pleasant enough activity in a leisure context, but it's a dreadful strategy for productive investigation of momentous information. In order to fulfill their presumed thirst for trusty information, they should be striving to prevent the self-serving interference of their distorting predispositions. A personal mission of seeking is the converse of that.

Can anyone feel at ease divulging that their beliefs are works in progress? Absolutely. Be that as it may, why can't they be expected to feel equally at ease coherently estimating and explaining how much progress they've made in seeking accurate beliefs? If they counter that they don't care about the accuracy of the beliefs that they're conforming to, then they're prompting two additional quibbles, the first selfish, the second unselfish. First, the cost of following possible fabrications is a regrettable waste; paying that cost to follow legitimate beliefs, or simply forgoing the cost of following unfounded beliefs, is almost certainly more constructive. Second, the belief's grounding will be indispensable in the event that the seeker wishes to attract other seekers to it, so they can benefit too.

The defect is the shortage of discriminating examination. Their devotion might be fleeting, but it's too easily handed out nonetheless. Absurdly, they're using seeking as a defense for not seeking seriously enough.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Trouble With Trifles

Like followers of any belief, followers of materialistic naturalism like myself—who may individually prefer a gamut of different labels—often assume that their views deserve to be irresistible to the discerning, the knowledgeable, the modern, the compassionate, and the curious. Nevertheless, this markedly isn't the case...by a long shot. So I've been covering some philosophical/psychological coping ploys which underpin dedication to faith-beliefs. I followed a set for a long time and continue to spend time around others who do.

This entry is about the the ploy of dismissively classifying all the least tenable parts of the faith-beliefs as trifles. Through this quick compromise, a follower can feel reassured in choosing to ignore the status of those parts. Plus it eases their thinking. If those parts just don't matter, then they don't even need to try to subscribe to those parts "by faith" or to reconcile those parts to conflicting information from a multitude of other sources. Provided a part can be minimized as "small stuff" and set aside, a ludicrous level of probable inaccuracy isn't a fatal blow. Meanwhile, by default the remaining parts represent treasures of precious, immutable claims about the follower's realities. The ploy's total effect resembles chess players sacrificing pawns to block threats to the valuable queen and king.

Eventually, I ceased to be satisfied by this. Trifles caused five troubles. First, undercutting the credibility of so many parts, no matter how minor, inevitably degrades the credibility of the whole too. When a source is inaccurate about a string of details, the recipient has compelling reasons to be leery toward whatever the source communicates. Although it's very possible for a source to mix falsities or exaggerations with truths, such a source doesn't command complete trust. Violations of trust sap faith.

Second, faith-beliefs' associated traditions, rituals, creative works, and mandates gravitate to the treasures classification. By nature everybody changes actions less readily than thoughts. Pretexts for maintaining old, comforting habits are gladly welcomed. Yet downgrading those actions' supportive beliefs to trifles tarnishes these actions' basis and symbolism, which after all are intended to parallel definite (albeit otherworldly) realities. Followers vary greatly according to how much they're bothered by this. Personally, the more that I abandoned facets as fallacious trifles, the more foolish and pointless the actions felt to me. Singing about the role of divine intervention in a plentiful harvest sticks out as superfluous in an advanced age of agricultural science.

Third, due to discarding the vexing trifles, the treasures offer a medley of increasingly disconnected pieces. The formerly integrated set of faith-beliefs dissolves into a patchy assortment. And the boundaries between the isolated treasures and the beliefs that don't require faith seem more like troublesome cracks. If the belief in the spectral human soul is one of the treasures, but almost all body phenomena operate without regard to spectral stuff, then the precise relationship between each soul and its human poses a puzzle.

Fourth, the subsequent pile of trifles keeps growing. Accurate ideas are co-dependent dominoes. Replacing a trifle with a single corroborated statement spurs the replacement of other trifles with the statements that are interwoven to the first. Additionally, the growing pile contrasts with the strange self-contained aloofness of the faith-beliefs which are left. The follower is driven to legitimize—to themselves if not to their peers—the metaphorical "moat" that encircles treasures though never trifles. Like in the third trouble, if A/B/C/D were all closely linked faith-beliefs, and A/B/C ended up one by one as mere trifles surrendered in the face of external contradictions, then treasured D's lone immunity to those same contradictions calls for an explanation.

Fifth, an unwanted side-effect ensues: the treasures dilute and leave lighter impressions. The proverbial introductory phrase "one thing I know for sure" doesn't inspire enthusiasm in potential converts. Treasures that furnish so little meaningfulness, and so few distinctions in practice, act like thin layers to add on to a number of views, as opposed to firm, all-encompassing standpoints. A second consequence is the blurring of divisions within the brackets of faith-beliefs. (Followers might judge that to be an asset or a penalty depending on their mentality.) The shorter the list of essential beliefs dwindles, the less necessary the conventional partitions are. And along with that development is, once again, diminished authoritativeness of the forebears who first instituted the partitions.

To reiterate, these five troubles are clues, not irrefutable proofs, of the inadequacy of reclassifying disrupted faith-beliefs as trifles. Finally quitting the ploy is voluntary. It's voluntary to admit that the ploy is a ploy. These choices can't be forced on them by anyone else. Sure, everyone says that they want to follow the trail toward the most authentic ideas. But they neglect to mention that they'll leave the trail at the moment it stops heading in the direction of their preconceptions—pardon, their "inner compass".

Thursday, December 31, 2015

the problem with modal students

Recently I've been listing mechanisms by which faith-beliefs persist in numerous followers who "shouldn't" be susceptible; they're intelligent, well-educated, integrated into surrounding society, and willing and able to probe conclusions for themselves. (I intentionally restrict my comments to "faith-beliefs" not "religion" because not all who associate themselves with a religion, or even participate in aspects of it, enshrine it as the overriding source of accurate information about everything, and not all faith-beliefs fit the category of religion.) The most frequently underestimated mechanism is the pure inertia of the follower's outlook, aided perhaps by a shortfall of genuinely wide-ranging curiosity.

Other mechanisms are far more inventive. A well-tested template is to take an unrelated, indisputable principle and jumble it with the faith-beliefs. For example, based on the principle that independent but equally effective investigations will arrive at harmonious findings, committed followers may submit that, contrary to appearances, human knowledge is in an abysmally tedious chase toward their chosen faith-beliefs. Or, based on the principle that different domains sometimes require different methods of verification, they may submit that their faith-beliefs require finicky "modes" of examination. In a completely unsurprising coincidence, the mode they pick is more congruous to faith. The prescribed mode almost certainly won't be alert perception, or minimal speculation, or rigorous collection and review of impartial records (either quantitative or qualitative). But it's more often a mode of overexcited/overstimulated consciousness, or unnegotiable presumption, or extravagantly construing the meaning of inexact and malleable impressions, memories, shivers. In a word, the generalized demand is for modes that are based on uncurbed feeling. They're seeking students who agree to switch to noncognitive modes before learning begins: students who are flexibly modal when asked.

The advantage of having modal students for followers is easily appreciated. They can be excellent detectors of inadequate corroborations in the majority of domains. Yet they remain steadfast in their faith-beliefs because they rapidly enter a less scrupulous mode whenever their thoughts wander in that vicinity. They can be appealingly level-headed and "normal"—they just have quirks such as regularly meditating on the generosity of accepting the blood sacrifice of an innocent in place of endless torture of the guilty. They can be more responsive to directions delivered through the corresponding mode. If their mode is already tied to their loftiest inclinations, they can be directed by evoking those inclinations. If their mode is already tied to the nobility of self-denial, they can be directed by presenting them with a new "opportunity" of self-denial, e.g. additional cash donations. If their mode is already tied to audacious leaps outside logical extensions of sufficiently tested ideas, they can be directed by encouraging, uh, more leaps.

Ultimately, the flaw of explicitly modal understanding reflects the flaw of prematurely expanding the scope of a thesis. Like a thesis, a mode isn't necessarily misleading until it's reapplied inappropriately. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. It's arbitrary to exclusively use an inadequate mode of examination in a particular domain...on purpose. In usual modern domains nobody is advised to study detectable phenomena by disengaging their high-level judgment, then interpreting their own inklings in extremely broad fashion. Nowadays nobody is told that they must divine the chemical composition of a substance. A mode of fond gratefulness is a great idea in human interaction; it's less great for cherishing the unconfirmable actions of mythic figureheads.

As I've repeated in numerous forms, the crux is still the keen question, "Why should supernatural topics benefit from irregular rules? (And the follow-up, why should these irregular rules solely cover my set of beliefs regarding those topics?)" Regardless of how baffling the mind-game is to outsiders, modal students are distracting themselves from thinking "too much" about the very existence of supernatural entities by emphasizing how they feel about those unvalidated entities. They're reifying objects to which they can attach their reverent emotions. To them, hearing more cases of absent signs or logical contradictions accomplishes virtually nothing because those are shut out of their preset mode. With little prompting they may remark, à la Fideism, that irrationality is integral to their concept of "faith"! Their felt Truth is preserved from the attacks of facts. This tactic is the epitome of compartmentalization—not only are intellectual objections isolated from the domain but so is the mode of processing the objections.

In my background, this mechanism didn't have a lot of influence. I was more driven to the project of rationalizing my faith-beliefs as much as possible, despite how that project actually turned out. Unfortunately, unlike when I was a follower, modal students are unlikely to absorb the arguments in a blog entry...

Sunday, December 06, 2015

nonsectarian laying down

Music blares its creators and listeners' beliefs, sentiments, and desires. It's a valuable means to increase comprehension of them. At the moment, the song I'm thinking of is "Lay It Down" by Sanctus Real. I heard it recently while I was around some Christians. Its cheery, repetitive, banal style doesn't fit my customary tastes—its undisguised Christian references even less! But I concede its rhythm is energetic and on balance its lyrics aren't as off-putting as might be expected.

As I hinted already, it caught my attention because of the information it conveys: a common psychological application of the underlying beliefs. Aside from the incredibly dubious supernatural viewpoint wrapped around it, its core message of laying down tensions, i.e. nonconstructive thoughts, is a sound therapeutic strategy. Its advice to its listeners can work. In general, laying down tensions can facilitate well-being.

That benefit is obtainable despite the all too evident failures of phantoms which happen to be integrated in any instance of the strategy's description. It's not required that these phantoms ever convincingly—objectively, extraordinarily—"pick up" whatever was figuratively laid. In effect the phantoms' entire role is passive. They instill enough calm reassurance for the sake of performing the strategy. They symbolize the guarantee that everything won't spin out of control as soon as one human ventures to worry less.

Phantoms of different shapes fill the role of tranquilizing different believers, like different keys in different locks. A believer may be coaxed into laying down their tensions onto particular gods. But another may lay down their tensions onto saints, or ancestors, or fuzzily outlined cosmic forces. All of their preferred caretakers can be adequate for each of them, although they might be reluctant to admit that. It's a relief to lay down a stack of books onto a table, whether or not the bearer happens to like their table in a rustic or modern furniture style.

Along with these diverse subgroups is my subgroup of explicitly laying down tensions onto nothing. Uncoincidentally, the limited kind of regular nonsectarian meditation which I've written about in past entries is a structured exercise of laying down. It's similar but certainly not identical to some kinds of prayer. It doesn't have prayer's distracting voiced or unvoiced verbalizations (I don't employ mantras either). But like prayer it does have the periods of quiet, watchful contemplation, which invite perceptive insights to arise in any subgroup of belief.

As a result, I can agree with many of the typical recommendations. No concept of a phantom is essential to: taking a moment to "just" breathe, not dwelling on minor violations of unrealistic preconceptions, stopping early before intensifying a negative stimulus through ruminating on it again and again, paying closer heed to now, attending to the next task instead of obsessing on distant future tasks, affirming that past mistakes are unchangeable but can be prevented from reoccurring, facing one's own emotions as opposed to fleeing or fighting or ignoring, accepting unalterable limits of control over realities outside oneself. I realize that my restricted agreement is a lousy compliment; I'm exclusively granting the worth of the bits that are compatible to my viewpoint. "To the extent that your counsel can be made to overlap with what I think, it's effective."

On the other hand, I have misgivings about two typical recommendations. The first is the brusque command to be "strong". By itself it's not elaborating on what being strong consists of. It might easily reinforce the peculiar belief that some feelings are weak, some are strong, and the weak category can be vaporized and prohibited through potent psychic force. This proposed "method" clashes with the rest. Long-term it hardly works well. The laying down of feelings hinges on candor about the contrary feelings' very existence! Strength isn't shown by, nor does it determine, the brain's output of spontaneous desirable activity. Arguably, those managing more troublesome patterns are by necessity showing greater mettle day by day.

The second is the rule to lay down every urge to quit. Realities are complicated, so the rule is appropriate sometimes. Setbacks will appear. Hope will waver. Quitting shouldn't be done impulsively. The danger is interpreting this rule too rigidly. Often, the positive gains of quitting are dismissed too quickly. Quitting might free the exploration and exploitation of superior options. Past decisions aren't owed unbreakable allegiance or unending investment. The costs and returns of something might change. Refusal to quit might be the equivalent of self-inflicted harm. Quitting should be less stigmatized, if it's after carefully weighing upsides and downsides. For some, their unreflective mulishness is exactly what they should lay down.

Yet these two are less problematic than a worser risk of laying down tensions onto phantom recipients: using that act as an excuse for permanently abandoning any linked responsibilities. If those recipients are considered supremely capable and willing, then not turning over responsibilities to them would be negligent. Thankfully, most of the time, few really do this completely. After they lay down their tensions onto their phantoms, maybe accompanied by a relieved comment of their confidence in the phantoms' unspecified assistance, they proceed to do the best they can. If they don't, they shouldn't be surprised when everyone else scolds them for it. Laying down doesn't entail lying down.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

the tedium of the chase

In the ongoing project to explore exactly how those who "should" know better continue to follow faith-beliefs—including me in the first years of my life—a central yet underreported explanation is the habitual unbending momentum of belief. Along with that are actual rationales they may have for either not seeking out conflicting information or for offhandedly discounting the information's implications. One is the sanguine confidence that all unearthed discrepancies from the faith-beliefs are superficial and temporary. I know that it's sincerely professed by individuals of superb intelligence, education, inquisitiveness, etc. It's probably rampant in religious liberal arts colleges/universities.

Given that the faith-beliefs are unalterable, the presumption is that every human method of investigation will eventually bridge the gap (or disprove it). In effect, knowingly or not, directly or not, those methods are said to be chasing the faith-beliefs. This chase's secondary value is a veneer of unworried participation in numerous secular fields. Provided that any chosen field can be tenuously embraced as a path to the same old set of faith-beliefs, then careers in those fields aren't frightening temptations. Especially bold followers might further boast that the picture of a "chase toward the One Truth" unifies everything in a tidy manner. And they have a valid point, from their perspective. Why is it unreasonable to them that, sooner or later, the fullness of human knowledge would seamlessly mesh with the ideas which they promote as ultimately fundamental?

When speaking to followers of faith-beliefs, I've previously discouraged referring to a total war between science and religion/spirituality and proceeding to demand an exclusive switch of their "loyalty". I'd rather nudge the thoughtful reexamination of the nature of verification and the standards that are acceptable before following an idea. But I'm not enthused by the effort to replace the war with a chase. For critics, its basic problem is easy to notice. If the chase is indeed happening...then it's turning out pitifully dull. It's not nail-bitingly close. For whatever reason, the pursuers aren't advancing. Worse, they're falling farther behind. With each passing decade, the overall trend is of increasing intervals. It's almost as if the pursuers are headed in the wrong direction.

I'm alluding primarily to examples of the empirical sciences not converging to a singular system of faith-beliefs, although needless to say the humanities aren't either. I realize not all faith-beliefs are identical, but very few of the top ones seem to have proposed an extremely old (and gargantuan) universe, containing an off-center, relatively younger yet very old planet Earth, where species that are approximately human have lived for a minute fraction of that time range. Very few seem to have proposed the common genetic ancestry among organisms from large to small, observable in embarrassingly similar genetic code. Very few seem to have proposed the continual failure of ubiquitous modern-day recording devices to ever capture unambiguous supernatural occurrences. Very few seem to have proposed that the idea of a soul is unnecessary to the study of the basis of human behavior and consciousness. Very few seem to have proposed the germ theory of disease (i.e. not an evil spirit theory of disease).

The attempts to disqualify these examples are less than satisfying, too. If these are disqualified because the topics aren't patently religious, then there isn't a chase at all: without even the faintest of overlaps in topics, the sciences can't be chasing the faith-beliefs in the first place. If these are disqualified because of how much time has passed since the introduction of the faith-beliefs, then the chase has stopped already and the chase doesn't help to address present issues. If these are disqualified because the original communicators of the faith-beliefs weren't privy to modern terminology and concepts, then that would mean measuring progress in the chase will always be vulnerable to inconclusive decoding of the intended future meanings of their culturally limited past communications. If these are disqualified because the chase is only expected to yield nonspecific subjective benefits such as greater inspirational appreciation of the "creator's mind", then the chase itself adds less value; it doesn't promise an end to concrete discrepancies. If these are disqualified because every discovery that clashes with the faith-beliefs is immediately assumed to be a mistake in one way or another, then the chase is a worthless pretense; the compliant remnant amounts to a mere shoe print of the faith-beliefs, not a discrete confirmation.

More likely than not, followers could invent more justifications to keep the hope of the chase workable, like conspiracy theorists who can swiftly digest incompatible data and arguments. Just as I can't utterly prove nonexistence from absence, I can't utterly establish that all varieties of human inquiry will never vindicate someone's faith-beliefs. I can state that I don't have nearly enough faith to suppose it will happen—my own adaptation of the half-baked quip, "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist". However, the suggestive trend is that the whole pack of pursuers is giving a horrible performance...and the performance is strikingly coordinated. A dawdling minority doesn't wreck the chase. But when a majority is teaming up to dawdle, the chase becomes tiresomely drawn-out. Evidently the group is more than lagging behind, it's lagging behind in lockstep. The increasing distance from the "target" isn't accompanied by increasing distance among the pack. In this chase, to be remote from this target isn't to be an unusual outlier; to be the outlier is to be the target.

At a high level, I'm pleased by the admission of the chasm that separates the content of beliefs that require faith and the content of beliefs that don't. I'm less pleased by the nominated remedy that the chasm will shut by itself someday (so in the meantime the chasm signifies nothing).

Thursday, November 19, 2015

It's a Good Life...of belief in objects by "choice"

A monster had arrived in the village. Just by using his mind, he took away the automobiles, the electricity, the machines - because they displeased him - and he moved an entire community back into the dark ages - just by using his mind. [...] Oh yes, I did forget something, didn't I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster. This is the monster. His name is Anthony Fremont. He's six years old, with a cute little-boy face and blue, guileless eyes. But when those eyes look at you, you'd better start thinking happy thoughts, because the mind behind them is absolutely in charge.  --"It's a Good Life", The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone had a memorable episode in which a character could remake everything around him with a thought. Unfortunately, as indicated by the quote above, this character was six. The results were...disturbing. This staggering ability has appeared in a large number of stories across media; TV Tropes maintains a long list of comparable examples under the description "Reality Warper".

Looking back now, I've noticed that it has a subtle application to the religious views that I eventually discarded. It was connected to a pair of precepts. The first was repeated often and dramatically: choice of belief had severe moral stakes. Choosing to believe the correct ideas was an essential duty. Guiding everyone to do the same was an official mission of mercy, because the afterlife of all who had chosen beliefs well would be infinitely preferable to the afterlife of those who chose poorly. For belief to warrant that degree of judgment, it had to consist of self-aware, willful choices.

The pair's second precept was that the objects described by the beliefs were categorically genuine. The beliefs weren't solely metaphorical. Unlike a daydream or a fondness for cake, the beliefs weren't all about the believer, i.e. the subject. The topics of the beliefs were objective and external. Accordingly, the beliefs' objects certainly weren't hallucinations encased in the subject's thoughts. Nor would the objects' features vary by the subject's individual perspective.  

Separately applied, these two precepts are commonplace. It's not peculiar to in effect punish someone for the despicable beliefs they've chosen to adopt—but never until after they've translated the beliefs into harmful deeds. Similarly, it's not peculiar for the content of beliefs to be about objects beyond than the believer. But in combination, the pair formed the frankly bizarre prescription of assigning moral blame based on beliefs about objects which the subject didn't control. The subtext was that regardless of the objects' independent existence and effects, believing in the objects was somehow a grave, voluntary decision which was the responsibility of the subject.

Normally, from an evenhanded subject's viewpoint, statements about physical objects have unequal "believability". That authentic believability is built on the successes or failures of ordinary methods: observations, deductions, tight inferences, calculations. But to fairly hold their pure willpower accountable for those objects' believability presupposes that their willpower itself must be capable of increasing object believability. When someone is in a forthright state of unbelief about the objects, faulting them for flaws in their related logical reasoning is more pertinent than just faulting them for not thinking or acting more as if the objects are believable. If, on its own, the subject's striving to envision and feel with greater intensity is honestly expected to significantly boost the objects' believability, then the subject possesses amazing psychokinetic powers. Essentially, if it's appropriate to chastise them for not trying hard enough to metaphysically readjust the level of detection, then their mistake must be that they aren't properly industrious Reality Warpers.

Despite how strange this sentiment sounds, a disguised form of it slowed my progress out of my former views. It wasn't verbalized, but it was present. For approximately a four year period, I would've contended that my ominous doubts about the plausibility of some of the core parts of my religious view didn't weaken my preexisting choice to keep believing in other core parts. I was in the group of split-minded followers that's frequently overlooked. I was perpetually restless, because I was full of chronic doubts and clinging to the original commitment anyway. I'd been taught the virtuousness of deliberately insisting on the accuracy of a set of supernatural "objective facts" come what may. In the midst of that courageous endeavor, missing or highly questionable proofs weren't excuses but rewarding challenges: it was more admirable to adhere to these mysterious facts without whining for corroboration. If their advice were paraphrased to be less self-flattering then it would declare, "It doesn't matter if the expected indications of these facts don't show up in experience. What matters is if you nonetheless sternly command these notions to be really most sincerely factual."

I confess that this characterization is sarcastic. I'm expressing my current amusement when I hear the glib recommendation to respond to lackluster substantiation by doggedly "believing more" in an object's realism. At the time I didn't picture myself psychically fortifying the objective believability of supernatural pronouncements. Rather I embodied it in the structure of my past viewpoint. There were sorted and sealed layers, each one more prone to shifting and unreliability than the one below it. The consciously chosen remaining core parts of my religious beliefs were in the bottom layer. My thoughts, steady but changeable, were in the next layer up. On top was the layer of the ordinary methods listed earlier.

I was ordered to align my middle layer of thoughts with the bedrock layer of supernatural deep Truth, not with the deceptive, shallow, surface layer of material events. If my thoughts were feeling shaky, then my obligation was to forcibly re-anchor my thoughts in immovable doctrines. I was squashing my wavering estimations against beliefs that I treated as more "objective" than fallible objects. I felt that I was diligently reemphasizing, not wholly generating, the shadowy supernatural objects.

Before information could possibly topple this stack, I needed a philosophical refinement of my inconsistent definitions of belief. I needed to quit settling for a stubborn belief by choice. A handful of piercing questions triggered the avalanche. Why did the supernatural domain deserve permanent residence in an unshakable bottom layer? More to the point, why were there distracting layers of protection? Why inject exceptional complexity into assessing the accuracy of candidate supernatural objects? Why was belief in those objects recast as a grueling, praiseworthy, premeditated selection...instead of the spontaneous and undeniable aftereffect of showing/explaining persuasive objective support? Why were us followers instructed to begin with belief and only later scrunch information into the belief's shape as needed, which was the exact reverse of the conventional procedure? Why didn't everyone who investigated my views end up in total agreement when they started from scratch?

Imagine if you will an absurd analogy from one of the many domains besides than the supernatural. Generally, if someone wants to convince a companion that snow is falling outdoors, they urge looking through a window, opening the door a crack to peek out, checking which month it is, etc. They don't say, in an echo of the paraphrase from earlier, "Forget using your eyes or reasoning to evaluate whether the snow falling outdoors happens to be believable to you. No, your mandate is to concentrate intently about a sudden snowfall. Believe me, that shall suffice."

Monday, November 09, 2015

veer not

Last time, I asserted that the high values I placed on thinking didn't shift during my progression from religious to atheistic views. On either side of that boundary, I highly valued the serious pondering of beliefs and presuppositions before acting on them. I highly valued that convincingly separating reality from unreality requires more work than hazy intuitions and fleeting goosebumps. I highly valued that credible beliefs should be backed by coherent explanations whenever someone asks, though for religious statements the typical explanations were meticulously chosen excerpts of sacred texts.

Moreover, I highly valued my rejections of rival positions. I rejected that a statement and its logical opposite could be true at once—unless the statements have differing, limited scopes, which would also imply the two aren't in fact opposites. I rejected that everyone is equally qualified to offer opinions on all topics or that they may be in conflict yet all be "right". I rejected that (hypothetical) supernatural stuff, unlike everything else, could have a bizarre or fluctuating status between real and unreal, just because the corresponding statements were so vague and varied.

Most vitally, according to what I was taught, I continued valuing the worth of faith-beliefs in proportion to the amount of accuracy; our ideas mattered because our ideas were definitive. But with broader experience I've recognized the obvious point that not all those who identify with faith-beliefs necessarily "believe" in that sense. Their ancestral legends/traditions can have openly acknowledged inaccuracy and nevertheless supply substantial emotional/societal rewards. They may opt to fruitfully reinterpret the original symbolisms for their contemporary tastes and needs.

However, by asserting that I supposedly held all these values from the start, I'm inviting a frank retort: why weren't my views forced to change sooner? In general, how does someone with these values remain committed to faith-beliefs? One complex answer is sociological: the ability of a group to have a mutually-defining, mutually-strengthening relationship with a set of ideas. A second complex answer is psychological: the strategy of spliting the self into a smoothly organized team composed of the part that needs to sincerely believe and the part that continually contrives ways to satisfy and preserve that need. A third complex answer is philosophical: the doubt that undirected evolution would produce a trustworthy brain. And the answers go on and on from there. All this agrees with the common principle that greater intelligence is often used to invent dazzling ways of being comfortably wrong, i.e. denials and rationalizations.  

Complex answers are intriguing to catalog and analyze. Yet the whole collection is a distraction from the foremost factor that kept my views, and countless others', from shifting. It's less emphasized in debates because it's transparent, rudimentary, and indefensible: inertia. I don't refer to "inertia" as a metaphor for the absence of motion but for the unforced tendency or habit of never deviating from a predetermined path—nor contemplating the possibility of it. As I'm referring to it, inertia doesn't even represent the active effort to counteract disruptions. It's the momentum of not observing any disruptions in the first place. It's following a faith-belief today due to following it yesterday, not due to compelling reasons or superiority over fairly compared alternatives.

Inertia is an exceedingly gentle form of deprivation. It never indicates the restrictions that it's imposing by default. It doesn't hint at the noteworthy information that isn't being sought. It doesn't disturb long-term confidence and contentment. It doesn't force confrontations with any opponent or opposing viewpoint. It doesn't break expectations or promises. It doesn't ask challenging questions.

It may be indirectly encouraged in followers through more pleasing ideals: faithfulness, persistence, single-mindedness, devotion. It may be reinforced through the monotonous lifestyle connected to, and constructed around, the faith-beliefs. By comprehensively complying in every aspect of their behavior, the follower reduces if not eliminates the odds of colliding with surprise contradictions to their settled faith-beliefs. They talk to the same individuals, go to the same destinations, expend their leisure time with the same activities, consume the same categories of media...

...including reading the same internet sites and books. Thus the success or failure of atheistic sites/books to reach such followers is inseparable from inertia's level of influence. The followers who have enough interest to read these resources are the subset who aren't as bound by inertia. Opening the site/book is a sign that they're the sort with questing, lively styles of thought: they might not be persuaded, but mere inertia doesn't isolate them from unfamiliar standpoints. The flipside is that the tougher followers to reach are also the subset who didn't think of trying these resources, or feel any motivation to. It's akin to a visitor who chooses to attend a religious service: they might not be impressed to come back, but they're evidently willing to hear the service, unlike everyone who didn't visit.

The stubborn obstacle of inertia is one of many considerations in the perennial clashes over the "best" tone for these resources. Some endorse an antagonistic and accusatory tone toward all manifestations of faith-beliefs, while some endorse a conciliatory and sympathetic tone. Unfortunately, neither is a universal antidote to followers' inertia. The first has the advantage of achieving recognition through controversy, as well as provoking bewildered followers to wonder "What problems could they possibly see in my views that could cause that reaction?" In contrast, the second has the advantage of appearing less daunting, thereby attracting followers who wish to gingerly explore their doubts without the threat of feeling attacked. In other words, the first can potentially shake and penetrate inertia, and the second can potentially dodge and placate it. A range of strategies might succeed in getting past followers' indifference to mulling over the weaknesses of their views.

I've previously noted that the second was better suited to my ambivalent shift in views. My own inertia wasn't radically deflected at all. Like a long ship, I wouldn't see that my route veered. The curve out of the shadow was steady and slow. I didn't seek atheistic resources until after I had stumbled onto contradictions that were meaningful to me. I didn't feel an urge to painfully dissect my personal convictions. Without intending to undermine my faith-beliefs, I learned, thought, and lived. Then, I kept reevaluating which ideas still could fit, on account of my aforementioned intellectual values. The progression wasn't always calculated or methodical. It was prolonged and tentative. I didn't want to step off a ledge; I preferred to, uh, rappel if I could. If I'd applied my values into more vigorous research and more fearless self-interrogation, I would've dislodged my old views more quickly. Inertia didn't stop me from turning away from my faith-beliefs, but it propelled me into a longer arc.