Sunday, October 19, 2014

smokescreens or bogus refuges

Recently I've been criticizing abstract counterarguments (ignorant misconceptions?) against the standpoint that all realities are purely natural consequences of matter. But I realize that these elaborate counterarguments almost certainly aren't the actual primary causes for following faith-beliefs. More likely, a follower's faith-beliefs could be closely tied to their identity, cultural and familial background, habits of action and thought, emotional dependence, pivotal life events, influential companions, media consumption.

They use impersonal rationalizations when they're part of formal or informal debates. Within the conversational equivalent of warfare, they deploy the conversational equivalent of a smokescreen. Just by correctly filling the expected role of a debater proposing a logical chain of assertions, they downplay and conceal their main motivations.

This observation is far from novel. Some public debaters have openly admitted that they participate for the sake of communicating to the audience, not for reversing the perspective of anyone on stage. They're intentionally performing the ideas in a publicity-grabbing way. Their opponents are uncooperative assistants in a bumpy, wide-ranging, briskly moving lecture. Moreover, they have the chance to stomp competing assertions right after each is spoken.

Unfortunately, defeating a smokescreen accomplishes nothing in the end. To a follower in a debate, their defeated smokescreens are unimportant decoys, sideshows, pretenses, stratagems. Their faith-beliefs remain secure after they finish verbal sparring, regardless of whether their comments were poked full of irreparable holes. Since they had enough complacency in the first place to enthusiastically defend their position in a confrontational discussion, they may not (yet) be ready for an earnest dissection of it. For the goal of prodding followers of faith-beliefs to reconsider their genuine judgments of knowledge, is addressing smokescreen assertions a wasteful strategy?

Maybe it is, on the assumption the assertions are only serving as smokescreens for the sake of insincere debate. Having said that, I see a much less phony context for such assertions: the moment of doubt, a period when a follower's accustomed reservoir of faith dips for whatever reason, such as shocking changes in circumstances. Their wishful thinking clouds. Their well-established visions lose solidity. Their expected narratives unravel. Their self-assured feelings waver. Their trust wobbles. Their biases relax. Psychologically, their typical protective wall around their faith-beliefs is weaker than usual.

As a result, the follower is abnormally feeble at forcefully pushing irritating questions out of awareness. Sensible critiques of their faith-beliefs seem less absurd. Contradictory information refuses to evaporate on command. The moment of doubt is an involuntary individualized conflict of ideas. It's superficially similar to a debate but has weightier repercussions.

While it lasts it even necessitates a substitute besides faith to prop up the faith-beliefs for a time. However, somewhat plausible—though too flawed nonetheless—defenses of faith-beliefs are scarce and sometimes difficult to devise and comprehend. The same set must suffice for both internal and external threats. The assertions that are smokescreens in debates also act as bogus refuges in moments of doubt. They provide (thin) justifications to continue following faith-beliefs anyway. They resume acting as smokescreens again afterward, when faith resumes its repressive authority.

This outcome isn't inevitable. If someone has learned ideas that overrule the assertions, then their list of viable refuges decreases. The next time that faith slackens and doubt returns, the endangered faith-beliefs have fewer sources of supplementary support. One or more could accumulate so many unanswered doubts that the follower dismisses them: they quit using faith to ignore the shortcomings. For that set, the "moment" of doubt is endless.

Perhaps a cycle starts, as the number of bogus refuges continues to dwindle and more doubts pile up. Eventually, very few isolated faith-beliefs might stubbornly persist. At that point, if not before, the follower may ask the crucial self-examination questions, "If, by definition, a faith-belief can't persuade me of its accuracy without faith, then why am I accepting it? Why should I unfairly and purposely misjudge it by skewed or lowered standards? Why should it be uniquely immune to valid challenges?"

Hence, countering smokescreens for faith-beliefs isn't necessarily worthless. Levelheaded dialogue probably won't immediately overturn beliefs which weren't originally reached by levelheaded dialogue. Nevertheless, the neutralizing of bogus rationales prepares for future occasions, when the followers could be marginally more willing to review their faith-beliefs with candor.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

an illusionary problem

Time for another common and intentional distortion of materialistic naturalism, despite the simplicity of its two short premises. First, anything supernatural doesn't exist...or if it does, then it's utterly undetectable and extraneous. Second, anything that exists is composed of matter, i.e. physical materials/energies/forces.

Before, I commented about the distortions that materialistic naturalism necessarily reduces human life to totally insignificant or predominantly negative. A third is that it carelessly discounts vital inner human experiences as illusions. "Inner experiences" refers to the broad gamut of essentially subjective phenomena: sensations, desires, fears, pleasures, pains, tales, dreams, ideals, identities, social ranks, memories, plans, judgments, inferences, and many more. Despite undeniable immediacy and relevance/salience, these don't appear to be objects composed of matter. These are on the "soul" side of the conventional dichotomy of soul vs. matter. In a single convenient word, these are examples of the category of mentality: mental occurrences which are often at least as vivid as any other reality.

Supposedly, mentality forces the potential followers of materialistic naturalism into an inhuman dilemma. Option one is to be "logically consistent" and concede the unsatisfactory far-fetched notion that mentality's existence is fake. Option two is to concede that mentality exists and be "logically inconsistent" with the premises. Neither option is appealing.

Of course, I reject this dilemma altogether. Consistent with past blog entries, my ongoing viewpoint is that mentality doesn't perfectly fit either of the clumsy classifications. First of all, it can't be purely fake or spiritual because it's too tightly enmeshed with plainly observable bodily matter, such as sensory organs and muscles that serve as its routine external inputs and outputs. And even its own "internal" work coincides exactly with the turbulent activity of still more bodily matter, such as nervous systems—especially brains. In no way is it disconnected or independent from realities composed of matter. To the contrary, unceasing dangers show repeatedly that healthful mentality is frighteningly vulnerable. It's equivalently disrupted or damaged whenever these bundles of matter are. (I once told a story about inflicting analogous destruction on a compact disc to establish that its matter encodes the data.) It can't be a mirage that somehow floats inside or above or around matter.

Nevertheless, I also recognize that a thoroughly materialistic substrate for the category of human mentality doesn't ensure that everything in it corresponds closely to materialistic realities. Specifically, its substrate is an organism. Therefore its form springs out of the same origin as the organism's form: evolution. Naturally, it didn't evolve to act as an excellent all-purpose tool for systematic investigation of microscopic minutiae or faraway galaxies; it evolved to levels of precision and accuracy that are "good enough" for the pertinent details of its organism's environmental niche. Its hastily applied generalizations, shortcuts, biases, and simplifications result from the usual evolutionary pressures for greater efficiency. Overall, its design isn't planned and organized but, well, organic. It showcases the usual tactic of reusing, reshaping, and recombining an existing set of primitive albeit time-tested parts. Its incoming flow of information is confined to "sensors" with ranges limited by cheapness—but admittedly ingenuous within the limits.

In the end, it has approximate projections which compromise between low cost and sufficient correctness. It projects temperatures as harsh visceral relative impressions for swiftly guiding an organism through its surroundings, not as exhaustive quantitative data for distinguishing and interpreting the complicated particle physics responsible. It projects acute injuries as sharp unmistakable bursts of unpleasantness, not as lengthy lists of minute diagnostic facts. On behalf of competitive evolutionary fitness, metaphorical hazy shadows on a cave wall are fine...provided the shadows have adequate fidelity to the source realities. (This point rehashes the past entry on the accuracy of an evolved brain.) If any "distorted" or "highly processed" or "incomplete" representation qualifies as an illusion, then illusion is all around; humans encounter and understand realities through the lens of mentality. The term "illusion" becomes worthless. Mentality is packed with illusions according to that overly broad definition.

Frankly, the definition of illusion doesn't need to be that uselessly broad to capture compelling examples. A narrower definition of blatant fiction will do, because human mentality isn't bounded by unoriginal reporting. It can be unreal, i.e. counterfactual. It can fantasize falsehoods. And it can ignorantly digest falsehoods just like realities, either accidentally or through malicious exploitation of its predictable inborn weaknesses. Yet falsehoods come in countless kinds that enrich lives too. Nonrepresentational works are priceless cultural artifacts. Novel inventions start as imaginings.

Thus some examples of mentality might have little resemblance to verified material stuff, while mentality itself nonetheless continues to be the result of material stuff. For instance, a particular house is the occasional setting of my dreams. It's an old wooden three-story house. Its exterior is too small to plausibly contain its numerous trinket-filled rooms and secret passageways. Since this house is in my dreams, it's not like a house that consumes space at a location. It's not a structure with a history or a future. It doesn't interact with anything else at all. I never remember sensing it while I'm awake and alert. It fails the mundane confirmations that sift realities from illusions—it's an illusion of the blatant fiction variety.

Regardless of its fictitiousness, this house illusion is actually embedded in the precious matter of a non-illusory object I like to call myself. That matter is arranged in a way that leads to the occasional, er, reconstruction of the house during sleep. The reconstruction is a process, and the house's lack of confirmed existence is incidental to the process as it's operating. A process that produces abundant distinct examples of realistic mentality can certainly produce examples of lesser realism as well. A mentality maker is a potential illusion maker. Suppose that the active matter is like a keyboard, and mentality is the music it emits. Then waking mentality is the tune played when assorted waking influences press the matter "keys". I drive to my residence, rays of light and sound waves reach my eyes and ears, and I perceive my familiar residence in my mentality. Cycles of dream-sleep, or any altered state, have differing influences pressing differing keys in abnormal patterns. Why couldn't the mentality "tune" be different? Why couldn't the tune be unusual....or discordant?

Ultimately I persist in following materialistic naturalism, notwithstanding my unpredictable dream visits to a counterfeit house. It and its fellow examples of mentality are matter masquerading as non-matter. Humans face everything via the sole point of view they have and cannot escape: their individual instance of mentality. But mentality is an imperfect exceedingly complex effect of the work of evolved but ordinary error-prone matter, so it's susceptible to wildly varying amounts of authenticity. That's why mentality or thoughts work best in a triangle of checks and balances along with actions and objects.

If, like earlier, projection can be a flawed but useful metaphor for mentality, then the house is an image on a metaphorical filmstrip (reminds me of a Sunday installment of Calvin and Hobbes that played with the idea that a weird dream is a sloppily spliced film). The projector, filmstrip, and the image on the filmstrip are all matter. Yet the image might be properly considered an illusion, depending on whether it came straight from a camera placed in front a house (eyes), a skilled impressionist painter (dreams), or the in-between case of a photograph that has been retouched and/or shoddily copied (aged memories). Materialistic naturalism doesn't blindly invalidate mentality as a whole. But it could cast reasonable doubt on mentality's customary overconfidence and self-importance: "I see things this way in my soul, and my soul outranks and thereby reinterprets every other source of information."  

Sunday, August 31, 2014


Pretty generic-sounding title, wouldn't you say?

The same could be said in regard to using that title for a TV show. That's one reason I wasn't inspired to try "Life" (2007, apparently?) for a very long time. A second is that detectives solving a crime week after week is not my typical genre. But I noticed it again when I was browsing Netflix.

Then I checked the cast: Damian Lewis, Sarah Shahi, Adam Arkin, Donal Logue. And the recurring cast includes Christina Hendricks, Titus Welliver, Garret Dillahunt, Jessy Schram. Not too shabby at all... They're clearly enjoying the chance to portray characters who have striking if off-kilter personalities, with distinctive viewpoints and philosophies. The heroes have imperfections and hang-ups. They use unconventional strategies. They have complicated histories.

For the central character Charlie Crews, his history is mixed up with an ongoing mystery: what are the actual circumstances of the case that put him in prison? I tend to wonder if this mystery would have ended up increasingly convoluted and overstretched, but it stays intriguing enough during the limited time this show was in production. It provides a driving force to the main character. His attempts to resolve his past give each episode more variety and interest.

To its credit, "Life" explores not only the plotline of his past but its two-sided role in his current mental state. Often, a tragic past either dominates a character completely or it appears to barely matter at all. For Charlie, his trauma has unavoidable effects on him, yet he presently chooses what to do with those effects. He feels and remembers the experiences that inform his existence, yet he consciously decides to keep his focus on the struggles and joys which are available now. He can't erase his pains, yet he doesn't need to. All the same, I could understand if some viewers, in full sympathy with his partner Dani, are merely irked by his outward whimsicalness. Doesn't Charlie know that he's supposed to be emotionally devastated?

Monday, August 25, 2014

let causality be causality

Groups defined by beliefs love their memorable catchphrases, which function as quick summaries of their groupthink. The inevitable downside—or upside, depending on the speaker's mischievousness—is irritating an outsider who tries to have a straightforward conversation. They're understandably frustrated by repetitive replies composed out of trite proverbs and smug slogans.

One catchphrase among many is "Let God be God." Generally speaking, it's a reminder of the overall attitude and conduct demanded by the speaker's god: submission. In context, it could mean "Stop being afraid or anxious about risks, because our god is omnipotent and caring." (And don't think about the countless times when it plainly permitted the worst.) Or "Stop making moral decisions through your own conscience, because our age-old teachings are superior." (And don't think about the dilemmas or concerns that aren't addressed.) Or "Stop wondering whether our god merits or craves your unending adoration, because it's responsible for making a nurturing planet and filling it with life." (And don't think about Earth's mass extinctions or the vast unlivable bulk of the universe.) Or "Stop obsessing over natural explanations for mystifying phenomena, because our god's ways exceed human comprehension." (And don't think about the historical trend of abandoning supernatural theories time after time.)

If that catchphrase has a counterpart in the stance of materialistic naturalism, then perhaps one candidate is "Let causality be causality." Metaphysical quibbles aside, here causality shall refer to the relationship between physical states of materials at differing times. Causality is the well-justified inference that a material state at later time Y is the way it is due to a related material state at earlier time X. Furthermore, due to the unique details of the state at time X, the state at time Y is not like many other hypothetical alternatives. Those would have required other hypothetical alternatives at time X. Causality is the pattern of tight sequential connection between distinct physical states, from predecessors to successors.

Surprisingly, this minimal proposition has competition. To start with, some may state, "Stuff just happens." Some may say with slightly less fatalism, "Irresistible nonphysical beings keep everything running normally moment by moment." Some may say with more optimism, "The universe is perpetually 'nudged' toward a grand purpose by a trustworthy overseer." Some may opt for the vaguer, "The universe was/is destined somehow to accomplish prearranged outcomes in my life that I call 'Fate'."

On the other hand, they may sprinkle in some science with, "Evolution deliberately molded life into pinnacles of elaborate, intelligent, self-aware creatures." The problem, of course, is that natural selection doesn't work like that. It's emphatically not separate from causality. It doesn't engineer with foresight. It's not a sculptor who gazes at a featureless stone block, envisions the final statue, then chips away the rest. The evolved organisms are the ones which more effectively survived and reproduced. Opinions about the progress of evolution are superimposed on the accretion of adaptations...and exaptations.

By contrast, when someone lets causality be causality, they "permit" current physical realities to be effects of past physical causes. Rather than symbols or clues about something else altogether, realities simply are. The present is what it is because the past was what it was. Realities don't arrive in prepackaged categories such as punishments, rewards, trade-offs, messages, omens, flukes. Although humans compulsively frame their interpretation of events with narratives of widely varying credibility, the events themselves aren't caused by human narratives. How could they, considering that the human narratives often aren't contrived until long after the unanticipated events?

Therefore, when someone lets causality be causality, they stop futilely dictating that events always conform to the preconceptions of their narratives. While things can be expected to be effects of causes, things cannot be expected to always "make sense" in every human narrative. Mere human objections don't overrule caused realities. Clearly this acknowledgment is both scary and freeing if taken seriously. The scary part is affirming that realities are untamed by narratives. The freeing part is no longer feeling obligated to fixate attention or feelings on the inevitable discrepancy between discovered realities and the narrative that was computed beforehand. (Some readers may notice a resemblance to the Buddhist technique of experiencing the present moment without prejudice.)

But completely disregarding the discrepancy is an unreasonable waste. It can furnish expensively acquired feedback for refining the mistaken narrative. By definition, a narrative is more accurate if it needs fewer feedback changes. Regardless, a permanently unchanging narrative is paradoxically suspect. Perhaps it never changes purely as a matter of policy, in which it praises its own flawlessness and forbids refinement of itself. The obvious defect is that it could be deceptively self-serving. When it indiscriminately deflects the smallest hint of faults, the narrative could in fact be faulty, for nobody can check!

However, to let causality be causality isn't to totally abandon all narratives. Not all narratives are in conflict with it. To the contrary, a narrative could implicitly embrace and reinforce it. For instance, according to a central narrative of materialistic naturalism, realities have essentially unified substances and behaviors. And the underlying unity accounts for causality. Since things are enough alike, things are able to constantly cause changes in one another. Unbroken unity is linked to unbroken causality—hereafter named unity/causality. The mass of solid Thing 1 isn't essentially dissimilar from the mass of solid Thing 2, so the gravity of Thing 1 partially causes the motion of Thing 2. After a collision, solid Thing 1 could cause solid Thing 2 to crumple, not pass through like a ghost in a fictional narrative (or a neutrino's probable journey?).

Forces come from interactions between things. In this aspect, to let causality be causality is to realize that things act as interacting components of whole "physical systems". Causality itself is the relentlessly successful proof of this truism. (Some readers may notice a resemblance to the Buddhist concept "dependent arising".) Contrary to common criticism, unity/causality isn't the absolute repudiation of "something larger than oneself". Instead, the Larger Something is more complicated, turbulent, subtle, diffuse, and impersonal than the typical proposals.

That Larger Something is admittedly abstract and the full description employs baffling mathematical formulas. Yet unity/causality also has palpable ramifications at the normal scale of human thought. At that scale, for a variety of useful purposes, humans customarily draw mental boundaries between things based on noteworthy characteristics. Nevertheless, unity/causality often violates these familiar boundaries. Fittingly, the most personal boundary it violates is the boundary around the human person, i.e. the self who observes and explains. The substance and behaviors which constitute the self are neither isolated nor special; the self is one of the earlier mentioned components of the Larger Something held together by unity/causality. For example, the self cannot create new quantities of energy—it must scavenge replacement energy from outside itself. And objects, such as Thing 1 and Thing 2 from earlier, routinely cause changes to it.

Few would reject that. Assuming they have managed to live long enough, everyone knows firsthand that their selves aren't royally privileged to override unity/causality. If they were, then the portion called the "body" wouldn't be damaged so frequently by involuntary external causes. Everyone should quickly admit that they can't face realities from an untouchable vantage point. Still, applying unity/causality to the self with unblinking consistency goes beyond that admission. To most consistently let causality be causality is to assert that the entire self is thoroughly intertwined with it, top to bottom, inside and outside.

Again, anyone who's encountered diverse personal perspectives and backgrounds could probably agree that everybody's mindsets have been demonstrably shaped, trained, caused. But they may be slower to agree that all events "of" or "inside" the self are regular albeit complex fragile specimens of unity/causality. The self's thoughts change because everything changes. The self's temper fluctuates because everything fluctuates. The self is influenced by past experiences because everything is influenced by past impacts with surrounding things. In short, the self is a highly unusual assemblage, but it isn't an exception to unity/causality. (Some readers may notice a resemblance to the Buddhist concept "no-self".)

Unfortunately, this self-portrait could appear, well, dispiriting. If someone is the effect of causes which they cannot command, then aren't they under constant coercion? Isn't it better for them to ignore this deduction and choose to believe otherwise? No, it isn't. Belief in general shouldn't be "chosen". Honest beliefs should result from candid judgments based on known findings and logical coherency, not based on willful denial. Just insisting that something is inaccurate doesn't transform its testable degree of accuracy. Wishing for the self to not be linked to unity/causality is akin to coping with unpleasant situations by shutting one's eyes.

The sensible approach is almost the opposite: to closely examine the numerous causes which sway the self. With eyes wide open, someone may realistically trace a motive or habit. Then they may grasp both the "message" behind it and that message's amount of irrationality (feeling an irrational motive is alright but mindlessly complying with it could be disastrous!). If a driver wants to avoid repeating a blowout in the future, why shouldn't they confess that the road could be having effects on their tires? Why should they continue to think that their tires are invincible? "I say that my tires are unaffected by this road, so I can drive here every afternoon without worry. All these recurring spontaneous blowouts are an irritating coincidence, though."

Gathering lots of authentic information about causes is prudent. It's an indispensable prelude to savvy active participation in unity/causality. Everyone isn't converted into a powerless spectator. To let causality be causality is to appreciate that despite each thing absorbing a multitude of effects, it nonetheless emits a multitude of causes too. If Thing 1 causes Thing 2 to fall, then Thing 2 might in turn cause Thing 3 to flatten. Human intelligent awareness enables a far more intriguing case. Humans can (imperfectly) compute wide ranges of options and the effects of those options. Moreover, they can (imperfectly) decode the causes which are manipulating them and everything around them. Finally, they can decide the causes they shall enact in order to yield the effects they want.

Unity/causality doesn't force humans to be victims only. It reflects the consequences of their actions. It can be selectively "bent" to do what they want. Its nonnegotiable condition is that it will operate in accordance with its usual rules, so productively bending it requires detailed understanding and obedience of its intricacies. A product chemical won't be the effect unless the chemist has the skill, and the reactant chemicals, and the measurement/collection/containment instruments, and the chemist carries out the appropriate steps by moving their body—whether they perform the labor or activate it in an automated form or tell a postdoc to do it. A member of a society may recognize and contemplate their society's myriad effects on them, then decide to not propagate one or more onto anyone else. Addicts can identify and avoid old "triggers" that cause the self to relapse; in particular they can decide to revise their routines and/or replace their hobbies.

That said, the potential to collaborate with unity/causality certainly has firm limits. In the end, to let causality be causality is to discern that simulations of the Larger Something aren't always feasible. Ideally, humans can make an accurate analysis by separating, sampling, simplifying, and modeling the relevant data of sections of the Larger Something. Sometimes in practice, the minimum data for an accurate analysis is too extensive. Perhaps a section cannot be analyzed independently. Perhaps a section itself contains a multitude of variant components, and the individual variances are too important for an "average" to substitute for each. In the worst case, the upshot is that a high fidelity simulation would need to include almost identical representations of almost every detail of the source reality.

The source reality's tiny causes could be amplified by working together. Then the cumulative effects abruptly cross resistant thresholds and "cascade" across the system by abruptly crossing farther resistant thresholds as well. Thus the simulation's projection could fail spectacularly...if it excluded the one tiny bit that was amplified and pivotal in retrospect. Unity/causality isn't constrained by quaint human preferences for tidy, neatly divisible factors. It's not fine-tuned to facilitate a smooth route to comprehensive knowledge or instant solutions. To let causality be causality is to confront and adjust realities on their terms.

Monday, August 11, 2014

mandatory negativity?

Undying ignorant misconceptions plague the stance of materialistic naturalism. Opponents continuously portray it as a horrible unworkable context in which to live one's life—a tactic that bluntly prioritizes likability over accuracy, by the way. Recently I criticized the misconceived "problem" of human significance. It may be paired with the second misconceived "problem" of mandatory negativity: "The lives of followers of materialistic naturalism must be pervaded by negativity."

I should mention that negativity itself is plagued by a few harmful misconceptions. Unending happiness is stunningly unrealistic. Negative emotions shouldn't be avoided at all costs. The suppression and rejection of negative emotions could be more detrimental long-term than acceptance and release. When tragedies occur, or even unexpected setbacks, then flashes of negativity aren't shameful; happy reactions would be more maladjusted or delusional. Especially after painful life-changing trauma, extended episodes of negativity aren't signs of weakness either. Nobody in those circumstances should be discouraged from seeking qualified support. The same applies to cases of depression and other devastating disorders. My general point is that no stance should falsely claim to be a panacea for negativity anyway. Doing so is a recipe for inhibiting followers from expressing their genuine emotions to each other. "I know how I feel, but showing it would cast doubt on my ludicrously optimistic beliefs."

Indeed, like the common cold, normal onset of negativity is a familiar malady. And the cheery advertising of faith-beliefs' indispensable cure for negativity is comparable to the advertising of a wonder cure for the common cold. It only holds attention if the audience considers themselves sick beforehand. Almost by definition, a follower of materialistic naturalism needs to match the unappealing "photograph taken before" the effect of the faith-beliefs. Their whole demeanor must be overshadowed, the way that someone at the start of a T.V. commercial is emotionally crushed until they have a new gadget to overcome an everyday difficulty. Ideally, their negativity should be intolerable and have a cause that corresponds to the remedy pushed by the faith-beliefs. It could be forced into the mold if necessary. Physical causes might be projected onto manifestations of supernatural causes that are "solvable" through supernatural means.

In addition to advertising to the unconverted, this threatening story of life without the faith-beliefs serves the function of reassurance of the converted. Devoted followers may credit their faith-beliefs for virtually all of their positive emotions and experiences. Given that they recognize no other source of deep fulfillment for themselves, then of course they think everybody would surely feel unfulfilled without their particular set of faith-beliefs. On some level, the (alleged) misery of nonmembers is a source of validation for the very existence of the in-group. Needless to say, countless in-groups simultaneously profess that every other group than theirs is more vulnerable to negativity.

Besides overrating the benefits, exaggeration of the impact of faith-beliefs could result in another misleading comparison. Since followers of faith-beliefs partially build their lives around supernatural notions, they may speculate that followers of materialistic naturalism somehow build their lives around the lack of supernatural notions. However, the analogy is nonsense. While a top interest might affect the rest of someone's life either directly or indirectly, the same cannot be inferred for a top disinterest. Usually, when someone says they're uninterested in golf, the listener doesn't infer that the speaker is generally uninterested in everything. And when someone says they're unconvinced by the argument for Atlantis, the listener doesn't infer that the speaker is unconvinced by every argument ever made. And when someone says they're unwilling to defer to the opinion of a spiritual authority/expert, the listener doesn't infer that the speaker is unwilling to defer to the opinion of every kind of authority/expert.

For the most part, followers of materialistic naturalism are similarly unhampered by their disinterest in miscellaneous supernatural notions. Their "negative" perspective on god #146 doesn't enforce a negative attitude about life, the universe, and everything. This misunderstanding is worsened by the varying usage of words and concepts. Materialistic naturalism is logically incompatible with many faith-beliefs. Nevertheless, its followers can still "have faith" in a close friend and "believe" that a trusted ally will honor agreements. They can "hope" that others have good intentions until proven otherwise. They can "be faithful" to their commitments, ethics, and objectives. They may realize the impact of human-constructed abstract social hierarchies, such as economic class, whether or not the hierarchies are "physically real". (My pragmatic view is that a social hierarchy is no more and no less "real" than the extent to which it's distinguishable via relevant human actions.)

Regardless of their stances on the underpinnings of realities, everyone tends to encounter timeless issues because they're all humans, and they're encountering other humans. For these issues, negativity is a faulty strategy. Living wastefully or destructively is a plainly ridiculous response to the nonexistence of an afterlife. Evolution isn't a theory of human morality. The material basis of pain isn't a sufficient reason to spread it. Resistance to unwarranted religious rules doesn't presuppose the worship of chaos. Although some of my ethical judgments changed after I quit surrendering to such rules, cooperation and altruism and compromise continued to seem like sensible strategies. It's naive and offensive, honestly, to allege that everyone without faith-beliefs is so fundamentally different that they're tortured by despair or inhumanly EVIL.

Moreover, the suggested drastic disparity in negativity fails to be confirmed in numerous situations. Faith-beliefs appear to have motivated and/or rationalized terrifying acts on occasion. Followers may be more pessimistic about humanity. Perhaps they think supernatural guidance must be forcefully imposed on "brutal" natural humanity. The sad fact is that beliefs are less transformative than assumed. Some humans usually manage to justify fear, aggression, power, greed, and so forth, while others usually manage to advocate the opposites. They unearth positive and negative aspects according to their own inclinations.

Faith-beliefs can be like a rigid script, but if so then the actors already rewrite it time and again...and improvise altogether. Just dropping the script is much more candid and flexible. Without it, humans have more responsibility, agency, and freedom. The cost is greater challenge but not greater negativity. Rather, greater positivity can spring from the complexity of open-ended possibilities, which creatively balance the current realities of the specific humans involved. Arguably, a negative outlook is more consistent with scripted lives, because an impersonal unchangeable script cannot accommodate the positive gains within unforeseen options and conditions.

Unfortunately, these positives might not be easily visible. Since followers may not (knowingly) interact closely with outsiders, they rely on media attention for their impressions. Since instances of controversy and conflict gather media attention, their impressions of outsiders are dominated by those. They don't observe outsiders acting like them: facing dilemmas, assisting relatives and companions, striving toward improved societies. They mostly observe the publicized actions that they call "negative": self-assured books with purposely provocative titles or protests and lawsuits against attempts to exploit government to support the majority religion. And they think, "When the media shows me that all those infidels do all the time is agitate, then my faith-beliefs are vastly more satisfying and positive." Meanwhile, without irony, they also complain about the unfair bad impression of religion produced by the "disproportionate obsession" of media attention on horrendous scandals...

Sunday, August 03, 2014

uncertainty is a participation ribbon

Without a doubt, I knew beforehand that I wouldn't agree with every point in Frank Schaeffer's mishmash, Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace. And my expectations were met. My reactions are as inconsistent as the ideas expressed. Like Schaeffer, I dismissed my faith-beliefs without considering them totally worthless. We're in agreement that the Bible is packed with factual inaccuracies and antiquated moralities. We accept the statements of scientific consensus. We reject the claim that contemporary society should regress to the cultural mores advocated in the Bible. We may have similar political views, but his blogging is obviously much more politically focused.

Thereafter the philosophical, or perhaps psychological, differences start to pile up. I dismissed my faith-belief's activities some time after dismissing the corresponding faith-beliefs. Such activities would now clash with my innermost thoughts. I don't have the same old need or desire to continue them. In fact, almost any other category of activity seems more valuable and enjoyable to me. But Schaeffer matter-of-factly confesses that he prays and attends religious services, due to both ingrained compulsion and ongoing appreciation for the experiences' flavor and good intentions. In one section he lightheartedly compares them to bowling regularly.

That's fine with me. He can spend his personal time in whatever frivolous ways he likes, assuming of course he isn't harming anyone else. Likewise, one's chosen identity isn't thrown into actual contradiction by singing Christmas carols, or LARPing, or reenacting Civil War battles, or reciting the dialogue of Puck. The problems only start when someone fails to isolate these fanciful roles within a sharply delimited context...

I might even be glad that he routinely performs religious activities, if the simple effect is encouraging kindness and the contemplation of life through greater perspective. His book more or less portrays "Christ" not as a man or god but as a kind of storied avatar of concepts such as broad inclusiveness, equality, rejection of biblical literalism, compassion, and anything else Schaeffer approves. Hence he suggests that Scandinavian countries merit the label of "Christian", and the Enlightenment qualifies as an implicit "heresy of Christianity".

I suppose that I can see his point. However, the semantic gymnastics strike me as fruitless. Sure, someone certainly could "take back" the myth of Christ from traditional churches, and refashion it in order to link it to new things. But what does that gain? Who cares about ensuring that link? Why not allow an upstart to be good without "christening" it, so to speak? Must this be another case of "meet the new boss, same as the old boss"?

Still, the gap between our differing approaches to religious activities is less extensive than the chasm between our differing emphases on uncertainty—or "mystery" if the speaker wishes to sound wise and impressive. My inclination is to compare uncertainty to a participation ribbon. When I was a young child, participation ribbons were part of Field Day: an annual school event held outdoors. Field Day included quick individual competitions in which the top three received a designated (cheap) ribbon. Nevertheless, everyone in the class who was present received at least one ribbon for their participation in Field Day. Participation itself was an achievement.

To a similar degree, acknowledging the uncertainty of one's current knowledge is the achievement of successfully showing up for the honest struggle to obtain accurate ideas. The recognition of possible uncertainty is akin to the steps before the first step of the Field Day's dash competition (a race so short that it was almost absurd). It indicates the participant's willingness to seriously judge the boundaries of their knowledge.

The opposite isn't confidence but thin-skinned arrogance: "My knowledge is so infallible that absolutely no pragmatic action needs to be taken, whether to 'verify' its implications or to seek out superior alternatives to it." Someone with exactly zero uncertainty is someone who cannot imagine improving their knowledge, so they don't participate meaningfully in the struggle to obtain accurate ideas. They're not lining up at the starting line for the dash. Rather, they sit on the side and brag that they would circle the school building five times if they would demean themselves to testing their speed in the dash. This is the state of mind which knows the answer with certainty before expending any mundane effort. It's generally called "fundamentalist" by the irreligious, although it surely isn't confined to self-identified Fundamentalists.

The comparison underlines several aspects. First, like a participation ribbon, uncertainty isn't a pursued prize. It's not an aim. It's utterly normal and unremarkable. It's more like a periodically performed measurement that constantly fluctuates according to specific justifications. Uncertainty is why statistical analysis matters and why verifications should be repeatable; otherwise, one or two checks could be flukes. It's why someone concedes that their knowledge is possibly revisable. It's why a credible experimenter attempts to discern and publicly disclose the weaknesses in their own experimental studies. Once someone pinpoints their sources of uncertainty, they can speculate about circumstances that could reduce uncertainty and enforce revisions to knowledge. Nobody needs to be proud of being uncertain. Nobody needs to speak as if the existence of uncertainty produces definite conclusions in response. While it's an essential prerequisite to placing knowledge in realistic context, uncertainty isn't precious by itself.

Second, like a participation ribbon, uncertainty isn't an endpoint. It's not a destination. It's not the finish line of the dash. It's not a signal that someone should immediately give up expanding their knowledge. It's a clue to what someone should do next. They can't eliminate it all at once but they can gnaw at it bit by bit. On the other hand, one of the hallmarks of realistic answers is the tendency to lead to all-new sets of questions. The work to reduce uncertainty might result in further uncertainties which are different and surprising. That's still progress. Now the searcher has better reasons to be more sure about the prior idea. Novel uncertainty doesn't cause frustration at not capturing "the final truth". It's an invigorating invitation to keep moving.

Third, like a participation ribbon, uncertainty doesn't demolish the notion of winners and losers. Everyone's participation in the dash doesn't imply that they will complete it simultaneously. As I keep reiterating, uncertainty isn't absolute. It's not a poison. The smallest speck of it doesn't ruin trustworthiness or erase past advances. Its proper use isn't to shut down debate. It doesn't grant equal legitimacy to every half-baked conjecture. It's not a rationale for saying, "I'm uncertain and you're uncertain, so we're both total fools who shouldn't ask each other how we defend our positions."

To the contrary, uncertainty is yet another distinguishing mark. It's directly tied to how the position was verified. If one participant's beliefs seemingly derive from their moods, then they would say that uncertainty springs from the wild oscillations between their moods. That variety of uncertainty is hardly equivalent to the ever-popular variety of mathematically precise and limited uncertainty within quantum mechanics, for instance. Wave-particle duality and Planck's constant don't somehow support the dangerous proposition that all human beliefs have been proven identically useless. Nor does it support the bizarre fantasy that human souls can remake realities by intentionally collapsing wave functions into a desired quantity.

Therefore, uncertainty of a belief isn't tied to the particular way that someone personally encountered the belief. Uncertainty is gauged by the belief's underlying chain or web of positive verifications. For example, I readily declare that I was never personally taught to believe in a Cosmic Turtle. Regardless, I don't dismiss it for the sole reason that I was never personally taught it. I dismiss it because I'm not convinced by a chain or web of positive verifications underlying it. My disbelief isn't wholly dependent on the "narratives" of my upbringing or anyone else's. Am I "uncertain" about the Cosmic Turtle to the extent that I cannot say that its absence of detection thus far forbids its (hidden) existence? Well, yes. And its current status is not too dissimilar from indetectable contemporary "mystery" versions of gods. In short, if folks like Schaeffer claim that I qualify as a "fundamentalist atheist" because my deep uncertainty about Great Theological Off-stage Mysteries leads me to dismiss them, then by their standard they qualify as "fundamentalist Cosmic Turtle deniers". Nobody should care whether someone was personally acclimated to this or that set of ideas. In any case, the more relevant question is how one's ideas are distinctively supported, not how they heard about them. Familiarity or unfamiliarity is not enough to either verify or falsify any specific belief.

Ultimately, disagreements about uncertainty aside, I don't have serious objections to much of the book. I can imagine far worse fates than vast populations acting like "atheists who believe in a god"...a god that does nothing more than embody carefully selected ethical ideals.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

the triviality of human significance

Like a cockroach, propaganda can survive. That category includes some of the undying arguments against materialistic naturalism. As I've said previously here and here, I define materialistic naturalism as a philosophical stance that contains two overlapping statements. First, if anything supernatural exists, then it is as equally indetectable and irrelevant as if it's nonexistent. Second, anything that does exist originates in material/physical stuff. I write "stance" because I recognize that these sweeping propositions aren't exhaustively proven like facts. Rather, the propositions match known facts and additionally presume that unknown facts will match just as closely.

Today's propaganda cockroach is the argument that materialistic naturalism enforces a total loss of human significance. It sounds like, "Without supernatural entities or metaphysical factors, nothing grants humans greater significance than anything else. Since a single atom cannot be significant, humans composed solely of atoms cannot be significant. Since significance is bestowed by a qualified external judge, humans cannot be bestowed with significance in the absence of supernatural entities. Since something must be relatively central and influential in the universe in order to be significant, humans cannot be significant unless physical laws assign those exceptional qualities to humans. Since something must be relatively long-lived or imperishable in order to be significant, the material of mortal human lives cannot be significant whenever the scale of the universe is considered massively old by comparison. Since significance is often an intangible feeling, tangible things cannot be the sole background of significance." And so on.

Although this overcomplicated line of reasoning might have enticed me once, I have less patience now for the "question" of human significance in materialistic naturalism. In my current perspective, its answer verges on "trivial", similar to the simplistic trivial solutions of a mathematical problem or proof. For instance, the subsets of set Q are the sets only of members that are also members of Q. The problem of finding the subsets of Q that fit particular criteria can be...hard sometimes (in fact, theoretically proven to not presently have a uniformly feasible general solution). But Q is a trivial subset of Q; after all, Q is a set of only members that are "also" members of Q.

Essentially, the trivial pragmatic reason behind the greater significance of the tiny materials within humans is that the materials are within humans. And the trivial reason humans are so significant to us is because we're human. My head is significant to me because it's my head. My brain is significant to me because it's my brain in my head. My brain cells are significant to me because my brain cells are in my brain in my head. Comparable "logic" applies to humans other than me. Their brain cells are significant to me because their brain cells are in their brains in their heads. Certainly I would acknowledge the awful significance of their tiny brain cells functioning worse, perhaps due to a degenerative disease.  

Furthermore, this trivial definition of human significance isn't in conflict with the finite realities of the small space-time position and impact of human lives. It's not hampered by confinement to a single off-center planet in a single off-center solar system in a single off-center galaxy. Nor is it hampered by the limited number of decades between birth and death. The more insightful question isn't whether grander knowledge of the whole universe reduces significance. It's "Why would anyone think it reduces significance?" Why was there such a staggeringly disproportionate estimate of significance to start with? If significance to the whole universe shrinks as the estimate grows more accurate, then nothing is "lost" except the former believability of the outlandish fictional estimate. Humans have only been "demoted" from a noble rank that was never theirs in actuality anyway. How shocking it is to not assume that humans aren't the pinnacle or purpose of the whole universe.

Even so, I can appreciate one of the possible motives for seeking to expand significance and anchor it firmly in external realities: objectivity. I admit that the opposite strategy is more subjective in nature. If significance is derived from human judgment, then it's probably bounded correspondingly by provincial human concerns. And given the multitude of humans and human concerns, it will probably be constructed in a multitude of varieties. But the quest for objective significance is fruitless. Perfectly objective significance would be somewhat detached from human standards. Yet if significance were somewhat detached from human standards, then humans wouldn't be likely satisfied with it. Just as one human's measurement of significance might not be satisfying to another, neither might an inhuman measurement of significance. To name the obvious example, someone might reasonably disagree with "objective divine writ" which calls them a negligible member of a permanently insignificant out-group...

In contrast, I don't understand a second possible motive for rejecting materialistic naturalism: the absurd poetic demand that a thing's explanation must have identical human significance as the thing itself. Depending on the context and goal, either the thing or the explanation might have more applicable significance. The activity of reading about the Krebs cycle shouldn't need to feel energetic for the information to be acceptable. Memorization of the chemical bonds of serotonin doesn't need to alleviate depression. The numerical magnitude of the neuron threshold potential doesn't need to trigger memories of Grandmother. Accurate representations of low-level complex realities don't somehow invalidate or replace the significance of human-level experiences. The explanation's significance is independent. Its amount of "mystery" isn't vital to preserving the experience's significance. Detailed studies, consistent with materialistic naturalism, don't diminish it. Likewise, shadowy conjectures, inconsistent with materialistic naturalism, merely decorate it. A decisive event in someone's personal history affected them vividly and had long-lasting ramifications. That's why they weighed its significance so heavily, no matter the alleged comparative contributions of natural processes or ineffable Fate, no matter the individual's vocation of scientist or clergy.

That objection is related to the mistaken assertion that someone who follows materialistic naturalism cannot claim that human significance is an important question. I don't wish to give that impression. I would never state that the question's trivial difficulty is accompanied by trivial importance. Identifying precise manifestations of human significance is a valuable undertaking. I think it's commendable to deliberately evaluate one's own wide-ranging effects, not from an unearthly vantage point, but through reference to one's own powers and chosen ideals. Why is a chosen ideal a worthy benchmark of significance? The answer is trivially obtained: it's worthy by whatever rationales that caused it to be chosen, of course. It's meaningful via straightforward ties to the realities of specific human experiences. It's not dependent on stupendous otherworldly significance, grounded in mystical afterlives and deities. Why does it need to be? Why isn't it enough?  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

social network connectivity problems

Recently I've been reminiscing about the individualized experiences that nudged me out of my former faith-beliefs, as opposed to the intellectual or philosophical factors. Although I repeat that I wasn't driven away by other followers' actions toward me, it's also fair to say that I almost completely lacked a comfortable sensation of "belonging". To the extent I did, it was too faint to motivate me to try to squelch my genuine objections. I've read de-conversion stories in which former followers were slow to acknowledge their creeping doubts because of their close interpersonal connections to their religious community. Or they suddenly left because of painful community conflict.

I don't fit those extremes. Generally speaking, I was just someone who didn't manage to connect meaningfully with other followers. I'm not seeking to provoke pity or assign blame. My musings on the causes are probably permeated by hindsight bias. I suspect that, as with a lot of realities, the contributors were varied and linked. Certainly my uncoerced conscious choices were one component. I'm only outlining some emotional/social/psychological mismatches that affected me, whether or not they were inevitable, whether or not I was partially responsible.

Of all these frictions, the top must have been my minimal participation in the wide range of social events. It partly stemmed from my default guarded disposition. I have a nigh-irresistible compulsion to freeze or withdraw in threatening contexts, such as when I'm interacting with someone whom I want to impress. Its intensity is comparable to a biological drive. The second part was my sincere absence of curiosity for the minutiae of others' lives. I cared for their abstract wellbeing, but I couldn't force myself to care about the details. I wished them the best. I was willing to help on request. That didn't mean I thought about them. Unlike the stereotype of churchgoers, I was never tempted to gossip, because it bored me. Casual talk was more like a chore than, well, literal chores—I'd rather be handed a task to facilitate the social event than be in the middle of it.  

I worried about this aversion regularly. I wasn't selfish, but I wasn't friendly either. I claimed to be integral to a community allegedly bound together by a supernatural level of love. So why wasn't I captivated by the community's usual set of tiny triumphs and catastrophes? It seemed to me that the spiritual ideal was to eagerly devote myself to involvement in their lives. So why weren't my impulses actually progressing toward that ideal? I was advised to treat them as well as I would treat Christ. So why didn't I value time with them?

The predicament was exacerbated by divergent interests. Although I was an independent adult, I chose churches based on adherence to my parents' religious tradition, not based on degree of similarity with the attendees. Indeed, this single-minded criterion of "deep" agreement on doctrine brought me to a church in which I was isolated by my differences in every other aspect. My acquaintances from church were happily simple. When I apply that label, I'm not insulting them—they wouldn't consider the label an insult at all.

They worked hard but they weren't rich. Their spending habits were careful. They did crafts and their own repairs. They played softball, basketball, golf. Inside they played tabletop games with cards, dice, boards, dominoes. In accordance with the overall judgment that most national entertainment was clearly soaked in evil, they didn't keep up to date with current TV or film. If they read, they preferred undemanding subjects. They weren't fascinated by most recent electronics. They admired pastimes in lightly-tamed wilderness "created by God for our pleasure": camping, fishing, hiking, hunting. Living simply was in their ethos.

I've exaggerated and generalized a lot. My main point is that in my typical time as an adult follower, I was "odd". I had little in common with my counterparts. Apart from the church's prearrangement, we didn't have separate informal reasons to associate. What would we have done or discussed if we did? In effect, I was like an outsider who was on the inside. I could hardly complain about being excluded from group activities that everyone knew I wouldn't enjoy.

Earlier I commented that I chose churches based on shared doctrine. Despite those efforts, my relative "oddness" as a follower also applied to conversations about Christian teachings. I was known as excessively analytical, unusually insistent about clarifying vague details, purposefully hesitant to make easy assumptions, and strangely concerned with the supporting justifications for ordinary ideas. After I asked a question and received an answer, I had a habit of then asking the second essential question "Why?" I wasn't rebellious or troublesome. I respected my mentors' education and commitment and practical experience. Nevertheless, such respect didn't imply that "Because I said so" was acceptable even from them. I was well aware that the long history of Protestantism was the successive toppling of quite fallible human authorities.

I could cope with someone saying "I don't know" or "It's tradition" as long as they spoke with sympathetic candor. The retort that irked me far more was the gentle insinuation that my inquisitiveness was the problem. For unlike the majority of assertions about vitally important realities, somehow faith-beliefs had the unique privilege of claiming trust without rigor. They were permitted to be ill-defined and entirely dependent on perspective. Some hinted that the supernatural didn't consist of reliable realities which could be represented symbolically. I sometimes heard that daring to think about them too much was a mistake; it would produce nothing more than destructive doubts.

To the contrary, they were to be felt and obeyed. Faith-beliefs were for the "heart" not the "head". They were more like a set of inspirational stories than puzzle pieces to assemble into something coherent. God was a gut feeling, and the supernatural was the special case in which gut feelings were all-sufficient. To become effective followers, personality types like mine needed to learn to disconnect their thoughts from their emotions, and their knowledge from their actions. They were obligated to quarantine sections of themselves in several compartments, so the sections wouldn't battle. And so they wouldn't clash with instinctual followers who didn't have misgivings.

Compartmentalization was the implicit path, if I was to persist in being serious about my faith-beliefs' ideas. And it was useful not only for seriously accepting the ideas but for seriously doing them. It was a valuable weapon against thought crimes. As far I knew, particular thoughts were abominable: pride, hatred, lust, etc. I figured that whenever I sensed those thoughts' low-level precursors, the imperative was to flee, ignore, suppress.

I suppose I grew skilled at it. The downside was that it wasn't good for me. I definitely didn't benefit from an invincible excuse to indulge tendencies toward passivity and harsh self-judgment. Given my individual mild nature, I wasn't at risk of evil acts like selfishness or hostility or promiscuity to start with. Rather than stigmatizing the related urges, I needed to hear that I shouldn't underestimate myself, pretend to never be upset, or try to squash every sexual attraction. I realize the interpretation was self-serving: I used the notion of Christian thought crimes to further ingrain traits which I should've undermined instead.

Eventually, this zealous approach backfired in the area of romance. If the definition of lust was mere mental contemplation of erotic desires outside of the confines of an official church marriage, then the legal reasoning was straightforward: an unmarried follower couldn't think that way about anyone for any reason. In addition, since an official church marriage was the goal of all romantic relationships, then nobody should attempt one unless they were willing for it to lead to marriage in the near future, such as a year later.

By following this reasoning, I self-righteously thought that I was obviously more earnest and God-pleasing than my peers. When they formed relationships that included sex, they were wrong. And if they avoided sexual activity, they were at best forming relationships that were futile; they weren't yet old enough to consider marriage. The superior route was to give up on the whole enterprise until the arrival of maturity and financial independence. I was already avoidant, so I didn't think it was impossible.

In retrospect the outcome was predictable. All my peers who had "foolishly" learned by experience how to start and maintain relationships were the ones who successfully dated and married. But when I abstained and constantly denied and denigrated my feelings of attraction, I failed to develop adequate skills and confidence. I customarily disregarded and devalued the concept of myself as a romantic partner. I had a conditioned reflex to reject viewing anyone else as one, either. After years, I couldn't abruptly flip a switch to reverse it.

With good intentions, I'd adopted a moral attitude that was much more appropriate for the model of marriage as a formal transaction. It wasn't suited for charming someone into a freely defined equal partnership, which had the gradual destination of marriage. Somehow I'd been led to act as if I were in a different society than, well, mine. I'd been instructed to resist my society's pattern but not how to feasibly replace it. Exactly how was an unmarried human expected to never think a lustful thought when they were finding a spouse, anyway?

Worse, the passage of time once again placed me in an "odd" cohort of follower. I was the one who had strangely consented to advice about distancing myself from romance. Yet all along, the better response had been to internalize the one command  "no sex" but otherwise develop like anyone else. The ones who did this were now married. As spouses, especially with children, they were the church's main constituency. Marriage and parenting were the major topic emphases for adults. I was always welcome, but the circumstances of my life were often irrelevant to the lesson.

However, unmarried members were envied for their greater availability. They had more time to spend outside their households. They had the potential to reach out to more of The Lost. And the basic method of evangelism was to be vibrant and encouraging. Wherever they went and whoever they met, God's goodness was meant to shine through followers. Onlookers would then wonder what the followers had, and then wish that they weren't bored outsiders. They'd see the followers doing good and then blame God for it. When the opportunity arose, followers were to offer heartfelt explanations of their own beliefs and autobiography. They were to spread the truths that they had tested for themselves. (To readers disgusted by the sanctimony, I apologize.)

Needless to say, I didn't fill this mold either. I wasn't overflowing with joy...or any other sentiment about my faith-beliefs, really. I didn't literally adore Christ. I couldn't claim with candor that I was seeing the supernatural "at work in my life". I wasn't sure which parts of the Bible were metaphorical or obsolete. I didn't know how a follower could thoroughly confirm that the Holy Ghost was in them and thereby shielding them from divine wrath (we didn't perform or require glossolalia). I was disturbed by the terrible events that God routinely allowed. And even if I had been certain about what to say, my standoffish demeanor wouldn't entice anyone to listen. I'd die of starvation if I worked in sales. Yes, I held some faith-beliefs, but I wasn't passionate about them most of the time. I wasn't interested in pestering someone else to change their mind.

On the other hand, I know that not all religious groups are intent on evangelism. I imagine I would have merged more smoothly into those. It's difficult to picture an alternative universe in which I migrated into a more fitting gathering, perhaps in another location altogether. Would I have stopped attending it so readily? Would I have relished participating in a more "modernized" form that discards most faith-beliefs? Would someone there have noticed my "lapse"? Would I be drastically different, then or now?

I don't know. Maybe there isn't a conclusion to draw. Maybe I wouldn't have built substantive bonds in any case. I'm glad that atheists/humanists are alert to the need for personal networks that can compete with the kind offered by established faith-beliefs. But for me, that happens to be a non-issue. The prospect of no longer qualifying as "odd" is a step up all on its own. There's no contest.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

ethics pretzels

Sometimes I read puzzled internet commentary about the incomprehensible ethics of religious followers, as if questioning how they can reach and embrace ethical statements which are almost laughable...or palpably loathsome. From my present vantage point, I can sympathize with the bewilderment. But I also can recall the time when my sympathies were switched, and my personal ethics were entangled in my former faith-beliefs.

I cannot justify such a mindset. Nor do I want to justify it. I can try to describe it, though. Like the previous entry, this one has a tighter focus because I'm analyzing my distinct religious history. I don't claim to represent the full diversity of Christianity throughout time and space.

My best qualities weren't substantially different then. I had a lot of the same ethical senses and standards: candor, empathy, fair play, compromise, self-responsibility, creativity. I had a lot of the same abilities to think logically—I couldn't have performed my job if I didn't. The critical factor was more like defective routing. 

My faith-beliefs channeled my judgment through a circuit of deductive loops. That circuit could mimic an impression of logical steps, but the overall path was circular. It twisted and bent back on itself. Its rationales were codependent. It served to provoke feelings of reasonableness purely within the context that it furnished for itself. It was made to be self-isolated and self-reinforced. Its shape wasn't the expected straight line from axiom to conclusion. It was pretzel-shaped. Applying it to ethics baked "ethics pretzels".

Rather than list many examples, I'll cover broad categories. One of those was the ethics lessons that were perplexing, to put it mildly. Even as a child, my concealed first response to some lessons was confusion or distaste. Why would a moral lesson smell so immoral or strange?

Pretzel-shaped logic came to the rescue. Every human sinned, but not necessarily in identical ways. To each of them, a sin could appear to be "doing right in your own eyes". Ergo, every human's native perception of morality was probably not perfectly attuned. If a new lesson smelled immoral to someone, then the lesson wasn't necessarily at fault. Their fallible egocentric conscience could be the explanation. They needed to learn that their moral lenses were too smudged for them to estimate simple ethics for themselves.

To twist the argument further, if not every human was in close agreement with a moral lesson, then their discomfort was proof that the moral lesson wasn't subjective and relative to human preferences. An unlikable reality had more credence simply because of the unlikelihood that anyone had invented it to please themselves. Through this perverse reversal, a moral lesson that didn't smell moral at first was more likely to be objective and absolute, i.e. "genuinely" moral. 

In other cases, the lessons I heard were blatant teachings of the church community's conventional norms. Of course their norms weren't in the Bible, and nobody claimed that God had sent the norms to them via a prophet. Nevertheless, they treated their norms with equivalent sternness. This ethics pretzel relied on the premise that since God never changed, God had to be an incurable traditionalist about virtually everything. It was in favor of outcomes which happened to be part of the status quo. The norms in turn regulated the status quo, so God must have implicitly endorsed the norms, regardless of whether the norms were dogma. A typical pretzel ingredient was the outcome of correct family life. God was "obviously" a major advocate for correct family life. Therefore norms that could be connected tenuously to correct family life were unconditionally backed by God's approval. (Items such as the rampant polygamy of Israelite kings and the Apostle Paul's proud singleness were left out or pronounced exceptional.)

And then some ethics pretzels were more abstract, specifically God's behavior. Given that God had explicitly prescribed lots of mandatory animal sacrifices a long time ago, presumably there weren't any less bloody alternatives to enabling God's toleration of human evildoers. Christ was the designated final sacrifice for this purpose. Left to themselves in the afterlife, the souls of human evildoers still couldn't be tolerated by God, so their default fate was God-forsaken and hellish. Human souls could achieve God's toleration of them by reusing Christ's final sacrifice through spiritual union with it. To someone who has been taught it for years, this ethics pretzel has a peculiar self-consistency.

To everyone else, its thinly stretched complexity is much less credible, and its persuasive value was additionally lowered by the endless technical disagreements among Christian subgroups. God's nature somehow demanded ultimate violence in order to dispel its wrath, yet the sole fully sufficient target of that violence was itself. Its expression of mercy was to throw itself in the path of the bullet which it was also firing. It was loving, but it was incapable of forgiveness without venting its aggression too. It didn't wish to cast out humans, but it certainly would if they weren't shielded by Christ.

No matter its baffling pretzel foundation, this juxtaposition was at minimum an undeniably potent instance of carrot-and-stick motivational strategy. A secondary payoff was the momentous emphasis placed on a malleable nebulous goal. Spiritual union with Christ could be precisely defined in a multitude of concrete methods, and followers were inclined to listen to the all-important goal's details ("...earnest faith in Christ means that you'll care about this and act like that...").

Ethics pretzels were baked for topics outside the faith-beliefs as well. Although the Bible was missing lectures from Christ about supply-side macroeconomics, the most Christian economic regime was synonymous with the least amount of oversight and taxes. The regime's ethically superior economy wasn't intelligently designed, but it naturally evolved from the numerous gradual adaptations of selfish participants who competed over finite resources to survive in various niches. This highly moral regime didn't enforce restrictions on ego or greed, and it was intentionally indifferent about its losers or about intangible and/or long-term side-effects.

The roundabout defense for it rested on incredibly naive shallow comparisons such as moral consequences and wealth. Just as each individual's freely chosen virtuous decisions led to a better world, wealth was an indication that an individual had made virtuous decisions in their economic activities. This comparison wasn't groundless, but it had wildly varying amounts of accuracy. In countless situations, an individual's admirable attributes and deeds were in fact partially responsible for their wealth. They wouldn't be as wealthy without their prudence, conscientiousness, flexibility, diligence, considerateness, self-denial. Hence this ethics pretzel curled wealth into a straightforward reward of a market participant's virtue. As a result, aid to the impoverished curled into undeserved rewards for lack of virtue, and taxing the wealthy at a steeper rate curled into a punishing reduction of their well-earned rewards.

Notwithstanding its popularity among the well-off, it was one huge exercise in overgeneralizing. It was grievously incomplete in its willful ignorance of realities that didn't fit its ideal. Counterexamples to it were legion. Wealth was inherited, not only directly but indirectly through miscellaneous advantages. A worker's virtue was irrelevant if they worked in an outdated occupation. For others, a chance opportunity or accidentally perfect timing were part of the start of their success. Some may have worked very hard and consistently...but due to their unsophisticated skills their job had a minuscule wage. Or maybe income was spectacular...on the condition of performing unethical acts to get it, or sabotaging competitors, or conspiring to subjugate the whole market. On the other hand, some may have accumulated sizable wealth...prior to the unpredictable calamity that demolished the bulk of their assets and/or their ability to work. None of these factual scenarios disturbed or complicated the ethics pretzel. Like the rest, a facet of its appeal was that, despite its winding turns, it's a single unbroken line nonetheless. Its form doesn't include nuances such as disparate pieces or layers mixed together. It's sheer elegance in its simplicity.

A telling flaw in this ethics pretzel was its coexistence with innumerable alternate pretzels, in differing places or times, in which Christianity was woven with equal ease to support managed egalitarian economic regimes. As I conceded before, I recognize that I cannot cover the complete set of alternates, such as speedy annihilation of the unsaved dead in place of lasting separation from God. In general, the great pretzel divergence began almost as soon as the religion did.

The shortsighted reactions were councils and creeds, not to mention heresy trials. But forced uniformity defeats the larger aim of an ethics pretzel, which is to redirect the forces that could potentially goad a follower out of the faith-belief. Like an ant crawling on it, the follower's restlessness is absorbed in traversing across it to nowhere new. In that way, it's a teammate of apologetics: more likely to reassure and cement followers than to entice the resistant unconverted. If a wider selection is available for matching the taste of every follower, then they're more likely to remain satisfied. It averts the oft proven danger of broadening the intellect and sensibility of a follower; they may tire of pretzels. ("I'm sick of searching for convoluted pretexts for ethics that seem too narrow now.")

Saturday, June 28, 2014

the legend of miraculous resolve

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. —G.K. Chesterton
When I've mused on my dismissal of my faith-beliefs, I've usually emphasized the intellectual and philosophical causes. I've avoided a narrow focus on the minutiae of my own history with religion, which is intertwined with tiresome sectarian details. But by doing so, I wonder if I'm leaving the wrong impression. I dismissed my faith-beliefs after living them. I wasn't a disembodied being of pure thought. My dissatisfaction wasn't confined to the logical consequences of an abstract set of theorems and counterexamples.

Despite appearances, the dismissal of my faith-beliefs was the end of a story. Fortunately for me, that story was admittedly dull in its lack of drama or plot or trauma (I once described my apostasy as "reluctant"). The primary antagonist was neither oppression nor hypocrisy but the creeping meaninglessness of my faith-beliefs. While I found meaninglessness embedded in the underlying ideas, around the same time I found it in the story of my sincere attempts to comply with the rules of conduct. A prime example was an empty theological promise which I'll grandly name the legend of miraculous resolve.

This story's setting was hardly original. I suspect that my experiences were extremely average among the American subculture of weekly churchgoers (including attendance at midweek and holiday events). My parents devoted their family to a traditional strain of evangelical-ish Protestant beliefs. We presumed the eternal existence of the Trinity, positive and negative destinies for souls after biological death, inborn sin, salvation via faith in atonement, authority of scripture, etc. Outside of church itself, we prayed together, consumed a lot of Christian-themed media and products, performed some charitable activities, and tied morality to God.

On the other hand, we didn't live in isolation. We attended public schools. We weren't outspokenly political. We weren't forbidden from "secular" stuff, although in practice much of it was off-limits due to content. Roughly speaking, our understanding of the Bible was neither extremely literal nor extremely metaphorical. I don't remember being taught creationism. All of us read regularly, though I chose scientific topics more often than the rest. I was generally permitted to read any educational book because facts weren't considered dangerous or objectionable like sex/violence/swearing/blasphemy. In retrospect I realize that the tenor of our Midwestern Christianity was indeed midway between the stereotypes of hard-line domineering churches in the South and flexible lenient churches in the Northeast.

Oddly, this middle road even pertained to prevailing opinions about miraculous divine intervention. Everyone believed in the miracles that happened long ago on unique occasions in the Bible, yet they never assumed astounding miracles would ever happen to them. It was common knowledge that heavenly intervention was understated and mysteriously fickle. They offered off-putting rationalizations such as the following three. First, the most saintly believers praying the most faith-filled prayers seldom got beneficial coincidences, much less stupendous miracles; why would anyone arrogantly presume God's favoritism in their situation instead? Second, salvation from depravity/sin/Hell was already a huge undeserved gift; to start further negotiations was like pestering God for cheap trifles. Third, unwavering contentment was a sign of a mature believer who valued the spiritual realm more than the temporary physical realm; endlessly begging for instant improvements of one's circumstances was both a sign of unreasonable greed and a missed opportunity for building character. Praying on behalf of cancer patients was proper; questioning why the cancer didn't always go into sudden remission was not.

However, they were less tentative about supernatural adjustments in the broad category of subjective phenomena. I covered this a bit when I criticized treating mood shifts or epiphanies as informative evidence. But in my particular past, notable episodes of "spiritual transcendence" weren't a major occurrence or pursuit. They didn't match my stuffy personality. And they weren't encouraged by the teachings and style of my family's stuffy church tradition. That tradition would've tolerated them while still tending to view them as frivolous distractions from substantial activities such as Bible study or altruism or rejecting temptations. Its preferred manifestations were more down-to-earth and methodical and productive. In place of mind-blowing mental fireworks, the recommended plea was superhuman aid for living a "more Christian" life: a miraculous level of resolve.

To reiterate, miraculous resolve was much more significant than an respectable wish. It was a prerequisite for the expectation that authentic Christians should be changing perceptibly over time. Christianity was portrayed as a thorough commitment with dynamic consequences. Just as Christ's love for humans entailed horrendous self-sacrifice, really loving Christ in return entailed dedicated effort too. Officially, mere salvation was a designated starting point: it was a follower's initial connection to the Trinity. From then on the follower's ongoing godly connection implied that they were constantly molding their souls and lives closer to church ideals (for the curious: the term was "sanctifying"). Of course, like the opening Chesterton quote said, this project was difficult when taken seriously. No wonder casual followers were glad to settle for their unambitious moderate religiosity...if they were aware of the more challenging doctrine at all.

Hence miraculous resolve was the counterpart to the intentionally fanatical standard. The method to obey God better was as predictable as a one track playlist set on repeat: "more God". It was another ramification of the Trinity. Not only had God died in order to appease God, but God was the key to remaking oneself to love God through relentless obedience. The wellspring for "victorious" living wasn't natural human willpower but supernatural deliverance. A duty of faith was to seek greater faith. In fact, the theological system stated that external reinforcement was necessary. The innately "depraved" earthy self couldn't suffice for attaining abnormal God-pleasing conformity. The sinful self, the flesh, had to symbolically die to give way to a replacement spiritual self that communed with God; that was the ritualized symbolism of adult baptism. Strict as they were, these specific ideas weren't especially exotic or far-fetched or controversial. The contrast of living by the spirit versus living by the flesh was a recurring theme in the rather dry "church correspondence" section of the Bible. It was reflected in the similarity between the words "carnal" and "carnivorous" (and carne asada, but that's not important right now).

Summing up, if I trusted the accuracy of my church tradition, then miraculous resolve was neither an unreachable dream nor an optional attachment. It was an indispensable tool. It was a defining characteristic of earnest followers. It was integral to acting on the basis that the god in my faith-beliefs was a reality. Therefore I began trying to embrace the concept. I had plenty of flaws to target. I asked God for miraculous resolve. Then, when I didn't feel any powerful help forthcoming, and so I failed again, I asked again. Later, when my mentality and motivations remained the same, and so I failed again, I asked again. Afterward, when I defied the limits of my talents and predisposition, and so I failed again, I asked again. By my estimation, reliance on miraculous resolve had yielded...nothing. There were no spectacular long-lasting transformations. I didn't sense an infusion of mana or chi to fuel my decisions. The routine pull of negative emotion wasn't neutralized or counterbalanced. Sometimes the outcomes corresponded to my notion of God's will, and sometimes not. In either case, my resistance hadn't multiplied. The sides continued a close see-sawing rivalry.

Obsessive begging for miraculous resolve was shown to be useless. I was apparently assigned full self-responsibility to be the best individual I could. As I write this now from an outsider's viewpoint, I certainly recognize that this plight isn't as devastating as I thought back then. It's, well, just ordinary human self-management, familiar to anyone who has tried to reverse bad habits like unhealthy eating. Many generalized strategies abound: 1) planning beforehand to handle contingencies and to dodge tough situations altogether, 2) tweaking the options so that the right one requires less effort than the wrong one, 3) contriving rewards and punishments for oneself, 4) diverting attention to a harmless alternative, 5) anticipating and responding to future satisfaction or disappointment with oneself, 6) rehearsing or pre-committing the decision, 7) leveraging social pressure, 8) developing self-denial in less weighty contexts, 9) visualizing goals repeatedly, 10) self-monitoring by tracking and recording progress, and more. Faith-beliefs are independent of these strategies. Christians frequently use and spread them, albeit along with hazy religious allusions and warmed-over Bible quotations. When old-fashioned Christians have a craving to ridicule popular forms of Christianity, they may suggest unfavorable comparisons to insipid inspirational self-help.

No matter how useful and sensible these practical strategies were, I couldn't stop noticing that they were substitutes nonetheless. I'd been led to believe that I was supported by an omnipotent god which longed for me to succeed at the task of not angering it. Moreover, all the tales indicated that it had invigorated numerous humans historically; it had done it so much that one of its names was "Holy Ghost". It demanded nothing more than the faith of eager recipients. It didn't have a good excuse for turning down this small-scale self-contained petition: no subtle negative side-effects were applicable. Empowering a follower would have the side-effect of definitively confirming the follower's belief in its current existence, but surely that qualified as a positive. One of its principal long-term objectives was extending its rule over humans. Facilitating the subservient decisions of a willing follower was an outright fulfillment of that objective. An opposite approach of indirectness or aloofness was pointless and potentially counterproductive. Forcing a human to build an autonomous reservoir of resolve would risk the discovery that their god wasn't essential to moral action...

I couldn't imagine plausible explanations behind God's everlasting refusal to play an active and caring role in my flailing renovation of myself. I proceeded to check and recheck whether I wasn't doing enough, such as periodic fasting, to express my goodwill and devotion. Eventually I stopped fixating. I figured that, for whatever incomprehensible reason, God was delighted to watch me strive to outwit myself...and lose repetitively when my willpower inevitably ran out or when it just temporarily fluctuated. Based on the disheartening results, I slowly quit hoping that the Christian god would assist my endeavors to follow Christianity.

The next stage was pondering if miraculous resolve was a legend all along. Maybe "God filling and supervising the soul" amounted to a presumptuous mythological description of an exceptional level of compulsive preoccupation with Christian concepts. Maybe it was an ingrained habit of envisioning God more or less continually: a conditioned response wrapped more tightly around every impulse than a "WWJD" bracelet. As long as the follower said their well-trained reactions felt like a circuit judge was in their brain keeping them in line—nudging them to do good and guarding their motives from evil—then they proclaimed a spirit thing was at work inside them. But such well-trained reactions had been introduced and nurtured by unremarkable humans through unremarkable techniques.

By itself, this somewhat cynical speculation wasn't fatal to my faith-beliefs. Yet the importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. It was an additional crack in a cracked structure. I'd allowed myself too much candor while I listened to too many unsettling signals. Knowledgeable experts had no need of supernatural hypotheses in their various domains. Unbiased research hadn't exposed a testable difference between corporeal brains and spooky souls. Cases of divine intervention were unreliable and ambiguous. Worshipers' sensations of exhilaration transparently hinged on their surroundings—they didn't feel spiritual unless the service met their opinions of True Spirituality. Given the loud endless debates among Christian groups, "absolute biblical" morality didn't deserve its supposed reputation of a fixed collection of well-defined rules and principles. In related news, their shared reverence for the Bible's "unchanging" and "unmistakable" message didn't coerce them to agree on the message's extracted contents.

Frankly, the data were pushing me toward the substantiated theory that my faith-beliefs' god turned out to be shockingly indistinguishable from a nonexistent god. This trend was corroborated by the demotion of miraculous resolve to a legend. If the legend were accurate, then the implications would be dazzling and incredible, after all. It was the endorsed direct encounter with the Holy Ghost. It was the foremost evidence that the Trinity was an irrepressible influence on the present. It achieved far more than good intentions, polite manners, and compassionate donations. It was the turbocharged engine that effected the uncanny emphatic goodness of followers in comparison to The Lost, i.e. non-Christians. It was incompatible with the proposition that a profound spiritual link to a god didn't have any effect. It was contrary to the "humble" statement "I'm a sinner saved by grace, so God doesn't mind if I stay the same forever." It was rebirth. It was an inward perpetual fountain of living water. It was the unstoppable progress of the pilgrim. It was the ultimate proof, superior to every type of apologetics and impossible to discredit. It would lead to the question, addressed only in reference to Christianity, "When the followers of this god persistently overflow with an unnatural sacrificial love for humanity, how could this god not be the one that's true?"

Yep. Uh-huh. Right.

Since this saccharine vision sounded nothing like the known behavior of the majority of Christians who existed outside of sanitized stories, the category of "legend" was quite appropriate. Clearly, the inability to obtain miraculous resolve was widespread—not a fault of mine alone. So the defectiveness of my faith-belief went beyond formidable metaphysical objections. It didn't pass its own test. It consistently undershot its own ambitions. It didn't seem to function in accordance with its advertised design when it was put to strenuous use.

An objector might reasonably accuse me of devaluing the entirety of Christianity because of awful Christian individuals, like devaluing Chopin because I heard an awful piano player. In the Gaussian distribution of Christians, some are very good, some are very bad, and the bulk are nearer to the median. That misses the relevant point: if Christianity is actually turning commonplace humans into saintly incarnations of sacred power and control, then the Gaussian distribution of Christians should be drastically skewed. The correlation of "Christian" and "good" should be systemically extreme. If not, then perhaps the Christian factor, and by extension the Christian god, is not a predictor of goodness. Good Christians must be good via their individual resolve, which to be fair was cultivated in the midst of their cultural religious context. When they strive to meet their chosen ideals, they end up relying on their own might (as I said more than a year ago, their religion is their Dumbo feather of ethics). Chesterton's quote could have another line at the end: "But when the difficult ideal had been tried, the might of God was found wanting."