Friday, December 05, 2014

the chimera of dupe and swindler

I've noticed that especially blunt criticisms of faith-beliefs frequently feature two separate kinds of figures: dupes and swindlers. The dupes are the unsuspecting victims of deception and manipulation, who may have many excellent qualities. The swindlers are the knowledgeable charlatans, who purposely employ persuasive trickery to primarily obtain selfish goals.

In relatively straightforward faith-beliefs, such as medicinal scams, this is adequate. But in breathtakingly elaborate sets of subtle faith-beliefs, such as the set included in a long-lived popular religion, an intriguing third kind appears: a chimera of dupe and swindler. They've witnessed the murky tangle of undisclosed complexities and flaws beneath the simplified well-polished public surface of their faith-beliefs. Nevertheless, they still work tirelessly to promote and protect their ideas. Their own persistent devotion is equal to their audience's...or greater.

Their nimble mixture of dupe and swindler characteristics echoes concepts from the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. I ought to let its timeless prose speak for itself.
Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical [...], and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. But stupidity is not enough. On the contrary, orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body. 
[...] no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness.
Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
It need hardly be said that the subtlest practitioners of doublethink are those who invented doublethink and know that it is a vast system of mental cheating. In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion: the more intelligent, the less sane.
The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. [...] Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in [...], then he is all-powerful and immortal.
The usual caveat for comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four applies. The book contains an exaggerated self-aware, villainous, insatiable tyranny. I don't suggest that the typical actual religious community is driven solely by an identical craving for exclusive domination—that's more apropos to the "cult" category. The ones in my personal history certainly didn't fit that narrow mold.

No, the discomforting similarity lies in their usage of baffling crimestop/doublethink to reconcile contrary information to unshakable ideas. It's the busy mechanism uniting the chimera. Their dupe side has as much dedication as if the ideas were genuinely sturdy and unquestionable. But their swindler side acts on the principle that whenever they're handling their ideas, they must exert constant care and finesse to ensure credibility and attractiveness. Inside everyone's thoughts, including their own, the swindler side exists to outwit, charm, and isolate the dupe side.

While the pure dupe answers a sensible question about accuracy with a mistaken "yes" and the pure swindler with an informed "no", the chimera fits neither category because they leave the question unanswered. They evade it by attacking its validity. Or they minimize it by attacking its significance. Or, strangest of all, they swallow it by just deciding to disregard its airtight logical consequences.

They wouldn't think of themselves in these terms, of course. A benefit of the balance between their two sides is that it maintains their positive self-concept. In addition to the swindler side's work to preserve the dupe side, the dupe side legitimizes the swindler side. Since their dupe side earnestly believes in the worth of the ideas they're trying to spread, they can feel unashamed about their swindler side using a range of shrewd tactics on newcomers. Like enthusiastic fishermen, they're open to baiting their hook with virtually anything, provided the fish is caught. "I'm intimately acquainted with the downsides of the ideas I'm offering, but it's more important to start by provoking interest however I can."

Furthermore, at least some of them can feel less concerned about the initial stage of bedazzlement—the come-to-Jesus moment—because it doesn't represent their endgame anyway. From their perspective, their sincere final goal isn't the same as a swindler's. Their measure of success isn't converting targets into ignorant needy exploitable dupes. It's converting them into "sophisticated" chimeras like themselves. They want to raise determined followers who willingly and skillfully squelch their own doubts. The hope is that the novice chimera will develop their two sides simultaneously. Their dupe side will grow as they pursue gratifying transcendental/emotional/social stimulation. Their swindler side will necessarily grow as they steadily encounter the common deficiencies of their ideas and learn the common rationalizations for each.

Later, after a chimera becomes advanced and stable, they may settle on a form of belief that's almost depressingly lackluster. The gap between idea and practice might be wide indeed. They'll trust adored holy texts...but only via an intricate strategy of extensive interpretation and refinement. They'll seek a miraculous level of moral resolve...but only via a gradual process of sustained self-discipline and total fixation. They'll praise the otherworldly camaraderie of a faith community...but only as an ideal which every earthly community is far from achieving. They'll petition one or more supernatural forces for help...but only with extremely low expectations. They'll preach that these one or more supernatural forces wish to improve human existence...but only a little at a time via followers' clumsy actions. They'll declare the wonderful blissful rewards of being a correct follower...but only arriving after death. They'll describe the present joy and contentment that comes from their ideas...but only via the escapism of consciousness-altering rituals and inspired imaginative visions of intangibles. They'll vigorously defend the specific doctrinal stances of their specific tradition...but only along with the uneasy awareness that their tradition is itself the highly debated creation of limited biased human predecessors. They'll report the guidance they receive regularly from the supernatural realm...but only via cryptic faint "signs" or sudden inscrutable mental impulses. They'll relentlessly press onward on a mission assigned to them by a god...but only with the unforeseeable risks that they somehow misheard the mission assignment, or that the incomprehensible god may have purposefully assigned them to a mission which was doomed to failure.

For most of the religious leaders I've met, this admittedly confusing mentality is a closer approximation than the notion of sinister puppeteers cynically pulling the strings of the gullible. Sometimes I've read the suggestion that such experienced followers "really know that they're asserting nonsense to the uninitiated". But I don't necessarily find that suggestion to be any more convincing than the frequent inaccurate suggestion that dissenters like me "really know that supernatural item ______ exists". When I can observe the strenuous psychological exertions they perform to keep their faith from dying altogether, I don't conclude that they're faking. Besides, the more honest among them confess that they too have moments of doubt (time periods when their intellectual arguments are more than smokescreens). To the extent that they muddy the thoughts of their audience, they're repeating what's already been done to them...often by themselves.

Regardless, I'd prefer that they were neither dupe, nor swindler, nor any chimera of the two. The better outcome would be nobody accepting unsound ideas for unsound reasons.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

precious idioms

I've suggested that the search for meaning shouldn't end at a sprawling list of ill-defined unchecked conjectures. When an earnest searcher goes on to consider each proposal, they shouldn't be deterred from asking pertinent follow-up questions. They should be permitted—perhaps encouraged—to probe and clarify each proposal's descriptions, justifications, and implications. They can't be expected to commit to a belief before they've had the opportunity to investigate to their satisfaction that the belief is solid. (Momentary "acceptance" of a belief purely to trial it isn't the same—a commitment involves basing future thoughts and actions around it.) I named this sensible guideline "the demand for meaning". Openly or tacitly, widely or narrowly, sooner or later, faith-beliefs repudiate it to survive.

Regardless of its constant usefulness, this measure of meaningfulness is limited. It doesn't illuminate why many beliefs are also so precious and heartfelt. Plainly, some beliefs in practice are a lot like idioms: they have additional meanings beyond their testable definitions. To varying degrees, a belief's mere content might not communicate its weighty symbolic effects on followers. The clue is their quick-draw defensive reactions to perceived "affronts"...which could amount to polite counterarguments of enigmatic metaphysical topics.

This phenomenon can show up even in a bitter distinction between slightly divergent sets of followers, especially in a context of long history and proud honor. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. Within context, the largely peripheral distinction functions as a precious idiom whose meaning is exclusion and conflict. Whether it's simple in concept or not, its more prominent meaning becomes all the past friction that has surrounded it. In fact, it's a more suitable candidate for lasting discord if it can't have a definitive resolution. If it could be settled quickly and conclusively then both sides wouldn't be able to persist in thinking that they were right. In that sense it's like a box: when it's more empty of clear inherent meaning, the more room it has for external meanings to be placed into it.

On the other hand, precious idioms can be pleasant too. Faith-beliefs don't need to be accurate in order to represent a range of inspiring sentiments. Part of my reluctance to reexamine mine came from familiar comfortable associations like those. From inside that mindset, religious allegiance and participation signified dedication to numerous worthy ideals. It was essential to being upstanding (at first, thinking I was atheistic was akin to thinking I was a Cylon). To carefully follow beliefs such as "God exists as a Trinity" was one path to exemplify "goodness". These acted as one-dimensional idioms for loyalty to the basic notions of tradition, family, community, morality.

This tangled knot of unstated presumption explains why followers and dissenters may talk past each other. Appearances to the contrary, a faith-belief could be more than a shaky philosophical proposition to be dismantled. It could be an emblem of the follower's tangential concerns. For example, they hear dispassionate explanations of discoveries in cosmology, geology, and biology. But they think, "I'm being told that human lives are insignificant." They hear unassuming ethical arguments that don't depend on faith-beliefs. But they think, "I'm being told that my religion by itself doesn't make me an ethics expert."

Moreover, faith-beliefs of comparative unpopularity are more likely to not be precious idioms of most followers. Hell, i.e. perpetual fruitless punishment, is not an idiom for many follower's attitudes about proportionate justice. They don't wish to apply the same overall strategy to their own societies, by horribly torturing petty criminals for as long as possible. So, since Hell isn't a precious idiom to them, they're less willing to vigorously defend it. The evilness of divorce, except for infidelity, is a second case. It's certainly not an idiom for followers who feel that they have the irrevocable rights both to pursue happiness and to determine when a freely chosen relationship degrades into a barrier to happiness. In the "Bible-believing" churches I attended, divorce for miscellaneous reasons was more often treated as a tragedy than an evil act, despite the biblical quotes in which Christ flatly states that he thinks it is. Some faith-beliefs are idioms for ideological battle and essential self-concepts and wishes: official war banners for followers to rally around and preserve and, well, at least be very touchy about. Others are more like outlying pawns that are negotiable without surrendering the "core" stuff.

The point is that productive conversation about idioms requires tedious care. Like cutting off a device's electricity before in-depth maintenance, the idiom's links need to be weakened first. In effect the follower needs to recognize that their precious idioms are idioms. Although their faith-beliefs are their own idioms for valuable goals and motives, they need to see that credible critiques aren't necessarily intended as nefarious attacks on those very human strivings.

Diverse experience and attempts at empathy can spur this realization. Greater cultural knowledge contributes, and so does friendly contacts with followers of different beliefs. The more that they directly observe the unthreatening universality of human strivings, as well as the variety of idioms connected to them, the more they may be capable of listening seriously to the flaws of their particular idioms. A square hole could be filled with squares of any color. When they're reassured that their faith isn't an indispensable anchor of their humanity, then they're more ready to start heeding thoughtful questions about it. Lower stakes facilitate clearheadedness. Of course, depending on their situation, the potential consequences of questioning faith might still be high for any number of reasons. But they can quit worrying that doubts would make them subhuman or leave them totally aimless.

Yet this discovery of common ground isn't always nice. Sometimes, intentionally or not, multitudes of idioms point toward humanity's unethical inclinations. Needless to say, if a faith-belief is used as an idiom for unflinching brutality, then dissenters should be less concerned by the follower's anxiety of maybe not having a replacement idiom for it! Similar lack of hesitation applies to idioms of arrogance, greed, oppression, cruelty, inequality, suffering, self-degradation, despair, ignorance, destruction, hatred.

Fortunately, subgroups of followers frequently condemn such outcomes too—in complexly calibrated ways. With a measured mixture of queasiness and sympathy, they may say that their fellow followers have some of the Right Ideas, but they're messing up the Right strategy of extracting idiomatic meanings. "My beliefs only symbolize good things, because I say so. And I myself decide what those good things are." If they wrote a book, it might be like the odd Frank Schaeffer one that I responded to...

Sunday, November 02, 2014

the prejudice of 1-D vision

Mistrust of outsiders is normal...if often depressing and unfounded. Understanding outsiders is more difficult simply because of missing common points of reference. The greater level of uncertainty feeds anxiety and wariness. It presents an opportunity for contemptuous stereotypical assumptions, which has the more or less intentional side effect of boosting self-serving admiration among the insiders ("Unlike them, we break our hard-boiled eggs on the big end").

So it is in the case of mistrusting outsiders based on their religious beliefs. But I've sometimes noticed an intriguing quirk in it. Outsiders who publicly choose to not follow any religious beliefs receive greater mistrust than outsiders who follow differing, perhaps exotic, religious beliefs. According to the insiders, both types are incorrect. Why aren't both equally disturbing?

I wonder whether an important factor is an ingrained habit of measuring everyone's beliefs along exactly one dimension: the degree of conformity to the unique set of Right Ideas. This continuum underpins the continuum of mistrust. The earlier split between insiders and outsiders is a simplification of a gradual scale...or a pecking order. Everyone is sorted unambiguously into line, as if according to ticks on a ruler, or numbers marked on their foreheads, or temperature readings ranging from hot to lukewarm to cold.

The maximal insiders hold specialized authoritative religious ranks through some combination of choice, talent, ancestry, or popularity. In decreasing order, the next group is the zealots, who are fanatically faithful and eager to sacrifice almost anything. After them is the group of partisans, who are committed and dependable but not necessarily single-minded or enthusiastic. The trailing group is the nominal insiders, who are highly selective in what they believe and contribute, and who are neither dedicated nor interested to large segments of the Right Ideas.

Proceeding farther, the top group of outsiders is the dropouts, who are former insiders with faded half-hearted loyalty to the Right Ideas; they may eventually return to being insiders, although they may prefer to switch to a more fitting variant of their original beliefs. Behind them is the neutral group, who haven't ever heard the Right Ideas in an appealing form, but they're promising candidates who are receptive to discussion, guidance, and persuasion. At the minimum is the resistant group, who emphatically avoid and repel serious detailed conversations about the Right Ideas.

To be even less conformist than this, someone needs to criticize and dispute. For instance, they could definitely qualify by explicitly rejecting the essential philosophical foundations of the Right Ideas. Then they occupy an identifiable relative slot in this 1-D vision, despite their total opposition to the entire basis of it. Like the Off setting on a volume knob, nevertheless they're treated like they're actually the same as level 0. Rather than having deeply contemplated ideas of their own, they're pictured as just lacking everything that's valuable or meaningful.

Worse, regardless of their intent, their antithetical positions happen to suit the role of a villain in the insiders' vision. Merely expressing negative judgments about the Right Ideas can reduce them to targets of animosity. When worth or goodness is measured by degree of agreement with specific precepts, then someone with too little agreement—or outright disagreement—can end up "worthless" or "evil". To object too directly or forcefully is to invite unflattering associations with the other opponents that exist in their matter how nonsensical. ("I assume you spread subversive arguments on behalf of the infernal masters you adore?")  

In effect, the insiders are under the impression that 1-D vision can supposedly accommodate principled nonbelievers more easily than believers who follow a different conception of Right Ideas. These alternative believers can't be situated using the chosen singular dimension. They don't have any clear relationship whatsoever to the (only) Right Ideas; someone who repudiates the Right Ideas does. Therefore, assuming they know their place and accept it quietly, the alternative believers tend to be tolerated at a cautious metaphorical if not literal distance.

The remedy is obvious, but I'll mention it anyway. Instead of attempting to mistakenly cram nonbelievers into a 1-D vision of religious beliefs, insiders would gain greater understanding if they broadened their perspective and permitted subtler comparisons.

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?