Wednesday, June 29, 2011

irreligious practice

I realize that "irreligious" is a broad and loose description so I can't speak with comprehensive authority. Regardless, I offer some personal opinions on commendable irreligious practice.
  • Ritual. First, disregard suggestions to indulge in ironic, satiric, or parodic versions of religious rituals; the mere negativity of scornful attacks is a sadly hollow method to assert self-identity. Instead, consider the two truths that humans are entirely corporeal and all activity ceases at death. They shall encounter an inevitable end. In response, it's prudent for humans to nurture their long-term health. One precaution that's almost universally recommended is regular moderate exercise, which is achievable without onerous costs of time or pain. It's a ritual, observed on most days of the week for a minimum of a half-hour (depending on intensity/ability), to the central importance of preserving the body to forestall its eventual decay. Unlike many religious rituals, the participant can choose how to do it. A second irreligious ritual is any action that's unreservedly approved by conscience but happens to be forbidden by a religion. Detestable and/or stupid actions don't qualify. The point isn't to celebrate anarchic freedom from behavioral restrictions by acting like a villain. The point is to ignore unnecessary religious prohibitions and thereby improve the lives of self and others. Show that there's a better way. Truth be told, this ritual isn't strictly irreligious. Religious adherents themselves often dump all the parts of their nominal religion that they sense to be unconscionable. Or just perplexing.
  • Study. My advice to the irreligious is to cultivate wide-ranging curiosity. We have finite opportunities to learn, explore, and experience. There aren't any additional "realms". There isn't a preferred path of narrow study that produces god-pleasing mental states and therefore unlocks a superior afterlife. All we can have is what's in front of us. Experimental, expansive learning is more mathematically probable to find the pleasing and the good (and greater insight into the displeasing and the evil). Of course, "study" could be secondhand, as in reading worthy books, or firsthand, as in developing a skill. And religion is an interesting and varied object of study for the irreligious, who aren't concerned about the "danger" of exposure to competing knowledge.
  • Activism/Values. I'm not convinced that rapid elimination of religions is possible. Nor do I suppose that a sudden absence of religion would guarantee a widespread, uniformly-positive change in well-being. Bitter assault on the religious, through techniques of shock and disrespect, is counterproductive. However, I'm in favor of lawful democratic efforts to equalize the rights and privileges of the irreligious with the religious. Depending on the case, the best approach could be removing discrimination based on personal beliefs altogether. Or gaining peer recognition of "irreligiosity" as an included category (no matter the name). Generally, in public forums of all kinds, counterbalancing irreligious perspectives should be stated when appropriate, and the form of expression should amount to much more than indignant insults or aggressive attempts to de-convert. It should go without saying that some quixotic fights are a waste of time and so is taking offense at minuscule unintentional oversights. Irreligious practice is at its least persuasive when it's characterized by irrational hatred directed at a nonexistent god. Rather the route to mutual tolerance should consist of demonstrations that irreligiosity isn't synonymous with amorality. I like the Christmas (look, I didn't type "x-mas"!) slogan "be good for goodness' sake". It's simplistic almost to the degree of tautology, but it does communicate the basic idea that ethical concepts and sentiments and decisions aren't contingent on thunderbolts or hellfire. When the irreligious promote values and causes that fit their ideals of less oppressive suffering in human existence, perhaps cooperating with the religious on selected projects, prejudice appears unfounded. Charitable contributions and volunteerism contradict the pernicious presumption that humans without otherworldly judges are purely selfish. Actually, I suspect that many of the religious outwit themselves, morally-speaking: they're either so confident about their acceptability before god, or so obsessed with perfection of irrelevant private minutiae, they don't bother to be a constructive influence.

Monday, June 27, 2011

some opinions on dialogue with the religious

  • No matter how personally gratifying, calling anyone "insane" or "stupid" for holding different beliefs is likely to end the dialogue. Of course, the same applies to calling the irreligious "heartless" or "lawless".
  • Discussion about particular proofs may not be as illuminating as discussion about general principles and standards that affirm or disqualify propositions. For instance, is it permissible to detect the supernatural through intuitions that manifest as shivering? And in regard to some major world religions, is the truth of claims within the sacrosanct text(s) utterly beyond questioning? Depending on differences on central points such as these, delving too soon into peripheral arguments could be futile. Intact philosophical roots are unshakable by indirect blows.
  • Technique is also important for better credibility. Responding to a proof with a proof from another domain shows an apparent lack of confidence and forthrightness. Whenever someone advances a metaphysical objection, the relevant approach is to undermine the objection metaphysically. Whenever someone refers to a testimonial, an opposite testimonial is appropriate. Flatly ignoring a statement seems evasive and inflexible. Even if the assertion is ludicrous, it needs to be patiently corrected in detail rather than contemptuously dismissed.
  • A few exhibits are so old and well-known to not be worth mentioning. Every thinking adult who has an opinion about religion already has a well-established viewpoint on the topic, so raising it is fruitless. Examples: 1) Human existence is suboptimal in myriad ways, so supernatural beings cannot be both benevolent and powerful.. 2) The universe must have an origin, so there must be a creator god. 3) People have ethics, so there must be a judgment god. 4) It's impossible to absolutely prove nonexistence, so the supernatural could exist. 5) The number of contradictions among religions is innumerable, so no possible god is sufficiently universal to be credible.

    Saturday, June 25, 2011

    the defining data structure

    The human brain is a body organ of countless cells and regions, whose chemical/electrical work consumes considerable energy to affect microscopic matter and thereby think. But pictured within a more abstract realm of information, its efforts accomplish the arrangement of data into a workable structure. It redirects, recombines, and generally tames a storm of data in the form of nerve impulses. Crudely put, brains are the coin-sorters that efficiently separate the "coins" of data by biological value. Given that a datum is never alone, i.e. information can only be informative in concert with other information, then the brain acts as the defining data structure.

    Moreover, the data structure has several parts and processing steps. First, each bit of data is accompanied by its contemporary bits, into a structure of context. Second, this larger hunk of data is classified by arousing similarities to stored past data, into a structure of remembrance. Third, the data is correlated with goals and desires, into a structure of significance. Fourth, it becomes part of plans and scenarios, into a structure of proposed actions.

    Since each of these tasks of definition are distinct to some extent, and also segregated by type of sensory stimuli, it's not too surprising that the brain's structure is closer to a conglomeration of specialists than a single thinly-spread generalist. When a creature develops a sense, it's cost-effective to gain narrow advantages from it in the service of common situations, e.g. fight or flight. On a limited food budget, brain cells that are well adapted to extracting information from sense data are preferable. By contrast, unshaped cells that are supremely flexible and unassuming are also not immediately helpful. Evolution prioritizes richer data structures of perception. It's more vital to absorb and distinguish raw data than to perform an orderly sequence of advanced manipulations and transformations.

    Therefore, as a mirror of the brain's layout, general or abstract data structures are likely built from collections of specialty data structures. Thoughts about visual sensations, even if subconscious, happen via the brain sections that evolved to handle vision. Singers who recognize that a note's pitch is too low are using auditory specializations. Episodic memory, encompassing several senses at once, employs a wide-ranging slice of the brain. Words like "determination" or "below" or "nation-state" have connections that are more diffuse but nevertheless existent. Concepts rely on foundations, although the path can be long and twisting.

    As complex as the entire mixture is, further complications apply. Instant initial sensations are not the sole data source that demands structure. For instance, incoming data can be persistent after the time of introduction, recurring by displacing recent items or fading to an activation level near sub-conscious. Either way, the long-lasting data structures have the possibility of meshing with seemingly unrelated structures to form unanticipated syntheses.

    Another less traceable data source is unprovoked cell activity. Fully awake brains encountering sedate environments are nevertheless busy. Resting brains during a REM cycle are quite energetic, too. Clearly a measure of unpredictability and autonomy is built into the human organism.

    Fortunately, mechanisms counteract the inherent chaos and competitiveness. Under normal circumstances data structures require consensus in order to continue having effect. No separate all-knowing judge is necessary to arbitrate. Matching data structures mutually reinforce and silence deviants, just like fitter organisms multiply and crowd out the less-fit in the absence of an overseer. A reasonable structure of data is strengthened through like-minded alliances with the expectations that it meets. A nonsensical structure of data is weakened because of its isolation.

    Overall this bottom-up strategy is a gradient for progressively pushing data in the direction of verisimilitude. Inappropriate answers are often a mere starting point. Some variations on that start will link up with strong data structures in the brain, but some will not. Useful creativity is a trial-and-error enterprise that strains known constraints without breaking. Repetitive feedback establishes which prospective differences are a step forward or backward.

    Hence the momentary restructuring experiments are anchored by relatively pivotal and dominant data structures. One category is urgent external reality. The freshest streams of experience are naturally vivid. Related data structures propagate by channeling the vibrancy. Remote data structures, like reveries, tend to dissipate quickly. Abnormal breaks in the division, triggered particularly by interference of ingested chemicals, can certainly reverse the usual hierarchy and produce disorienting confusion of whether data is "imaginary".

    Besides urgent external reality, data structures may take a controlling role by belonging to the broad category of organism objectives. The power of basic evolutionary drives is sufficient to train a multitude of secondary aims and behaviors, perhaps resetting the original relative priorities. Emotive attraction or revulsion enriches corresponding data structures. Data that's been tied to such reactions is more likely to retain its structure. Marketers, politicians, and public-relations experts confirm the effectiveness of the tactic.

    Thus the human brain begins with preexisting data structures for survival. Initially other creatures' brains are set up differently in as many ways as the creatures differ: less social creatures have lower proportions of data structures about empathy, creatures with advanced noses have more data structures devoted to recognizing smells, e.g. to discover claimed territory. Compared to the prehistoric time during which evolution encoded blunt instructions into the brain structures, not only into the human species but into its forebears, large-scale organized civilizations are the latecomers. While there isn't a biological way to transmit specific memories to offspring, inborn behavioral adaptations of general value in survival or reproduction are excellent traits for natural selection.

    Sophisticated data structures produced and transmitted in human society are much more intricate and fine-grained than evolution's. However, one doesn't replace the other. The primal data structures are indispensable raw material and tools. Abstract structures can reuse earthy structures. In order to "understand" an abstaction, a concrete metaphor allows confident contemplation. Human brains are quite astute at extrapolating movement of an object; once the sequential levels of a quantity are visualized, the next level is the position the quantity would be if it were a moving object. AI data structures start from nothing. Defining data structures in the human brain start from an array of hard-won knowledge which meets a minimum standard of relevancy. Computers must be told exactly how to perform a task. Humans can be told a problem, and then they can twist their abundant data structures to define the problem and identify linked solutions.