Monday, December 31, 2012

Wither and Frost

In the category of fiction by C.S.Lewis, the idiosyncratic That Hideous Strength doesn't place highly on most lists. Yet this wordy novel for adults encapsulates the author's recurring interests and opinions, and it expresses those ideas in a more engrossing way than his nonfiction. (I admit that his nonfiction became much, much less compelling after I dismissed my faith-beliefs.) This story contains a startling juxtaposition of collegiate/organizational politics, science fiction, medieval fantasy, classical mythology, study of language, and of course Christianity.

It contains two opposing sides engaged in an unequivocal struggle between Good and Evil. The Good side is aligned with benevolent celestial spirits and its culture and morality is traditional (more or less...). The Evil side is aligned with malignant terrestrial spirits and its culture and morality is a parade of horrors intertwined with amoral science and unhinged progressiveness. By the way, neither side is committed to a convincing ethic of human equality or democracy; it seems both Good and Evil demand their underlings to know and follow their preassigned roles. I should point out that the start is slow and semi-realistic, yet the characters and the events are increasingly bizarre as the plot proceeds. The outrageous climax is a quite literal deus ex machina. In one scene, a character writes propaganda articles for newspapers. In another scene, the omniscient narrator peeks briefly into the perspective of a bear.

The Evil side takes the form of an impersonal juggernaut of unrestrained power called the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments. At its deepest level, it's steered by two remarkable antagonists whose surnames are Wither and Frost. Naturally, they're two of the most memorable characters. These portraits of villainy are prime starting-points for dissecting some of the favorite themes of Lewis. As much as possible, I'll try to digest his mere (ha!) theology into standalone nuggets of insight.


Wither is the Deputy Director, the top day-to-day authority of the organization (and one of his unwritten duties is to neutralize the clueless official chief!). However, he wields his power in an unexpected manner: his leadership and communication style is astonishingly vague. He's not openly tyrannical in the slightest. He explicitly instructs his inferiors to act with "elasticity", i.e. serve how they can without conforming to limited job descriptions. He's easily irritated if anyone coerces him to act or speak bluntly. He meanders with his voice, extending his conversations with excessive courtliness until the other participant is worn-down. He also meanders on foot, walking around the organization grounds with no warning of his approach and no planned destination. He's usually friendly and polite to someone's face. Nevertheless, he expects all of his euphemistic "requests" to be obeyed without hesitation in order to prevent him from demonstrating his "hurt" at being ignored.

Wither is an example of someone whose public face is so well-developed that his personality is virtually split into pieces. His habitual mimicry of courtesy is so complete that he feels no need to direct his entire attention to his job. His mask is himself. The disconnected part of him that runs the machine-like organization is itself machine-like. Therefore Wither exhibits two related problems of human nature that Lewis highlighted multiple times.

1) Wither's interactions with others are insincere. For Lewis, insincerity wasn't a harmless social game. It was an insidious path of temptation to the greater problem of self-delusion. Through self-delusion, humans avoid acknowledging their actual motives and thereby also avoid acknowledging their camouflaged innermost "evils". They convince themselves that they're virtuous when even their virtue is underpinned by their beloved flaws. Furthermore, insincerity in society leads to shallow relationships built on passive-aggressive pretenses. Lewis recognized that pride and hatred have as many subtle expressions as love. Regardless of whether someone is religious, these are valuable observations and warnings about human deceptiveness. Sincerity and honesty in communities, including the "community" within a single brain, are values that are tied to the earnest pursuit of truth—a universal humanistic value.

2) On the other hand, perhaps Wither's outward insincerity is a surprisingly accurate reflection of a worse root problem, namely self-disintegration. Perhaps Wither no longer maintains a coherent and unified self-concept, so his thoughts and actions are a mass of contradictions. In that case his blathering managerial persona isn't lying when it gives the false impression that Wither is compassionate; while it's active that persona is being truthful about its own sentiments. Lewis identified disorder as a major characteristic of the natural human state. He emphasized the inborn tendency to drift away from an established idea. Without sustained training and effort, humans lose control over their spontaneous competing impulses. They're prodded to rebel against their ideals, no matter what those ideals happen to be. According to Lewis, the long-term inability or unwillingness to assert self-control eventually produces a pitiful result, when the original tendency toward disorder culminates in full-blown self-disintegration. At that point of no return, the human has ceased to be a unified decision-maker in any meaningful sense. There isn't a brain "executive" that issues overriding directives, or if there is then the executive doesn't retain power of command.

Lewis' intent behind this theme was to claim, "If you refuse to accept the rule of Christianity then you cannot rule yourself successfully." Apart from this abominable non sequitur, his cautionary notion of self-disintegration is valid enough. The human brain is packed full of multitudes of parallel energy-expending neural networks that show subconscious activity. And habits have physical form in these networks. So it's not far-fetched to notice that the subjective experience of consciousness is torn by inner conflicts which demand considerable mediation—"cognitive dissonance" is the preferred label for it. Moreover, it's also not far-fetched to notice that frequency  of activation affects the talkativeness of particular networks. Humans who don't "exercise" advanced brain functions, such as imagining future repercussions, certainly can't expect those functions to "win out" during decisions. Self-disintegration is a creeping danger to anyone who wants to live in consistent accordance with their chosen ideals, independent of how they choose to derive their ideals. Pragmatically speaking, cheap ideals without the verification of steady commitment barely deserve to be called "real".


Frost is more secretive. He mostly works in private, but he gains greater and greater prominence as the story unveils the sinister mainspring of the Institute. He's disciplined, direct, abrupt, and severe. Whereas Wither appears to be welcoming and harmless, Frost appears to be cold and menacing. When the two of them converse, he complains about Wither's roundabout speaking, emotional word-choice, and reliance on patient strategies. He's keen on stoic allegiance as opposed to camaraderie. Wither's face sometimes looks lifeless, while Frost's stony face (his eyes concealed by the light falling on his pince-nez glasses) sometimes looks empty of every shred of humanity. And his smile makes the effect worse.

Frost personifies an attempt by Lewis to create a reductio ad absurdum of one of his perennial grievances, "Subjectivism". Subjectivism, as described by Lewis, is the general belief that the qualities or values of objects arise from the observers but not the objects. That is, objects don't embody qualities. For example, when a diligent florist says, "My flower is beautiful," Lewis asserts that Subjectivism interprets the statement as a pure fact about the florist and nothing substantial about the flower. He argues for the opposite idea of object qualities which definitely exist, whether or not human judges agree. His frank concern is that if humans begins to think that these qualities are solely subjective, then they'll doubt the "real" existence of those qualities...with the dreaded final outcome of humans such as Frost who devalue those qualities altogether.

Subjectivism is Frost's philosophy and lifestyle, but it's implied that Frost was taught by a diabolical source. He in turn wishes to initiate others. Thus he gives several lectures on his beliefs. He insists that all emotions are "nothing more" than chemical/biological phenomena, so he encourages intentional rejection of the entire set of illusions. He preaches that feelings and the associated moral judgments are unnecessary impairments to clearheaded analysis and swift action. His ends always justify his means. In effect he's a Sociopath With A Cause, or an ideal pawn for his "dark masters". Part of his unforgettable training method is to systematically provoke revulsion in order to guide his initiates to ignore their instinctual biases.

Nowadays the entire topic puzzles me a little. Dramatizations aside, I don't feel threatened by Subjectivism. My response to it is analogous to my response to the charge of relativism. Subjectivism is a simpleminded caricature. Yes, I'm a heretic who believes that humane ideals are constructed by humans. At the same time, I reject the hasty conclusion that human-constructed ideals are defined without exception by the petty competitive interests of individuals or tribes (or voting blocs?). Given the human capability to develop and apply other sophisticated ideas, ideals could and do achieve the same sophistication. Ideals aren't constrained by originating and then existing within subjects.

But an objector may sputter, "You're missing the main point. Isn't this a blueprint for disaster? If things aren't inherently good or bad or pretty or ugly or prudent or foolish, then subjects could disagree!"

The pragmatist replies, "Yup." It's a pragmatic truth that subjects disagree often about countless objects. Perhaps they agree about the attractiveness of the proud florist's flower. Perhaps not. In either case, the subjectivity of the flower's attractiveness is inconsequential. Just as human subjects construct thoughts about objects, they select which subjective differences matter to them. (I suspect their reactions to the flower matter more to the florist.)

In more important cases like some behavioral ideals, humans feel that every subject should agree. They can accomplish that goal through the many methods that suffice for any sophisticated ideas. To start, they could explain, persuade, and debate. In cases of still-greater importance like bans of despicable acts, humans feel that every subject must agree. Hence they resort to enforcement and various deterrents.

Fortunately, a second pragmatic truth about real-world subjectivity intervenes. Since all humans are linked by common descent and the members of each cultural group are linked by common training during immaturity, most subjects agree about an interrelated collection of vital basics. Human subjectivity has a shared frame of reference, especially in the context of a homogeneous culture. This second truth is a clue for why the objectors to Subjectivism too readily assume that all of the subjective occurrences in their brains are "really" attributes of the objects. They're heavily adapted to their own frame of reference. (If they ever bother to refer to it they may use the unhelpful term "common sense".) Their ingrained subjectivity isn't distinguished from genuine objectivity.

I concede that, to his credit, Lewis sometimes alludes to the significant disparities among individuals and distinct cultures, although he repeatedly emphasizes every similarity he can find. Unlike me, he doesn't interpret these similarities as supporting evidence for a species-wide, deep-rooted evolutionary explanation. Indeed he jumps to the opposite explanation of a singular divine Moral Law imposed on every human soul; he opines that the discrepancies spring out of a universal urge to discard or replace portions of the Law.

Presumably, the threat of those possible rewrites of ideals are why Lewis thought that Subjectivism should be frightening. To the contrary, I now see that the refinement of ideals is a strength. Subjectivism is scary whenever subjects cannot be trusted, but humans have stumbled on effective pragmatic solutions to the problem of trustworthiness. The refinement of ideals can be treated carefully, i.e. democratically and peacefully and thoughtfully. In any case it's better than having ideals that never improve because of faux objectivity: "That's just the way it is."

Saturday, December 15, 2012

a curious pair of political beliefs

  • Greater legal restrictions on guns will have no effect whatsoever on actual gun activity. Unlawful citizens will still perform illegal gun violence.
  • Greater legal restrictions on abortions will effectively eliminate actual abortion activity. Unlawful citizens will never perform illegal abortion procedures.
I know many voters who profess to both of the preceding political beliefs. How curious.

Sunday, December 09, 2012


"Retcon" or retroactive continuity is the attempt to modify the previously established "facts" of fiction. Perhaps the best-known case is the unplanned return of a dead popular character by portraying an unlikely scenario of survival or death-by-subterfuge. In the all-too-common case of several writers who create works containing statements that are in stark conflict, the retcon is the tricky solution that explains how every work can be "right". Of course, a retcon could also be necessary for the works of a single writer who changed their thinking over a long period of time, so their earlier works contain general statements that don't match up with later works. The most impressive and least confusing retcons achieve a specific goal through as few modifications as possible.

On the other hand, the inevitable complexity of an innovative retcon can be exasperating to those who aren't deeply absorbed in the details. "Who cares about little inconsistencies?" they may ask. "Everyone already knows that none of it is real." And their response almost answers itself. The inconsistencies are toxic because good fiction is experienced like an alternate reality, and no reality can be filled with inconsistencies. Human brains fixate naturally on inconsistencies for survival; inconsistencies could be signs of danger. Thus inconsistencies draw attention away from the meaningful aspects of the fiction.

More importantly, a form of "retcon" appears in intellectual schemes for explaining this reality, too. As we discover, observe, and learn, we must revise prior interpretations, sometimes in disturbing directions. Unlike in fiction, these retcons change the analysis of facts rather than the facts. (Except when we prove that past "facts" were obtained via incorrect methods such as idiotic statistical assumptions or flawed procedures.) Retcons of human thoughts about reality are milestones on the path to greater accuracy of understanding.

Hence it's worthwhile to evaluate human thoughts accordingly. We should start to question the accuracy of the scheme itself...

  • if it consumes a virtually unlimited supply of complicated retcons in order to stay relevant 
  • if it's packed with unhelpful extraneous items that require retcons in order to not be problematic 
  • if it's sufficiently bizarre that retcons are indispensable to bring it into harmony with the rest of human knowledge
  • if it's stretched thin not strengthened by retcons, leading to retcons of retcons of retcons
It's easy to guess what I'm hinting toward. Which intellectual schemes have the preceding characteristics...and thereby display a notable kinship with retcon-dependent works of fiction?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The God Of Loaded Dice

I commented just recently that my own experiences predispose me to ignore the broad continuum of theism, especially moderate faith-beliefs. But by doing so, I'm not giving proper respect to the endless inventiveness of humanity. For example, I may not have ever thought of this moderate variation: The God Of Loaded Dice.

This god has the singular advantage of an atypical relationship with reality. It affects reality in every way that a corresponding religion requires, yet its effects on reality are never distinguishable unambiguously from the chain of causation without those effects. In other words, it accomplishes everything necessary but only through ingenious techniques which don't leave any perceptible trace. Everything it does is like a perfect crime. Its influence is deep despite the absence of a smoking gun. No matter its level of involvement, none of us saw nothin' and none of us can prove nothin'.

But anyone with minimal curiosity cannot avoid wondering how this sly god can be covertly omnipotent. Deflecting the chain of causation via massive actions is far too observable, so it must be acting via tiny pushes on extremely precise targets. Then the pivotal targets interact with other things, and later the eventual result "appears" to be unguided. Essentially, it proceeds as if loading the dice. It operates like a cheat who modifies dice to change the odds without arousing suspicion from spectators or players. The appearance and behavior of "loaded" dice strongly resemble fair dice, regardless of the overall statistical outcome, which is engineered to differ. Similarly, The God Of Loaded Dice adjusts reality by relatively subtle shifts, and the consequences don't indicate the original shifts in a conclusive manner.

However, the transparent problem with this notion of a god is immunity from proof or disproof. By design, all data is quite irrelevant to it. Someone who wants to believe can connect the dots of their experiences however they wish. When they ponder an unlikely event of personal importance, they quickly assume that the god must have loaded the dice somehow. It doesn't matter to them if mysterious explanations fail to convince unbiased onlookers, who they already know aren't willing to see The Truth.

Fortunately, the inherent weakness of the faith-belief is easier to appreciate after considering its equivalent in a topic other than religion. What if someone described a wonderful new medicinal substance...a substance that doesn't make any difference to health. What if someone determined that persistent engine trouble is symptomatic of a single defect...a defect that is impossible to detect by any tool (and repair). What if someone blamed their misplaced items on a mischievous prankster...a prankster who is far too crafty to ever be seen or heard. What if someone attributed their business success to a single personal habit...a personal habit that's also part of the daily routine of hundreds of unsuccessful contenders.

In summation, The God Of Loaded Dice can hardly be taken seriously by a committed pragmatist ("You're a real god? How can I tell?"). The moderates who claim it are thereby able to dodge extraordinary claims of unconfirmed miracles. Nevertheless they cling to an alternative claim that's extraordinary in a different way: the claim that the events of reality have unconfirmed godly causes that somehow interact secretly with the apparent (proximate and calculable) causes. For them reality is a play, and their god is the hard-working backstage crew that makes occasional minor adjustments without drawing attention. I understand that moderates feel pressure to reduce a supposedly omnipotent being into a role that fits the most current data, but isn't it more straightforward to drop the idea altogether? If we seem to exist in a physical and impersonal universe which operates according to patterns that don't "care" about our species (or biology in general), then we should infer the absence of a god rather than infer the over-complicated presence of a coy god.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Twitter is the de facto OpenID

OpenID was intended as a way for website visitors to log in to one website and then reuse that logged-in "identity" on other websites as well. The wonderful benefit of OpenID is avoiding the hassle of setting up separate identities for separate websites. And if someone is already logged in to the "providing" website, then they can step the login step altogether on the "relying" websites, which more or less only need to ask the provider about who's currently logged in. (The typical security precautions apply: the easiest first steps to prevent someone else from reusing information is to log out from all websites and quit the web browser.)

If the preceding paragraph led to the reaction, "Huh? OpenID sounds good but I've never heard of it," then it's clear why some commentators declare OpenID a failure. It's currently in use and it will most likely survive for a long time to come, but it never achieved widespread popularity. In my opinion, a surprising competitor has surpassed it to become the top identity source: Twitter. Here's why.
  • Publicity. By any measure, Twitter is well-known and constantly visited. This is vital for a successful identity source. If an identity source is relatively unknown or dormant, websites won't have a strong reason to accommodate it. And the fewer websites that accommodate it, the less appealing it is as an identity source, which then causes fewer websites to accommodate it, which then causes it to be less appealing as an identity source... The upshot is that an identity source excels when its main attraction is something famous other than providing identities to other websites.
  • Upkeep. Twitter's reputation for availability has fluctuated. Nevertheless, as a major website (see #1), it has an obvious interest in ensuring that visitors, apps, and other websites can log in quickly without problems. OpenID was by necessity a secondary option for logging in, so neither the providing nor the relying websites were especially careful at ensuring OpenID functioned properly—OpenID visitors were less valuable anyway, precisely because the website didn't force them through the information-gathering portion of login setup. All too often, either the providing or the relying websites rejected the other due to miscellaneous errors. Since OpenID was a low priority, it wasn't as well-tested or maintained while the website's normal login code evolved. Like RSS feeds, redesigned websites accidentally broke OpenID access and then never repaired it. OpenID's independent and noncommercial existence protected it from the potential extinction of any single company, but it didn't have a specific team of paid support staff responsible for its bugs, like Twitter's login.
  • Informality. In comparison to other websites, Twitter's login setup is quite rapid, undemanding, and painless. Twitter needs very little information for the activities it has. Thus, whether on purpose or not, it's an effective strategy for the incidental task of just creating uncomplicated login information. Given that the motivation behind the search for an identity source is dodging irksome/repetitive login setup, this characteristic of Twitter is ideal.
For anyone who wants to scatter their comments throughout the Web, Twitter has greater practicality than OpenID. Who knows, someday I may stoop to use it to micro-blog...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

ethics vs. atheism brought to you by the letter K

I'm proceeding leisurely through The Brothers Karamazov for the first time. (Whenever I speak the title I say "The Brothers K" so I can giggle at others' pronunciations of the full name.) The book so far contains lengthy conversations—often more like sequential lectures—about ethics, human nature, and religion. Although I haven't finished it, I feel compelled to respond to some of its ideas. By "its ideas", I'm referring to my interpretations of characters' statements in the book. I'm unsure what the author believed.
  • Atheism leads to egoism, overindulgence, and despair. This misconception is similar to the silly assertion that all atheists instinctively "know" about god(s) but they deliberately deny their "knowledge" in order to eliminate guilt for unethical actions. It's true that atheists don't accept the ethical authority of sundry religious hierarchies and dictates. Regardless, they're still trained by human culture to be ethical, and they certainly can experience the same moral feelings. Faith-beliefs aren't the only possible basis for rejecting distasteful and/or unproductive behavior patterns such as egoism and overindulgence. (In philosophical terms, one of the startling contradictions of American politics is the proud religiosity of so many self-labeled they obey the master who preaches self-sacrifice or the master who preaches self-exaltation?) As for despair, an obvious question arises: why shall an atheist suffer from it? Surely the absence of needy/demanding gods has substantial upsides. The manifest absence of any afterlife is perhaps the most justifiable rationale for despair, yet I assume that atheists in good mental health usually replace it with acquiescence. I believe that humans are capable of rigorous pragmatism in their thoughts, and acquiescence is the pragmatic reaction to unchangeable realities. Finally, it's worth remembering that this is a comparison between the emotional and ethical effects of atheism or theism, and theism often fails in practice to eliminate despair, egoism, and overindulgence.
  • Humane religion approves of freedom. And so do I! Humans thirst for the power to think and choose for themselves, rather than obey mindlessly. When humans are coerced, their actions of good and evil are mostly pitiful and dehumanizing for the individual, apart from any resulting benefits or injuries to the surrounding society. Then the perennial debate question is which influences on a decision qualify as "coercion". I suppose the pragmatic distinction is whether the decision-maker self-identifies with a specific influence. For example, someone who self-identifies closely with a group may condemn one of the group's collective actions and nevertheless characterize their participation in it as "merely part of who I choose to be: a member of this group". Or someone with an addiction may experience a craving that fills every thought and nevertheless use the metaphor of a separate "monkey on my back". On this topic, I again disagree with the book's analysis of the effects of atheism. It correctly mentions that atheistic decision-makers have lots of freedom, but it also declares hastily that atheistic freedom is horrible. Without religion to cage them, atheists go berserk! For a religious follower, freedom is an essential part of their authentic humanity, but for an atheist, freedom is the signal to always make the worst self-centered decisions. This prejudicial double-standard exposes the actual intent of the book's concept of religious freedom, which is believers who absorb the religion and subsequently "freely choose" exactly what it directs. To an outsider, this goal bears an alarming resemblance to reeducation in 1984; in either case the ideal subject must both comply and eagerly choose to comply. To the contrary, since atheists are (at least a little) less likely to fall back on behavioral programming to make difficult decisions, atheism is more consistent with conscious agonizing freedom.
  • Sometimes it can be ethical to act as if something false were true. I'm being vague on purpose. This is the general method for applying many of the book's snippets of ethical advice, because the snippets are embedded in phantasmal albeit fascinating conjectures about spiritual realities. Is every object on planet Earth connected together into one grand whole through invisible spiritual threads? Is every human responsible for every other human? Is a human life one long test of the willingness to love completely? However, for pragmatic ethics, I wonder if poetic/metaphorical language style could be more useful than not. I admit that it's more superficially appealing than stating the bare principles. Moreover, I don't see helpful metaphors as dangers to understanding materialistic naturalism...on the condition that the audience is fully aware that the metaphors are literally false. And the wackier the metaphor, the more it surpasses that easy condition. Theism isn't necessary for pretending to talk as if we are all as closely related as "brothers". 

Monday, November 26, 2012

immoderate credulity

Previously, I dismissed animosity as a contributor to my sidestep into atheism. A far different attitude played the major emotional role: immoderate credulity. Due to my religious background I learned to assume that my faith-beliefs were accurate. This assumption of accuracy seemed harmless for a long time, but eventually it functioned as a "belief landmine". When I reckoned that none of the faith-beliefs were confirmed to be accurate, the intertwined assumption of accuracy exploded, and then I simply stopped believing in the remains too. My immoderate credulity raised the great expectation that faith-beliefs should be harmonious with verified real things (i.e. work in a broad pragmatic sense) but of course those expectations weren't met. After hearing repeatedly that my parents' particular religion should matter to me because it is true, in the end I leaped to the obvious conclusion that an untrue religion should no longer matter to me.

Thereby I completed my outgoing journey without stopping at a popular half-way point: moderate religion. Training in immoderate credulity for my former faith-beliefs predisposed me to reject such "halfhearted" compromises. I had prejudice against the concept. I didn't seriously consider the possibility of believing in something that was only true in a moderate way. As bizarre as it sounds, perhaps I could have remained a believer if I'd taken my faith-beliefs less seriously. Couldn't I have believed indefinitely in a faraway god? A mysterious god? An illogical god? A god which is "actual" but only in a subjective manner that's indefinable and therefore independent of all known objective evidence? A postmodern god that's neither this nor that but whatever the believer happens to want?

Monday, November 19, 2012

reluctant apostasy

I'm irritated by the mistaken assumption that fury motivated me to drop the faith-beliefs of my childhood. Like some other modern-day apostates over age 25, I wasn't searching for intellectual reasons to justify angry rebellion or revenge. To the contrary, as my earnest learning/thinking on a range of topics continued to erode my confidence in the basic ideas, I still felt committed. Over time, my shrunken "faith" began to resemble the preposterous definition from the movie Miracle on 34th Street: "Faith is believing when common-sense tells you not to." While I teetered on the brink of total rejection of my faith-beliefs, my emotions were guilt, shame, and anxiety. I wasn't enraged by awful incidents inflicted by imperfect believers. I was disappointed by the ongoing failures of the faith-answers in pragmatic reality.

Furthermore, my atheism is highly inconvenient for me, so I'm perturbed by the accusation that I chose irrationally to upend my life. My religious family is excellent. My fellow religious believers were excellent. My religious leaders were excellent, with one sad exception (misuse of funds). I wasn't resentful beforehand; I was quite comfortable. Everyone including me considered religion to be a major ingredient of my stable self-identity and my position in society.

It started early. My parents were deeply devoted to their religion before my birth—my father converted in his teens. Throughout my developmental years, we were active members of religious communities. When I earned my bachelor's degree, I attended a proudly religious university. When I found my first professional job, I worked at a proudly religious organization. Therefore the majority of my friends and acquaintances professed faith-beliefs similar to mine.

Then why would I suddenly despise and attack one of the most predominant factors of my life up to that time? I wanted to be convinced again. I wanted to resume thinking like the rest. I asked my questions, but the good-intentioned replies were vacuous. I heard the same reassurances that I had heard before, but now I couldn't stop noticing counterarguments. I no longer heard mystical descriptions of the ultimate reality beyond the reach of systematic investigation—I heard tall tales, which the speakers and listeners treated seriously due to wishful thinking and social pressure.

Consequently, I don't know of any human action that could have halted my slide. It wasn't anyone's fault. Those around me weren't the "problem". My eventual atheism wasn't created by fixable glitches in my parents' religion, such as old-fashioned music, inadequate lessons, or strict rules. None of those trivialities were sufficient to drive me away. Instead, I renounced the entire enterprise because it was just...too...unreal. I understand that it's easier for believers to dismiss any example of apostasy as a desperate and/or childish emotional response. But that interpretation doesn't fit me at all.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

publicity and "Reason"

It may be presumptuous of me to critique the publicity efforts of other atheists, for two reasons. First, I'm not involved in any of it. Second, I'm a newcomer; I didn't successfully admit my atheism (not even to myself!) until a few years ago. I doubt that groups who sometimes call themselves free-thinkers could question my right or permission to criticize, but they could question my credibility. On the other hand, perhaps I can bring a fresh perspective as someone who has recently been on both "sides".

So let me point out the problem with one specific totem of atheistic publicists: the repeated word "Reason". To theists, an exclusive claim on a mental ability like reason sounds as laughable, the attempt of theists to make an exclusive claim on moral conscience. ("If you're an atheist, then why aren't you constantly cheating and stealing and murdering?") A theist, such as me a few years ago, simply responds by saying that they employ correct reason all the time, but in questions about the supernatural, they start with different premises than atheists. And reason plays an indispensable role when theists proceed to argue, like lawyers, about complicated far-fetched intepretations of the same set of sacred texts. Indeed, "deep" introspective theists are philosophical cousins to traditional rationalists; they pride themselves on their intricate logical abstractions and otherworldly mental ideals, all of which are supposedly more "real" than temporary stuff that sullies the senses.

Therefore, it may be worthwhile to consider complementary alternatives to the prevalence of "Reason" in atheistic publicity efforts. Please note what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that the theists are as reasonable as they suppose they are. No matter what else theists say in praise of reason, they're still individuals who by definition grant credence to a number of poorly-supported ideas. The task of effective atheistic publicity isn't to encourage more reason but to hint at the theistic misuse of reason. Just encouraging more reason produces the off-putting stereotype of atheists who assume that everyone other than them is unintelligent, insane, or lazy. Then theists are likelier to conclude that the message amounts to an elaborate insult instead of a provocative insight about the true weaknesses of unquestioned faith. The significant difference is the emphasis. Rather than portray their overall mindset as contradicting reason, draw their attention to the details of the real "blind spots" which they don't normally scrutinize closely enough.

Purely for inspiration, here are some examples of groan-inducing alternatives to "Reason" slogans. Brainstorming!
  • Have you checked the data behind your opinion lately?
  • Which experts are you asking for advice?
  • When faith supports beliefs, what supports faith?
  • How do you prove that other religions are false...but yours is the exception?
  • Why does a gut feeling often fail to detect minor facts...yet is also the best way to answer Big Questions?
  • What tests do your beliefs pass?
  • Who becomes trustworthy by commanding trust upfront?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

my atheism is not a faith

...But I should first address the obvious retort. By the minimal categorical definition of "a complete set of beliefs related to religion", my atheism qualifies as a faith. That's not my point.

Although this categorization might be necessary for entirely practical reasons, it can produce the wrong impression. It tempts incorrect comparisons. Both before and after my deconversion, I've encountered statements on this subject which are simply wrong. "Like any other religion, atheism requires the suppression of doubt." "Like anyone else, atheists have their own fundamental unfalsifiable axioms to serve as the basis of logical thought." "Like the existence of the supernatural, the non-existence of the supernatural amounts to a huge assumption."

However, the way that I consider it, atheism can't be yet-another-faith. It's a different type of belief than my former religiosity. That's the rationale behind the unwieldy term "deconversion". For me at least, atheism wasn't acceptance of a differing conglomerate of notions. It was dismissal of all of my religious notions. I reapplied my Pragmatic standard of meaning to the religious domain and judged it too shaky to continue believing.

Thus the deconversion to atheism did not require an equal or greater number of doubt-suppressed assumptions. It required fewer. It lowered the cognitive difficulty. I gave myself the freedom to stop strenuously separating the privileged religious domain from the normal processes of skepticism and critical thinking. I no longer had the weighty burden of either resolving or ignoring all the inconsistencies between discovered reality and the propositions of my parents' religion.

Having said that, I should also acknowledge that I still make assumptions. It seems to me that everyone does all the time. Assumptions are Pragmatic planning tools. The pivotal question is which assumptions to make. Not every assumption is well-grounded. Human inventiveness can supply assumptions at a faster rate than the rate of possible verification. It's worthwhile to be choosy with assumptions. For instance, does an assumption fit with a great number of confirmed ideas? Can it be used and tested? Does it depend on a multitude of other assumptions? Distrust of a particular assumption doesn't consist of a second assumption. Since humans swim in an ocean of free-floating assumptions, distrust of each assumption's underpinnings is the sensible default!

Moreover, I confess to a handful of "fundamental axioms". The essential distinction is that my boring axioms are mostly about methods and are not universally applicable. For example, reality has patterns. A given change usually happens at approximately the same speed. Senses yield consistent results under normal circumstances. Not everything that the human brain computes corresponds to stuff outside it. Evidence that passes a greater number of checks is more reliable than evidence that passes a fewer number of checks.

A Pragmatic atheism isn't comparable to many faiths. It's not an alternative dogma for Truth. It's a side-effect of a methodical and careful search for truths (plural, lower-case).

Friday, October 12, 2012

code word: genre

When "genre" is applied as an adjective, not a noun, what does it mean? Genre movie, genre television, genre genres...

Speaking as someone who isn't in any way part of the entertainment industry, my impression is that it's a code word for "nerdy". The undertone is that labeling media as "nerdy" is too embarrassing. Much better to use the code word whenever possible. As a nerd, I can't help feeling a little offended by this.

Part of my issue is that this practice raises more questions than it answers. I've read that this usage of "genre" is taken directly from the book publishing terminology "genre fiction". According to the Wikipedia entry for genre fiction, crime, mystery, and romance are all identifiable media genres that fiction creators intentionally target. Doesn't this indicate that Breaking Bad is "genre" (crime)? NCIS (mystery)? Rom-coms (romance)? These appear to be genre fiction according to the established definition. If someone objects to calling these genre fiction, then that objection is an indication that the genre adjective is really a code word now, and not short for "genre fiction".

I suppose that there are alternatives to both "genre" and "nerdy". These alternatives emphasize the divergence of these genre genres from prosaic contemporary life: speculative, imaginative, alternate-reality. I'm generally unimpressed by the blatant substitution of code words, but at least these alternatives positively emphasize common characteristics of the works rather than negatively emphasize what the works are not (i.e., Not Literary).

Monday, October 08, 2012

atheism is narrow-minded?

Surprises keep life interesting. Not too long ago I experienced a surprising description of my perspective of atheism: "narrow-minded". The objector explained that atheism is too dismissive of competing beliefs and too arrogant in its expression of certainty. Then they repeated a well-known quote from Hamlet. "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Since I find myself existing in a complicated reality, my first reaction is to recognize the partial accuracy of these statements. If truths are defined through a Pragmatic-like approach, then it must be much more narrow-minded than the mindset that "all dogmas are equally valid". That's the advantage of it; it disqualifies incorrect/irrelevant ideas. Exclusivity is the rationale and the goal. Rather than debate the merits of abstract notions with unclear meanings, Pragmatists attempt to anchor the notions in pieces of practical reality. Notions that can't withstand this process are dropped from consideration, on purpose, with good reason.

Moreover, exclusivity is indispensable. Otherwise, disproved or unproved statements are too numerous to accept. Human inventiveness is the supplier. If the standard is lowered, then which of the contradictory statements in the growing pile shall be truths? And why should there be special treatment for proposed statements with a supernatural topic? When supernatural reality doesn't disprove any statements which humans propose, it is literally meaningless. When "X" can take any form whatsoever and confirm any statement, communication about "X" is effectively futile. It's sensible to not assume that most human statements are wholly correct. It's more arrogant to assume.

However, the "narrow-minded" aspect isn't synonymous with "close-minded". That is, I won't claim that my knowledge is either complete or inviolate. My approach simply cannot permit me to assert that prepackaged truths reached my brain via a direct conduit to a singular omniscient infallible Source. Instead I can merely cite the real sources for what I believe, i.e. the bases of my thoughts and actions. Those real sources of old information are judged relative to the real sources of new information. I'm extremely critical, i.e. "close-minded", of alleged violations of physical principles with thousands of past confirmations. I'm receptive, i.e. "open-minded", of alternative data which overturns a temporary hasty conclusion of mine. Tell me that my wristwatch is wrong, including how you know that, and I reset my wristwatch. Tell me that my soul is under inspection by Mr. Infinity, and I elevate my right eyebrow.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

helpful lies or unhelpful truths

I like to think that a Pragmatist-like concept of truth is incisive and appealing. Isn't it tidy to connect a proposition's level of truth more or less directly with the methods or actions for confirming it? But objectors understandably prefer a simpler concept of truth that disconnects the subjective role even further: they'd rather say that real is real and truth is truth. What about helpful lies or unhelpful truths? Don't these two categories show the limitations/weaknesses of Pragmatist-like truth?

My immediate reply is to admit that I'm not presenting an infallible path to truth, and if the alternatives claim such an infallible path then the alternatives are mistaken. My longer reply is a Pragmatist-like analysis of those two categories. In practice, how are specific propositions classified as helpful lies or unhelpful truths?

Obviously, the secondary classifications "helpful" and "unhelpful" indicate that the propositions are either aids or hindrances for accomplishing particular goals. However, the primary classifications "lies" or "truths" force the follow-up question of how we know to sort a given proposition into one of those two. Although the original argument merely assumes that the relevant propositions can be definitely classified as lie or truth, this tactic won't work in general because personal assumptions are so often wrong. The sensible conclusion is that there must have been some primary procedure for us to know for certain that the proposition under consideration is lie or truth, and we must have gained that knowledge independently from the proposition's secondary classification of helpful or unhelpful.

Hence classification of actual propositions as helpful lies or unhelpful truths presumes two procedures with conflicting results, a primary and a secondary. An occurrence like this surely demonstrates that the secondary procedure, i.e. that single "helpfulness" test, is a flawed test for truth. But the invalidation of one procedure by another doesn't invalidate the overall concept of Pragmatist-like truth.

I don't argue that true implies "always helpful for all goals" and false implies "always unhelpful for all goals". Reality is too complicated. Propositions are too numerous. Goals are too flexible. That's exactly why more than one confirmation procedure is a good idea anyway and the human judge resolves or prioritizes conflicting results. Moreover, helpful lies and unhelpful truths can be essential mid-points on the journey to propositions of greater refinement. A partial answer could be helpful for some purposes regardless of its ultimate disqualification, and the unhelpful nature of a puzzling piece of data could challenge incorrect preconceptions. The dread of (temporary) contradictions isn't part of Pragmatist-like truth, which is intended to evolve. Intolerance of contradictions is more emblematic of fastidious otherworldly concepts of truth.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

the most honest of supernatural beliefs

In the previous entry I pointed out that the result of someone's "search for meaning" can only be as valid as its answers to "the demand for meaning" which everyone else applies to it. Two central questions of that demand for meaning are 1) "What exactly do you know?" and 2) "How do you know it?" I judge that beliefs in the supernatural offer irrelevant and/or illogical answers to such questions.

But recently I found a specimen that fares better than most: Ietsism. Ietsism asserts that "Something" supernatural exists with some of the characteristics which traditional religions assign to gods, but The Something is also almost wholly unknown. Hence Ietsism answers the two central questions from before as follows: 1) virtually nothing and 2) an inarticulate emotional sensation. Ietsism doesn't invent complicated theology and then insist on the reality of those unconfirmed inventions. In that way, Ietsism must be one of the most honest of beliefs in the supernatural.

That doesn't imply that I converted, of course. Despite its honesty, Ietsism is nevertheless too flimsy.

I confess that I've felt an impulsive connection to my surroundings. I've been in a humble mood of gratefulness for my existence. I've marveled at immensity and complexity. I've observed fortunate coincidences that evoked the hope that the cosmos is helping me. I've observed unfortunate coincidences that evoked the anger that the cosmos is thwarting me. I've striven to accomplish ideals.

Don't these ephemeral intuitions qualify as religious experiences? No, in my estimation. To draw the conclusion of Something is to lend far too much credence to my own caprices. Humans are too easily influenced. How often do we jump to the unlikely explanation that fits our preconceptions of the moment? If we're feeling mistrustful, then hissing whispers are about us. If we're feeling fearful, then unexpected noises are coming from dangers. If we're feeling proud, then our failures are mere accidents. If we're hungry, then food is wondrous; if we're nauseated, then food is ghastly. Feeling is a pragmatic starting-point, not a pragmatic clinching fact. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

the demand for meaning

At times my Pragmatist heart is irritated by the endless abstract debates about the existence of gods. I have an instinctual distrust in rarefied arguments. I want to hurry along to the propositions about the supernatural which have more relevance to a human like me. After an entire belief system is atomized into a long list of short propositions, "The god known as ____ exists" is merely the first candidate for evaluation.

Furthermore, as atheists examine the rest of the propositions in the list, I wish that they would borrow the Pragmatist approach, the demand for meaning. The meaning and reliability of any proposition (including the level of accuracy) should be bound to its verified implications. If the proposition were accurate, then what would be the difference? How does someone distinguish this proposition from the unlimited number of false propositions? What's the basis of the verification procedure's trustworthiness? Questions like these aren't quite the same as demanding evidence. These are requests for rigorous clarification. Communication doesn't happen until the listener manages to decode the speaker's logic. The demand for meaning is the refusal to start a discussion before everyone understands the essential claims which are connected to the propositions.

For example, "The god known as ____ is good." A listener could ask, " 'Good' according to whom?" Or "As demonstrated by what?" Until the speaker offers an unambiguous explanation of the exact interactions between the proposition and reality, the listener isn't obligated to make erroneous assumptions to fill in the gaps in comprehension. Details matter. Once the demand for meaning has established the specific method to judge the proposition, the speaker and listener can go on to compare the results that they each obtained by that method. Perhaps the method is to accept the opinion of a hierarchy of elites who somehow have privileged access to supernatural truths; the speaker has no objections in doing so, but the listener balks.

I don't deny the emotional desire to search for meaning wherever it may be found in numerous narratives. I do ask that others try not to be exasperated by my demand for meaning when they express their own ideas to me. And when someone believes in something supernatural because the belief is comfortable, they should have the honesty to admit it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

the lottery of saintliness

It's realistic to note that the typical human life contains horrible details from time to time, if not more frequently. This presents an inevitable puzzle for anyone who believes in supernatural forces which are both benevolent and powerful. Before the culmination of my gradual intellectual anti-conversion, I maintained an uneasy acceptance of several well-known solutions to that puzzle. One partial solution was that the supernatural forces place a high value on human freedom and therefore on the consequent side-effects of that freedom. Hence some of the awful parts of human existence were explicable as the effects of other humans' despicable yet free choices. Rather than causing or preventing awful events, supernatural forces simply permitted humans to do as they wished.

However, from my new vantage point, I've noticed a problem with this solution. I don't mean the obvious injustice of supernatural forces allowing many to suffer for the mistakes of few. I mean the failure of the solution to succeed on its own terms in shifting the blame. It presumes that at the moment when a human selects evil, the sole substantial explanation of that selection cannot be anything other than the selector's freedom. Otherwise, the selector is under influences and by that fact cannot function as an independent and blameworthy shield for the notion of supernatural forces which are both benevolent and powerful.

Examples may be clearer. If the selector has an excessive inborn level of aggression and it influences the selection, then it's partly responsible. Yet once that concession is made, the next question arises: why didn't the benevolent and powerful supernatural forces, which value freedom so highly, intervene to rectify that "external" influence and increase the selector's freedom? Or consider the selector whose culture conditioned him or her to give harsh treatment at every opportunity to everyone in an out-group. Surely this conditioning is an influence on the selection of evil and at the same time is outside of the control of the selector and under the potential control of supernatural forces. Or turn to positive contributors. Suppose that the selector has benefited from the lifelong care and guidance of excellent role models who continually taught appropriate techniques for self-control and coping. Is it fair to credit detrimental influences for reckless selections but not credit advantageous influences for conscientious selections?

In short, regardless of the ultimate degree of freedom of human selectors, the influences on their selections differ greatly. Assuming supernatural forces which don't interfere in these scenarios, the conclusion is that those forces acquiesce in effect to a lottery of saintliness. Some unfortunate humans select good or evil on the basis of tragic factors, while some fortunate humans select good or evil on the basis of lovely factors. Some must build their characters out of straw and some out of brick. In either case the supernatural forces, due to tender adoration of human freedom, tolerate the resulting successes and failures.

Under the watchful benevolence and power of the supernatural forces, the lottery of saintliness confers to Damien personal constraints toward selecting evil and to Victor personal constraints toward selecting good. Damien freely chooses contemptible actions which harm Victor in one way or another. But the faithful believers shall never doubt the benevolence nor the power of supernatural forces for this outcome. Instead they shall shrug; no one said it was a perfect system.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

self-refuting statements: a proud tradition

From the standpoint of logic, some statements are unusual. For instance, a statement could assert its own truth: "I tell the truth." It could be redundant: "The obvious statement is obvious." It could reference itself: "I have seven syllables."

Yet self-refuting statements are the most unusual specimens of all. "I am lying" is the prototype, but unfortunately it is far from alone. In fact, generations of humans have believed in clusters of these.
  • My benevolent god wishes that I kill you.
  • My omnipotent god requires me to defend it.
  • The freedom my god has granted to me is expressed through complete and unquestioning obedience to specific forms of coercion.
  • Sacred statements possess objective Truth because of the opinions of many believers, referred to as 'faith'.
  • Centuries-old moral customs last eternally as long as believers expertly modify the original formulations, in order to integrate the many deep cultural changes which happened since.
  • Centuries-old texts are literally true and readily apparent apart from the sections which are purely metaphorical and infinitely debatable.
  • Divine justice shall come, although that may not occur until after every good believer is already dead.
  • My god is affected by the requests of earnest believers, but it does whatever it wishes regardless.
  • After altering my internal state of mind via various techniques, I eventually sense the external existence of the spiritual realm.
  • The best 'open-minded' way to fairly check for god's existence is to greatly discount contrary signals and greatly magnify agreeable signals, i.e. you must believe in order to see.
  • I construe the truism "absence of proof is not proof of absence" as affirmation of my views alone, despite placing my views in the same logical category as every unobserved "thing", including the irritating gnomes that steal socks on laundry day.
I have no doubt that thoughtful believers have their own thorough responses to the preceding statements. In return they may feel inspired to suggest self-refuting statements to illustrate my beliefs. I'll anticipate a few on their behalf, and then counter each one immediately (blogger's privilege):
  • Transcendent authority doesn't exist, but that doesn't stop me from claiming to know truths better than you. Authority and correctness don't need to be transcendent to be pragmatically useful. Beliefs lie on a continuum of certainty based on the level of verification of the beliefs' implications. Depending on the particular belief, I am simply too unimpressed by the belief itself or its inadequate verification.
  • My skepticism of others' fundamental axioms overlooks the unavoidable necessity of my own. I don't dispute the necessity of minimal axioms. Something must function as the foundation of symbolic thought. However, that doesn't justify an explosion of mostly-unproven assumptions about the universe. Better to have few axioms than many axioms.
  • Like all humans, I opine that some morality is superior to the rest, although my failure to profess transcendence once again presents no plausible basis for me to do so. Ethical principles and guidelines can originate from humanity. So can goals and ideals ("values"). Instead of reference to an ultimate moral standard, I use the full extent of my human capabilities to perceive and balance the various concerns which apply to a dilemma. When asked, I explain my analysis and justifications bit by bit without mentioning any gods whatsoever, because the backing of a god is irrelevant to evaluating the righteousness of my moral judgment. The religious actually agree on this point. During a conflict between differing religions 1 and 2, the proponents of religion 1 certainly don't give any more credence to the conflicting morals of religion 2 due merely to the ("false") god of religion 2...
  • Imperceptible inferences about the supernatural domain are inexcusable, while imperceptible inferences about the natural domain are customary. Inferences differ in validity and probability. To infer the supernatural is to step far beyond the support of known reliable facts. Satisfactory proof needs to be consistent and therefore statistically significant (i.e. not explicable by the slim nonzero chance of rare coincidences). Inferences of supernatural causes fail the criteria, at least in comparison to competing inferences of natural causes. Supernatural causes also have the downsides of extravagant mystery and unpredictability. Placing blame on undetectable mind-organisms, like unidentified designers, raises a torrent of aggravating questions about life-cycle, psychology, habitat, composition...
  • Reason and decision-making have resulted in the inescapable conclusion that 'reason' and 'decision-making' are illusions superimposed on the brain's physics of matter and energy. I suppose, but according to that logic, isn't everything "illusions" superimposed on physics of matter or energy? Surely reason and decision-making can continue to be meaningful if the innards of the two are particles rather than ghostly mind-stuff. In either case, marvelous symbolic computations continue to yield stunning products. Matter can be the executor and storage of the computations, assuming the right configuration: not tiny isolated chunks of it, like hydrogen gas, but vast populations and multitudes of interconnections, like BRAINSSSS.
  • Humans are content with an existence in an unguided universe which contains no god(s) and no afterlife. The flippant rejoinder is that human contentment isn't the aim, truths are; the appropriate reactions to the truths are "left as an exercise" to the seekers. Seriously, my recommendation is to avoid obsession on unchangeable Big Questions. Such obsessions are distractions from what can be enjoyed and controlled: daily life, on planet Earth, in the 21st century. On the other hand, I think it's generally good for a human to create a "purpose" and to acknowledge/accept the danger of inevitable death. For example, motivation for rectifying some of the terrible afflictions on humanity, even on a small scale, isn't contingent on how much it pleases gods.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

personal responsibility through collective suffering

I'm no economist, which explains why I attempted to describe the economy using "deadlocks" and "local minima/maxima". And I suspect that many other commentators aren't economists either, which explains why their preferred analysis also comes from a different domain: morality. Within that frame, economic decisions are moral decisions; decisions in the context of efficient markets result in swift and appropriate moral consequences. Personal responsibility is a synonym for the level of economic success.

Like many perspectives, this one has an unsurprising problem: its implications aren't a perfect fit for all reality. For example, market shifts in the unit price of fossil-based fuel have unavoidable consequences on anyone who has no substitute method of transportation to and from the workplace, yet the sole cause of these shifts isn't their personal decisions. Nor are they personally responsible for drastic adjustments in the market price of their largest assets. Nor are the downsized employees of a company responsible for the new competing product that decimated the company's number of customers. In an actual massive economy, relatively tiny participants might not have meaningful personal responsibility for their current level of economic success. (Although they decide how to adapt to the changes, of course.) Poetically, transactions link the fates of many, whether temporary or ongoing, whether material or contractual.

Hence, while the moralistic interpretation is sometimes accurate and instructive, it also has pragmatic limits. To prescribe grave and unrestricted consequences is to affect the "innocent" as well as the "wrongdoer". To permit a woeful decision to ricochet is to watch escalating damage to the bystanders. It's paradoxical. Market "punishment" can be effectively unjust. The perpetrator might be able to absorb the fall in wealth without much harm but the same loss eliminates the net worth of multiple others.

I agree that personal responsibility is a vital principle for a realistic free market. I agree that an economy without risks is an economy without a brighter future. But I disagree that the entire thing must be left sick whenever a slob sneezes, in order to ensure the slob's maximum pain.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nick Burns the Client Object

In 2009 I compared a lack of data encapsulation to a nudist community. Not long ago another metaphor struck me, but this one applies to the interactions among objects within that anti-pattern: Nick Burns, Your Company's Computer Guy. If translated to the form of skit dialogue, it might be like the following.
  • Nick Burns, Client Object: (impatient) You're the Customer object, right? Tell me the average number of purchases per month, year-to-date.
  • Customer Object: (confused) Er...but...I don't have a method for doing that. I know the customer inside and out, but you're asking for statistics about the orders. I suppose I have the ability to fetch all customer purchases for a time range...
  • Client Object: (annoyed) Don't know much, do you? Give me all your data and MOVE! The Client Object .gets() all the information from the Customer Object, filters it, and finally calculates. THERE! Was that so hard?
  • Customer Object: (defensive) Well, if someone had given me the capability to do what you were asking, or if you had gone to the right Object in the first place...
  • Client Object: (dismissive) Don't worry about it. You're just one more do-nothing data container like all the objects in the hierarchy. I'm here to do your thinking for you. The Client Object starts to return to its caller, then hesitates and turns back to the Customer Object for one last bit of sarcasm. Oh, by the way, you're welcome!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Google Translate met my challenge?

In the last footnote of the previous entry, I wondered if the infamous ambiguity of natural language would easily defeat algorithms that don't have deep comprehension of the symbols. I contrived two different English sentences with distinct meanings despite sharing many words: 1) "I'm quitting my run because I can't stand the sun directly overhead," and 2)"Too much overhead is required to run a stand". I'm feeling chagrin after I stuck the two into Google Translate. It produced French translations that don't appear to have grievous errors. Then again, my first language is English and my French But my consultations of online French-to-English dictionaries haven't shown any serious problems. For an English speaker who doesn't know any French, the words' discernible resemblances aren't hard to see. I'll admit it. I'm impressed by Google Translate's use of context. Will Google's automated cars do well on Canadian roads?

UPDATE later:'s a counterexample of GT not working as well. "The child put the toy in the pen" is a classic conundrum for machine translation. "Stylo" is not the appropriate French word in this case. Changing "pen" to "playpen" works better, though. L'enfant mis le jouet dans le stylo.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

the renovated Chinese Room

I have already posted about the Chinese Room two times. But after reading some comments in The Symbolic Species by Terrence W. Deacon, I think I can offer some more clarification or express the same perspective in a different way. Although Deacon states his belief that artificial intelligence is possible, he also opines that the Chinese Room casts doubt on the equivalency of sentience and algorithms for manipulating dissociated symbol tokens. These algorithms belong to systems of logical deductions, which function well in many domains but not as realistic models of brain computations. I agree with him. In fact, I shall renovate the Room around his observation.

As always, the bemused human alone in the closed room receives a sequence of unknown1 tokens (i.e. symbolic representations), applies a preexisting set of manipulation rules onto that sequence to form a response sequence, and finally sends back the response. However, this time, the testers outside the room are shrewd in their determination to detect the presence or absence of a sentient conversationalist. They carefully note the close correspondences of questions and responses. Gradually the growing collection of notes resembles the collection of originating rules in the room, which the unknowing manipulator can neither disobey nor adjust.

Eventually, the testers select and "combine" two suitable questions from out of the notes. By "suitable" I mean that via the syntactic and semantic structure of the unknown language, one of the selected questions modifies the meaning of the second. The meaning of the combined question isn't a "lossless sum" of the two questions' independent meanings2. Therefore an appropriate and believable response to the combined question isn't in the set of acceptable responses to either of the two independent questions. If the testers receive a believable response, then they may try combining two other questions. Or combine the combined question with a third. Or combine it with another combined question. For mischievous testers, the possibilities multiply.

For instance, since the algorithm in the room is intended to mimic a human3, it surely has a prepared response to the question, "What food does your father like to eat?" The alleged algorithm somehow uses the tokens of that question to produce the tokens of a response like "Licorice". Again, the algorithm surely has a prepared response to a distinct question of the same general category, "What food do you like to eat for breakfast?" Will the algorithm produce a reasonable response to the modified question, "What food does your father like to eat for breakfast?" Or, "What food does the father of your father like to eat for breakfast?" Or, "What food does your father not like to eat and you like to eat for breakfast?"

Regardless of the questions' triviality, the interpretive complexity can increase dramatically through tweaks that are rather simple (for humans!). As always, the Chinese Room asks, "Assuming that the fraud in the room achieves a perfect outcome from the testers' perspective, isn't it a self-contradiction for them to claim that anything in the room understands?" But after my renovation of the testers' methods, successful deception is much more difficult for the proposed algorithm! No matter how long the algorithm's finite list of prearranged question and responses, the testers can still escape it through valid combinations of any suitable questions in the list. And recall that the tokens of the right responses for the combinations aren't derivable from the tokens for the responses for the independent questions. If the algorithm is one big list of token transformations, then the testers can confound it by constructing an explosive quantity of more and more questions. It cannot yield passable words in response to the combined question by transforming passable words of the responses to independent questions4.

Thus the algorithm cannot successfully defeat the challenge unless it consists of more than a preset list of token manipulations. Instead it must think of the tokens as symbols (and qualify as Deacon's second "Symbolic Species"). It must expand and condense information. It must translate: 1) from the source sequence to reconstituted isomorphic reference "content", 2) from the restored "content" to an appropriate response, 3) from the response content to an adequate sequence of symbolic tokens to represent it.

My own past reactions to the Chinese Room have assumed that the algorithm in the room was doing these tasks in order to work convincingly: hence my view that the meanings, i.e. isomorphisms, of the unknown language simply resided in the smart algorithm as opposed to the algorithm's human "scribe". With a renovated Chinese Room in which the testers exploit the tireless elaboration permitted by language, the algorithm is forced to take the form of symbolic thought which I assumed; direct token transformation is a hopeless strategy5.

1 As other commentators have remarked, the unknown characters are "Chinese" in order to emphasize mystery for native speakers who use Latin-derived alphabets, so Aurebesh and Tengwar would fill the role too. In any case, with the right talent, tools, and educated skills, a linguist in the Room might speculate accurately about the unknown language itself after study of the algorithm and a large quantity of sample sequences. Nevertheless, the experience of archaeologists demonstrates that lack of context would prevent discovery of the majority of the tokens' meanings.
2 Grammatical modification is a significant characteristic of natural/unbounded language. Changes to tense, mood, gender and so forth are less like addition or multiplication and more like shifting ("rotating" or "translating") a vector's direction along many axes. The testers outside the room can certainly perform these language operations because they're fluent humans without the restriction of pure token manipulations. Unfortunately, they couldn't mechanize this type of processing until AI has a long-sought breakthrough: guided re-combination of old ideas is one of the leading definitions of creativity.
3 It's questionable whether mimicry of humanity is an essential proof of intelligence. I chose this instance to highlight that aspect. "Thinking like me" is a narrow and shallow definition of intelligence. Deacon acknowledges that this definition is already applied to answer the similar and basic question, "How do I know any human besides me has the same intelligence, sentience, and consciousness?"
4 In more formalized language, if the algorithm requires an explicit individualized mapping from every source sequence of tokens to a response sequence of tokens, then the algorithm is not computable. The combinatorial capability to create new meaningful source sequences implies that no theoretical algorithm can enumerate or count all the source sequences or contain a novel response sequence for each. (Nobody really speculates that human brains handle natural language in this way.)
5 Perhaps ambiguity would stymie direct token transformation sooner than I suggest. Without deep information about all the numerous definitions, the initial categorization of words as "nouns" or "verbs" could be problematic. For example, what if the question were to guess the speakers of the following quotations? 1) "Too much overhead is required to run a stand." 2) "I'm quitting my run because I can't stand the sun directly overhead." The first is an entrepreneur pondering where to sell, and the second is a dehydrated athlete.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

immediacy gaps

The quest continues to defend materialistic naturalism from malicious distortions. This entry is a natural extension to its predecessor, which was a natural extension of its predecessor. Where I last left off, I suggested that it's no loss of information to relinquish the philosophical idea of "real" minds. The tangled contents and events of consciousness correlate precisely (albeit cryptically) to the tangled contents and events of the brain. Ultimately, the set of physical operations that the brain performs to compute the "inner world" will certainly turn out to be at least as bewildering as the apparent experience of consciousness. My guess is that the set of brain operations will be far more bewildering; one vexing question among many is how exactly the summarized and sanitized "window" of mentality is synthesized out of the glaring discord of myriad neuron firings.

Unfortunately, the advance of knowledge about the brain's functioning has an intrinsic credibility problem, which is an immediacy gap. Within pure experience, not all parts are equally immediate. The coldness of ice water has great immediacy. Planning when to go buy more envelopes has less immediacy - the need might be urgent but the planning itself is not engrossing. A phone in my hand has great immediacy. A phone that I remember using several years ago has less immediacy.

Differences in immediacy motivate differing instinctual reactions. Parts of pure experience that have immediacy provoke rapid evaluation and firm belief in the parts' existence. Immediacy implies difficulty to ignore. It depends on few conceptual intermediates, unlike the lengthy chains of reasoning which link abstruse logical statements. Sparse intermediates are consistent with nonverbal character. Symbolic communication only comes "later", after suitable descriptions and metaphors are chosen. The nonverbal character is in turn consistent with frequent idiosyncrasy. For instance, individuals experience varying degrees of favor for particular smells or tastes.

Hence, humans cope constantly with substantial gaps of immediacy. It's a factor in good psychological health. Intellectual labor and social cooperation help to disentangle raw immediacy from "true" importance and/or reality. Maturity includes the recognition that experiences with immediacy often have in-depth impersonal causes, which by comparison have little if any immediacy. An empty blue sky is certainly of greater immediacy than envisioning the divergent molecular scattering of electromagnetic wavelengths. A typically effective strategy is to split pure experience into subjective and objective domains and reconcile the two in ways that can be...uh...complicated.

Yet this two-part organizational scheme collides with all propositions about the real origin of the subjective domain. By definition, everything that's categorized into the subjective domain has great immediacy, but propositions belong in the objective domain with less immediacy. Whenever the topic has greater immediacy than the proposition itself, it crosses the immediacy gap. The challenge is convincing someone that propositions about objects can be satisfactory explanations for experiences which have greater immediacy than propositions or objects.

For example, what quantities of what things add up to the "sensation" of an emotion like contentment? None of the possible answers to that question (serotonin?) evoke intuitive satisfaction because of a gap of immediacy between the answer and the question. Humans simply don't experience emotions as sums of quantities of things, so they struggle to equate emotions with even the most thorough analysis. This communication obstacle is quite irrevocable. Crudely put, even if a meticulous teacher in plain view took out the working brain of a determined dissenter and then presented exhaustive and lucid observations of the diligent exertions taking place in direct present correspondence with ongoing thoughts, the exasperated retort might just be, " 'Brain' and 'brain'! What is 'brain'? How can that pulsing ugly thing have any relevance to the vivid beautiful images in my mind's eye?"

Of course, the dissenter's insistence on an "objective" immediacy gap has a cost of assorted systemic brainteasers (so to speak). If origins aren't expressible in propositions about objects, then how does the subjective domain originate? How do real stimuli landing on the real senses enter into the subjective domain? How do intentions in the subjective domain exit to voluntary muscle movements in the objective domain, and how do severed nerves intercept those intentions? How can head trauma affect the content of the subjective domain so drastically? Upon consideration of all these practical facts illustrating the pervasive domination of the objective domain over the subjective domain, on what basis could someone persist in the notion that the two are either independent or that the mere immediacy of the subjective domain implies its superiority?

Immediacy is a consequence of a brain-based point of view. In other words, greater immediacy is no more than greater prominence in the egocentric "universe", constructed by an object called the "brain", using data that arrived via mediated contact with surroundings. It's the preeminent bias. "I think, therefore I am" belongs with a counterpart, "I am what my brain thinks."

Consciousness is a brainy action. The immediacy of some parts of pure experience doesn't falsify this principle. I could construe it as subtle supporting evidence: if the immediacy is meant to be a clue that I have a mind independent of my body, then why is it so rare to have immediate experience of stuff outside my body? Why isn't overt clairvoyance/ESP a common practice? (Vague sensations, probable educated guesses, and unverified fictional explorations like dreams, don't qualify.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

materialistic naturalism is not behaviorism either

This is an addendum to the preceding entry. I tried to draw distinctions between comprehensive materialistic naturalism and the simplistic forms of reductionism or relativism. Materialistic naturalism is the stance that all of reality is natural, and all of it consists of variants of the same material/physical stuff. In particular, if materialistic naturalism is true then it casts doubt on the reality of a ghostly mind, because the usual concept of minds is much too poorly-integrated with proven physical theories. Compared to minds, dark matter's effect on observable parts of reality has more concrete definition and substantiation.

Materialistic naturalism's incompatibility with minds may inspire opponents to equate it to an unappealing philosophical stance known as ("radical") behaviorism. Behaviorism in the bogeyman sense is the proposition that accurate analysis of human thought and decision-making doesn't require any knowledge beyond the plainly-seen external interactions between the human and everything else. In this alleged caricature, minds aren't necessary at all. Most of the proposed attributes of minds aren't easily analyzed or predicted through manifest behavior, so the behaviorist assumes that the attributes are pointless distractions. Humans may assert complex reasons, but their claims are post hoc rationalizations to cover up the real rationales. Behaviors are either inborn or shaped through training. Even a free-will-like rejection of a specific training regimen in the present is probably due to the direct opposing influence of past training regimens which are more strongly ingrained.

Thus bogeyman behaviorism is portrayed as a dehumanizing stance which is self-evidently inadequate to explain the entire range of human experience. Opponents of materialistic naturalism present the dilemma of embracing either the full reality of the mind or the distasteful alternative of behaviorism. I deny the dilemma altogether. Once again the universe is not simple enough to accommodate the old debates.

Indeed, the same detailed evidence that discredits shadowy minds also supports an astoundingly intricate chain of causes for both humans' behavior and inner "mentality". I'm alluding to ongoing research about the brain. The more that we learn and decode what happens in this dense internal space, the less plausible it becomes to revert to either mind-based or behavior-based explanations. Knowledge isn't anywhere near complete, but the trend is suggestive. Brain-based explanations are the future. Minds explain human behavior from the inside-out. Behaviorism explains human behavior from the outside-in. By contrast, brains inside human bodies inside environments are a unitary system of physical behavior.

Having said that, the pragmatic status of these competing explanations is a tricky mixture of qualities. Unlike brains, devices or surgical procedures cannot verify the presence or absence of minds. In that way, minds cannot be as real. Nevertheless, whether the context is the interpretation of another human's behavior or the "location" of conscious sensations, minds work well enough as approximations for the casual purposes of communication and introspection. In that way, the usefulness of the idea of minds is like the usefulness of "real" stuff, i.e. stuff that's verifiable by the multitudinous methods that don't work for minds.

To be more specific, minds are useful to serving the function of intangible inferences. A companion's expressed drowsiness may provoke the comment, "You're feeling sleepy." The comment is an inference about the companion's fictional mind as opposed to a measurement of the quantity of melatonin in the companion's nonfictional body. As long as the state of the "mind" corresponds closely to "real" stuff, it suffices for some aims. The intangibility of drowsiness doesn't destroy its meaningfulness.

Furthermore, within the category of pure human consciousness, other phenomena have similar meaningfulness. "Subjective" thoughts have been shown to have correlates in brain activity. Stimulation of the brain is reflected by occurrences in a subject's "mind", and the currently-predominant factors in a subject's "mind" are reflected by patterns of brain activation. As I mentioned earlier, the amazing mind's material replacement isn't an organic switchboard of behaviorism's straightforward inputs and outputs. It's an equally amazing brain packed with mind-correlates.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

what materialistic naturalism is not

  • Naturalism is the broad and simple stance that anything real is not supernatural and anything supernatural is not real. 
  • Since naturalism describes the borders of reality rather than its interior, I pair it with materialism, which is the presumptive stance that the fundamental contents of reality are material (i.e. physical, particulate, and either observable or deducible from observation). My relationship with materialism is more complicated than pure agreement. But stepping over those numerous semantic pitfalls for a moment1, the most salient point of materialism is that (real) humans are solely composed of the same stuff as anything (real). I see materialism constraining the broad and simple stance of naturalism, so I say "materialistic naturalism" and not "naturalistic materialism"2
  • Reductionism is the stance that a whole thing can be understood by understanding all of its parts. Furthermore, no knowledge is lost by examining all of its parts in isolation.
  • Relativism is the stance that all truth is relative to other truths. For instance, one human's statements about reality may be "true" relative to their own experiences yet "false" relative to some other human's experiences.
An all-too-common misconception is that all of the above stances are inseparable, or that the latter two are logical consequences of the former two. This misconception is so pernicious that it deserves direct debunking. 

I'll start with reductionism. I assume that the charge of philosophical reductionism stems from the frequent usefulness of reductionism as one methodology of many. "Information overload" receives more than its due share of press coverage, but it's quite accurate for many complex things approached as raw wholes. In many cases reducing the whole to a set of parts is an indispensable first step for facilitating comprehension. And over time, the success of this approach has in fact produced more and more reliable knowledge about the parts of complex materials, not to mention the surprisingly complex parts of homogeneous materials.

However, these discoveries could lead to the mistaken overall impression that reality can be fully known just by dividing it up through analysis. It's mistaken because it ignores the essential companion of analysis: synthesis, which is recombining the analyzed parts. Synthesis requires an understanding of how the parts interact in order to give form to the whole. Interactions among parts might be of equal or greater complexity than the parts, and of equal or greater importance. The lack of that knowledge often imposes a practical limit on the applicability and accuracy of idealized calculations, simulations, and predictions. That's why reductionism is most effective in the context of controlled and repeated experiments, which systematically minimize the amount and effect of interfering interactions3.

Hence, solitary reductionism is an incomplete stance. Full knowledge about reality cannot be obtained by first dividing it into separate independent subsets and then knowing the subsets. An investigator must uncover the various interconnections among the subsets to explain the whole.

But for the purpose of frivolous argument, I'll comment on the curious fictional story which is sometimes associated with the reductionist stance: the omniscient materialist (Laplace's demon), who by assumption knows all the material information in all reality. That information includes every bit about every particle as well as every applicable rule for how each one acts and how it interacts with its counterparts4. Does the hypothetical omniscient materialist have all information? Answering "yes" is said to indicate belief in philosophical reductionism, along with determinism.

Of course my answer is "yes"; I'm a professing materialist. I can agree to this peculiar all-encompassing "reductionism" because it's far different from the less grandiose specimens of actual reductionism, which I've already criticized. My belief that my decisions are natural physical phenomena doesn't force me to think that detailed knowledge of individual physical phenomena X/Y/Z is enough to predict my decisions with certainty. What if the measurements are significantly inexact? What if the effects of X/Y/Z are overwhelmed by a positive feedback loop in physical phenomena N/M/O? What if my brain is running low on nutrients? What if a set of mysterious neurons, which has no verbal expression, "tips" the decision in a strange creative direction that avoids the original dilemma altogether? "Reducing" something into mere matter might yield more questions than insights.

On to relativism. Its alleged connection to materialistic naturalism comes from the central inquiry of how to obtain truth: given the premise that humans are nothing but matter, how can any human claims to truth be trusted? If I'm a jumble of cells (or atoms or anything else diminutive), and so is everyone else, what makes their propositions, or even mine, objectively true5? And if we disagree, don't all those other jumbles of cells have as much "authority" as the jumble of cells called "me"? The most any of us can say is that our conflicting truths seem to be real relative to each of us individually.

The reasoning may seem stretched, but I encountered it multiple times prior to the culmination of my gradual intellectual anti-conversion. Clearly it's intended as a reductio ad absurdum, where to stop believing in absolutist supernatural souls or gods is to irrevocably destroy the justification for absolutist truth itself. Outsiders can easily spot the logical flaw, though. If the duty of sacred truths to underpin every other truth, then what underpins the sacred truths? Moreover, how can humans uncover new truths that have no connection whatsoever to the finite list of sacred truths? And on what basis shall they resolve quarrels about the sacred truths? Or select from among the many contradictory groups and subgroups of sacred truths? I imagine that devout thinkers have their own nuanced replies to these questions.

Laying aside the dubious solution of arbitrarily canonizing chosen beliefs into absolutist sainthood, I answer the change of relativism in my usual fashion. Relativism can't have a neat categorization into true or false (i.e. it's not compatible with "binary thinking"). Propositions have varying qualities due to varying content and varying techniques for verification. Humans, viewed through a microscope or not, cope with the demands of propositions as best they can. They may judge that some propositions are relative to the speaker. And relative propositions may work for some purposes. For instance, propositions about monetary value are relative to a buyer, yet every other market participant may find that proposition to be useful.

Nevertheless, relativism isn't thereby an automatic judgment for all propositions. Humans may judge that some propositions are not relative. It's pragmatic to do so. I've mentioned the two "meta-truths of objectivity": 1) it works for an individual human to think that some parts of reality exist independently of that individual, 2) it works for an individual human to think that some other individuals also interact with some identical parts of reality. For any isolated proposition, it's uncertain at the outset whether both meta-truths apply to it. That's for the human to evaluate/verify/judge. Objectivity per se is a conclusion, not an axiom. (Someone may choose to adopt the tactic of "objective until proven subjective" from time to time.)

I forgive skeptics who are unconvinced by the proposal that individual humans are responsible for judging the degree of relativism case by case. Am I not assuming what I wish to prove? At first hearing it sounds like I'm advocating verification by bluster. If the proposition "I'm telling the truth" isn't adequate proof that the speaker is telling the truth, then how is the proposition "I'm telling you something that isn't relative" adequate proof that the speaker is telling me something that isn't relative? The short response is that no, it isn't adequate proof on its own. Humans can err, and humans can be wrong about how much relativism is embedded in the truth of a proposition.

The longer convoluted response, appropriate for a convoluted reality, is that I can't present universal guidelines or procedures. When the proposition is about obvious objects, the proposition is less likely to be relative. When the proposition fits well with other propositions which I judge to be true, the proposition is less likely to be relative. When the proposition comes with a straightforward method for anyone to test it, the proposition is less likely to be relative. When the proposition is expressed by many, the proposition is less likely to be relative. When the proposition is expressed by a dispassionate expert, the proposition is less likely to be relative. And on and on.

It may feel uncomfortable that fallible humans play a central messy role in the dialogue about truth, but as long as propositions continue to be messages between humans it's unavoidable albeit manageable6. Unfortunately, sublime emotional comfort isn't a mark of truth. If anything a comforting proposition should invite suspicions about its level of convenience. Building and attacking an uncomfortably-itchy straw man out of simpleminded reductionism/relativism doesn't discredit materialistic naturalism with facts. It shows that the debater has chosen to urge the reality of ideas based on attractiveness, as opposed to urging the reality of ideas based on verified implications7. Desiring standalone/easy truth doesn't cause it to materialize (it's like ice cream in that aspect).

Within materialistic naturalism, truths are laborious and valuable. Humans try hard to purge the extreme elements of reductionism/relativism. They attempt to eliminate both oversimplification of internal structure or personal bias. To ask that truths never have the least inkling of reductionism/relativism is to ask the impossible8.

Much more proof should be demanded of those who posit an alternate reality which allows that possibility. In that alternate reality, materials have no parts and humans don't have any individual frames of reference. It's a realm with many approximate similarities to ours and a beautiful place to visit. But when we need to accomplish anything, we return home, confounding though it may be. 

1 "Semantic pitfalls" refers to the fraught complications which arise during long discussions about "Reality", the philosophical idea. To a pragmatist's eye, those complications appear to amount to nothing more than disagreements about ideological preferences. Which labels communicate the "best" emphasis? No matter how argumentative a pair of philosophers is, the specific question "Is  ____ 'real'?" may not yield the same disputes...until they go on to say "And by 'real' in general I mean..."
2 Materialistic naturalism is different from "supernatural materialism". Supernatural materialists blur the lines by proposing that supernatural stuff is also built solely from matter. Thus the supernatural stuff cannot violate physical laws and it isn't different in kind from natural which case "supernatural" becomes a confusing term. It customarily stands for "phenomena beyond nature". But for the supernatural materialist it stands for "natural phenomena which happen to be beyond current human explanation or understanding". For example, they may refuse to believe in the traditional concepts of gods/spirits yet believe in "paranormal soul powers" (they may use the words "mind" and "soul" interchangeably).

Other examples of supernatural materialism veer closer to understated pantheism. Its most abstract forms don't need anything beyond materialism. Instead there's the worship of cosmic unknown knowledge: combining a belief in a "god of the gaps" with the observation that the inherent limitations of puny humans imply that everything in toto is mostly a knowledge "gap" to us upstart primates. I respond by admitting readily that a human's inability to grasp all reality is humbling, but that emotion isn't a sufficient reason to cultivate misunderstanding by applying the figurative name "god" to it. If it's only phrased as worship of the "order" displayed by materialistic reality, then I still question the merit for those warm feelings. The impersonal flow of natural laws will utterly demolish us into our constituent pieces eventually whether we respect it or not. On the other hand, if everyone agrees to completely restrict "god" to a colorful synonym for "awe-inspiring", then I'll join in on the harmless metaphorical fun: a well-done blend of lemonade and iced tea inspires me to call it the spittle of god. The experience of the drink doesn't qualify as "numinous" but the all-consuming enjoyment is somewhat like an altered state of consciousness...
3 The same problem of too many interactions arises in the abstract domains of theory and mathematics. Many variables, whose rates of change are mutually defined in interdependent functions, quickly become formidable obstacles to finding solutions analytically, i.e. proving that a related simpler equation is a solution. The present era of calculating machines has been a great aid in finding solutions numerically, i.e. swiftly calculating and retrying better and better estimates of a solution.
4 I realize the vast breadth and depth of this statement's absurdity. If it helps, imagine seeing it during a tour through Willy Wonka's factory. Wonka: "Next up, here's the Candy Know-It-All Machine. It detects everything which is detectable, and also many things that aren't." (Wonka demonstrates by dropping in a red Everlasting Gobstopper and grabbing the resulting printout of small text.) Guest: "But that's self-evidently preposterous!" Wonka: "No, it's cherry." (Wonka lifts up the printout. It contains lines of letters and punctuation in the rough shape of a cherry.)
5 In passing, note the argument's purposeful usage of "jumble" here. Although it's a caricature, it's one more excellent illustration of the problem with reductionism. Body cells are extremely fine-grained subsets of the whole reality of a human body. To ignore the interactions among these subsets is to ignore the vital structures formed by cells. By doing so the argument is casting the body as a "linear sum" of the effects of its cell parts, whereas the totality of the cell parts' inherent cooperation is more accurately characterized as an "exponential growth" of emergent/network effects. A page of randomly arranged letters is of far smaller total effect than a page with the same quantity of letters arranged into words and grammatical sentences. Unlike a jumble of cells like a colony of bacteria, it's more plausible that a highly-structured body and brain is an effective processor of highly-structured information.
6 It seems to me that nobody seriously wants to remove the human role anyhow. One of the surest ways to provoke a rebellious reaction is to perform all of someone's thinking. Preventing others from thinking the wrong thoughts generally gathers more support than preventing me from thinking the wrong thoughts.
7 In practice, the distinction could be subtle between a proposition's attractiveness and its verified implications, depending on the rationale for its attractiveness. Maybe its degree of intuitive attractiveness, verified by seeking the opinion of a wise mentor, is a "reasonable" implication to ponder...corroborated with more verified implications. Wise mentors who verify a proposition's attractiveness may be insufficient evidence (the proposition could be ugly but true!).
8 Regardless, I confess happily that the specters of reductionism and relativism are virtually nonexistent in a good number of the truths which I acknowledge. Here's a short non-exhaustive listing: the age of my automobile, the value of the Plank constant, the scar on my left thumb, the cash in my wallet, the formula for the area of a circle with radius measurement r. These truths' verifiable implications are quite free from interferences of reductionism and relativism.