Sunday, December 22, 2013

my four guides

Approximately three years ago, I felt newly adrift. I had finally discarded all of my remaining "faith-beliefs" (beliefs based primarily on faith) altogether, because I was ultimately convinced that those beliefs had become meaningless to me.

But it took a while to reach that moment three years ago. Prior to then I had lived through several years of experience and contemplation, as an independent adult, in a world packed with conflicting ideas. During that time, I'd responded by slowly adopting a pivotal yet deceptively straightforward rule: the only certain meaning of any belief is its verified implications, i.e. its eventual impacts on real actions or thoughts ("What do you mean?"  "Let me show you."). I needed to untangle some convoluted philosophical details before I could apply it consistently, but thereafter I couldn't imagine any reasonable and necessary exceptions to it.

And that was the problem! Whenever I began to apply this rule to each of my former faith-beliefs, I consistently concluded that the belief was less and less meaningful. How was it certainly meaningful to propose that I have an immaterial soul, when every indication is much more supportive of a completely physical substrate for consciousness? How was it certainly meaningful to propose that my faith's god was good, when in general every indication of benevolent "supernatural" intervention easily falls into either the category of fortunate natural coincidences and/or the category of actions taken by caring humans? How was it certainly meaningful to propose that the many diverse believers of my faith were all communicating with the same logically self-consistent god, when every indication of divine communication often entailed logical contradictions with other indications of divine communication?

In essence, for a lengthy time period I still identified myself as a believer, but I was persistently irritated by the flaws I started noticing in everyone else's faith-based statements. I wasn't convinced that all my faith-beliefs were certainly false, but I was also unconvinced that all my faith-beliefs were certainly true. By the extreme end of the process (I hesitate to name it an "existential crisis" due to its gentleness), I was willing to apply the rule once again—to myself. How was it certainly meaningful to propose that I was a "believer", when every indication was that I strongly distrusted faith-beliefs which under close examination were entirely unconfirmed, irrelevant, and inexplicable?

So, as I said, I felt newly adrift at that time. I didn't plan to reach that point. It didn't fit my lifelong comfortable level of lukewarm commitment to my family's faith. The inner shift wasn't triggered by a disruptive event such as other believers rejecting me, or an overwhelming desire to do something forbidden by my faith, or abrupt collegiate exposure to modernism. I wasn't angry. I didn't view religion, "organized" or otherwise, to be a poison or virus. Indeed, without my faith-beliefs to fall back on for justifications/rationalizations, I was genuinely unsure about exactly what I should be thinking or feeling about any topic. I still had a few intellectual questions about atheism itself, but really my foremost concern was how to reconstruct my identity. I wasn't looking for negativity. I wanted a sympathetic guide to aid in organizing my thoughts, reassuring me, and modelling this form of upheaval. I didn't wish to read arguments about how hateful/insane/stupid religious believers are...as if I ever had such a low opinion of most of my family and friends, and my past self.

I was in the peculiar position of fully accepting atheism (viz. materialistic naturalism), and simultaneously lacking interest in the statements and activism of all the atheists I'd ever heard of. Of course I barely knew of any atheists other than Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; I'd heard of them in the culture of my upbringing purely because they filled the highly useful motivational role of culture-war boogeymen, through writing books entitled The God Delusion and God Is Not Great. Therefore I frankly wasn't enthused to take the time to read their books while I still clung to my faith-beliefs, and I saw no need to do so once I was already an atheist who had abundant personal experience of religion's benefits and detriments. At least not directly, the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism" didn't affect me before my switch to atheism—neither did YouTube or atheistic websites/blogs.

I couldn't relate to the Four Horsemen. Nevertheless, I wasn't that unique among atheists. Upon further searching I was pleased to discover that contemporary atheism is much broader than I was told.  All across the U.S., others have discarded their faith-beliefs before me and then published their stories. For example, the following four are greatly-appreciated guides who helped me adjust to an atheistic perspective and life.
  • The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (Michael Shermer).....This book boosted my confidence in the necessity of rigorous proof, and it suggested why faith-beliefs are false and popular at the same time. I was surprised and grateful that it included the full story of the author's own religious phase. 
  • Letting go of god (Julia Sweeney)......Sweeney's honest, heartfelt narration of her personal journey was a cathartic relief for me. It reminded me that there's nothing wrong with having strong feelings about discarding faith. Naturally, Sweeney's sharp humor is therapeutic for someone who's facing the loss of psychological support provided by faith-beliefs.      
  • Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists (Dan Barker)......This book infused me with a lot of clarity about what atheism is and how it differs. It covers the author's life, and it covers the weaknesses of a huge range of the frequent/traditional statements advanced by actual Christians, especially related to their Bible. That's to be expected, considering the author is a zealous participant in innumerable debates. For me, a particular strength of this book was its effective ethical reasoning: it underlined that atheists can be conscientious, friendly, compassionate, and happy. Other than some of the abstract argumentation, I enjoyed reading most of this book.  
  • Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason (Seth Andrews)......This book was intriguing to me because the author was somewhat involved with the rise of Contemporary Christian Music ("CCM"), which was more or less the only kind of music my parents bought or played. I can empathize with the author's written reaction to the jarring effect of Rich Mullins' accidental death (in another generation, it was Keith Green who had a similar effect). Like the author, I've been embedded in a religious culture all my life, only to reject its fundamental underpinnings after becoming an adult. In addition to his book, his podcast was a positive encouragement.  

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

the accuracy of an evolved brain

I've encountered more than a few philosophical arguments for faith beliefs. Clearly, I'm no longer convinced by any of these. In fact, I've since realized that the field of apologetics isn't as deeply appreciated by unbelievers as it is by doubting believers, who are quicker to welcome its thin justifications. Nevertheless, like other impractical philosophical topics, these are adequate points for the purpose of frivolous discussion. And a blog is an adequate medium for the purpose of frivolous discussion...

Today's example: "Unlike materialistic naturalism, my religious beliefs assume that the right set of human ideas is utterly accurate. Utter accuracy is possible because human souls aren't vulnerable to the normal imperfections and limitations of physical matter. Also, reality is comprehensible to humanity because both originated from the same source: one or more unearthly souls that value accuracy and think like a human's soul. My explicit basis for accuracy is tidy and comforting and trustworthy. It's a better fit for my preferences than the alternative notion of human ideas existing as mere physical events in a brain. A brain is just a smallish body organ originating from evolution, and evolution obviously isn't a soul which painstakingly engineers accurate thinkers. It's the impersonal tendency to maximize rates of survival and reproduction. So how can anyone be as satisfied with the accuracy of an evolved brain?"

What makes this argument so fascinating to me is that, well, I sorta continue to agree with part of it. I readily concede that evolution hasn't resulted in a brain that always extracts accurate information and then arrives at appropriate inferences. Instead, one common thread in the systematic study of human perception/memory is that humans don't leave information as-is. Nor do they typically analyze information with unassuming mathematical logic. Humans ignore and embellish and filter and overgeneralize. They apply patterns so hastily that they routinely perceive/remember whatever they expect. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated.

This finding is consistent with a survival "goal" of rapid efficient tactical responses. These only require vague short-cut answers which are reached through scarce energy-consuming bodily resources. Without cultural training, an evolved brain isn't an unbiased and dispassionate investigator. Its first question is, "How will the new information affect me here and now?" Humans may proceed to laboriously sift information at advanced levels of reason, but those levels don't replace the primitive level. Hence the religious argument isn't too far off the mark when it expresses anxiety about the basic fallibility of an evolved brain; to the contrary, its mistake is its failure to also acknowledge that its anxiety has been confirmed countless times by real behavior. And those confirmations support evolved brains over aloof souls.

More amusing still, the argument itself amounts to a complaint about the emotionally unsatisfying implications of the opposing conclusion. "I don't like a challenging conclusion very much, so I refuse to think it's accurate." It's undisguised motivated reasoning. But the existence of motivated reasoning is a decisive clue in favor of evolved brains as opposed to aloof souls. As mentioned earlier, it's consistent for an evolved brain to attempt to obtain answers by measuring with an egocentric standard such as "How does this conclusion affect my feelings?" It's not consistent for the same egocentric standard to be measured by an alleged aloof, impartial, abstract, deep, spiritual soul. Generally, according to one of its definitions, faith is a specimen of motivated reasoning: accepting an idea to serve some purpose, regardless of factual proof. Why would humans crave religion's psychological payoffs, such as promises of utterly accurate information, if not due to impulses shaped by evolution? It's subtly self-contradictory when the argument entices the hearer's belief with a relative emotional reward...given that reward-seeking evolved brains are likelier to be, uh, persuaded by such relative emotional rewards.

On the other hand, I might not be expressing the argument most effectively. Perhaps it's intended to present a straightforward logical contradiction: "Unlike my religious beliefs, materialistic naturalism isn't as dependent on the notion of utter accuracy. Therefore it cannot be true because it implies that all statements are false." To which I reply: er...no. Non sequitur. I'll repeat my usual refrain. Real accuracy is a measurement resulting from many various mental and/or physical actions—perhaps more than one, to alleviate the effect of each action's possible defects. Some accuracy is already as "utter" as anyone could ask; despite my lack of an aloof soul I can determine with utter accuracy the quantity of future days in the present month. Meanwhile some accuracy isn't utter but everyone copes; I don't know every last digit of today's balance in all my interest-accruing bank accounts, but I'm sure the amount is greater than ________.

Similarly, the accuracy of the proposition "Human thought is a product of an evolved brain" is measured by actions. When someone observes X, do they observe Y too? Utter accuracy is certainly a pleasant goal, but its frequent absence doesn't eliminate the achievement of lesser accuracy. In practice we don't foolishly presume that any human constructs and emits perfect representations of reality. That's why we take measurements known as "expertise", and why we demand to know what someone means when they speak. It's awfully suspicious whenever someone tries to circumvent their evaluation by saying, "Accept my utterly accurate information because it somehow arose without the action of evolved human brains, unlike every other less grandiose item of information."

Thursday, August 29, 2013

the least repugnant excuse for supernatural inaction

Faith in the supernatural can be difficult to maintain. The more that a believer lives, the more disappointments they experience. Their supernatural entities frequently decline to act, regardless of the quantity, sincerity, or decency of human pleas.

Furthermore, their entities decline to publicly and explicitly explain the full details of their involvement in real occurrences. The sophisticated and subtle reasoning behind the entity's inaction is an additional task left for either the pleader or a zealous human "spokesperson" for the silent entity. Of course, the opposite tactic is explaining that the entity really did respond, but the oblique response appeared to be an ordinary event or it was almost unnoticeable. For example, "A close friend, who knows about my current dissatisfaction, told me about an open position at a different company." Or, "I suddenly felt tranquil."

Naturally, some of these suggested explanations for supernatural inaction are highly superstitious. Did the pleader do something that displeased the entity? Was the pleader too presumptuous? Is the entity's inaction an intentional part of an incredibly complex scheme?

However, one excuse might be the least repugnant: what if a supernatural entity acted nonexistent in order to force humans to make their own significant decisions, confront their own consequences, and develop their own virtues? What if it had the goal of encouraging autonomy, self-responsibility, self-determination, self-discovery? What if it planned to teach humans goodness by permitting them to confirm the terrible alternatives for themselves? What if it considered almost all supernatural actions to be forms of coercion? It's a valid ethical value to permit individuals to meaningfully exercise their individual powers and think their individual thoughts.

On the other hand, this least repugnant excuse still isn't sufficient to override a simpler explanation for inactivity: a supernatural entity that's nonexistent. It raises the same general question as the perennial Problem Of Evil: how inconsistent and/or implausible is it to suppose that discovered reality fits a hypothetical supernatural entity pursuing its hypothetical goals using its hypothetical levels of supernatural powers and knowledge? It's a problematic question whether its hypothetical goal is humanity's happiness or autonomy (or conformity to supernatural diktat for that matter). Existing reality isn't an ideal maximum of any of these human experiences. The observed lack of supernatural action just doesn't match the proposal of an entity with that combination of characteristics.

Specifically, if a supernatural entity has a top goal of teaching and testing humans to decide ethical questions for themselves, then it's illogically overlooking a multitude of chances to promote progress toward that goal. It's evidently not applying its supernatural powers or knowledge to remove the following obstacles, each of which limits the overall experience of humans learning and/or making ethical decisions without coercion.
  • death - There are two options. Either normal life or the afterlife is a better opportunity for humans to develop their ethical decision-making. If the afterlife is, then the entity should mercifully send humans to the afterlife immediately. If normal life is, then the entity should be actively delaying human death regularly. Otherwise, once a human dies, their better opportunity to develop is cut short. Someone may argue that a particular death shouldn't be stopped whenever it's a predictable consequence of the deceased's evil actions, but that exception is counterproductive to the goal. The consequence of one or more evil decisions shouldn't be the total inability to learn or make any more decisions. Fatal mistakes stop ethical development rather than contribute to it. 
  • inaccurate or omitted information - The most ethical decision is typically dependent on many factors of a situation. It might have numerous rippling effects. It might require complicated balances between the desires and claims of several participants. It might overlap between conflicting ethical principles, which aren't equally applicable to the situation. Due to inaccurate or omitted information, an unethical decision can seem ethical to the decision-maker. Deception or fraud can wreck a decision, too. Presumably, informing a decision-maker doesn't qualify as coercion at all, especially when it undoes the spread of misinformation. A supernatural entity which wants humans to make ethical decisions shouldn't hesitate to (intelligibly!) communicate the situation's "big picture" to them.
  • inaccurate or omitted ethical training - A supernatural entity focused on human ethical development implies two assertions. 1) Ethics is a topic that needs to be carefully developed in humans. 2) The entity has definite ideas about what ethical details should be developed. But humans constantly disagree about ethical details, sometimes violently. Moreover, they train their children according to their differing ethics. Unsurprisingly, differing ethical training has a drastic and lasting influence on future decision-making. Yet the hypothetical supernatural entity doesn't intervene to clarify ethical confusion or fix the faults of any ethical training (judged by its ethical ideas). It's like a schoolteacher who shows up in person only on the final day of class to hand out exams to bewildered students. (Add teaching assistants to the analogy if desired.)
  • oppression and interference - Although the supernatural domain could be high-minded, human societies often aren't. A mysterious supernatural ruler might have strong respect and tolerance of independent human decisions, but not all earthling rulers necessarily do. Frankly, a spotless record of ethical decisions isn't enough to ensure beneficial consequences when the decision-maker is vulnerable to unethical associates. Societal context could reward unethical decisions, such as breaking a past agreement to gain a competitive advantage. A pitiful set of constraints could enforce painful dilemmas between ethics or surviving. Or society could forbid the more ethical decision. Whatever the case or the mechanism, human decisions can interfere with one another. Paradoxically, it's more damaging to the process of independent human decision-making to allow some humans to decide to interfere with other humans' decisions.
The concept of a powerful supernatural entity that's idle because it prizes human decision-making is less repugnant than some alternatives. But that doesn't mean the concept is coherent and convincing in relation to the reality that humanity occupies.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

the case of the brain code

As a general rule, a philosophical stance is shaky if one of its most well-respected rationales is an argument from ignorance. In the case of an immaterial soul, the argument from ignorance refers to the mystery of the brain code for information. Defenders of an immaterial soul may try to reckon that this ongoing mystery implies the impossibility of a soulless brain that operates according to boring theories of physics/chemistry/biology. As they may say, if everyone is currently ignorant of precisely how a brain composed of matter encodes the entire range of conscious experience, then isn't it more reasonable to revert to the ancient proposal that a soul is the mechanism instead?

I don't think so, but I willingly acknowledge that a soul could feel more satisfying. I've previously admitted that every objective explanation of conscious experience suffers from a "gap in immediacy". It's like the objective explanation that normal heat is infrared light, regardless of whether humans experience the two categories through differing senses or conscious experiences. In the same way, no matter how much human knowledge discovers about the brain code, the knowledge won't be an "intuitive" match. Broad reality isn't obligated to fit narrow human preconceptions. It's plainly ridiculous to demand that accurate discoveries about the brain code must be as easily teachable as all faith-based explanations.

On the other hand, I also acknowledge that this argument from ignorance is built upon a straightforward hypothetical question: is it possible for an ignorant but open-minded investigator to verify that information is coded somehow in an arrangement of matter like a soulless brain, despite their partial or total ignorance of the code it uses? Of course! Moreover, the number of illustrative metaphors from across human civilization is virtually limitless, especially now in the much-hyped Information Age. In an effort to select a common one that's neither too old nor too new, consider the compact disc. A clever and spectacularly uninformed investigator will attempt to determine whether information is coded on a compact disc. I'll call the investigator by the surname "Japp" (no relation to any other inspectors).

The most obvious solution is for Japp to place the disc in a corresponding machine that's manufactured to 1) read such discs and then 2) produce the encoded information and all its associated effects. Perhaps Japp has access to a laptop computer. As soon as Japp has a conscious experience of the information, such as a high-fidelity audio recording, Japp may report that the disc encodes the information. To be more certain that the information is encoded on the disc rather than in the disc reader, Japp could try repeating the experiment with other discs and other disc readers. This first attempt is like talking to a subject in order to confirm that they can describe the desired information whenever they're asked the right questions; if they can, then the questioner accepts that the information in the subject is coded by the subject's brain.

At this point, Japp might announce success in the small-scale investigation. But in a surprise twist, an objector suggests to Japp that perhaps the information isn't coded in the material of the disc itself. After all, it's evident that the disc is "only an object" and not a conscious experience of information. What if the information mostly consists of a ghost in another "plane" of existence altogether, but it happens to "coincide" with the disc? And the information ghost of the disc manifests because it temporarily possesses the disc reader? (Feel free to substitute "long-lasting quantum effect" for "ghost".)

Ever careful and patient, Japp responds by analyzing the internal structure of the disc and its reader in closer detail. Clearly the reader has a laser component. Japp tries temporarily obstructing and then exposing the laser component, perhaps with some opaque tape. These sneaky manipulations affect the information output of the reader via an extremely close correlation. Next Japp announces that if there is an information ghost, then it's affected by temporarily tampering with the materials of the disc and the reader. Whatever ghostly form that the information has, it's nevertheless dependent on the smooth operation of the material of the disc that's hit by the laser. This second attempt is like feeding a subject a chemical dose that affects the nervous system, such as alcohol; if the subject's ability to produce information is affected, then the outcome indicates that the information in the subject is dependent on the smooth operation of something material, i.e. the nervous system.

However, this demonstration isn't drastic enough. A second objector suggests a more nuanced interaction between the information ghost and the disc. What if it's dependent on the disc because it "flows through" the disc, and therefore the disc acts solely as a channel or conduit? In effect, the matter of the disc still doesn't predetermine the ghost, but the ghost requires the disc anyway.

Japp shrugs and remembers one of the details from the recent analysis of the disc's structure: it contains a definitive sequential order. Some sections of the disc come first, others are in the relative middle, and others are at the end. Japp grabs a tool, mentally divides the disc into seven sequential sections, and wrecks just the fifth of the seven sections. Then the information is reproduced from the disc once again. Unsurprisingly, the conscious experience of the sequence of reproduced information is mostly intact...except for when the information sequence has progressed to about five-sevenths of the whole. Japp notes that not only does the information as a whole correspond closely to the disc as a whole, but a part of the information corresponds closely to a part of the disc. This third attempt is like examining the recently traumatized brain of a subject who has a highly specific problem in their mental capabilities or memories; if the subject's brain shows problems in the corresponding area of that capability or memory, such as an abnormal growth, then the outcome indicates that the information (or behavior) in the subject is encoded bit by bit in the subject's brain. 

Finally, after reviewing the previous discussions, a third objector suggests that Japp hasn't convincingly shown anything important about the original question. What if the contribution of the information ghost is yet more puzzling? Perhaps most of the information, or even almost all of it, is coded by the matter of the disc, but the ghost's role is to furnish an essential core or "organizing principle"? In effect, the ghost is responsible for making the information coherent and interesting. Unless it's proven directly that the material of the disc accounts for every last jot of information, the ghost could be a factor.

Japp groans and proceeds to learn about the engineering of the disc and the reader as well as the computations to transform the bits on the disc into the final information output. Japp delivers a series of lectures. The third objector complains that Japp is obscuring a topic that should be simple: a mundane sequence of information and a mundane circle of cheap material.

Friday, August 16, 2013

sitting in time-out

In my culture, "sitting in time-out" is a familiar tactic of child discipline. The disciplinarian directs a misbehaving child to sit for a while in a designated location, without options for entertainment. Other desired effects beyond punishment are to calm them and to offer them the opportunity to reason about their offenses. (It seems to me that a penalty box is a better-suited sport metaphor than a time-out. It wasn't that awful for me because I could pass the time fairly quickly by daydreaming, reminiscing, silently reciting a song, etc.)

Not too long ago, I abruptly noticed that sitting in time-out has some similarities to the meditation sessions which are now part of my daily routine. Although the comparison appears trivial, it strengthens rather than weakens the case for regular meditation. Given that simply sitting in time-out is considered so challenging and unusual that it serves as a disciplinary tactic, nobody should be too discouraged by the substantial effort and persistence demanded by consistent meditation practice. And nobody should minimize the substantial difference between normal and meditative brain modes.

This is a helpful counterpoint to some of the dubious assertions about the "natural" mind state that I've encountered in meditation-related reading material. While it's true that humans may occasionally transition into meditative modes without trying, those specific periods aren't self-evidently more natural than any other. Most of the time, the untrained brain doesn't produce an empty or quiet consciousness. Not even sensory deprivation can cause it to remain still for a long time. Meditation counteracts its natural tendency, which is to be about lots of emotive stuff (viz. intentionality). The struggle with restlessness isn't an illusion or an "artificial" creation.

Furthermore, a tranquil state is nevertheless vulnerable to the gentlest form of restlessness: spontaneous alternative plans for the current moment. And these plans might not necessarily be exciting, provocative, self-serving, or ill-advised. I've realized that meditation sometimes requires me to temporarily neglect an impulse to perform a worthwhile action. Instead I need to remind myself that like any other activity, I'm more effective at meditation when it receives my full attention. Also, like any other hindrance in meditation, it illustrates the importance of positive feedback loops in the brain. When restlessness has greater influence, it more easily leads to more restlessness, but if its influence is blunted, it's easier to prevent it from escalating at all. Lastly, the refusal to fixate on restlessness makes meditation itself feel more pleasant...rather than feeling like a comparative waste of time or an internal battle of restraint. In other words, rather than feeling like sitting in time-out.

Restlessness can strike not only in different forms but at different times. It can appear as reluctance before meditation starts. It prompts the cognitive and/or emotional equivalent of fascinating open-ended questions such as, "What else could I do with the time consumed? What object or pastime could stimulate and satisfy my desires? What could relieve some of my stress/pressure? What could demand less concentration? What could distract me from confronting my external and internal problems?" This attitude treats meditation like a chore, and it's common knowledge that the thought of a chore motivates a brainstorm of substitute diversions.

Lately, I respond to reluctance by carefully questioning my clarity of judgment. Meditation, or any kind of impassive introspection, reveals first-hand that at any time human mentality is filled with many immediate factors, which arise from many distinct causes. The sole presence of an attraction or aversion isn't enough basis for a wise decision. It's more informative to trace the origin of the present emotional temper. Is there a recent setback or irritation? Is there fatigue? Is there doubt about the level of "progress" in meditation? Is there strong anxiety about something else altogether? Is it a problem with the meditation act, such as the need to experiment with a different posture to avoid pain?

Once I identify the causes of reluctance, then I can solve or disregard those causes. And I can recall two general truisms. First, apart from stable opinions or tastes, human feelings are short-lived and change rapidly. To the extent that my reluctance is a passing whim, it doesn't have the authority to overrule my prior commitments. Second, humans are surprisingly inept at estimating their feelings in future situations. If my reluctance partially depends on a predication of what the meditation session will be like, then it is probably at least partially mistaken. At worst, I can tell myself, "I'm about to meditate right now, whether or not I feel motivated," and then order my body to do each tiny step one by one.

On the other hand, I can refresh my memory about the psychological benefits of regular meditation. Of course, the psychological benefits differ in differing psyches. I don't claim that any of these are certain to develop after any specific length of time. I also don't claim that meditation is the only strategy to get these results, and I don't claim that meditation eliminates the need for other strategies. Psychological well-being isn't my area of expertise...

  • greater ability to ignore distractions during important tasks
  • greater ability to recognize and compensate for bad emotions or moods
  • greater ability to remain calmer in a wider array of situations
  • greater ability to take an unselfish viewpoint
  • greater ability to appreciate an experience for what it really is, as opposed to despising it for what it isn't like
  • greater ability to directly observe the predominant trends of one's thoughts
  • greater ability to avoid harmful short-term impulsive decisions
  • greater ability to cope with setbacks and trauma
  • greater ability to replace rigidity with flexibility, narrow-mindedness with open-mindedness

Monday, August 05, 2013

Henry Poole Is Here—and he's reinforcing misconceptions

More often than not, I categorize indie films as future home rentals rather than worthwhile trips to the local movie multiplex. A side effect is that I may never remember to rent the film at all. This was why I didn't see the 2008 fantasy Henry Poole Is Here...until 2013, when I abruptly rediscovered it.

The twist is that in 2008 I was still actively religious, although my doubts were germinating steadily. If I had watched it then, I may have reacted differently to the character Henry Poole. Of course, seeing it now, I find myself wishing to counteract misconceptions about atheists, which are reinforced by characters such as Poole. I'm not Henry Poole. The film itself might not intend to present a slanted portrayal of atheists, but I worry that an uninformed audience might interpret it that way.
  • To start with the obvious, Poole is mostly depressed and aimless. It should be equally obvious that atheism isn't a cause of these serious emotional issues. In truth, that automatic assumption is a little insulting to everyone regardless of religiosity. It presumes that they cannot achieve emotional stability nor purposeful lives without a religion handing a set of prefabricated answers to them. One other point should be obvious: the majority of atheists don't live in a reclusive pit of monotonous existential despair like Poole does. Instead they tend to mostly act like, well, everyone else in their culture (and/or subcultures).
  • Poole's childhood was rough. I don't recall whether anyone in the film suggests that past trauma contributed to Poole's atheism, but some viewers may leap to that conclusion. Religious psychoanalysis tends to claim that concepts of gods are founded on concepts of parents. Supposedly, absent or chaotic parents interfere with the "normal" development of concepts of trustworthy gods. This claim is one reason why parents may feel personally responsible when their offspring eventually reject their religion. But like most simple reductionist explanations, it fails frequently in cases of realistic complexity. My relatives were conscientious and loving, but I nevertheless dropped their teachings about the supernatural. And for far too many adult atheists, unlike mine their childhoods were traumatic precisely because their earnest relatives consistently enforced a horrifying flavor of supernatural belief.
  • Similarly, I don't recall whether the film suggests that Poole's more recent difficulties resulted in a sudden passionate mood swing toward atheism, but once again some viewers may think so. It's true that atheists aren't unemotional logic processors. Their dismissal of religion can be quick and climactic. My complaint is the stereotype that all atheistic shifts solely consist of capricious raging impulses. It underlies the comforting false hypothesis that a former believer's current atheism is "really" shallow emotional turbulence, perhaps motivated by a perverse desire to break the religion's rules, and not the sober acceptance of an opposite perspective that has its own intellectual foundations.
  • Another way that the film could unintentionally support the misconception of "peevish" atheism are the scenes when Poole physically attacks religious symbols. Outside fictional stories and totalitarian political regimes, average peaceful atheists see little value or fun in employing violence against inanimate objects which represent nonexistent entities. The population of Great Britain isn't roving around in mobs illegally demolishing empty churches. Some new atheists describe a feeling of complete "freedom" from the mental influence of their former beliefs, so it seems to me that atheistic indifference toward religious symbols is much more likely. Ask a committed atheist "Why do you hate God all the time?" and they'll probably shrug and reply, "'God' who? I don't blame your god for anything. But your actions to please your god, on the other hand..."
  • Yet another unflattering aspect of Poole's manner is his unwillingness to tolerate the religious believers around him. Some of his retorts are needlessly hurtful. He's prickly and he explicitly attempts social isolation. Unfortunately, Poole could thereby reinforce the awful misconception that most atheists are uncaring individualists whose deepest desire is to poke holes in everyone else's opinions at the slightest opportunity. In this case, it's important to pay attention to the context of these conversations. Poole is provoked over and over by others who persistently preach their beliefs at him. He has the right to decide who may enter his property and what topics he is open to discussing (and how many times). He could be sweeter and more patient, but given the difficult situation I'm hesitant to be too hard on him. At some point, the freedom to express thoughts on the topic of religion should also include the freedom to contradict someone else's thoughts, preferably in a benevolent attitude.
  • My last warning about the accuracy of the character Henry Poole centers on his hasty responses to the miracles in this fictional story. If other characters in the story are instantly cured of significant maladies, and those maladies aren't simply psychosomatic, then it's extremely selfish and short-sighted of Poole to immediately pronounce, without intense secular observing and theorizing, that the miracles cannot be happening. What if the far-fetched religious explanations are irrelevant to the physical cause of the uncanny medical effects? What if Poole has exposed a microscopic substance as potent as penicillin? Imagine if the character of Poole were a scientist in that situation.

Friday, August 02, 2013

my reactions and advice to the millennials leaving the church

The religion section of the CNN website published an attention-grabbing article recently: "Why millennials are leaving the church". I'm compelled to respond to its theses. These statements are fairly admirable in intent, but call for some more prodding...
  • "I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity[...]" I understand firsthand how frustrating that can be. But my advice is to face this choice rather than ignore it. In particular, ask yourself how each of these domains reaches conclusions. How does each one resolve controversies definitively? Which one is less concerned about the distortion of personal bias? Which one is more prone to search for justifications of preexisting ideas? Which one is more prone to first gather information and then develop the ideas that best fit? What supports and defends the ideas in each domain? What is the history of how those ideas originated?
  • "[...]millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt." Your longing is valid! Whenever questions and doubts are muted, it's far too easy for inaccurate ideas to proliferate. Therefore, when a community follows such a policy, the ideas it spreads merit additional levels of scrutiny for that very reason.
  • "Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being 'cool,' and we find that refreshingly authentic." I know taste is subjective, but do you also realize that conservative and traditional styles almost by definition are symptomatic of faith communities that are customarily rigid and unwilling to accept dissent? Enforced doctrine is hardly compatible with the individualized thinking that you said you longed for.
  • "We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against." Peace and positive thinking are great. However, calling for an end to these ideological conflicts raises a root question: why exactly do these conflicts exist in the first place? Assuming the ideas of the faith community are right, then why would those ideas not already be identical to the highest moral impulses and to the most prevalent empirical discoveries? 
  • "We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers." That's understandable; those questions are certainly more interesting. Do you wish to try to find reliable answers to such questions? If so, how does your faith community recommend finding those answers? What is its process for obtaining and checking unanticipated truths? Who is permitted to participate in that process?
  • "We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there." This is an excellent insight. Now dig deeper. What specific indications show that Jesus is really somewhere? Are those expected indications in fact found? Also, how would someone surely distinguish between indications of the real presence of Jesus and the many people who only mistakenly think that Jesus is present? And what indications of the presence of Jesus cannot be explained in any other way whatsoever? Are those indications equally convincing to someone who isn't on the lookout for Jesus?

Saturday, July 06, 2013

shining the spotlight on the background

Of all the possible one-word descriptions for existence, "eventful" is better than most. Each moment is both different and similar to other moments in countless ways. The associated deluge of information far exceeds the data-processing resources of animals. And it arrives in a variety of encoded forms such as light waves or air waves or chemical particles or contact pressure.

Nevertheless, pragmatic animals need to somehow transform it into rapid beneficial decisions that satisfy the four "F"s. So it's understandable that a first reaction of complex nervous systems is to decode phenomena into figures in either the foreground or the background. Subsequently the background activates much less nerve activity than the foreground. If the animal's most intense activation pattern is like a spotlight, and the information is like a theater stage divided into foreground and background, then the spotlight shines primarily on figures in the foreground.

By contrast, meditative detachment prevents the spotlight from remaining on a single target. The spotlight doesn't linger on the insistent figures in the foreground. Its illumination is stationary long enough to identify the figures' existence but little else. None receive bonus time in the spotlight to deliver extended monologues.

Indeed, as the skill of detachment develops, the spotlight is less exclusive: it's more likely to land on less intense figures in the foreground. After still more development, it evolves. Its size grows and it moves quicker. The foreground figures virtually share the spotlight because no singular figure is in it for a notable time period.

Later, the entire foreground of phenomena ceases to claim the spotlight constantly. Instead, the liberated spotlight can include background figures or "extras" which are normally ignored. These might have worthy qualities but were automatically assigned to the background. The assignment's rationale could have been any number of relative judgments that equate to "boring": too safe, too calm, too stable, too tiny, too weak, too predictable, too motionless. However, observing and analyzing the background more fully might lead to surprising conclusions. Generally speaking, it's valuable advice to periodically question the larger arc of a life. Large-scale long-term plans require the willingness to consider phenomena that don't offer immediate effects or payoffs.

The spotlight can continue to roam farther back, for the background is truly made of layers defined by differing frequencies of change. Each layer's phenomena are perceptible in front of slower layers. Hyperactive chirping birds fly among a background of trees. Trees gradually yield and lose leaves. The trees absorb a background of sunlight, which varies in intensity as the background called Earth rotates and travels its orbit around the Sun.

Ultimately, the spotlight's journey through the background layers only can end at a remote wall of uninformative abstract ideals. Such logically circular ideals can hardly be communicated except through self-evident grammatical constructions. It implies very little to compare real figures to these ideals. "It's more thing-like than a background of nothingness." Or, "It shifts more often than a background of timelessness." "It's more colorful than a background of transparency." "It's more massive than a background of vacuum." "It's more chaotic than a background of stillness." "It's noisier than a background of quietness."

Laid against this extreme "background", even the spotlight certainly qualifies as a "foreground" phenomenon too, as does the whole stage, as does the act of detachment. The attempt to seek emptiness is something non-empty. The sensation of tranquility is less tranquil than an utter void. By their nature, these background ideals can merely be approximated and never captured. On the other hand, the failure to catch the uncatchable shouldn't be a source of anxiety or shame; if perfect nonexistence were ever achieved then no live human could possibly experience it anyway.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I am a theatergoing inanimate carbon rod

As I've continued my regularly scheduled mindfulness meditation, I've rediscovered some uncomfortable truths. For instance, it was uncomfortable to rediscover the truth that I don't usually keep my spine in alignment when I sit. Since an unbalanced spine doesn't provide as much support, it ends up requiring more effort to stay upright and motionless. But a straighter spine doesn't demand much muscle exertion to be sturdy. In short, it's like an inanimate carbon rod. I tried to picture and imitate this ideal.

Consequently, I've learned to imagine an inanimate carbon rod inside my back. It's still, motionless, steady, constant. No matter what else I sense or think, it remains the same. It's connected to the brain and the rest of the body, but it doesn't react to those connections by changing in any way. It doesn't feel or judge or cling to the events and transitions around it...and this is expected behavior for an inanimate carbon rod. Therefore, as unconventional as it sounds, I've begun identifying with it during meditation. I suppose that contemplating fusion with an inanimate carbon rod is as equally plausible and relevant to me as fusion with a scenic mountain. (Seriously, mountain meditation is a real thing.)

However, this analogy for meditation is incomplete. If the metaphor for the observer is an inanimate carbon rod, then what's the metaphor for the observed stuff? The metaphor can't be a singular object, because many individual objects arise during meditation. It can't be something that's manipulable, because meditation is calm observing rather than reactive doing. Neither can the metaphor correspond directly to objective or physical forms of information, because meditation is a subjective or personal perspective. Similarly, the metaphor cannot be an orderly and verified reality, because everyone knows that perceptions and reasoning are often incorrect/inaccurate—that's why careful humans normally apply pragmatic tests to thoughts. More confusing still, the metaphor cannot include a strict division between truth and interpretation, because the inner context of meditation has no external standards that could meaningfully disentangle the two.

All together, these constraints are met by the loose metaphor of a theater. So the rod is a surprise theatergoer. It stands stoically yet attentively in the front row, where it's exposed to nothing except the lighted stage. As for the play, "bewildering" is an adequate one-word description. It's packed with sudden plot twists and set changes and fireworks. It portrays some emotional dramatic themes, but it's too inconsistent and incoherent to yield a satisfying and reasonable resolution to its numerous conflicts. It's at least partially fictionalized. Its diverse elements could fit a variety of artistic interpretations and reinterpretations. Fortunately, if the rod acts like a rod by staying present in the theater long enough and frequently enough, then the elusive patterns of the play could start to show.

Hence, I can attempt detachment by asserting that I'm a theatergoing inanimate carbon rod, and the stuff I observe is nothing more than a fast-moving play performed up on the stage. I'm amused by this analogy, although I wonder exactly how my brain is computing it. I know that it's extremely unlikely that this high-concept procedure maps easily onto my brain; it's probably more like a sophisticated layer of software that executes using general brain parts. The brain is a population of parts, and the storage of a concept is a population of cells. I presume that the interactions among these populations are complicated and non-linear and statistical. Is the image of a polka-dot platypus a cryptic collaboration between the populations for "polka-dot" and "platypus" (not to mention the populations which decode the syntax and semantics of the words)? In the context of detachment, does the population for the rod interact with the population for each distraction? Where in the brain does the interaction occur and over how long of a time interval, approximately?

Nevertheless, the urge to ask these questions doesn't excuse hasty overconfident answers. The recurring temptation is to assign responsibility to a smaller portion "H" of the brain: "This is where everything important to mindfulness meditation eventually happens. All the information flows to H, H does the bulk of the work, and then the results flow out of H." The problem is the assumption of a ridiculous concentration of "sentience" over a relatively small area. Complex mental capabilities come from relationships throughout the brain's specialized populations of parts and cells. General intelligence is a team effort among co-dependent experts. Perhaps a single mental action or effect is a cascade of several actions or effects in the brain, each of which have dedicated regions. Given its coordinated features of impulse-control and free-flowing experience and redirection of attention, I'm guessing that successful states of meditative mindfulness employ a wide-ranging subset of brain parts.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

the three-point test for credible prayers

During my wanderings through the WWW not too long ago, I made a piercing comment about prayer. Someone replied with the dare to just give prayer a chance. This entry is addressed to you, wherever you are.

On one hand, this isn't a feasible suggestion: is it sensible for me to attempt an action before I've heard an acceptable rationale for it? I suppose that I could try almost anything, such as pyramid power, but surely I may at least demand beforehand that the suggestion has a plausible explanation to back it up?

On the other hand, it's obviously too strict to require that a comprehensive theory must always precede experimentation. The precise details of the supernatural domain don't need to be coherent and complete in order to check a concrete procedure such as prayer. So, fellow mysterious WWW participant, let's do this.

Of course, for the test of a request for supernatural intervention to be credible, it needs to fulfill three easy points.

  1. significance: The success condition must not be due to natural chance. Supernatural intervention cannot be mistaken for a commonplace event. Let's say that the typical probability of the success condition must be 5% or less.
  2. falsification: As for the failure condition, it must be obvious and unambiguous and undeniable. If a failure of a test "isn't really a failure", then the test isn't really a test either. 
  3. repetition: Ideally, the test must be repeated many times, and the count of all successes must be compared to be count of all failures. It's dishonest to disregard the result of any correctly-performed repetition of a test.
There have been statistical medical studies on the effect of prayer. Of the studies that fulfill these three points, using large-scale populations and clear interpretations, the final conclusion doesn't strongly support prayer's medical effectiveness. Certainly not in comparison to usual medical interventions such as surgery, therapy, pharmaceuticals, etc.

But it's difficult for you or me to carry out complicated studies like these. How about we settle on an alternative that's more personal and quick? While we're in a sober and alert state (no hallucinogens or hypnotic suggestions or group rituals!), each of us will pray for an audible supernatural message. The message (test pattern?) shall happen at normal conversational volume and be encoded in words. 

Note that this isn't a formidable request. Objective sound waves are nothing more than air vibrations, and presumably soulful supernatural entities are capable of some form of language. If the supernatural domain "refuses" to respond, the refusal is indistinguishable from a supernatural that doesn't exist at all. Therefore anything supernatural that refuses to respond is at minimum unconcerned with whether or not you or I think that it exists.

This test fulfills the three points. Based on experience, a message with no known natural source is generally unlikely (#1). An absence of a comfortably-loud stream of words is itself unambiguous (#2). The request for a message can be repeated and counted as many times as needed (#3).

...did it work for you? 

You may object that the prayer didn't work for me because I didn't want it to work, but if that was always the case then you shouldn't have made the original suggestion that I give prayer a chance. After all, if a prayer test only works for those who don't feel the need to test it, then it's not a good evangelism strategy...

Monday, May 13, 2013

the psychological payoffs of religion

Religion fills an intriguing niche in human knowledge. Its propositions are accepted despite an objective lack of effective rationales and results. Especially to an unbiased observer who examines every "experimental trial" without the aid of evasive excuses, the tangible impact of religious belief appears to be either indiscernible, ambiguous, or coincidental. Religion's material payoff is unreliable if not worthless. So it raises the question of why anyone pays its great costs.  Two immediate but uninteresting answers are belief by force, due to societal coercion, and belief by habit, due to intellectual inertia or indifference. However, it's obvious that not all followers of religion fall under either of these categories.

Their beliefs must be providing substantive psychological payoffs: subjective and sometimes subtle payoffs that are indeed all in the follower's head. Many easygoing followers have more or less admitted it. Their nonchalant explanation sounds like, "I don't care whether I'm completely correct about the existence of a supernatural realm and its alleged contents. I care about the effects of the beliefs on me. I need the extra framework for my thoughts, feelings, and actions."

Thus, the propositions of religion are intriguing in another way. These entail serious discrepancies with reality yet produce real consequences within followers. In this sense, false propositions can be pragmatic for followers, as odd as that sounds. Critics miss a learning opportunity when they hastily assume the uselessness of disproved or unproved perspectives. For instance, the shift of a human brain into a meditative or prayer-like mode of operation could obtain a real psychological payoff, regardless of the dubious concept of "transcendence". Or symbolic public ceremonies could enable a social group to furnish mutual encouragement and support, regardless of the dubious concept of "worship".

On the other hand, some payoffs are detrimental. All too often, it's despicable to elevate one subgroup's self-esteem by devaluing other subgroups, or to enhance cohesion by despising nonconformity, or to promote purity by irrationally stigmatizing things or activities, or to strengthen certainty by forbidding expressions of doubt. In practice, reality is messy, and religion's degree of value is complex. Perhaps more credit should be given to humane "cultural" followers who extract some of the psychological payoffs of religion but openly deny its pretenses of infallible moral and metaphysical laws.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

scattered thoughts about mindfulness meditation

This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. —Yoda
I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.  —Blaise Pascal
SERENITY NOW! —Frank Costanza
I recently began a habit of private mindfulness/insight meditation...solely for the reported benefits to psychological well-being. I'm certainly not purposely pursuing the "insight" or "wisdom" that religious faiths claim to offer. Neither do I assume that age and/or foreignness are proofs of accuracy and/or usefulness. Hence I've only studied two well-known introductions which have a reputation for succinct instructions, customized for contemporary English speakers, rather than supernatural teachings or extraneous concepts: Mindfulness in Plain English and Wherever You Go There You Are.

Yet, for my picky taste, even these contained some occasional comments that were too religious or ethnocentric. I realize the authors' predicament: they're attempting to bridge radically different cultural contexts. Since they portray the source culture's ideas and values as solutions, they can hardly be blamed when they portray some of the destination culture's ideas and values as one-sided problems. They didn't invent the simplistic split into perfect-opposite stereotypes of "Western" and "Eastern", so they can hardly be blamed for invoking it. They're purposely avoiding the foreign words and metaphors in the source culture, so they (mostly Kabat-Zinn) can hardly be blamed for resorting now and then to the typical set of clich├ęs: "psychic", "universe",  "quantum", "inner vision", "soul", "contemplation", "Mother Nature", "mind states", "liberation", "dimension", "expansion", "holistic", "fullness", "deep", "Other", "oneness", "reductionist", "being" (a present participle of "be" in opposition to "doing"). And "energy" as a respectable code word for "mana", which happens to be one of my recurring peeves. They're communicating techniques that were originally embedded in larger viewpoints, so they can hardly be blamed for lapsing into short lectures about the supporting themes of those viewpoints. I know they're trying. I sound like tourists who complain about the strangeness of a setting that they themselves chose to visit.

However, my disbelief in such abstract descriptions doesn't force disbelief in the basic action of mindfulness meditation or of its rewards. (It's one type out of many, but for the remainder of this entry I'll call it "meditation" for short.) I simply employ alternative descriptions that match the best ideas I have about reality—namely, that minds don't have independent existence but are computations of brains. Therefore I consider meditation as a particular activity of my brain matter. As with any pattern of brain activity, repetitions of the pattern train or reinforce it. This will adjust the relative sensitivity of competing brain paths, i.e. learning. On some minor level my brain will function differently, regardless of whether I (or anyone else) label the difference as "freeing my mind". I suspect that a more testable label is "reprogramming my thalamus".

Specifically, my current understanding of meditation is summarized by three interlocking factors: attention, attitude, awareness. In the more-natural mode of the brain, awareness of a notable object produces an associated reaction. That reaction is a shift of attitude into general categories such as attraction or aversion, or pleasure or pain, or affection or aggression. Then that attitude commands attention and narrows or focuses it further, thereby sacrificing everything else in awareness. While the brain is in this mode, appetites and desires of varying sophistication steal attention again and again. Numerous popular metaphors express the cumulative effect: lesser impulse control, greater tunnel vision, egocentrism/selfishness, never-ending search for novelties, failure to see the Big Picture, disregard for long-term consequences, and so on. The defining characteristic of this mode is the hastiness by which perception proceeds from the earlier stage of wider, raw, objective awareness into the later stage of limited, oversimplified, and biased viewpoints.

Unlike this mode, a brain in meditation prolongs the initial stage of greater awareness, minimizes natural demands to deflect attention, and denies the dictates of normal attitudes or instincts. The method is to select a neutral and effortless target and keep it foremost in attention. Each and every time that the meditator notices that their attention wandered, they experience it nonchalantly and disengage from those thoughts. Then they redirect attention back. I followed the authors' advice to meditate on my breath, although I found it easier to sense the slight motions of my chest than air passing through my nostrils.

Indeed, something else the authors make clear is that the chosen target isn't the underlying motivation. The goal is the entire process of experiencing the distractions and then practicing detached reactions to the distractions. Meditation is the development of a skill. As such, the resulting knowledge is in tacit form. Knowledge about the target is much less important than the target's role as a baseline or standard for the task of recognizing distractions. And the more often that distractions are seen and treated as potential ideas instead of irresistible usurpers of all attention, the easier it is for the meditator to maintain sober awareness and carry out voluntary choices with full context, especially under stressful conditions.

In other words, an attitude of detachment is part of meditation. But I needed to rethink some of my misconceptions in order to appreciate it. In this realm, detachment certainly isn't for eliminating all emotions toward everything. To the contrary, the authors eagerly recommend careful cultivation of friendliness and compassion. Neither does it imply permanent isolation and deprivation. Desires don't stop, including generous desires to improve reality and to behave excellently. Detachment is a new style of informed interaction with things and also ideas about things. It's weighing the range of possible motives and ends. Detachment prevents personal preferences from constricting and coloring the flow of information. In so doing it enables more objectivity.

Clearly, the strategy of detachment is less exotic than sometimes thought. It's similar to the sentiment of the saying, "Think twice." It's the consolation of keeping a diary. It's why someone gives themselves time to "cool off" first before continuing a discussion. It's part of the "talking cure" that permits the talker to convert trauma into a verbal form and confront it symbolically. It's visualizing a feared scenario to become desensitized to it. It's avoiding a temptation not by forcibly fleeing it, which gives it too much respect, but by letting the unfulfilled temptation sit and beg until it resigns and fades. The coping mechanisms of many beliefs, faith-based or not, resemble the attitude of detachment.

Nevertheless, the achievement of detachment is much more subtle in meditation. As many ways as there are to think, detachment drops momentarily, attention drifts away from the target altogether, and the lapse itself doesn't enter awareness until the brain has completed a short detour. For instance, I've discovered a few inexpert traps, so I can offer some inexpert commentary and tips—none of which are original, complete, or applicable to everyone.
  • lofty expectations: One obvious problem with lofty expectations is predictable disappointment when the expectations aren't met in a short amount of time, which could prompt the hasty decision to quit. But a more sneaky side-effect is an intrusive attitude of anxious expectation. Waiting in suspense for something unusual to happen is a distraction. 
  • harsh self-evaluation: Along with lofty expectations for quick payoffs, strict expectations for oneself are also distractions. It's worth reiterating that meditation is about increasing awareness of whatever happens now. If the present task is gently keeping the chosen target in attention, then it's incorrect to fill the present with excessive attention on the failure in the previous moment. The past has passed. It's not necessary to systematically judge "progress". Each moment is another chance, and each chance cannot be either retried nor taken ahead of time. The same truism applies to evaluating the session as a whole. The rest of a session isn't "ruined" by the prior part of it. Paying too much attention to self-frustration is sacrificing the present to pay useless homage to the past.
  • forced/labored breathing: Attention to breathing isn't a breathing exercise. A few deep breaths can help initiate calm before starting or restore it after an external interruption, but most of the time breathing should be perceived not consciously ordered. Similarly, close attention to breathing doesn't include thoughts such as images or sounds that are somehow related to breathing. In this case, the target of attention isn't an elaborately constructed daydream of the current meditation session, or the noise of the air movements, or analyses of the respiratory system. The target is, well, the natural sensation of breathing. It's not meant to be puzzling.
  • searching: The urge to search for interesting phenomena is incompatible with the relaxed attitude of meditation. According to the old analogy, active investigation is like striding quickly through a stream to find something that sunk to the bottom. Or it's like a questioner whose continual talking interferes with the other speaker's attempts to answer. The searcher's own frantic actions disturb and conceal. Receptiveness is superior to haphazard rechecks.
  • narration: Meditation is nonverbal. During the unprocessed stage of unadorned awareness, everything can only be nonsymbolic and impersonal. The corresponding questions "What does X mean?" or "What does X matter to me?" arise in later stages of interpretation. When words appear in thoughts, that's a signal to once again release attention and restore it to the meditation target. It's true that narration represents some degree of detachment, but it's still not ideal. One important exception is some form of counting to help recapture attention, provided the count doesn't continue for too long.
  • music: Music is infamous for repeating itself involuntarily in humans' attention, whether or not they're meditating. As usual, the response is to note it, not overreact by fixating on it more, and mildly lift the meditation target back into attention. The volume can be turned down, metaphorically. The music might persist as a murmur. Or subside and resume later. Or transition into some other piece of music. In any case, it's not an opportunity to take a break, and it's not an opponent to wrestle into submission. It's one more item of experience. (The meditator's feeling of annoyance about some music is one more item of experience, too.)  
  • boredom/passage of time: Within an unstressed minute, twelve to sixteen breaths commonly occur—approximately four to five seconds for one complete cycle of inhaling, exhaling, and the associated pauses. Breaths are short time periods: 60 or more in five minutes. Observing anything 60 times in succession could produce a feeling of boredom...despite the many unintentional breaks that are sprinkled throughout a beginner's meditation. Again, the root issue is distraction from the chosen target's existence in the present alone. The target isn't all 52 preceding breaths or all 52 following breaths. It's the current breath, no matter its level of uniqueness. In the same way, anxiety about time consumption presumes concern about a wider gap of time, as well as compulsive rescheduling. If the session is happening in a block of time reserved for it ahead of time, perhaps with an alarm to mark the end, then it's fruitless to worry about taking up time for everything else. A schedule with genuine reservations of time should enable the meditator to relax about the passage of time. Anybody can just take reservations. Really, the most important part of the reservation is holding it. That's why someone has reservations: to not run out of a finite quantity like time.
  • body drooping/movement: Meditation and relaxation are symbiotic but not synonymous. Meditative awareness implies constant vigilance. The intent of the customary postures is stillness without rigidity and without drowsiness. Drooping is an indicator that meditation might be changing into partial sleep. In that mode, everything appears less vivid, including the target. On the other hand, moving around too frequently can be a trap. One movement leads to more movements, then more after that. Meditation exposes the sheer variety of habitual superfluous movements such as tilting the head, licking the lips, stretching the back, and so on. Indulging in one invites the others.
  • thought replacement: One primitive form of human self-regulation is passionately striving to think about something else. But that's not meditation (or not this kind). Its characteristic attitude is identified as weightless, quick, nonjudgmental, unassuming, broad-minded, unselfish, serene, positive, open. Paradoxical or not, detachment is acceptance. It's not declaring that everything is good but withholding an impromptu or mindless declaration of whether anything is good or bad. It's watching a thought and then not replacing it forcefully but nimbly returning attention to the target, which never vanished in the meantime. It's realizing that the gamut of the brain's inventive output isn't always accurate or useful. And also that, by introducing sufficient feedback loops via training like meditation, humans can more effectively recognize and circumvent the worst tendencies, if they so choose.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

the pragmatism triangle

My opinion is that philosophical pragmatism observes and recommends the indispensable triangle of 1. thoughts, 2. actions, and 3. realities.

  • (1 and 2) The meaning of thoughts is demonstrated by the resulting actions. Thoughts guide actions. Without discernible effects on actions, thoughts are suspect. Actions are clues about which thoughts really matter, as opposed to which thoughts are hollow or superficial aspirations. Also, actions are the means both to test the accuracy of new thoughts through experimentation and to discover new thoughts through investigation.
  • (1 and 3) By the basic nature of humanity in the universe, realities are mediated by thoughts. In so doing, preexisting thoughts embellish realities through interpretation, bias, emphasis, and interpolation. On the other hand, realities lead to honest revisions of thoughts. Through the detection of regularities and patterns, as well as exceptions, realities are the raw material of deeper and larger thoughts that can be reapplied to make predictions or to explain the present or past.  
  • (2 and 3) Of course, actions are how realities change. But realities might resist or counter actions and thereby throw doubt on the level of realism that backs those actions. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

biology and information theory

One sign of a highly technical theory's influence and profundity is the improbable attention it receives in seemingly unrelated if not inappropriate contexts. Information theory certainly qualifies. Unfortunately one of these peripheral contexts is abstract arguments against biology.

The argument based on information theory follows the template of a more popular argument based on the Second Law of the theory of thermodynamics: "Biology cannot increase in orderly complexity because the Second Law states that disorder increases over time." The variant using information theory is "Biology cannot increase in orderly complexity because information theory states that the result of random modifications of an orderly message is nothing more than an unintelligible message. These random modifications are the noise of the corresponding information channel, and the noise reduces its optimal information rate."

However, the intuitive appeal of either argument relies on ignorance of the extraordinary scale of biology's abundant populations and prolonged time periods. Regardless of an event's slim probability, a sufficiently massive number of trials actually implies that it's more likely that the event will happen. In merely 13 die rolls, the probability of never rolling 6 is less than 1 in 10. Perhaps many biological changes are destructive like the metaphors of thermodynamic disorder or noisy information, and the candidates that experience those changes are worse-off. Yet the multitude of candidate organisms throughout epochs can still yield the event of a comparatively rare constructive change, and thereafter the change spreads through reproduction of that singular beneficiary. (Although according to the, y'know, facts, occasionally the constructive events have indeed occurred too rarely to compensate for rapid changes in circumstances—mass extinctions.)

Furthermore, this application of information theory prompts more questions. If it were accurate to analyze biology as an information channel in which all organisms were messages, and all modifications to organisms were noise, then how would the first noise-free organisms originate? Presumably from "The Great Communicator"...but the usual name for theoretical message senders is "Alice". Assuming all the first organisms were perfectly communicated messages from Alice, then later organisms could only have become more noisy or less perfect. Isn't this implied distinction between "message" and "noise" so narrow that it verges on nonsensical? Given all the actual differences between the first organisms and organisms in the present, is it apt for all these differences to qualify as increases in noise, i.e. always relative degradation? Is it accurate to suppose that every grandparent were a more precise expression of Alice's original message than every grandchild? Are the implications of this proposition consistent with human interactions with reality? In other words, is it true in the pragmatic sense?

In contrast, real biology's ambiguity of "message" and "noise" is closer to something else in information theory. Extreme information ambiguity is a defining feature of the unbreakable encryption strategy of a one time pad. The "pad" itself contains a long encryption key that's strongly random: no portion of the key/pad can be calculated from any other portion. Then sequential portions of this key are used to encrypt sequential small portions of a message. In effect, the key from the pad acts like the worst possible kind of communication noise. The key's "noise" affects each small portion of the message and the "noise" is always unpredictably different for each. It's like sending numerous tiny encrypted "micro-messages" and using a separate independent key for each micro-message. This is secrecy by brute-force. Hence the strength of this strategy is also its weakness. The large quantity of random and therefore incompressible key information must itself be exchanged over a sufficiently secure and efficient channel. But if a superior channel meets these requirements then it should communicate the message instead! (The strategy could still be appropriate if the superior channel for the key, e.g. handing over a literal pad in-person in the past, differs from the inferior channel for the secret message, e.g. series of short radio broadcasts in the future.)

Consequently, depending on how closely biological information matches the metaphor of a one time pad, nobody should be surprised by the difficulty of disentangling its "messages" from its "noise". Inquisitive humans are the interceptors of the channel. The recipient of the channel is the organism, and the sender of the channel is the organism's ancestor(s). The biological information has flowed over a staggering number of channels or generations. In doing so, it has absorbed noise coming from an ever-changing key on the one time pad commonly known as the universe.

At the same time, the environment of the organism is ever-changing. This means that the definition of sensible biological information is also ever-changing, since biological information is sensible insofar as it corresponds successfully to an environment—oxygen-breathing organisms aren't sensible in an oxygen-deprived environment. Unlike the phantasmal perfection of first organisms communicated by a non-biological Alice, this concept of environmental sensibility is inescapably relative and limited. Metaphorically speaking, the "message" consists of biological information with environmental sensibility, and the rest is "noise". Due to environmental changes, the same bits of biological information can change from message to noise and back. Correct answers cease to be correct when the questions transform.

The inherent uncertainty of a one time pad forces an ignorant interceptor to admit that any possible message could result in any possible encrypted message. The one time pad causes the sender's input message to diverge into a random output message. In the context of restrictive human communication, the recipient is displeased by receiving any other message than the sender's. But in the context of biology, a descendant organism that receives innovative information could thereby surpass the ancestor in the broad criterion of environmental sensibility, if only by a little. To use an overstretched analogy, this biological case is more like a sender who sent the message "The meeting is at 3:30," and then the message changed along the way to "The meeting is at 3:00"...while the meeting was rescheduled to 3:15 anyway.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

the Dumbo feather of ethics

Often, deep discussions about religion handle it as a collection of otherworldly ideas. But these necessary discussions seem irrelevant to many believers. They don't value religion primarily because of the many confusing details of its ideas, which they may not study seriously anyway (angels on pins, anyone?). They value religion because of its pragmatic impact on their everyday lives. They view religion as a cultural tool for specific purposes. Like pounding nails with a rock, the adequate usefulness of a tool like religion overpowers legitimate concerns about the tool's deficiencies.

In particular, throughout the history of civilization, religions have been tools for the encouragement of good behavior. As long as the religion was "proper", few objected to this traditional assignment. Even nonconformist writers, who mostly ignored religion in their own lives, nevertheless assumed that religiosity was essential to the ethical training of the lowly and bestial majority of society. Within prisons, clergy were welcomed as possible rehabilitation tools. In twelve step behavior modification programs such as "______ Anonymous" religiosity was one of the original tools. Schools included religion classes as tools for character development. Parents with religious childhoods, who may have stopped believing long ago, used churches as tools to ensure that their children absorbed the "right" cultural heritage with the corresponding baseline of behavioral expectations.

By contrast, a self-consistent atheistic perspective cannot link good behavior and the questionable ideas of religions. However, breaking the link implies a surprising compliment to the religious humans who consistently exhibit good behavior—who are good whether or not their religion's predominant morality agrees with them (perhaps they respond to the difference by creating a secondary form that's "reinterpreted" or "modernized" or "reformed"). If religiosity isn't a vital factor in their good behavior, then via process of elimination the vital factor is always them. The atheist can't give credit to their gods or to their religions. They may say that they're acting as an appendage of a divine compassionate being or that they're fueled by supernatural love. But the atheist must jump to the less far-fetched conclusion: they're just decent humans...who also are too hasty to accept statements about the existence of gods.

Consequently, the supposed religious basis of good behavior is instead a placebo illusion which yields imaginary additional moral fiber. It's ineffective apart from the believer's thoughts. It's akin to the trick feather in the movie Dumbo that the titular elephant holds while flying (tvtropes.org has alternative examples). Ultimately Dumbo realizes that the feather is a deception; Dumbo can fly without it. Similarly, to blame religion for genuine ethical motivation and determination is to act like Dumbo. Like Dumbo and the feather, genuinely ethical believers could be ethical without their religion. Religion can be a container or setting for describing ethics, but humane ethics aren't limited by it.

In reality, of course, modern decision-makers with faith-beliefs cannot face all modern ethical decisions through overstretched comparisons to ancient religious stories. That's why the more honest ones tend to mention "timeless principles" extracted from the religion, since the "raw" form contains ethical problems like toleration of slavery, religious-warfare, and inequality of all varieties. Religion is the Dumbo feather of ethics. It might be a helpful educational tool at first. Yet the one clinging to it is the real origin of all of its illusory ethical power. They cannot avoid ethical responsibility.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

only bad witches are ugly

The title of this entry is a famous quote from The Wizard Of Oz. Yes, I realize it's awful to spread the idea that goodness is correlated with beauty. But that's not today's topic.

Today's topic is the logic of sets. When a witch says "only bad witches are ugly", which meaning is she communicating in regard to which witches are in which sets? She means that for any witch in the "ugly" set, that witch is also in the set of "bad". This implies that the ugly witches are a subset of the bad witches. Membership in the ugly set is always accompanied by membership in the bad set. Also, any witch that is not bad (good) is therefore not ugly (beautiful); for they could only be ugly if they were also bad.

But the more notable distinction is what the witch isn't claiming about these sets. The witch said nothing certain about whether all beautiful witches are good. All she told us is that each ugly witch is bad. That doesn't contradict the possibility of a beautiful witch who is also bad. Not all the bad witches are necessarily ugly. It's like a deck of playing cards. Each heart is a red card. But that doesn't mean all the red cards are hearts.

In related news, Oz the Great and Powerful has some slow-paced sections that might cause theater-goers' thoughts to wander.

Friday, March 08, 2013

ill-fitting realities

"It doesn't matter whether it works for you. It works for me." Some thoughts are expected to differ because the thinkers differ. These thoughts are like shirts. Each thinker peruses the rack of various optional thoughts, picks one, tries it on, and finally integrates it into their ensemble. In broad terms the goal is to achieve a suitable fit for the shape and style of prior thoughts.

The name of this category is personal preference. From a pragmatic perspective, two of its essential characteristics are extremely limited: its range and its verification methods. Specifically, the range of personal preference is only the person, and the verification methods are only the person's mental "work". The personal preference of one human doesn't apply elsewhere, and the human is the one witness of it (firsthand). In effect personal preference entails an exceptionally narrow definition of applicability or truthfulness.

However, for any number of reasons, some commentators adore the category of personal preference (they personally prefer personal preference?). As often as possible, they lump inappropriate propositions into it, perhaps to avoid further discussion. "My proposition doesn't fit you? Then we'll treat it as a personal preference and move on."

Nevertheless, their botched classification will show up in practice. Regardless of how poorly it fits a particular human's preferences, it can also be verified repeatedly by impersonal methods. At this point, a reasonable pragmatist judges that the proposition isn't a "personal preference" but an ill-fitting reality. Its incidental discomfort to a human doesn't override the firm clues coming from the alternative methods of verification.

Many examples of ill-fitting realities are obvious and unavoidable. To complain about one is to make a joke, because everyone already knows it's futile to pretend that personal preference constantly affects the real motions of the rest of the universe. "The weather forecast we've been given is awful, in my opinion. I'd like to return it." "Of all the days for my car to have sudden engine trouble. This is unacceptable to me." "I collided with him as I danced carelessly. How dare he throw off my groove." (Of course some personal preferences, i.e. brain signals, eventually trigger bodily actions that in turn affect matter outside oneself, including actions as minimal as a change in facial expression.)

Not all ill-fitting realities are as easy to identify, but the level of abstraction is irrelevant to the underlying principle. Mystical propositions aren't exempt. It's reasonable to continue to demand methods of verification which are consistent, coherent, and feasible. Any proposition is truthful to the degree that its corresponding methods of verification yield sufficient results.

Furthermore, if the proposition is so insubstantial that it's more or less isolated from most realities of the universe, then personal preference could be the solitary remaining data-point behind it. Pragmatically speaking, such propositions are indeed personal preferences of scant meaningfulness. For instance, these conditions might hold for the mystical proposition of a singular unknown plan guiding the universe, namely "Fate". If every actual event is always in accordance with Fate, then Fate is pragmatically indistinguishable from Fate's logical opposite of nonexistence, namely "Not-Fate". Therefore the airy concept of Fate is untethered from earthy minutiae. The basis for accepting it is personal preference. If either Fate or Not-Fate fits someone's brain, they may wear it.

The conflict arises after the believer tries to attach more details to Fate. Once they do, Fate ceases to be compatible with every actual event...theoretically, at least. On the presumption that it's Fate for Marvin and Marcie to be in a romantic relationship, their breakup throws doubt on how well Fate corresponds to the reality of their broken relationship. On the presumption that it's Fate for Marvin or Marcie to work in factories that manufacture videotapes, their loss of employment throws doubt on how well Fate corresponds to the reality of their employment elsewhere (or unemployment). On the presumption that it's Fate for their children to earn incomes at around the 33% percentile of the working population, their children's income at around 80% throws doubt on how well Fate corresponds to the reality of their income. These or any other "violations" indicate that Not-Fate could be an ill-fitting reality...to those who feel that Fate fits them better.

The upshot is that generalizable propositions typically venture outside the tiny range of personal preference. It's not sensible to treat these like simple personal preferences, despite the all-too-human urge to quickly reject ill-fitting thoughts. "The idea works for me" doesn't even satisfy pragmatism's easy standard when "works" really means "matches my wishes" rather than means "matches ideas with proven correspondences to realities". In that case a pragmatist may reply that the speaker is under the mistaken impression that the idea works for them; future interactions with an ill-fitting reality could demonstrate in what way the impression turns out to be mistaken.