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...