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?