Wednesday, April 30, 2014

the other kind of pluralism

A thorough philosophy is more than a canned set of axioms. It produces an influential mentality in its followers. and the mentality in turn affects their approach to various topics. For instance, in my case I'm compelled to be more careful about my terms. First, instead of writing "mind", I try to be more precise by writing either "brain" or "soul" depending on context. If I'm purely describing immediate mental experiences, I might choose unassuming words such as "thoughts" or "awareness". Second, when I'm writing generic observations I prefer "human" over "person", to reflect the humility of my species and thereby lessen bias. I may often minimize human capabilities, but my sole intent is to counteract presumptuous self-assurance and self-importance. It's not personal.

Third, I prefer to state opposition to "faith-beliefs" rather than "religions". The hair-splitting distinction is relevant because religions are so broadly defined in practice. Sometimes a religion has specific ideas and traditions that don't require faith in disproved/unproven assertions. Some of its followers may be as equally suspicious of such assertions as I am, especially if they characterize their religiosity as strictly limited, moderate, casual, or ethnic/cultural. Furthermore, just as not all religious dicta qualify as faith-beliefs, not all faith-beliefs are consistently categorized as religious. For example, whether or not someone says that they're affiliated with any religion, I'm still unimpressed by their faith-beliefs in destiny or cosmic consciousness.

Compared to the previous three, my fourth and last quirk is both subtler and much more pivotal. For nouns related to knowledge, I purposefully lean toward plural forms: "truths", "realities", "proofs", "judgments", "implications". Also, I typically pair the plural noun with a past action (participial adjective): "verified", "observed", "confirmed", "tested", "checked". My labored "past action pluralism" is no trivial accident. To the contrary, it repeats my central theme!

That theme is easier to describe by contrasting it with its more familiar and comforting opposite. When nouns related to knowledge are all singular all the time (and maybe capitalized too), then knowledge can be naturally unified. All those nouns become equivalent labels for one unique and comprehensive wad of stainless knowledge. To bypass the wrinkle of which noun is most appropriate, and to save time, I'll use the short name "IT". IT's value is its simple existence as the independent source of meaning. The accuracy/realism of a human's thought is narrowly defined as how well it conforms to IT. If humans disagree, then the relevant question is never how they reached their conflicting conclusions. Instead, the straightforward criterion is which (if any) of the conclusions doesn't clash with IT. IT isn't contingent on a context of ongoing human evaluation or effort. Essentially, thanks to IT, the work of knowledge is almost accomplished. The remaining requirement is to unconditionally accept every bit of IT. If universal IT doesn't answer a particular question, then the question itself is invalid or misguided. Obviously, given that IT is all knowledge, anything which isn't integrated in IT is surely incorrect. Of course, each differing philosophy could have its own highly restricted ways to identify, derive, analyze, and apply IT...and to sort genuine IT from imitations.

Now, I can express my philosophy's theme concisely: there is no IT. Or, stated differently, IT is a worthless fictional abstraction. Knowledge isn't a singular destination. It isn't a singular technique of measurement. Nevertheless, the absence of IT doesn't doom humans to untrustworthy thoughts and futile plans. Humans can act to probe for knowledge. That includes perception and thinking, because thinking is an action by the brain—which is the most natural explanation of why thinking correlates closely to observable physical activity within the brain, and why disturbing the brain profoundly disturbs the act of thinking. They may act in several ways and compare the results to increase their certainty. They may collaborate and/or argue. They may model their perceptions with mathematics.

Each of these numerous possible acts are small and occur inside discrete contexts, so the knowledge gained by each is also small and discrete. Perhaps knowledge of X is tentative and it's supported by scant human actions. Assuming Y is supported by an altogether separate set of actions, knowledge of Y might be a much less risky basis for future action than X. Therefore, combining X and Y into a homogeneous whole like IT is inappropriate.

Ultimately, when knowledge is divided up according to supporting actions, the more fitting form of expression is "past action pluralism". In place of The Truth, there are tested truths. In place of The Reality, there are observed realities. My current knowledge isn't a uniform monolith. It's a mosaic formed out of a multitude of knowledge pieces (presumably encoded by patterns of connections among nerve cells). My learning, logic, experimentation, speculation, etc. have contributed miscellaneous pieces and consequently removed others that no longer fit. Some pieces are firm and some are shaky. Some are opaque and some are transparent. Some I borrowed and some I made. To claim otherwise would be disingenuous.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

reexamining faith in Lost after loosing my faith

To start with, the title is an intentional joke. I didn't misspell "losing". Like many others, I didn't "lose" my faith. I didn't set it down subconsciously and forget where I left it. I dismissed it with full awareness. I released it from me. I didn't lose my faith, but I did loose my faith.

Coincidentally, the loosing happened in parallel with the TV show Lost. Although it was a gradual process, I was certainly much more dedicated to my former faith at the start of the first episode of Lost in 2004 than I was by the end of the final episode in 2010. Of course, I'm not insinuating a causal connection. Contrary to the sentiments of countless Internet complaints, the progression of Lost from season to season didn't drive me to the eventual conclusion that a merciful god probably doesn't exist. It couldn't, because my appreciation of my faith shrank much more over time than my ongoing appreciation of Lost. I'm a fan who saw every episode at the time of broadcast and who frequently wished that the next could be aired sooner. On this very blog, I recorded my reactions on a handful of occasions. I can't claim that every part of the show was great, but at least it kept renewing my curiosity and interest. It continued to swerve and zigzag. 

Hence I developed a nonchalant attitude about Lost's infamous storytelling technique of explaining mysteries with further mysteries. For me, the warning sign was the writers' admiration of Stephen King. In his books, mystifying events verge on commonplace. The main action consists of what the characters think and do in response to situations which they might never comprehend completely. Compare that to a book of mystery or science-fiction, which is more likely to end with the discovery of a credible albeit thinly-stretched explanation of the story's initially baffling phenomena. Lost's writers have been forthcoming and unwavering about which model they strongly preferred: they wanted to make an unsettling ambiguous show. They advised their audience to accept if not enjoy its enigmatic nature, because its setting/history wasn't intended to function as a massive frustrating brainteaser. In essence, they advised them to have faith in the story's hidden logic rather than become distracted with endless questions. And that's what I did—I continued watching without expecting firm clarifications. I permitted it to be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. 

While this endless discussion about questions and answers and mystery and faith occurred, the show's characters performed an analogous discussion. They followed faiths (and doubts) of all kinds, and their interactions with faith changed over time. The prevailing consensus was that Lost treated the theme of faith, and more importantly its various forms and followers, with fewer pessimistic stereotypes than the typical drama. Religious commentators were pleased to see examples which didn't oversimplify faith as solely hypocritical, ridiculous, or dangerous. At the time, as a religious viewer, I shared their enthusiasm. But I still felt occasional twinges of irritation at Lost's hodgepodge version of metaphysics, in which my specific faith was juxtaposed with the frank existence of incompatible powers and practices and beings. To be clear, even then I was rarely disturbed by "fictional" supernatural concepts used by fictional works; the irritation stemmed from the show's apparent willingness to jumble its mythology with the "true" supernatural concepts I absorbed in my upbringing. A few times I remember thinking, "Lost isn't showing faith as I understand it. Faith should be calm confidence in the real god, not thin justifications for reckless behavior and hasty conclusions."

Naturally, as my serious attachment to faith dwindled, my irritation evaporated too. As I now apply my current interpretation of faith to reexamine Lost's interpretation of it, I have a new set of impressions. Beginning with the obvious, the paranormal happenings on Lost island don't qualify as objects of faith. The method of faith isn't necessary. Just as the many characters on Lost know that the island has unexpected inhabitants, such as polar bears and a society of people, they know that another inhabitant is an unnatural cloud of smoke which acts with unnatural speed and strength and emits unnatural loud noises. Similarly, they know that human bodies heal miraculously on the island, and that a subset of them display uncanny abilities. On Lost island, the same bizarre things are routinely demonstrated in unplanned/uncontrolled conditions to one or more sane (?) observers whose reports are in agreement. Therefore, hallucinations, illusions, and statistical blips don't suffice as standard explanations. Strictly speaking, it's not a show in which "faith" is productive for investigation or analysis. It's a show in which faith is superfluous for admitting that otherwise inexplicable occurrences are confirmed instances of the supernatural.

Nevertheless, my diminished regard for faith hasn't shifted my opinion in a purely negative direction. Now I have greater fondness than before for the willingness of Lost to sometimes illustrate faith's potential to deceive and control followers. Sincere faith-based commitment is a potent source of leverage. An antagonist can exploit it to push followers toward actions which they otherwise don't understand and/or wouldn't do. It's a prime strategy of both Benjamin Linus and the shape-shifting cloud of smoke in its human forms, the most notable of which is "Christian Shepherd". Linus does it to assert and maintain control over island society. The cloud does it to, uh, almost everybody who could be marginally useful to its lengthy plan, including Linus. To be fair, the two also employ additional tactics of manipulation, and in any case their targets might need some coaxing anyway...unless the target is Mikhail. Faith isn't mind-control. Even so, they use it to deflect sensible questions. An undeniable downside of Jacob's aloofness and vagueness is that pretenders have the opportunity to "clarify" his statements or impersonate him or speak "on his behalf", thereby borrowing his authority for the pursuit of their own goals. Reapplying this insight to nonfiction is left as an exercise to the reader.

Moreover, the explicit misdirection of followers in Lost is paired with exploration of a more implicit aspect of a mindset dominated by faith: superstitious thinking. Of course, anyone can think superstitiously about virtually anything, but faith can often act as a channel and fuel source. In Lost, it drives the characters to ponder repeatedly whether their circumstances are fated. They scrutinize their experiences in order to estimate the anthropomorphic intentions of "The Island". Again, through its freedom as a story, Lost can invert normal expectations and outcomes so that superstitious thinking really "works". Pushing the button in the hatch turns out to be the right course of action...well, except for when a plane must crash, in which case the button is pressed late at just the right moment. Obeying a compass bearing carved on a stick is a profitable decision. Recreating the Oceanic flight with an Ajira flight succeeds. Suicide attempts fail. A sequence of numbers reappears everywhere. Streaks of fortune give rise to peculiar "magic box" metaphors. Multiple visions and dreams, manifesting on and off the island, are constructive sources of information and instructions. A strikingly high proportion of the passengers on a single plane somehow have had intersecting histories and social networks. Last but not least, they were all purposefully touched by one particular man, in widely separated places and moments. By the final season, the bewildered characters' complete conversion to superstitious thinking is understandable.

Superstitious thinking usually infers false rules for perceiving and manipulating realities. However, Lost's supernatural aspects don't always require unhinged guessing. In several different contexts, knowledgeable figures refer to existing sets of formalized unbreakable "Rules".  Although the details may seem arbitrary and largely unspecified, the audience can easily guess one overall motivation of the Rules: sustaining the show's comprehensibility, suspense, and dramatic conflict. Rules outline the limits of magic charms and forbid powerful characters from immediate victories. Without the Rules to interpret and restrict strange elements, the audience could feel disconnected and confused by the unruly effect of those elements. They might feel that their protagonists are simply victims of uncontrollable chaos. Indeed, the Rules are a fine example of the underestimated challenge of crafting a faith that satisfies a range of psychological cravings. It needs to balance solid tenets and unearthly mystification. Prospective followers want to think that realities contain exciting unknown wonders, but not at the cost of becoming totally powerless, insignificant, and aimless. Due to the Rules, Lost characters can learn and respond. They know that "whatever happened, happened". They know that "dead is dead". They know that the island has a convoluted history. They can pour out ash circles and activate sonar fences. They can turn frozen donkey wheels. They can move a stone cork. They can stab Jacob. They can examine research stations, shacks, lighthouses, temples, and caves in cliffs. No matter how outlandish, the Rules of the island sift followers. By definition, followers think and act based partially on the Rules. And after someone directly communicates Rules, such as "save the island or the world is doomed", then abstract speculations about destiny are beside the point. Naturally, the remaining question is whether the communicator is credible. Once more, the "prophets" of supernatural Rules in Lost score much more highly in credibility than their counterparts in nonfictional history.

All things considered, clearly I have a revised judgment about the relevance of faith in Lost. On the one hand, Lost was a welcome representation of the human experience of faith. On the other hand, Lost was still a product of dazzling creativity, and consequently it sometimes was an extremely false analogy. Nobody should use Lost to imply that all humans are fulfilling prearranged roles in ludicrously complicated plans. Neither should they use it for picking "lucky" numbers...