Saturday, July 26, 2014

the triviality of human significance

Like a cockroach, propaganda can survive. That category includes some of the undying arguments against materialistic naturalism. As I've said previously here and here, I define materialistic naturalism as a philosophical stance that contains two overlapping statements. First, if anything supernatural exists, then it is as equally indetectable and irrelevant as if it's nonexistent. Second, anything that does exist originates in material/physical stuff. I write "stance" because I recognize that these sweeping propositions aren't exhaustively proven like facts. Rather, the propositions match known facts and additionally presume that unknown facts will match just as closely.

Today's propaganda cockroach is the argument that materialistic naturalism enforces a total loss of human significance. It sounds like, "Without supernatural entities or metaphysical factors, nothing grants humans greater significance than anything else. Since a single atom cannot be significant, humans composed solely of atoms cannot be significant. Since significance is bestowed by a qualified external judge, humans cannot be bestowed with significance in the absence of supernatural entities. Since something must be relatively central and influential in the universe in order to be significant, humans cannot be significant unless physical laws assign those exceptional qualities to humans. Since something must be relatively long-lived or imperishable in order to be significant, the material of mortal human lives cannot be significant whenever the scale of the universe is considered massively old by comparison. Since significance is often an intangible feeling, tangible things cannot be the sole background of significance." And so on.

Although this overcomplicated line of reasoning might have enticed me once, I have less patience now for the "question" of human significance in materialistic naturalism. In my current perspective, its answer verges on "trivial", similar to the simplistic trivial solutions of a mathematical problem or proof. For instance, the subsets of set Q are the sets only of members that are also members of Q. The problem of finding the subsets of Q that fit particular criteria can be...hard sometimes (in fact, theoretically proven to not presently have a uniformly feasible general solution). But Q is a trivial subset of Q; after all, Q is a set of only members that are "also" members of Q.

Essentially, the trivial pragmatic reason behind the greater significance of the tiny materials within humans is that the materials are within humans. And the trivial reason humans are so significant to us is because we're human. My head is significant to me because it's my head. My brain is significant to me because it's my brain in my head. My brain cells are significant to me because my brain cells are in my brain in my head. Comparable "logic" applies to humans other than me. Their brain cells are significant to me because their brain cells are in their brains in their heads. Certainly I would acknowledge the awful significance of their tiny brain cells functioning worse, perhaps due to a degenerative disease.  

Furthermore, this trivial definition of human significance isn't in conflict with the finite realities of the small space-time position and impact of human lives. It's not hampered by confinement to a single off-center planet in a single off-center solar system in a single off-center galaxy. Nor is it hampered by the limited number of decades between birth and death. The more insightful question isn't whether grander knowledge of the whole universe reduces significance. It's "Why would anyone think it reduces significance?" Why was there such a staggeringly disproportionate estimate of significance to start with? If significance to the whole universe shrinks as the estimate grows more accurate, then nothing is "lost" except the former believability of the outlandish fictional estimate. Humans have only been "demoted" from a noble rank that was never theirs in actuality anyway. How shocking it is to not assume that humans aren't the pinnacle or purpose of the whole universe.

Even so, I can appreciate one of the possible motives for seeking to expand significance and anchor it firmly in external realities: objectivity. I admit that the opposite strategy is more subjective in nature. If significance is derived from human judgment, then it's probably bounded correspondingly by provincial human concerns. And given the multitude of humans and human concerns, it will probably be constructed in a multitude of varieties. But the quest for objective significance is fruitless. Perfectly objective significance would be somewhat detached from human standards. Yet if significance were somewhat detached from human standards, then humans wouldn't be likely satisfied with it. Just as one human's measurement of significance might not be satisfying to another, neither might an inhuman measurement of significance. To name the obvious example, someone might reasonably disagree with "objective divine writ" which calls them a negligible member of a permanently insignificant out-group...

In contrast, I don't understand a second possible motive for rejecting materialistic naturalism: the absurd poetic demand that a thing's explanation must have identical human significance as the thing itself. Depending on the context and goal, either the thing or the explanation might have more applicable significance. The activity of reading about the Krebs cycle shouldn't need to feel energetic for the information to be acceptable. Memorization of the chemical bonds of serotonin doesn't need to alleviate depression. The numerical magnitude of the neuron threshold potential doesn't need to trigger memories of Grandmother. Accurate representations of low-level complex realities don't somehow invalidate or replace the significance of human-level experiences. The explanation's significance is independent. Its amount of "mystery" isn't vital to preserving the experience's significance. Detailed studies, consistent with materialistic naturalism, don't diminish it. Likewise, shadowy conjectures, inconsistent with materialistic naturalism, merely decorate it. A decisive event in someone's personal history affected them vividly and had long-lasting ramifications. That's why they weighed its significance so heavily, no matter the alleged comparative contributions of natural processes or ineffable Fate, no matter the individual's vocation of scientist or clergy.

That objection is related to the mistaken assertion that someone who follows materialistic naturalism cannot claim that human significance is an important question. I don't wish to give that impression. I would never state that the question's trivial difficulty is accompanied by trivial importance. Identifying precise manifestations of human significance is a valuable undertaking. I think it's commendable to deliberately evaluate one's own wide-ranging effects, not from an unearthly vantage point, but through reference to one's own powers and chosen ideals. Why is a chosen ideal a worthy benchmark of significance? The answer is trivially obtained: it's worthy by whatever rationales that caused it to be chosen, of course. It's meaningful via straightforward ties to the realities of specific human experiences. It's not dependent on stupendous otherworldly significance, grounded in mystical afterlives and deities. Why does it need to be? Why isn't it enough?  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

social network connectivity problems

Recently I've been reminiscing about the individualized experiences that nudged me out of my former faith-beliefs, as opposed to the intellectual or philosophical factors. Although I repeat that I wasn't driven away by other followers' actions toward me, it's also fair to say that I almost completely lacked a comfortable sensation of "belonging". To the extent I did, it was too faint to motivate me to try to squelch my genuine objections. I've read de-conversion stories in which former followers were slow to acknowledge their creeping doubts because of their close interpersonal connections to their religious community. Or they suddenly left because of painful community conflict.

I don't fit those extremes. Generally speaking, I was just someone who didn't manage to connect meaningfully with other followers. I'm not seeking to provoke pity or assign blame. My musings on the causes are probably permeated by hindsight bias. I suspect that, as with a lot of realities, the contributors were varied and linked. Certainly my uncoerced conscious choices were one component. I'm only outlining some emotional/social/psychological mismatches that affected me, whether or not they were inevitable, whether or not I was partially responsible.

Of all these frictions, the top must have been my minimal participation in the wide range of social events. It partly stemmed from my default guarded disposition. I have a nigh-irresistible compulsion to freeze or withdraw in threatening contexts, such as when I'm interacting with someone whom I want to impress. Its intensity is comparable to a biological drive. The second part was my sincere absence of curiosity for the minutiae of others' lives. I cared for their abstract wellbeing, but I couldn't force myself to care about the details. I wished them the best. I was willing to help on request. That didn't mean I thought about them. Unlike the stereotype of churchgoers, I was never tempted to gossip, because it bored me. Casual talk was more like a chore than, well, literal chores—I'd rather be handed a task to facilitate the social event than be in the middle of it.  

I worried about this aversion regularly. I wasn't selfish, but I wasn't friendly either. I claimed to be integral to a community allegedly bound together by a supernatural level of love. So why wasn't I captivated by the community's usual set of tiny triumphs and catastrophes? It seemed to me that the spiritual ideal was to eagerly devote myself to involvement in their lives. So why weren't my impulses actually progressing toward that ideal? I was advised to treat them as well as I would treat Christ. So why didn't I value time with them?

The predicament was exacerbated by divergent interests. Although I was an independent adult, I chose churches based on adherence to my parents' religious tradition, not based on degree of similarity with the attendees. Indeed, this single-minded criterion of "deep" agreement on doctrine brought me to a church in which I was isolated by my differences in every other aspect. My acquaintances from church were happily simple. When I apply that label, I'm not insulting them—they wouldn't consider the label an insult at all.

They worked hard but they weren't rich. Their spending habits were careful. They did crafts and their own repairs. They played softball, basketball, golf. Inside they played tabletop games with cards, dice, boards, dominoes. In accordance with the overall judgment that most national entertainment was clearly soaked in evil, they didn't keep up to date with current TV or film. If they read, they preferred undemanding subjects. They weren't fascinated by most recent electronics. They admired pastimes in lightly-tamed wilderness "created by God for our pleasure": camping, fishing, hiking, hunting. Living simply was in their ethos.

I've exaggerated and generalized a lot. My main point is that in my typical time as an adult follower, I was "odd". I had little in common with my counterparts. Apart from the church's prearrangement, we didn't have separate informal reasons to associate. What would we have done or discussed if we did? In effect, I was like an outsider who was on the inside. I could hardly complain about being excluded from group activities that everyone knew I wouldn't enjoy.

Earlier I commented that I chose churches based on shared doctrine. Despite those efforts, my relative "oddness" as a follower also applied to conversations about Christian teachings. I was known as excessively analytical, unusually insistent about clarifying vague details, purposefully hesitant to make easy assumptions, and strangely concerned with the supporting justifications for ordinary ideas. After I asked a question and received an answer, I had a habit of then asking the second essential question "Why?" I wasn't rebellious or troublesome. I respected my mentors' education and commitment and practical experience. Nevertheless, such respect didn't imply that "Because I said so" was acceptable even from them. I was well aware that the long history of Protestantism was the successive toppling of quite fallible human authorities.

I could cope with someone saying "I don't know" or "It's tradition" as long as they spoke with sympathetic candor. The retort that irked me far more was the gentle insinuation that my inquisitiveness was the problem. For unlike the majority of assertions about vitally important realities, somehow faith-beliefs had the unique privilege of claiming trust without rigor. They were permitted to be ill-defined and entirely dependent on perspective. Some hinted that the supernatural didn't consist of reliable realities which could be represented symbolically. I sometimes heard that daring to think about them too much was a mistake; it would produce nothing more than destructive doubts.

To the contrary, they were to be felt and obeyed. Faith-beliefs were for the "heart" not the "head". They were more like a set of inspirational stories than puzzle pieces to assemble into something coherent. God was a gut feeling, and the supernatural was the special case in which gut feelings were all-sufficient. To become effective followers, personality types like mine needed to learn to disconnect their thoughts from their emotions, and their knowledge from their actions. They were obligated to quarantine sections of themselves in several compartments, so the sections wouldn't battle. And so they wouldn't clash with instinctual followers who didn't have misgivings.

Compartmentalization was the implicit path, if I was to persist in being serious about my faith-beliefs' ideas. And it was useful not only for seriously accepting the ideas but for seriously doing them. It was a valuable weapon against thought crimes. As far I knew, particular thoughts were abominable: pride, hatred, lust, etc. I figured that whenever I sensed those thoughts' low-level precursors, the imperative was to flee, ignore, suppress.

I suppose I grew skilled at it. The downside was that it wasn't good for me. I definitely didn't benefit from an invincible excuse to indulge tendencies toward passivity and harsh self-judgment. Given my individual mild nature, I wasn't at risk of evil acts like selfishness or hostility or promiscuity to start with. Rather than stigmatizing the related urges, I needed to hear that I shouldn't underestimate myself, pretend to never be upset, or try to squash every sexual attraction. I realize the interpretation was self-serving: I used the notion of Christian thought crimes to further ingrain traits which I should've undermined instead.

Eventually, this zealous approach backfired in the area of romance. If the definition of lust was mere mental contemplation of erotic desires outside of the confines of an official church marriage, then the legal reasoning was straightforward: an unmarried follower couldn't think that way about anyone for any reason. In addition, since an official church marriage was the goal of all romantic relationships, then nobody should attempt one unless they were willing for it to lead to marriage in the near future, such as a year later.

By following this reasoning, I self-righteously thought that I was obviously more earnest and God-pleasing than my peers. When they formed relationships that included sex, they were wrong. And if they avoided sexual activity, they were at best forming relationships that were futile; they weren't yet old enough to consider marriage. The superior route was to give up on the whole enterprise until the arrival of maturity and financial independence. I was already avoidant, so I didn't think it was impossible.

In retrospect the outcome was predictable. All my peers who had "foolishly" learned by experience how to start and maintain relationships were the ones who successfully dated and married. But when I abstained and constantly denied and denigrated my feelings of attraction, I failed to develop adequate skills and confidence. I customarily disregarded and devalued the concept of myself as a romantic partner. I had a conditioned reflex to reject viewing anyone else as one, either. After years, I couldn't abruptly flip a switch to reverse it.

With good intentions, I'd adopted a moral attitude that was much more appropriate for the model of marriage as a formal transaction. It wasn't suited for charming someone into a freely defined equal partnership, which had the gradual destination of marriage. Somehow I'd been led to act as if I were in a different society than, well, mine. I'd been instructed to resist my society's pattern but not how to feasibly replace it. Exactly how was an unmarried human expected to never think a lustful thought when they were finding a spouse, anyway?

Worse, the passage of time once again placed me in an "odd" cohort of follower. I was the one who had strangely consented to advice about distancing myself from romance. Yet all along, the better response had been to internalize the one command  "no sex" but otherwise develop like anyone else. The ones who did this were now married. As spouses, especially with children, they were the church's main constituency. Marriage and parenting were the major topic emphases for adults. I was always welcome, but the circumstances of my life were often irrelevant to the lesson.

However, unmarried members were envied for their greater availability. They had more time to spend outside their households. They had the potential to reach out to more of The Lost. And the basic method of evangelism was to be vibrant and encouraging. Wherever they went and whoever they met, God's goodness was meant to shine through followers. Onlookers would then wonder what the followers had, and then wish that they weren't bored outsiders. They'd see the followers doing good and then blame God for it. When the opportunity arose, followers were to offer heartfelt explanations of their own beliefs and autobiography. They were to spread the truths that they had tested for themselves. (To readers disgusted by the sanctimony, I apologize.)

Needless to say, I didn't fill this mold either. I wasn't overflowing with joy...or any other sentiment about my faith-beliefs, really. I didn't literally adore Christ. I couldn't claim with candor that I was seeing the supernatural "at work in my life". I wasn't sure which parts of the Bible were metaphorical or obsolete. I didn't know how a follower could thoroughly confirm that the Holy Ghost was in them and thereby shielding them from divine wrath (we didn't perform or require glossolalia). I was disturbed by the terrible events that God routinely allowed. And even if I had been certain about what to say, my standoffish demeanor wouldn't entice anyone to listen. I'd die of starvation if I worked in sales. Yes, I held some faith-beliefs, but I wasn't passionate about them most of the time. I wasn't interested in pestering someone else to change their mind.

On the other hand, I know that not all religious groups are intent on evangelism. I imagine I would have merged more smoothly into those. It's difficult to picture an alternative universe in which I migrated into a more fitting gathering, perhaps in another location altogether. Would I have stopped attending it so readily? Would I have relished participating in a more "modernized" form that discards most faith-beliefs? Would someone there have noticed my "lapse"? Would I be drastically different, then or now?

I don't know. Maybe there isn't a conclusion to draw. Maybe I wouldn't have built substantive bonds in any case. I'm glad that atheists/humanists are alert to the need for personal networks that can compete with the kind offered by established faith-beliefs. But for me, that happens to be a non-issue. The prospect of no longer qualifying as "odd" is a step up all on its own. There's no contest.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

ethics pretzels

Sometimes I read puzzled internet commentary about the incomprehensible ethics of religious followers, as if questioning how they can reach and embrace ethical statements which are almost laughable...or palpably loathsome. From my present vantage point, I can sympathize with the bewilderment. But I also can recall the time when my sympathies were switched, and my personal ethics were entangled in my former faith-beliefs.

I cannot justify such a mindset. Nor do I want to justify it. I can try to describe it, though. Like the previous entry, this one has a tighter focus because I'm analyzing my distinct religious history. I don't claim to represent the full diversity of Christianity throughout time and space.

My best qualities weren't substantially different then. I had a lot of the same ethical senses and standards: candor, empathy, fair play, compromise, self-responsibility, creativity. I had a lot of the same abilities to think logically—I couldn't have performed my job if I didn't. The critical factor was more like defective routing. 

My faith-beliefs channeled my judgment through a circuit of deductive loops. That circuit could mimic an impression of logical steps, but the overall path was circular. It twisted and bent back on itself. Its rationales were codependent. It served to provoke feelings of reasonableness purely within the context that it furnished for itself. It was made to be self-isolated and self-reinforced. Its shape wasn't the expected straight line from axiom to conclusion. It was pretzel-shaped. Applying it to ethics baked "ethics pretzels".

Rather than list many examples, I'll cover broad categories. One of those was the ethics lessons that were perplexing, to put it mildly. Even as a child, my concealed first response to some lessons was confusion or distaste. Why would a moral lesson smell so immoral or strange?

Pretzel-shaped logic came to the rescue. Every human sinned, but not necessarily in identical ways. To each of them, a sin could appear to be "doing right in your own eyes". Ergo, every human's native perception of morality was probably not perfectly attuned. If a new lesson smelled immoral to someone, then the lesson wasn't necessarily at fault. Their fallible egocentric conscience could be the explanation. They needed to learn that their moral lenses were too smudged for them to estimate simple ethics for themselves.

To twist the argument further, if not every human was in close agreement with a moral lesson, then their discomfort was proof that the moral lesson wasn't subjective and relative to human preferences. An unlikable reality had more credence simply because of the unlikelihood that anyone had invented it to please themselves. Through this perverse reversal, a moral lesson that didn't smell moral at first was more likely to be objective and absolute, i.e. "genuinely" moral. 

In other cases, the lessons I heard were blatant teachings of the church community's conventional norms. Of course their norms weren't in the Bible, and nobody claimed that God had sent the norms to them via a prophet. Nevertheless, they treated their norms with equivalent sternness. This ethics pretzel relied on the premise that since God never changed, God had to be an incurable traditionalist about virtually everything. It was in favor of outcomes which happened to be part of the status quo. The norms in turn regulated the status quo, so God must have implicitly endorsed the norms, regardless of whether the norms were dogma. A typical pretzel ingredient was the outcome of correct family life. God was "obviously" a major advocate for correct family life. Therefore norms that could be connected tenuously to correct family life were unconditionally backed by God's approval. (Items such as the rampant polygamy of Israelite kings and the Apostle Paul's proud singleness were left out or pronounced exceptional.)

And then some ethics pretzels were more abstract, specifically God's behavior. Given that God had explicitly prescribed lots of mandatory animal sacrifices a long time ago, presumably there weren't any less bloody alternatives to enabling God's toleration of human evildoers. Christ was the designated final sacrifice for this purpose. Left to themselves in the afterlife, the souls of human evildoers still couldn't be tolerated by God, so their default fate was God-forsaken and hellish. Human souls could achieve God's toleration of them by reusing Christ's final sacrifice through spiritual union with it. To someone who has been taught it for years, this ethics pretzel has a peculiar self-consistency.

To everyone else, its thinly stretched complexity is much less credible, and its persuasive value was additionally lowered by the endless technical disagreements among Christian subgroups. God's nature somehow demanded ultimate violence in order to dispel its wrath, yet the sole fully sufficient target of that violence was itself. Its expression of mercy was to throw itself in the path of the bullet which it was also firing. It was loving, but it was incapable of forgiveness without venting its aggression too. It didn't wish to cast out humans, but it certainly would if they weren't shielded by Christ.

No matter its baffling pretzel foundation, this juxtaposition was at minimum an undeniably potent instance of carrot-and-stick motivational strategy. A secondary payoff was the momentous emphasis placed on a malleable nebulous goal. Spiritual union with Christ could be precisely defined in a multitude of concrete methods, and followers were inclined to listen to the all-important goal's details ("...earnest faith in Christ means that you'll care about this and act like that...").

Ethics pretzels were baked for topics outside the faith-beliefs as well. Although the Bible was missing lectures from Christ about supply-side macroeconomics, the most Christian economic regime was synonymous with the least amount of oversight and taxes. The regime's ethically superior economy wasn't intelligently designed, but it naturally evolved from the numerous gradual adaptations of selfish participants who competed over finite resources to survive in various niches. This highly moral regime didn't enforce restrictions on ego or greed, and it was intentionally indifferent about its losers or about intangible and/or long-term side-effects.

The roundabout defense for it rested on incredibly naive shallow comparisons such as moral consequences and wealth. Just as each individual's freely chosen virtuous decisions led to a better world, wealth was an indication that an individual had made virtuous decisions in their economic activities. This comparison wasn't groundless, but it had wildly varying amounts of accuracy. In countless situations, an individual's admirable attributes and deeds were in fact partially responsible for their wealth. They wouldn't be as wealthy without their prudence, conscientiousness, flexibility, diligence, considerateness, self-denial. Hence this ethics pretzel curled wealth into a straightforward reward of a market participant's virtue. As a result, aid to the impoverished curled into undeserved rewards for lack of virtue, and taxing the wealthy at a steeper rate curled into a punishing reduction of their well-earned rewards.

Notwithstanding its popularity among the well-off, it was one huge exercise in overgeneralizing. It was grievously incomplete in its willful ignorance of realities that didn't fit its ideal. Counterexamples to it were legion. Wealth was inherited, not only directly but indirectly through miscellaneous advantages. A worker's virtue was irrelevant if they worked in an outdated occupation. For others, a chance opportunity or accidentally perfect timing were part of the start of their success. Some may have worked very hard and consistently...but due to their unsophisticated skills their job had a minuscule wage. Or maybe income was spectacular...on the condition of performing unethical acts to get it, or sabotaging competitors, or conspiring to subjugate the whole market. On the other hand, some may have accumulated sizable wealth...prior to the unpredictable calamity that demolished the bulk of their assets and/or their ability to work. None of these factual scenarios disturbed or complicated the ethics pretzel. Like the rest, a facet of its appeal was that, despite its winding turns, it's a single unbroken line nonetheless. Its form doesn't include nuances such as disparate pieces or layers mixed together. It's sheer elegance in its simplicity.

A telling flaw in this ethics pretzel was its coexistence with innumerable alternate pretzels, in differing places or times, in which Christianity was woven with equal ease to support managed egalitarian economic regimes. As I conceded before, I recognize that I cannot cover the complete set of alternates, such as speedy annihilation of the unsaved dead in place of lasting separation from God. In general, the great pretzel divergence began almost as soon as the religion did.

The shortsighted reactions were councils and creeds, not to mention heresy trials. But forced uniformity defeats the larger aim of an ethics pretzel, which is to redirect the forces that could potentially goad a follower out of the faith-belief. Like an ant crawling on it, the follower's restlessness is absorbed in traversing across it to nowhere new. In that way, it's a teammate of apologetics: more likely to reassure and cement followers than to entice the resistant unconverted. If a wider selection is available for matching the taste of every follower, then they're more likely to remain satisfied. It averts the oft proven danger of broadening the intellect and sensibility of a follower; they may tire of pretzels. ("I'm sick of searching for convoluted pretexts for ethics that seem too narrow now.")