Tuesday, December 30, 2014

a critical mass of faith

Not long ago, I explained that determined followers of faith-beliefs may not fit the two opposite stereotypes of an uninformed/misinformed dupe or a well-informed swindler. They may be a chimera made of both—a complex yet mutually beneficial combination. They want to believe, and so they devise and/or seek persuasive justifications purely for themselves. And each time they face a new contradiction, they use swindler-like ingenuity to somehow neutralize it from affecting them. Because they prize the continued acceptance of their faith-belief so much, they're willing to overlook their own transparently self-serving mental labor, which they knowingly performed to provide customized evasions of their own doubts.

Such "chimeras" may have learned, after endless trial and error, that they should be reluctant to attempt to mine their faith-beliefs for definite claims about tangible things or events. Instead, they should emphasize their appreciation of the mental effects of their faith-beliefs, e.g. mood changes and private, vague epiphanies. One particularly fruitful concept is a critical mass of faith: the minimum degree of devotion necessary to enable convincing results. If someone's faith could be below critical mass, then their sincere complaints about their faith-beliefs having no noteworthy consequences become easy to explain, rather than perplexing. Even their honest descriptions of their lackluster subjective experiences aren't problematic. They're unsatisfied because they aren't trying hard enough, not because their god is nonexistent. (It's revealing that the demand for fanaticism is seldom expressed to evangelistic targets or novice followers. To the contrary, like anyone approached for a new membership offer, they're more likely to hear that getting started is painless and low-cost.)

The crux is that someone without the critical mass of faith cannot offer a reliable opinion about the accuracy of the corresponding faith-beliefs. They haven't really taken a good sample, so they're uninformed and unqualified. Why pay attention to their negative feedback? (I'm reminded of that time I responded to the suggestion to give prayer a try.) Clearly this ploy's first benefit is an excuse to minimize the criticisms of large numbers of troublesome outsiders, including "moderate" followers of the same faith-beliefs. It's also convenient for discounting the public followers who eventually rejected their faith-beliefs altogether: their faith must never have reached critical mass. Therefore the rejection itself becomes less threatening. It can be an unremarkable consequence of the former follower's failure to ever grasp the "self-evident core". Most absurdly of all, they might face this unverifiable diagnosis despite many previous years of zealous, self-sacrificial commitment and conformity. That whole time, they must have been "only pretending" to be a follower.

The second benefit of requiring a critical mass of faith is that it greatly increases the odds of discernible outcomes within the follower's thoughts. A critical mass of faith involves constant obsession over an idea. And the constant obsession trains the follower's brain to spontaneously produce it. The process is like an echo. Shouting long and hard will set up the shout to return back. Moreover, such an eerie internalized impression isn't unreal in the strictest sense. Like other inner human experiences, it certainly exists...as a manifestation of brain activity. (That's why I've already agreed that I can't hastily categorize these experiences as mere na├»ve illusions.) An engrossing work of fiction doesn't need to present confirmed realities to provoke startlingly vibrant emotions and sensations. To some degree, the overall spectacle could be sufficiently potent to seem more like an alternative rather than an imaginary reality: "I felt like I was there." Similarly, when the brain emits bouts of "spiritual" phenomena, the subject may not be exaggerating much about their palpable perception of it. The brain has an undeniable abundance of interconnections. Why couldn't roughly the same visceral areas be approximately activated via an imaginative conceptual path—especially after that path has been purposefully cultivated by the unceasing efforts of the loyal follower? In this extremely limited way, critical mass makes their faith-belief a little more virtually real...from their perspective.

The third benefit of requiring a critical mass of faith is that it indirectly presumes interpreting available information through the most supportive slant. Once someone is in that state, they're probably not impartial. Almost by definition, they're primed to underline the strengths of their faith-beliefs and put aside the weaknesses. "If you had a critical mass of faith, you'd observe perpetual proof of these faith-beliefs everywhere you look. With your soul in the right condition, you'd be finding divine fingerprints all around." In addition, it's a rationale for continuing to accumulate faith. To be disturbed by contradictory information is to illuminate the need to simply add more faith, until the contradictory information is safely contained. Understandably, this recommendation encourages ambitious mid-level followers at the same time that it repulses dissenters. Ambitious mid-level followers gladly trust that greater faith will (mystically) unlock "advanced" comprehension of subtle truths. On the other hand, to exasperated dissenters, the requirement of greater faith to gauge knowledge correctly is like a requirement to first push down on one side of a scale before reading the weight! Or maybe it's like squinting more and more until four fingers could appear like five.

Ultimately, the common thread among these benefits is easy to spot: fortification of the follower's faith-belief to the point of self-sustaining invulnerability. While they're entranced by their critical mass of faith and its indispensable importance, they're unreachable from the outside. They may still choose to lay it down, of course, in a gesture of humility. Humility is admitting that there's nothing about oneself—including a critical mass of faith—which is independently sufficient for a superior, error-free source of unimpeachable truths.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

unit testing the brain

The previous time I used a peculiar tech metaphor for regular insight meditation, I likened one of its lasting aftereffects to a gyroscope interrupt. (It trains the practitioner's brain to reflexively identify disturbances to equilibrium.) This time I have a metaphor for the meditation session: "unit testing". In software development, unit testing is systematic, frequent, independent retests of distinct units of software. The rationale behind it is not too different from one-by-one retests of the bulbs in a defective strand of Christmas tree lights. Done properly, unit testing rapidly detects problems on the manageable level of circumscribed software units. Hence, developers can potentially pinpoint a unit's problems before it disrupts the smooth functioning of the whole program, i.e. the intact strand of units.

This hopeful goal entails two requirements in practice. First, the units need to be limited. Unit testing is more useful if the units are small and narrowly directed. At the same time, the humble units need exact connection points, because they only accomplish large, worthwhile tasks by assembling and collaborating. Second, once software developers have suitable units, they need an alternative test mode with purposeful procedures to isolate, run, and check the units. As already stated, the aim of unit testing is to temporarily avoid confusing interference from other units. So the procedures of unit testing should easily uncouple a unit, send it prearranged substitute connections/inputs, and measure differences between outputs and expectations. Again, the chore of retesting one Christmas tree bulb is comparable. One bulb can be conveniently retested due to a single clear outcome to evaluate, a known socket "interface" for the electricity it depends on, and a corresponding bulb tester device which can use the same socket.  

Just as unit testing is valuable for disentangling complicated software, insight meditation is valuable for disentangling the much more complicated activity of the brain. Without unit testing, software can be a massive jumble of intersecting parts. Each part can have many obscure overlaps with the rest. Turbulent brain activity presents similar difficulties. If the corresponding "units" are mental phenomena of all kinds, then the normal mode of these units is to combine, follow in quick sequence, and mask one another. Too much is happening. Subtle understanding is infeasible, because distinguishing the units is difficult.

Like unit testing, insight meditation is a quieter, concentrated mode than normal. Through extreme focus and calm, it deliberately decreases and slows the brain's churning. Then, like unit testing, it disconnects and studies individualized units. When each mental phenomenon arises, it's not granted attention beyond bare perception. Therefore it doesn't capture and transport attention somewhere other than the current moment.  In another modern metaphor, it's one out of a large fleet of buses that arrive at the meditator's bus stop, halt for a short time, and then leave; the meditator sees a bus very well but they repeatedly choose not to enter it and take a trip. By doing this, each phenomenon is more noticeable than it would normally be. It can be checked without the distractions that normally overshadow it.

Over time, a particular insight is inevitable: the units of brain activity are both numerous and diverse. Some of the categories are sensations, feelings, drives, aversions, memories, judgments, plans, statements, inferences, compulsions, worries, fantasies, assumptions, etc. Other liberating insights are that these units are in fact separable, and a solitary unit is much less imposing. Although some units are undesirable and uncontrollable, someone who experiences them isn't obligated to make them worse. They aren't obligated to ruminate on them and engage in a downward spiral. They aren't obligated to despise them for being what they are.

Furthermore, a unit might not only be unpleasant but also ungrounded...or perhaps nonsensical! In essence, it might be the equivalent of a buggy unit. Long-term, it might be contributing to unproductive, destructive patterns of thoughts and actions. But it's unidentified, unexamined, and unverbalized, until insight meditation yields the opportunity to recognize the bug and its full nastiness. It probably won't immediately vanish once it's been recognized; falsehoods can be persistent. Nevertheless, it can be counteracted or disregarded when it's recognized again later.

Some may object that the metaphor of unit testing is appallingly reductive and mechanistic. I don't mind. I've never claimed otherwise about my usage of insight meditation. I'm not interested in converting to different spiritual journeys, paths to enlightenment, lifestyles or cultures or laws or deities or words. I'm not interested in my soul. I'm interested in better teamwork with the sole brain that I have during the sole life that I have. 

Friday, December 05, 2014

the chimera of dupe and swindler

I've noticed that especially blunt criticisms of faith-beliefs frequently feature two separate kinds of figures: dupes and swindlers. The dupes are the unsuspecting victims of deception and manipulation, who may have many excellent qualities. The swindlers are the knowledgeable charlatans, who purposely employ persuasive trickery to primarily obtain selfish goals.

In relatively straightforward faith-beliefs, such as medicinal scams, this is adequate. But in breathtakingly elaborate sets of subtle faith-beliefs, such as the set included in a long-lived popular religion, an intriguing third kind appears: a chimera of dupe and swindler. They've witnessed the murky tangle of undisclosed complexities and flaws beneath the simplified well-polished public surface of their faith-beliefs. Nevertheless, they still work tirelessly to promote and protect their ideas. Their own persistent devotion is equal to their audience's...or greater.

Their nimble mixture of dupe and swindler characteristics echoes concepts from the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. I ought to let its timeless prose speak for itself.
Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical [...], and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. But stupidity is not enough. On the contrary, orthodoxy in the full sense demands a control over one’s own mental processes as complete as that of a contortionist over his body. 
[...] no change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness.
Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.
It need hardly be said that the subtlest practitioners of doublethink are those who invented doublethink and know that it is a vast system of mental cheating. In our society, those who have the best knowledge of what is happening are also those who are furthest from seeing the world as it is. In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion: the more intelligent, the less sane.
The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. [...] Alone—free—the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in [...], then he is all-powerful and immortal.
The usual caveat for comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four applies. The book contains an exaggerated self-aware, villainous, insatiable tyranny. I don't suggest that the typical actual religious community is driven solely by an identical craving for exclusive domination—that's more apropos to the "cult" category. The ones in my personal history certainly didn't fit that narrow mold.

No, the discomforting similarity lies in their usage of baffling crimestop/doublethink to reconcile contrary information to unshakable ideas. It's the busy mechanism uniting the chimera. Their dupe side has as much dedication as if the ideas were genuinely sturdy and unquestionable. But their swindler side acts on the principle that whenever they're handling their ideas, they must exert constant care and finesse to ensure credibility and attractiveness. Inside everyone's thoughts, including their own, the swindler side exists to outwit, charm, and isolate the dupe side.

While the pure dupe answers a sensible question about accuracy with a mistaken "yes" and the pure swindler with an informed "no", the chimera fits neither category because they leave the question unanswered. They evade it by attacking its validity. Or they minimize it by attacking its significance. Or, strangest of all, they swallow it by just deciding to disregard its airtight logical consequences.

They wouldn't think of themselves in these terms, of course. A benefit of the balance between their two sides is that it maintains their positive self-concept. In addition to the swindler side's work to preserve the dupe side, the dupe side legitimizes the swindler side. Since their dupe side earnestly believes in the worth of the ideas they're trying to spread, they can feel unashamed about their swindler side using a range of shrewd tactics on newcomers. Like enthusiastic fishermen, they're open to baiting their hook with virtually anything, provided the fish is caught. "I'm intimately acquainted with the downsides of the ideas I'm offering, but it's more important to start by provoking interest however I can."

Furthermore, at least some of them can feel less concerned about the initial stage of bedazzlement—the come-to-Jesus moment—because it doesn't represent their endgame anyway. From their perspective, their sincere final goal isn't the same as a swindler's. Their measure of success isn't converting targets into ignorant needy exploitable dupes. It's converting them into "sophisticated" chimeras like themselves. They want to raise determined followers who willingly and skillfully squelch their own doubts. The hope is that the novice chimera will develop their two sides simultaneously. Their dupe side will grow as they pursue gratifying transcendental/emotional/social stimulation. Their swindler side will necessarily grow as they steadily encounter the common deficiencies of their ideas and learn the common rationalizations for each.

Later, after a chimera becomes advanced and stable, they may settle on a form of belief that's almost depressingly lackluster. The gap between idea and practice might be wide indeed. They'll trust adored holy texts...but only via an intricate strategy of extensive interpretation and refinement. They'll seek a miraculous level of moral resolve...but only via a gradual process of sustained self-discipline and total fixation. They'll praise the otherworldly camaraderie of a faith community...but only as an ideal which every earthly community is far from achieving. They'll petition one or more supernatural forces for help...but only with extremely low expectations. They'll preach that these one or more supernatural forces wish to improve human existence...but only a little at a time via followers' clumsy actions. They'll declare the wonderful blissful rewards of being a correct follower...but only arriving after death. They'll describe the present joy and contentment that comes from their ideas...but only via the escapism of consciousness-altering rituals and inspired imaginative visions of intangibles. They'll vigorously defend the specific doctrinal stances of their specific tradition...but only along with the uneasy awareness that their tradition is itself the highly debated creation of limited biased human predecessors. They'll report the guidance they receive regularly from the supernatural realm...but only via cryptic faint "signs" or sudden inscrutable mental impulses. They'll relentlessly press onward on a mission assigned to them by a god...but only with the unforeseeable risks that they somehow misheard the mission assignment, or that the incomprehensible god may have purposefully assigned them to a mission which was doomed to failure.

For most of the religious leaders I've met, this admittedly confusing mentality is a closer approximation than the notion of sinister puppeteers cynically pulling the strings of the gullible. Sometimes I've read the suggestion that such experienced followers "really know that they're asserting nonsense to the uninitiated". But I don't necessarily find that suggestion to be any more convincing than the frequent inaccurate suggestion that dissenters like me "really know that supernatural item ______ exists". When I can observe the strenuous psychological exertions they perform to keep their faith from dying altogether, I don't conclude that they're faking. Besides, the more honest among them confess that they too have moments of doubt (time periods when their intellectual arguments are more than smokescreens). To the extent that they muddy the thoughts of their audience, they're repeating what's already been done to them...often by themselves.

Regardless, I'd prefer that they were neither dupe, nor swindler, nor any chimera of the two. The better outcome would be nobody accepting unsound ideas for unsound reasons.