Monday, March 30, 2015

when my former faith minimized free will

In February I wrote that my decisions were less free while I followed my parents' religion; it constrained my decisions in numerous ways. The amusing twist is that it simultaneously included a cherished and essential faith-belief in vaguely-defined transcendent free will! I was less free while I thought free will was absolute.

Since then, I've remembered several counterexamples to my own generalization. Frankly, the faith-beliefs I learned, as well as the followers I knew, sometimes placed minimal emphasis on the invulnerable independence of the individual human's free will. Of course, this embrace of differing ideas is unsurprising for a set of long-lived faith-beliefs. Realities are messy and varied. Offering opposite alternatives is an excellent strategy for adaptation and survival. It sets up faith-beliefs to always have an applicable answer. A new item of information or a new need might conflict with some of the available ideas, but it might also match at least one. Outlandish theories of conspiracies perform a similar trick: easily reinterpreting a lack of straightforward evidence as "proof" of the formidable conspiracy's strenuous efforts to conceal itself. Anyway, here are some faith-belief counterexamples that demoted and/or counteracted free will.
  • pleas for guidance from omniscient/omnipotent entities...These pleas may be phrased that the entity "help someone see the truth" or "impress on someone the wrongness of their acts". The flaw is that the invoked entity's incredible abilities empower it to act as a master of manipulation. It knows everything about its targets. It has effective knowledge of how to methodically evoke behaviors from the targets. Perhaps it can't eliminate the targets' free will, but it hardly needs to do so. It can apply superb pressure to the targets—possibly with enough delicate expertise that the targets don't suspect. Moreover, the level of subtlety raises a vital question about the specific mental form of the uncanny entity's miraculous "guidance". What forms would be too overpowering to be compatible with the targets' free will? What forms does the pleading follower earnestly expect, assuming their plea is serious and not regurgitated flowery gibberish? Would guidance in the form of a terrifying hallucinatory vision be sufficiently respectful of the target's free will? Or would guidance in the form of unrelenting agonizing feelings of guilt qualify? Regardless, highly valuing the target's individual free will is difficult to reconcile with any plea for a direct, or even a skillfully indirect, intervention within their brain. If the follower pleads for guidance of themselves, then their request to be operated like a marionette remains distasteful. And it has the risk of motivating their unthinking obedience to spontaneous, reckless impulses which they incorrectly attribute to a spiritual source.
  • diabolical deception/temptation...In many ways my background was fortunate, and one of those was no exposure to so-called demonic possession. However, I heard warnings or stories about cunning diabolical sources of deception/temptation. Those sources were said to launch underhanded sneak attacks on humans' free decisions. That explanation was especially unnerving when it was identified retrospectively; apparently a follower often didn't recognize until much later that malevolent forces had intentionally misled or enticed them. If those forces were tirelessly working to sabotage clearheaded contemplation of decisions, then the usefulness of free will was diminished. (On the other hand, an outsider's impression of this interpretation is that it's a convenient, shameless, faith-based substitute for the otherwise embarrassing admission, "At the time, my freely chosen decisions, which I made with full awareness, were simply idiotic and/or contemptible.")
  • divinely controlled destiny...Countless arguments have analyzed the nature of the interaction between human and supernatural influences on "destiny". Despite the unending controversy about the details, the shared truism was that supernatural contributions definitely exceeded and potentially overruled all human contributions, particularly at larger scales. The center of the disputes was the exact extent of humanity's inability to change destiny. In this formal sense human free will was limited at best. Its role was comparable to coloring prescribed areas inside someone else's vast pencil drawing.
  • afterlife decisions...The afterlife was yet another topic of debate. I'll only address what I was taught: the afterlife occurred after the unchangeable final judgment. In moral terms, it came after the whole "test" was finished. Presumably the afterlife either had no more decisions at all or it had decisions of no moral significance. Thus, the immortal soul either no longer had free will or it had free will to decide nothing of importance. According to this interpretation of the afterlife, free will eventually became nonexistent or fruitless.
  • wrongdoing resulting from inner corruption/weakness...Contrary to their proud by-the-book self-portrayal, followers of deeply organized/defined faith-beliefs still depend on unstated tradition spread through attitudes and norms and conventions. Their treasured texts are just raw layers incorporated in an overlapping collage of their active understandings of their faith-beliefs. Thanks to input from sources they trust, over time they infer which bits to disregard or reshape, which clarifications are necessary before accepting overoptimistic supernatural claims, and which excessive statements provide realistic counterbalance of other excessive statements. In this case, the devastating effect of inner corruption/weakness carefully circumscribed the official doctrine that anyone could decide to cease wrongdoing. Specifically, the effect was that someone's will (heart, soul, etc.) could be corrupted/weakened to the point that they couldn't accurately judge morality—or comprehend the correctness of faith-beliefs preached at them. Using biblical terminology, they were the "swine" who were too coarse to appreciate the generosity of "pearls"; they had been "given over" to their depravity. They were theoretically capable of change, but their free will was now too perverted to offer much hope. (They were prime targets of the first counterexample: pleas for supernatural brain readjustment.) Obviously, different groups of followers varied in how enthusiastically they employed this ready justification for discounting outsiders' ability to exercise genuine free will....and therefore the outsiders themselves. Usually they put principled ex-followers into the category. From their perspective, the dissenters' free will must already be unreliably defective. Else, how could they have "decided" to dump their former faith-beliefs after insisting that an idea's accuracy be measured by the verification of its implications
  • parental blame for the decisions of adult offspring...This counterexample is like the previous. The primary, endorsed position was personal responsibility for wrong decisions. Everybody needed to confess their own offenses. Nobody automatically inherited "saved" status. Even so, layered on top of this position was the expectation, or implicit duty, that parents should do all they could to assure their family's unwavering commitment to right decisions. In fact, ritual "dedications" were fairly normal, in which parents publicly agreed to a series of vows regarding their new child's religious instruction. Again, using overworn biblical terminology, "Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6) Given this context, parents with less devout adult offspring couldn't escape feeling blamed for it. But by proposing that the parents could somehow instigate the decisions of their adult offspring, the offspring's free will was reduced correspondingly. To split responsibility between parents and offspring was to dangerously concede that an individual's free will couldn't be as "uncaused" as dogma asserted. 

Saturday, March 07, 2015

meditation and the Spock stereotype

The sad passing of Leonard Nimoy has temporarily raised the public profile of his most famous role: Spock of Star Trek. And although the character was many-sided and complex, it's more commonly referenced as a shallow stereotype. Typically, to compare anyone with "Spock" insinuates that they're out of touch with their feelings; they're obsessed with attempts to be impassive, analytical, objective, inflexible, rule-driven, unimaginative, risk-averse. Regardless of Spock's perennial popularity, in most cases the comparison probably isn't a compliment.

Concern about being too much like Spock is eerily similar to some of the uninformed concerns about the side effects of meditation—even the minimal, undogmatic kind previously covered by this blog. "If I train my brain to notice my emotions and direct my attention, won't I cut myself off from some of the most compelling parts of human experience? If I'm more conscious of what's going on in my head, won't I act...uh...self-conscious? If all my cares are demoted from controlling me, won't I lose the capability to be caring? If I realize that my aims are more like products of my mindset than like lasting, solid prizes, won't my actions start to seem worthless?"

Fortunately, meditation doesn't produce those fearsome effects. It can't because it doesn't force any changes in the practitioner. Ideally it yields them greater understanding and composure. It loosens the grip of their impulsive thoughts. It provides more opportunity for them to make thorough, well-justified decisions, which are more free from the self-imposed tyranny of narrow and/or unidentified mental patterns. They don't extinguish their emotions but soberly recognize then supervise. They can't choose the immediate involuntary reactions of their brain and body, but through unclouded comprehension they may choose how to respond to those reactions.

They're more able to remain calm in a wider variety of situations. Yet a calm demeanor doesn't imply that they're indifferent or unfeeling. They're only displaying the outcome of observing their agitation and simply permitting it to evaporate by itself, as if it were excess steam. They've acquired skills to selectively filter its final expression. As such, they're not subject to a stark dilemma of restrained Spock or unrestrained brute. They can decide which of their inclinations are worthy of which further actions—and possibly forming habits.

Additionally, they can consider the context of the present moment during those decisions. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. Obviously, behaving like a strait-laced Spock stereotype isn't always appropriate. Some moments warrant bubbling excitement, wide smiles, and easy laughter. Deeper familiarity with one's moods, gained through meditation or meditative-like practices, allows one to deliberately value, embrace, and trust their moods on such occasions. The opposite embattled strategy of guiltily shunning, fleeing, and squashing one's moods can't claim the same flexibility.

And to emphasize the realities of the present moment is to be more effective during either extreme or at times in-between. The competent completion of an unpleasant but necessary task (on Monday?) benefits from the absence of distraction: the doer isn't preoccupied by their wish to be doing something else altogether. The enjoyment of a leisure activity benefits from the absence of distraction, too: the doer isn't preoccupied by their dread of a future task (on Monday?). At differing moments they're either a clearer-headed "Spock" or a clearer-headed "anti-Spock"*.

*not a mirror universe Spock