Tuesday, November 24, 2015

the tedium of the chase

In the ongoing project to explore exactly how those who "should" know better continue to follow faith-beliefs—including me in the first years of my life—a central yet underreported explanation is the habitual unbending momentum of belief. Along with that are actual rationales they may have for either not seeking out conflicting information or for offhandedly discounting the information's implications. One is the sanguine confidence that all unearthed discrepancies from the faith-beliefs are superficial and temporary. I know that it's sincerely professed by individuals of superb intelligence, education, inquisitiveness, etc. It's probably rampant in religious liberal arts colleges/universities.

Given that the faith-beliefs are unalterable, the presumption is that every human method of investigation will eventually bridge the gap (or disprove it). In effect, knowingly or not, directly or not, those methods are said to be chasing the faith-beliefs. This chase's secondary value is a veneer of unworried participation in numerous secular fields. Provided that any chosen field can be tenuously embraced as a path to the same old set of faith-beliefs, then careers in those fields aren't frightening temptations. Especially bold followers might further boast that the picture of a "chase toward the One Truth" unifies everything in a tidy manner. And they have a valid point, from their perspective. Why is it unreasonable to them that, sooner or later, the fullness of human knowledge would seamlessly mesh with the ideas which they promote as ultimately fundamental?

When speaking to followers of faith-beliefs, I've previously discouraged referring to a total war between science and religion/spirituality and proceeding to demand an exclusive switch of their "loyalty". I'd rather nudge the thoughtful reexamination of the nature of verification and the standards that are acceptable before following an idea. But I'm not enthused by the effort to replace the war with a chase. For critics, its basic problem is easy to notice. If the chase is indeed happening...then it's turning out pitifully dull. It's not nail-bitingly close. For whatever reason, the pursuers aren't advancing. Worse, they're falling farther behind. With each passing decade, the overall trend is of increasing intervals. It's almost as if the pursuers are headed in the wrong direction.

I'm alluding primarily to examples of the empirical sciences not converging to a singular system of faith-beliefs, although needless to say the humanities aren't either. I realize not all faith-beliefs are identical, but very few of the top ones seem to have proposed an extremely old (and gargantuan) universe, containing an off-center, relatively younger yet very old planet Earth, where species that are approximately human have lived for a minute fraction of that time range. Very few seem to have proposed the common genetic ancestry among organisms from large to small, observable in embarrassingly similar genetic code. Very few seem to have proposed the continual failure of ubiquitous modern-day recording devices to ever capture unambiguous supernatural occurrences. Very few seem to have proposed that the idea of a soul is unnecessary to the study of the basis of human behavior and consciousness. Very few seem to have proposed the germ theory of disease (i.e. not an evil spirit theory of disease).

The attempts to disqualify these examples are less than satisfying, too. If these are disqualified because the topics aren't patently religious, then there isn't a chase at all: without even the faintest of overlaps in topics, the sciences can't be chasing the faith-beliefs in the first place. If these are disqualified because of how much time has passed since the introduction of the faith-beliefs, then the chase has stopped already and the chase doesn't help to address present issues. If these are disqualified because the original communicators of the faith-beliefs weren't privy to modern terminology and concepts, then that would mean measuring progress in the chase will always be vulnerable to inconclusive decoding of the intended future meanings of their culturally limited past communications. If these are disqualified because the chase is only expected to yield nonspecific subjective benefits such as greater inspirational appreciation of the "creator's mind", then the chase itself adds less value; it doesn't promise an end to concrete discrepancies. If these are disqualified because every discovery that clashes with the faith-beliefs is immediately assumed to be a mistake in one way or another, then the chase is a worthless pretense; the compliant remnant amounts to a mere shoe print of the faith-beliefs, not a discrete confirmation.

More likely than not, followers could invent more justifications to keep the hope of the chase workable, like conspiracy theorists who can swiftly digest incompatible data and arguments. Just as I can't utterly prove nonexistence from absence, I can't utterly establish that all varieties of human inquiry will never vindicate someone's faith-beliefs. I can state that I don't have nearly enough faith to suppose it will happen—my own adaptation of the half-baked quip, "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist". However, the suggestive trend is that the whole pack of pursuers is giving a horrible performance...and the performance is strikingly coordinated. A dawdling minority doesn't wreck the chase. But when a majority is teaming up to dawdle, the chase becomes tiresomely drawn-out. Evidently the group is more than lagging behind, it's lagging behind in lockstep. The increasing distance from the "target" isn't accompanied by increasing distance among the pack. In this chase, to be remote from this target isn't to be an unusual outlier; to be the outlier is to be the target.

At a high level, I'm pleased by the admission of the chasm that separates the content of beliefs that require faith and the content of beliefs that don't. I'm less pleased by the nominated remedy that the chasm will shut by itself someday (so in the meantime the chasm signifies nothing).

Thursday, November 19, 2015

It's a Good Life...of belief in objects by "choice"

A monster had arrived in the village. Just by using his mind, he took away the automobiles, the electricity, the machines - because they displeased him - and he moved an entire community back into the dark ages - just by using his mind. [...] Oh yes, I did forget something, didn't I? I forgot to introduce you to the monster. This is the monster. His name is Anthony Fremont. He's six years old, with a cute little-boy face and blue, guileless eyes. But when those eyes look at you, you'd better start thinking happy thoughts, because the mind behind them is absolutely in charge.  --"It's a Good Life", The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone had a memorable episode in which a character could remake everything around him with a thought. Unfortunately, as indicated by the quote above, this character was six. The results were...disturbing. This staggering ability has appeared in a large number of stories across media; TV Tropes maintains a long list of comparable examples under the description "Reality Warper".

Looking back now, I've noticed that it has a subtle application to the religious views that I eventually discarded. It was connected to a pair of precepts. The first was repeated often and dramatically: choice of belief had severe moral stakes. Choosing to believe the correct ideas was an essential duty. Guiding everyone to do the same was an official mission of mercy, because the afterlife of all who had chosen beliefs well would be infinitely preferable to the afterlife of those who chose poorly. For belief to warrant that degree of judgment, it had to consist of self-aware, willful choices.

The pair's second precept was that the objects described by the beliefs were categorically genuine. The beliefs weren't solely metaphorical. Unlike a daydream or a fondness for cake, the beliefs weren't all about the believer, i.e. the subject. The topics of the beliefs were objective and external. Accordingly, the beliefs' objects certainly weren't hallucinations encased in the subject's thoughts. Nor would the objects' features vary by the subject's individual perspective.  

Separately applied, these two precepts are commonplace. It's not peculiar to in effect punish someone for the despicable beliefs they've chosen to adopt—but never until after they've translated the beliefs into harmful deeds. Similarly, it's not peculiar for the content of beliefs to be about objects beyond than the believer. But in combination, the pair formed the frankly bizarre prescription of assigning moral blame based on beliefs about objects which the subject didn't control. The subtext was that regardless of the objects' independent existence and effects, believing in the objects was somehow a grave, voluntary decision which was the responsibility of the subject.

Normally, from an evenhanded subject's viewpoint, statements about physical objects have unequal "believability". That authentic believability is built on the successes or failures of ordinary methods: observations, deductions, tight inferences, calculations. But to fairly hold their pure willpower accountable for those objects' believability presupposes that their willpower itself must be capable of increasing object believability. When someone is in a forthright state of unbelief about the objects, faulting them for flaws in their related logical reasoning is more pertinent than just faulting them for not thinking or acting more as if the objects are believable. If, on its own, the subject's striving to envision and feel with greater intensity is honestly expected to significantly boost the objects' believability, then the subject possesses amazing psychokinetic powers. Essentially, if it's appropriate to chastise them for not trying hard enough to metaphysically readjust the level of detection, then their mistake must be that they aren't properly industrious Reality Warpers.

Despite how strange this sentiment sounds, a disguised form of it slowed my progress out of my former views. It wasn't verbalized, but it was present. For approximately a four year period, I would've contended that my ominous doubts about the plausibility of some of the core parts of my religious view didn't weaken my preexisting choice to keep believing in other core parts. I was in the group of split-minded followers that's frequently overlooked. I was perpetually restless, because I was full of chronic doubts and clinging to the original commitment anyway. I'd been taught the virtuousness of deliberately insisting on the accuracy of a set of supernatural "objective facts" come what may. In the midst of that courageous endeavor, missing or highly questionable proofs weren't excuses but rewarding challenges: it was more admirable to adhere to these mysterious facts without whining for corroboration. If their advice were paraphrased to be less self-flattering then it would declare, "It doesn't matter if the expected indications of these facts don't show up in experience. What matters is if you nonetheless sternly command these notions to be really most sincerely factual."

I confess that this characterization is sarcastic. I'm expressing my current amusement when I hear the glib recommendation to respond to lackluster substantiation by doggedly "believing more" in an object's realism. At the time I didn't picture myself psychically fortifying the objective believability of supernatural pronouncements. Rather I embodied it in the structure of my past viewpoint. There were sorted and sealed layers, each one more prone to shifting and unreliability than the one below it. The consciously chosen remaining core parts of my religious beliefs were in the bottom layer. My thoughts, steady but changeable, were in the next layer up. On top was the layer of the ordinary methods listed earlier.

I was ordered to align my middle layer of thoughts with the bedrock layer of supernatural deep Truth, not with the deceptive, shallow, surface layer of material events. If my thoughts were feeling shaky, then my obligation was to forcibly re-anchor my thoughts in immovable doctrines. I was squashing my wavering estimations against beliefs that I treated as more "objective" than fallible objects. I felt that I was diligently reemphasizing, not wholly generating, the shadowy supernatural objects.

Before information could possibly topple this stack, I needed a philosophical refinement of my inconsistent definitions of belief. I needed to quit settling for a stubborn belief by choice. A handful of piercing questions triggered the avalanche. Why did the supernatural domain deserve permanent residence in an unshakable bottom layer? More to the point, why were there distracting layers of protection? Why inject exceptional complexity into assessing the accuracy of candidate supernatural objects? Why was belief in those objects recast as a grueling, praiseworthy, premeditated selection...instead of the spontaneous and undeniable aftereffect of showing/explaining persuasive objective support? Why were us followers instructed to begin with belief and only later scrunch information into the belief's shape as needed, which was the exact reverse of the conventional procedure? Why didn't everyone who investigated my views end up in total agreement when they started from scratch?

Imagine if you will an absurd analogy from one of the many domains besides than the supernatural. Generally, if someone wants to convince a companion that snow is falling outdoors, they urge looking through a window, opening the door a crack to peek out, checking which month it is, etc. They don't say, in an echo of the paraphrase from earlier, "Forget using your eyes or reasoning to evaluate whether the snow falling outdoors happens to be believable to you. No, your mandate is to concentrate intently about a sudden snowfall. Believe me, that shall suffice."

Monday, November 09, 2015

veer not

Last time, I asserted that the high values I placed on thinking didn't shift during my progression from religious to atheistic views. On either side of that boundary, I highly valued the serious pondering of beliefs and presuppositions before acting on them. I highly valued that convincingly separating reality from unreality requires more work than hazy intuitions and fleeting goosebumps. I highly valued that credible beliefs should be backed by coherent explanations whenever someone asks, though for religious statements the typical explanations were meticulously chosen excerpts of sacred texts.

Moreover, I highly valued my rejections of rival positions. I rejected that a statement and its logical opposite could be true at once—unless the statements have differing, limited scopes, which would also imply the two aren't in fact opposites. I rejected that everyone is equally qualified to offer opinions on all topics or that they may be in conflict yet all be "right". I rejected that (hypothetical) supernatural stuff, unlike everything else, could have a bizarre or fluctuating status between real and unreal, just because the corresponding statements were so vague and varied.

Most vitally, according to what I was taught, I continued valuing the worth of faith-beliefs in proportion to the amount of accuracy; our ideas mattered because our ideas were definitive. But with broader experience I've recognized the obvious point that not all those who identify with faith-beliefs necessarily "believe" in that sense. Their ancestral legends/traditions can have openly acknowledged inaccuracy and nevertheless supply substantial emotional/societal rewards. They may opt to fruitfully reinterpret the original symbolisms for their contemporary tastes and needs.

However, by asserting that I supposedly held all these values from the start, I'm inviting a frank retort: why weren't my views forced to change sooner? In general, how does someone with these values remain committed to faith-beliefs? One complex answer is sociological: the ability of a group to have a mutually-defining, mutually-strengthening relationship with a set of ideas. A second complex answer is psychological: the strategy of spliting the self into a smoothly organized team composed of the part that needs to sincerely believe and the part that continually contrives ways to satisfy and preserve that need. A third complex answer is philosophical: the doubt that undirected evolution would produce a trustworthy brain. And the answers go on and on from there. All this agrees with the common principle that greater intelligence is often used to invent dazzling ways of being comfortably wrong, i.e. denials and rationalizations.  

Complex answers are intriguing to catalog and analyze. Yet the whole collection is a distraction from the foremost factor that kept my views, and countless others', from shifting. It's less emphasized in debates because it's transparent, rudimentary, and indefensible: inertia. I don't refer to "inertia" as a metaphor for the absence of motion but for the unforced tendency or habit of never deviating from a predetermined path—nor contemplating the possibility of it. As I'm referring to it, inertia doesn't even represent the active effort to counteract disruptions. It's the momentum of not observing any disruptions in the first place. It's following a faith-belief today due to following it yesterday, not due to compelling reasons or superiority over fairly compared alternatives.

Inertia is an exceedingly gentle form of deprivation. It never indicates the restrictions that it's imposing by default. It doesn't hint at the noteworthy information that isn't being sought. It doesn't disturb long-term confidence and contentment. It doesn't force confrontations with any opponent or opposing viewpoint. It doesn't break expectations or promises. It doesn't ask challenging questions.

It may be indirectly encouraged in followers through more pleasing ideals: faithfulness, persistence, single-mindedness, devotion. It may be reinforced through the monotonous lifestyle connected to, and constructed around, the faith-beliefs. By comprehensively complying in every aspect of their behavior, the follower reduces if not eliminates the odds of colliding with surprise contradictions to their settled faith-beliefs. They talk to the same individuals, go to the same destinations, expend their leisure time with the same activities, consume the same categories of media...

...including reading the same internet sites and books. Thus the success or failure of atheistic sites/books to reach such followers is inseparable from inertia's level of influence. The followers who have enough interest to read these resources are the subset who aren't as bound by inertia. Opening the site/book is a sign that they're the sort with questing, lively styles of thought: they might not be persuaded, but mere inertia doesn't isolate them from unfamiliar standpoints. The flipside is that the tougher followers to reach are also the subset who didn't think of trying these resources, or feel any motivation to. It's akin to a visitor who chooses to attend a religious service: they might not be impressed to come back, but they're evidently willing to hear the service, unlike everyone who didn't visit.

The stubborn obstacle of inertia is one of many considerations in the perennial clashes over the "best" tone for these resources. Some endorse an antagonistic and accusatory tone toward all manifestations of faith-beliefs, while some endorse a conciliatory and sympathetic tone. Unfortunately, neither is a universal antidote to followers' inertia. The first has the advantage of achieving recognition through controversy, as well as provoking bewildered followers to wonder "What problems could they possibly see in my views that could cause that reaction?" In contrast, the second has the advantage of appearing less daunting, thereby attracting followers who wish to gingerly explore their doubts without the threat of feeling attacked. In other words, the first can potentially shake and penetrate inertia, and the second can potentially dodge and placate it. A range of strategies might succeed in getting past followers' indifference to mulling over the weaknesses of their views.

I've previously noted that the second was better suited to my ambivalent shift in views. My own inertia wasn't radically deflected at all. Like a long ship, I wouldn't see that my route veered. The curve out of the shadow was steady and slow. I didn't seek atheistic resources until after I had stumbled onto contradictions that were meaningful to me. I didn't feel an urge to painfully dissect my personal convictions. Without intending to undermine my faith-beliefs, I learned, thought, and lived. Then, I kept reevaluating which ideas still could fit, on account of my aforementioned intellectual values. The progression wasn't always calculated or methodical. It was prolonged and tentative. I didn't want to step off a ledge; I preferred to, uh, rappel if I could. If I'd applied my values into more vigorous research and more fearless self-interrogation, I would've dislodged my old views more quickly. Inertia didn't stop me from turning away from my faith-beliefs, but it propelled me into a longer arc.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

the trials of scopes

To the uninitiated, the claim to have superior reverence for Reason may sound as presumptuous and self-congratulatory as Libertarians claiming to have superior reverence for Liberty. Way back in 2012, when I was first getting acquainted with atheists on the internet and with organized atheistic "movements" of any kind, I balked a little at their penchant for publicly designating Reason as a distinguishing feature of their views. My shift from religious to atheistic didn't reflect that. Although the outcomes of my thoughts had greatly changed, my appreciation of logical deliberation had never changed throughout. I had always embraced the importance of closely examining ideas. I know now that my former view had an undercurrent of awful deficiencies, but blatant anti-intellectualism wasn't one. If it had been, would I have been as attentive to the counterarguments that ultimately persuaded me?

Later, I realized my misunderstanding. In these contexts, "Reason"—not to mention "Rationalist"—represented an assorted category of commendable methods to gather and test knowledge. And a major need met through introducing a distinct category, no matter its choice of name, was to specifically set up an opposite to the flawed method of faith (and the unrecommended methods of gullibility, ungrounded conjecture, and the substitution of wishes in place of facts). According to the wording they chose when they were advocating greater respect for Reason, I saw that they were in general agreement with my philosophies. In their more succinct language, like me they were stressing the need for carefully gauging ideas' amount of meaning/accuracy according to the quality of the verification of those ideas' implications. As usual, abstracted labels don't expose similarities and conflicts as effectively as unsummarized particulars. In my experience, likelier than not their views shared a lot with mine: my absence of belief in gods, and the broad outlines of the best ways to handle ideas, and the stance that the ideas of materialistic naturalism are the most probable fit for all the actual findings that have passed adequate standards.

Nevertheless, crisply invoking plain Reason as an explanation and/or justification has a small risk. It might entice followers of faith-beliefs into once again attempting to gloss over or rationalize the key differences in their beliefs' premises. They may suggest that materialistic naturalism is also a faith (requires the method of faith) or suggest that its notion of authority is equivalent. To that end, they're pleased to detect the faintest whiff of immaterial stuff in materialistic naturalism. It offers the immediate opportunity to pronounce that this view is relatively incomplete, hypocritical, illogical, etc. Then they may swiftly declare that anyone who holds to this view is forced to concede that Reason is their own version of an immaterial foundation; like them, their view is "really" dependent on the existence of something ghostly. At the same time, they certainly won't mention the meagerness of this concession. Even to concede the existence of a spiritual being entirely synonymous with Reason, such as a Cosmic Legislator behind the "laws" of nature, would still be foreign to the anthropomorphic content of the commoner faith-beliefs. It would be a relative of Deism's aloof god.

Fortunately, I don't define Reason in those disconnected phantasmal terms, and as stated earlier, I'm sure that I'm not alone in this. My longstanding position is that Reason's existence is embodied in countless concrete acts. These acts include work carried out by human brains, despite the apparent passivity of some acts like direct perception. (Actually transforming the sense organs' nerve impulses into usable information is a convoluted process that incorporates expectations and judgments.) Except metaphorically, I don't see Reason as a guide, an oracle, or an overlord. Reason is an ideal to measure against each act, one by one. It's largely about honoring consistency. Acts that are in accordance with Reason, such as cautious deductions and generalizations, are beneficial due to the reliable consistencies of encountered realities. Reasoners can confidently let causality be causality because the reasoned links between causes and effects echo these reliable consistencies—though the links aren't easily disentangled.

This prosaic depiction of Reason has an inherent cost. Since these acts occur in complex, unique, concrete contexts, the acts' results aren't necessarily applicable to other contexts. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. The analogous limitation in software development is known as the scope of an entity in software. For instance, the entity could be a single running total. By necessity, software code is broken up into manageable sections. To keep the meanings of entities predictable at all times, each entity is associated with a set scope of one or more code sections. It can be simply referenced, and possibly manipulated, only by the code sections in its scope. Of course, the section in which it is first introduced is its primary or native scope. Before an entity is manipulated in a separate scope, it must be explicitly exported there, or duplicated to a new entity there, or mixed into one or more of the preexisting entities there, or retrieved from across scopes through a completely descriptive longer version of its name (i.e. more like a full mailing address for the entity).

The relevant similarity is that just as the scope of each software entity doesn't automatically extend outside of the code section it came from, clear-sighted appraisal of an act of Reason recognizes that its correctness has a scope that doesn't automatically extend outside of the context that led to it. Additional contexts might be in the scope. But neither acts nor contexts are all alike, so there can't be generic rules for determining scopes. Indeed, the boundaries of the acts' scopes might be unknown without experimentation. Near a phase transition, changes in heat have smoothly changing effects...until the phase transition happens. The phase transition violates acts of Reason on either side of it. Neither do pure mathematics escape scopes. The interior angles of a triangle have a sum of 180°...but that could be false for Non-Euclidean geometries. The result of multiplication doesn't hinge on the order of the factors...but that could be false for matrices. Numerous realities remain appallingly unsympathetic to human longings for smooth simplicity.

That said, the relentless accumulation of human acts of Reason has established, and repeatedly confirmed, an array of conclusions with undeniably wide scopes: elements, particles, fundamental forces, energy conversions. These conclusions weren't spoken by a singular thing, entitled "Reason", which humans idolized and begged for answers. Acts were committed, in a lurching sequence, until these conclusions' wide scopes were surveyed.

The question of scope is complicated, but it's not inconsequential hair-splitting. It's exactly why commonplace anecdotes—testimonies—have low validity. On its own, the highly specific context of an anecdote shouldn't be accepted as a decisive source for acts of "Reason" with prematurely extensive scopes. The reasoner should at minimum have plausible arguments for assuming that to be the case. And perhaps they should postpone that assumption altogether until after more acts of mental study and physical investigation.

Lastly, if Reason is a collection of acts, with shrewdly scrutinized scopes, performed by humans, then it functions as more than a category or an ideal. It's a spreading cultural custom of confronting ideas' accuracy in credible ways. I absorbed this to some degree in my conventional upbringing in contemporary America, but the cultural customs of my faith-belief started out more dominant nonetheless. At first, these two groups of customs persisted in a sometimes restless truce that divided up the territory of my beliefs. The start of the end was when I permitted myself to candidly compare the substance of the two. I didn't exchange my loyalties for a new metaphysical master. There wasn't a shining light of irresistible Reason compelling me to abruptly embrace "self-evidently right" opinions on all issues. All that happened was the crucial decision to more fully pursue the customs of the culture with the stronger corroborations, regardless of where the other disagreed on the details uncovered. It wasn't my fault that a thorough commitment to the one, combined with increasing quantities of information, ended up eroding the whole structure of the other...