Thursday, December 31, 2015

the problem with modal students

Recently I've been listing mechanisms by which faith-beliefs persist in numerous followers who "shouldn't" be susceptible; they're intelligent, well-educated, integrated into surrounding society, and willing and able to probe conclusions for themselves. (I intentionally restrict my comments to "faith-beliefs" not "religion" because not all who associate themselves with a religion, or even participate in aspects of it, enshrine it as the overriding source of accurate information about everything, and not all faith-beliefs fit the category of religion.) The most frequently underestimated mechanism is the pure inertia of the follower's outlook, aided perhaps by a shortfall of genuinely wide-ranging curiosity.

Other mechanisms are far more inventive. A well-tested template is to take an unrelated, indisputable principle and jumble it with the faith-beliefs. For example, based on the principle that independent but equally effective investigations will arrive at harmonious findings, committed followers may submit that, contrary to appearances, human knowledge is in an abysmally tedious chase toward their chosen faith-beliefs. Or, based on the principle that different domains sometimes require different methods of verification, they may submit that their faith-beliefs require finicky "modes" of examination. In a completely unsurprising coincidence, the mode they pick is more congruous to faith. The prescribed mode almost certainly won't be alert perception, or minimal speculation, or rigorous collection and review of impartial records (either quantitative or qualitative). But it's more often a mode of overexcited/overstimulated consciousness, or unnegotiable presumption, or extravagantly construing the meaning of inexact and malleable impressions, memories, shivers. In a word, the generalized demand is for modes that are based on uncurbed feeling. They're seeking students who agree to switch to noncognitive modes before learning begins: students who are flexibly modal when asked.

The advantage of having modal students for followers is easily appreciated. They can be excellent detectors of inadequate corroborations in the majority of domains. Yet they remain steadfast in their faith-beliefs because they rapidly enter a less scrupulous mode whenever their thoughts wander in that vicinity. They can be appealingly level-headed and "normal"—they just have quirks such as regularly meditating on the generosity of accepting the blood sacrifice of an innocent in place of endless torture of the guilty. They can be more responsive to directions delivered through the corresponding mode. If their mode is already tied to their loftiest inclinations, they can be directed by evoking those inclinations. If their mode is already tied to the nobility of self-denial, they can be directed by presenting them with a new "opportunity" of self-denial, e.g. additional cash donations. If their mode is already tied to audacious leaps outside logical extensions of sufficiently tested ideas, they can be directed by encouraging, uh, more leaps.

Ultimately, the flaw of explicitly modal understanding reflects the flaw of prematurely expanding the scope of a thesis. Like a thesis, a mode isn't necessarily misleading until it's reapplied inappropriately. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. It's arbitrary to exclusively use an inadequate mode of examination in a particular domain...on purpose. In usual modern domains nobody is advised to study detectable phenomena by disengaging their high-level judgment, then interpreting their own inklings in extremely broad fashion. Nowadays nobody is told that they must divine the chemical composition of a substance. A mode of fond gratefulness is a great idea in human interaction; it's less great for cherishing the unconfirmable actions of mythic figureheads.

As I've repeated in numerous forms, the crux is still the keen question, "Why should supernatural topics benefit from irregular rules? (And the follow-up, why should these irregular rules solely cover my set of beliefs regarding those topics?)" Regardless of how baffling the mind-game is to outsiders, modal students are distracting themselves from thinking "too much" about the very existence of supernatural entities by emphasizing how they feel about those unvalidated entities. They're reifying objects to which they can attach their reverent emotions. To them, hearing more cases of absent signs or logical contradictions accomplishes virtually nothing because those are shut out of their preset mode. With little prompting they may remark, à la Fideism, that irrationality is integral to their concept of "faith"! Their felt Truth is preserved from the attacks of facts. This tactic is the epitome of compartmentalization—not only are intellectual objections isolated from the domain but so is the mode of processing the objections.

In my background, this mechanism didn't have a lot of influence. I was more driven to the project of rationalizing my faith-beliefs as much as possible, despite how that project actually turned out. Unfortunately, unlike when I was a follower, modal students are unlikely to absorb the arguments in a blog entry...

Sunday, December 06, 2015

nonsectarian laying down

Music blares its creators and listeners' beliefs, sentiments, and desires. It's a valuable means to increase comprehension of them. At the moment, the song I'm thinking of is "Lay It Down" by Sanctus Real. I heard it recently while I was around some Christians. Its cheery, repetitive, banal style doesn't fit my customary tastes—its undisguised Christian references even less! But I concede its rhythm is energetic and on balance its lyrics aren't as off-putting as might be expected.

As I hinted already, it caught my attention because of the information it conveys: a common psychological application of the underlying beliefs. Aside from the incredibly dubious supernatural viewpoint wrapped around it, its core message of laying down tensions, i.e. nonconstructive thoughts, is a sound therapeutic strategy. Its advice to its listeners can work. In general, laying down tensions can facilitate well-being.

That benefit is obtainable despite the all too evident failures of phantoms which happen to be integrated in any instance of the strategy's description. It's not required that these phantoms ever convincingly—objectively, extraordinarily—"pick up" whatever was figuratively laid. In effect the phantoms' entire role is passive. They instill enough calm reassurance for the sake of performing the strategy. They symbolize the guarantee that everything won't spin out of control as soon as one human ventures to worry less.

Phantoms of different shapes fill the role of tranquilizing different believers, like different keys in different locks. A believer may be coaxed into laying down their tensions onto particular gods. But another may lay down their tensions onto saints, or ancestors, or fuzzily outlined cosmic forces. All of their preferred caretakers can be adequate for each of them, although they might be reluctant to admit that. It's a relief to lay down a stack of books onto a table, whether or not the bearer happens to like their table in a rustic or modern furniture style.

Along with these diverse subgroups is my subgroup of explicitly laying down tensions onto nothing. Uncoincidentally, the limited kind of regular nonsectarian meditation which I've written about in past entries is a structured exercise of laying down. It's similar but certainly not identical to some kinds of prayer. It doesn't have prayer's distracting voiced or unvoiced verbalizations (I don't employ mantras either). But like prayer it does have the periods of quiet, watchful contemplation, which invite perceptive insights to arise in any subgroup of belief.

As a result, I can agree with many of the typical recommendations. No concept of a phantom is essential to: taking a moment to "just" breathe, not dwelling on minor violations of unrealistic preconceptions, stopping early before intensifying a negative stimulus through ruminating on it again and again, paying closer heed to now, attending to the next task instead of obsessing on distant future tasks, affirming that past mistakes are unchangeable but can be prevented from reoccurring, facing one's own emotions as opposed to fleeing or fighting or ignoring, accepting unalterable limits of control over realities outside oneself. I realize that my restricted agreement is a lousy compliment; I'm exclusively granting the worth of the bits that are compatible to my viewpoint. "To the extent that your counsel can be made to overlap with what I think, it's effective."

On the other hand, I have misgivings about two typical recommendations. The first is the brusque command to be "strong". By itself it's not elaborating on what being strong consists of. It might easily reinforce the peculiar belief that some feelings are weak, some are strong, and the weak category can be vaporized and prohibited through potent psychic force. This proposed "method" clashes with the rest. Long-term it hardly works well. The laying down of feelings hinges on candor about the contrary feelings' very existence! Strength isn't shown by, nor does it determine, the brain's output of spontaneous desirable activity. Arguably, those managing more troublesome patterns are by necessity showing greater mettle day by day.

The second is the rule to lay down every urge to quit. Realities are complicated, so the rule is appropriate sometimes. Setbacks will appear. Hope will waver. Quitting shouldn't be done impulsively. The danger is interpreting this rule too rigidly. Often, the positive gains of quitting are dismissed too quickly. Quitting might free the exploration and exploitation of superior options. Past decisions aren't owed unbreakable allegiance or unending investment. The costs and returns of something might change. Refusal to quit might be the equivalent of self-inflicted harm. Quitting should be less stigmatized, if it's after carefully weighing upsides and downsides. For some, their unreflective mulishness is exactly what they should lay down.

Yet these two are less problematic than a worser risk of laying down tensions onto phantom recipients: using that act as an excuse for permanently abandoning any linked responsibilities. If those recipients are considered supremely capable and willing, then not turning over responsibilities to them would be negligent. Thankfully, most of the time, few really do this completely. After they lay down their tensions onto their phantoms, maybe accompanied by a relieved comment of their confidence in the phantoms' unspecified assistance, they proceed to do the best they can. If they don't, they shouldn't be surprised when everyone else scolds them for it. Laying down doesn't entail lying down.