Sunday, December 18, 2016

nonessential symbols on 34th street

Like so many, I have a habit of watching Miracle on 34th Street (1947). This is the charming, humorous movie in which a man in New York acts like, speaks like, and describes himself as, Santa Claus. (He always gives his name as Kris Kringle.) This premise is played with in both innocent and cynical ways. Characters respond to Kris according to their differing motivations...and often with full concern about the publicity of their responses.

This time I noticed something new in a particular conversation. Doris Walker, who hired Kris to be her store Santa, is trying to deter her romantic interest, defense attorney Fred Gailey, from ruining his respectable career. Fred is attempting in court to keep Kris from being forcibly committed to asylum—but he's recklessly decided to do it by arguing that his client is correct to think that he is Santa.
Fred: You don't have any faith in me, do you?
Doris: It's not a question of faith. It's just common sense.
Fred: Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. Don't you see? It's not just Kris that's on trial. It's everything he stands for. It's kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.
Doris: Oh Fred, you're talking like a child. You're living in a realistic world. And those lovely intangibles of yours are attractive but not worth very much.
[...later same scene...]
Fred: Some day, you're going to find out that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn't work. And when you do, don't overlook those lovely intangibles. You'll discover they're the only things that are worthwhile.
During the earlier religious phase of my life, I might have reflexively cheered Fred's mere mentioning of "intangibles"—crucial values. My former religion preached the superiority of similar spiritual goods such as virtues and meaningful living and a quality soul. Along with that I might have caricatured Doris as a pitiful personification of too much dull focus on earthly concerns. To some extent, especially near the beginning, Doris' lines evoke this caricature.

Now, though, I can't help noticing the sly tactic of melding Kris to intangibles. It seems to me that Doris could've parried it. "Oh Fred, I'm in favor of your intangibles as much as you are. I just don't think that those depend in any way on what you decide about Kris or about this trial. But your future livelihood might." Their genuine disagreement is over what actions are practical to take toward moral goals, not over whether moral goals exist and should inform actions. Safeguarding Kris' freedom of movement at any cost isn't as imperative if he's more like a nonessential symbol of the precious intangibles than a supporting pillar.

To the quixotic Fred, the thought of declining to sacrifice himself for this specific nonessential symbol may be equivalent to declining to sacrifice himself for everything that's right. But that doesn't necessarily imply Doris' concepts of intangibles have the same equivalency with the same nonessential symbol. Likewise, the past religious version of me could've raised this objection. That version wouldn't have accepted that mine and Fred's shared appreciation of intangibles required me to embrace and defend his nonessential symbol too. In fact, I would've strongly insisted that my beliefs in intangibles were perfectly complete without an earnest belief in Kris Kringle. And then maybe I would've countered that the really essential symbols were my own of course, i.e. the ones within my religion.

Naturally, the tactic's relevance to my past self wasn't primarily why it grabbed my attention recently. It has relevance to me currently as well. More than I would like, it's analogous to the overdramatized reactions which confront boosters of materialistic naturalism. Our dissent, not from kindly Santa but from cherished supernatural figures, is promptly reinterpreted as wide-ranging dissent from every important cultural value there is. This is unfair to us because we certainly have numerous ethical principles; we're only classifying the conventional supernatural figures as nonessential (or highly misleading...) symbols of them. In our view they're as nonessential to fortifying the ethical principles that matter as the movie character Kris is nonessential to fortifying the everyday intangibles of a religious person watching a pleasant movie.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


When I look back, I'm endlessly amused by the striking differences in my entire set of intellectual sympathies. I get the sense that I'm now someone else than I was in the past—but of course the passage of time already implies that I am, and so is everyone else. As always, the differences show up through a common reference point.

One of the divisive questions that triggers a new reflexive response in me is, "How can an atom be enough to give rise to subjective experience?" A previous version of me regarded this as an excellent argument to stump the disciples of materialistic naturalism. Today, I regard it as too misguided and narrow to have a simple answer. Faulty, messy preconceptions are dissolved in it. It's a symptom of confusion not purely about the essential complexity of subjective experience but also about the boundaries of conceptual levels.

I know I can't speak for everyone who's superficially, or even thoroughly, on my "side". Be that as it may, I've noticed that "we" tend to endorse conceptual levels as alternatives to soul/reality dualism(s). The whole gamut of subjective experiences, which I enjoy mislabeling "mentality" for short (take that, dictionaries), inhabits a conceptual level different from the conceptual level inhabited by the atoms in the question. Mentality isn't a delusion, but neither does it exist as a disparate kind of core reality. It functions as a category that's useful for thinking about some phenomena. This category is apparent at practical scales, where it's more like an average or a summarization of other levels. The items in the mentality level aren't existing apart, because the underlying stuff within all the levels is the same. The levels are like a set of various lenses for studying the stuff.

Fortunately, this picture has numerous familiar precedents and counterparts: weather is one of my favorites. Water droplets are everywhere in the air, floating, moving, and interacting. Yet it's unusual to hear the question "How could a droplet be enough to give rise to a cyclone?" posed as a philosophical puzzle or to hear the suggestion that a cyclone is the sign of something uncanny residing in, and psychically directing, masses of droplets. (Although elemental spirits have arisen time after time in culture.) A cyclone isn't said to be present in each of the droplets in its interior. It's understood to be a sizable grouping of swirling masses of droplet-containing air. It doesn't stop being a cyclone because individual droplets would be seen under great magnification. The conceptual level of droplets happens to be unfeasible for, say, predicting where the cyclone is headed or how much longer it will persist; there are too many droplets and too many effects occurring simultaneously among them. This is partly why cyclones are hard to decipher. The greater ease of analyzing the cyclone at another conceptual level doesn't force the belief that it's a mysterious manifestation from unknown sources.

This is a tidy arrangement to apply to questions about mentality. Mentality's conceptual level is like the cyclone's, and the atom's is like the droplet's. An initial obstacle to accepting this is that mentality doesn't always appear to be as complex as the cyclone. And on occasion it appears to be disconnected from the rest of reality. These impressions are deceptive. Upon steady investigation, either indirectly through modern technologically-aided observation, or directly through meditative introspection, mentality's façade of simplicity consistently evaporates. During many usual conditions, it's a bubbling stew of sensations, emotions, cogitations, wishes, simulations. The nervous system's work to keep it going and feed it continual information is considerable. Nerves extend to the body's very edges and in total consume energy at a high rate. Other creatures have been shown to have some of the characteristics of mentality, which is one more hint that the human variant is a collection of abilities as opposed to a single capacity. The result is that we shouldn't expect a trifling number of aloof atoms to produce and fill mentality. But we should expect to discover what we have: complex outputs corresponding to a complex throng of coordinated components, analyzable at multiple conceptual levels. The project to better trace the specific workings is still in progress, but knowledge is only increasing about the distinctive roles of portions of the brain, for instance.

And yet, reflecting on this "cyclonic" metaphor might hit a second obstacle. Granting that mentality is an aggregate effect doesn't explain the appearances of it acting as a cause. Some of its prominent manifestations are obsessions of varying intensities including addiction. How can they be in the level of mentality and be so influential too? To be dominant and persistent, they must be causing real changes. Their felt importance must be coupled to material importance on other levels. The features of present/past mentality must in some way act as causes of features of future mentality.

As I see it, like the first, this second obstacle is less of a problem after a closer look. A cooperative formation of low-level components certainly does have the potential to provoke an occurrence which is observable at a higher level, and then this occurrence in turn has its own effects that provoke changes back in the components in formation. Actually, this abstract pattern is indispensable in plenty of contexts. The humble thermostat inevitably gets drawn into this topic, as probably the quintessential example. Low-level materials inside it detect shifts in the temperature of its environment. It ends up activating or deactivating the high-level heating or cooling facilities of the environment. Eventually when the environment's temperature shifts again, the thermostat detects the new shift and performs a different action. The thermostat's low-level materials affect, then are affected by, the high-level environment's temperature.

The comparison is very limited in its usefulness. Mentality is more subtle and quick than a thermostat—though body temperature regulation is part of it and extreme temperatures disturb mood. The relevant similarity is that the low-level components of mentality, such as neurons (and all the neuron segments, and all the molecules in the segments, and all the atoms in the molecules...), work together to assemble a breathtaking overall product, and in the process sway low-level components as well. So mentality doesn't exude a peculiar, extra, general-purpose force which is capable of inhabiting and directing "nearby" substances. Solely because it is the group behavior of low-level components, it's capable of manipulating them or their peers.

This is plausible if there's already a suspicion that the components' behavior has the side effect of altering themselves. Perhaps an exchange between them spurs small adaptations in both the sender and the receiver: they grow "closer", i.e. more apt to repeat the exchange. Thus the mental activity of obsession itself "rewires" a creature in such a way that the obsessive thoughts are more likely to return. Thinking habits matter...and thinking habituates matter.

Friday, September 02, 2016

the emerging backfire

I went through several stages as I ejected the poorly grounded ideas of my upbringing. Despite the gaps in-between, each stage encouraged the next. The whole progression had its own momentum like an inevitable chain reaction. To make this comparison is to invite the question of this reaction's catalysts. However, many of my catalysts aren't unique. Others have already been explained these over and over. Since I began looking around the internet, reading related books, etc., I've been reassured that I'm part of a sizable category of American adults who've walked the same path out of their outdated beliefs, seen the same information, been in a few of the same experiences, found the same flaws. This category isn't really new, but it's more visible than before.

As I look back, though, I think I can claim a catalyst that's probably on the obscure end of the spectrum. I didn't have strong antagonism against argumentative atheists. I wasn't interested in them and I avoided them. My antagonism was against the fashionable emerging church subculture. This name is more than a little misleading to the uninformed, given it's (proudly) not an official church organization. It's closer to a loose aggregate of people, from a range of backgrounds, who share and spread similar views. They employ maddening pieces of philosophy to surgically extract, alter, and replace selected parts of old religious assertions. By self-indulgently modifying, or at least muddying, these unacceptable parts, they can obtain a creed (er, "spirituality") that's viable for them.

Their popularity is in agreement with the trends of personalized consumer choices, the ability to spontaneously collaborate via the internet, distrust of big, coercive, "top-down" hierarchies, appreciation of smoothly blending complexities rather than oversimplified, all-or-nothing dichotomies, and the good intention of not granting unconditional authority to a lone source. They may or may not also consider themselves religiously unaffiliated; in either case they favor unusual descriptions. They're anxious to not be lumped together with average religionists. (Likelier than not they would feel that the term "emergent church" is too abstract and general to adequately capture the independence and specialness of their individual viewpoints.)

This was intolerable. I was certain they must be far off track. They were questioning the conventionally understood ways of structuring and justifying my religion's tenets. To do this they were probing and dismantling the crucial premise that the tenets, as well as anything supporting these, symbolized factual and unambiguous meanings. For as long as the meanings were regarded as unstructured mush sculpted by the interpreting person (and indirectly the person's culture), then the meanings were open to endless revision. Furthermore, because they saw ideas as so malleable and difficult to circumscribe, oftentimes they hinted or plainly stated that the exhaustive details of what they believed barely mattered to them. To the contrary, the full role of religion was restricted to the promotion of basic human decency—excluding all behavioral rules that were too off-putting or contentious or narrow-minded.

The effect was that I was pressed into rigidly insisting on the opposite: an ironclad, continuous line of meaningfulness. Everything was intertwined in my countering vision. It wasn't coherent to substitute any portion. The right actions flowed from the right thoughts. The right thoughts flowed from the right beliefs. The right beliefs flowed from the right understandings of the religion's underpinnings. And finally, these underpinnings were capable of engendering the right understandings, provided someone was pursuing the understandings properly (well-done "exegesis"), such as not inserting their "bias". Religious statements were really proposing real features of, and real actions taken by, real things. Accordingly, the statements had real consequences. The supernatural domain was out there, and it operated under the system of rules I subscribed to.

I didn't perceive the corner I was backing into. I wished to soundly reject the emerging church's adaptations, preferably by establishing that these changes were neither valid nor necessary. In pursuit of that goal, I tacitly depended on the assumption of a superior alternative, namely the fixed target that was being missed. Therefore, I was assuming that the strict doctrines I'd been taught had an exceptional level of accuracy and relevance.

...and yet, in the middle of this, I was starting to wonder. Did I know for myself whether my positions were trustworthy enough to be applied in this way? I was too scrupulous to be satisfied by a glib "We disagree so I'm sure you're wrong." I needed to examine the points submitted and identify why and how I was right instead. I sought to learn from the opposing outlook by defeating it. I wasn't keen on fearfully dodging its concerns.

It turned out that my expectations were much too high. Like a new seminary student—but not nearly as dedicated or well-read—I slowly registered the ramifications of two facts. First, over my religion's recorded history, it had been shaken by successive debates about its own core claims. Second, these debates tended to recur; they were never permanently decided by clear-cut solutions reached through irresistible data and reasoning. I admitted that the emerging church's ramblings weren't completely unfounded. I'd inherited one of many end results from the old debates. I was accustomed to this synthesis, so it had appeared "obvious" to me.

Ultimately, I was unable to marshal anything indisputable to elevate my particular set of religious claims. I couldn't do it through tight logic, in the style of a mathematical proof. I couldn't do it through referencing decisive observations, in the style of a controlled investigation or experiment. The remaining route was to argue in the manner of a, ahem, theologian: mash up some discrete strands of thoughts and sources, express a principle that seemed to be compatible with this mash, and exploit some analogies to convince others that the principle was literally believable. I could try to paint a convincing picture of my doctrines' relatively greater fidelity to the religion's main messages. But I couldn't be confident that I was communicating pristine truth. I couldn't escape the equivocal pattern of discourse, "On the one hand...on the other hand..."

Earlier I wrote that this contrast acted as a single catalyst along the way. The emerging church's publications didn't push me out of my old identity or its ideological commitments. Their scribbles didn't purposely prepare me for my later conversion to materialistic naturalism. While I didn't embrace their notion of flexible meaning, their efforts nudged me to take a sincere inventory of what precisely my unbending meanings were attached to in the first place. Once I did, it became a steadily strengthening habit...

Monday, August 29, 2016

hauntings of all kinds

The concoctions of homeopathy are seldom recommended by those who align themselves with materialistic naturalism. Uncontroversial chemistry and physics guarantee that these highly diluted doses don't contain the slightest speck of the original ingredients. So the sole possibility is that these ingredients have left behind an unspecified aftereffect, which persists and does medicinal work without the physical presence of the former ingredients' matter or energy. These incorporeal aftereffects are central to the products' effectiveness...yet no phenomena fitting these characteristics have ever been confirmed to exist. In general, this or any practical application of incorporeal but locatable stuff could be labelled a haunting.

Unfortunately, not everyone commonly recognizes that the shakiness underlying this topic's reasoning has a multitude of parallels. There are proposed variations of hauntings in diverse contexts. Obviously, one is when the spirits of the deceased loiter in badly maintained historical houses. Another less grim context is the haunting of living creatures' bodies by life energy. Then there's a combination of these two referred to as possession: spirits of the deceased haunting living creatures' bodies without their consent. Or, the personal haunting might be invited and helpful, as in requesting a friendly, powerful thing to gently occupy, advise, and enhance the requester's own spirit. Maybe the haunting is of the interior of a place of worship, because its activity is inferred from the atypical communal behavior of a crowd during their worship rituals. Maybe the haunting is of objects that have been put through blessing/anointing/consecrating ceremonies. Like homeopathic products, the proposition is that these hauntings have undetectable active factors which are distinct from physical causes.

Without a doubt, the foremost haunting of all is the soul—a category also including every non-figurative definition of "the mind". Souls are said to be intertwined with a person but not as something material inside them. This is analogous to the healing stuff intertwined with a homeopathic product but not as something material inside it. Souls are said to be normally confined to the person but cannot be pinpointed or interacted with using anything material. Similarly, the healing stuff in the homeopathic product is confined to the inner contents—a consumer must ingest the product—but the healing stuff cannot be pinpointed or interacted with using anything material. Souls are said to mysteriously encode and store bits of data without modifying states of matter. (This is a unique difference from the usual media of information encoding and storage.) Likewise, homeopathic products mysteriously remember the original ingredients without the use of lasting changes to the set of remaining molecules.

The pitfall is that parallels are suggestive but not irrefutable. Ideas' resemblances don't force someone to treat them as a single class. The wonder of compartmentalization allows for rejecting the reality of some hauntings while defending others. Someone's preferred hauntings may seem utterly reasonable at the same time that an array of alternative hauntings "are just silly". Again through compartmentalization, it doesn't matter whether the verification methods and results that back their preferred hauntings are roughly comparable to the methods and results backing the disliked hauntings.

An instantaneous change of mindset isn't the realistic, likely outcome when compartmentalization reigns. The moderate hope is to weaken it and compete with it: to tempt someone to freshly reexamine their previously accepted ideas with unflinching eyes. Pondering these ideas' counterparts might facilitate that. If an idea is in some sense like that one over there, how is it known to be more accurate than that one, i.e. better grounded?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

lackluster constancy

To the extent I was able, I chose to discard an entire web of poorly grounded ideas and related practices. But the reality is that I still occasionally encounter them, depending on circumstances outside my control. Within these encounters, I'm surprised by the many large changes in how I react now compared to then. I notice different features than I did, and I more swiftly notice these features' inadequacies. One that struck me recently was the monotonous preoccupation on constancy, whether the context is a song or a preferred passage from a text. It never does X, it always does Y, and its characteristic Z is timeless. A mystical being's quality of constancy is often repeated, elaborated, and praised. But from my current perspective, the manifestations of this quality appear lackluster at best. Its plausible interpretations don't amount to much:
  • If the being's warm internal feelings for humanity are said to have excellent constancy, then the next question is immediately clear: "Yes, and...?" It's not too demanding to proceed to ask what the expressions of those feelings are. Constant feelings that don't lead to anything at all are as inconsequential as wavering feelings that don't lead to anything at all.
  • Or perhaps the constancy is seen concretely in innumerable cases of prosaic aid day after day. The issue is that minor beneficial events are apparent coincidences. Some could be expected to happen to anyone at proportional rates, regardless of their loyalties or rituals. The constancy, or semi-regularity, of these nice but slight non-miracles isn't that remarkable to a disinterested observer.
  • In a less concrete but still very meaningful direction, there could be constancy in the undercurrent of inspiration, encouragement, and determination. Throughout the problems in the life of the grateful devotee, they've been reassured and strengthened by their concept of their specific being. They might say that it's been alongside them, beckoning them forward, or even firmly pushing them to make improved decisions. This emotional support is understandably valuable. However, it's not uniquely valuable. A virtually unlimited set of concepts could do this in someone's head, although the concepts which would serve one person wouldn't necessarily serve another. A sophisticated "anchor" concept with some constancy in consciousness doesn't require that it represents something that, well, exists.
  • A less excusable version of abstract constancy is the fossilization of the whole concept in itself. It's redundant for a speaker to declare that a being "never changes" while they openly reject every potential revision to their very ideas about it. Admirably keeping the same form for eons is less of a feat when that's its designated nature. Its stagnation is an echo of the stubbornness of the person imagining it. It has constancy because they imagine it in a manner that has constancy.
  • Nobody will be shocked that I'm most appreciate of the interpretation of constancy that invokes mystical beings the least: the constancy of mutual human compassion and cooperation. There may be side comments that a being is operating through people's actions as if they're its tools, but one would hope that the people receive some gratitude too for their selflessness. Constancy of care, delivered again and again from person to person, is indeed a precious phenomenon. Songs about this ("Lean On Me"?) make more sense to me than endless songs about the wonderfulness of some idealized being. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

consider the leaves

It's challenging to convey the dreadful anxieties that might be associated with seriously evaluating doubts about lifelong bedrock beliefs. The emotions are reminiscent of a free fall with nothing to grab onto anymore...or the protective roof of your existence being torn off...or the creeping realization that your faulty compass has been misdirecting you for the past two days (weeks, months, years). The prospect of this experience is partly why cognitive defenses only need to be passable smokescreens.

Fortunately, a more moderate version is available. In place of boldly considering that a supernatural thing is an outright fake, there's the gentler suggestion, "What if it went on leave temporarily?" Phrased differently, is it having a time of rest? Because this is solely a metaphor to spur clarification, taking leave doesn't need to be an "official" logical possibility for the thing. It's a frame of reference for constructing a set of illuminating questions. Any of them which are, allegedly, obvious to the point of offensiveness should also be harmless to answer: 
  • To start, what would be the contrasting indications that the thing either is on leave or isn't? What would be different during the leave? If the thing is fills a unique position like some workers do at companies, its leave would become noticeable somehow sometime. Would usual tasks not be completed? Would it verbalize advance warning of its leave, and to whom and how? If its leave were entirely sudden and unannounced, how would this surprise secretive leave nevertheless affect—or not at all affect—the normal course of oblivious people and objects?
  • How would the end of the leave be known? Would the end be for certain? At the slightest ambiguous sign, is it probable that some of the thing's admirers would be too eager to presume that the leave is over? Could they unintentionally deceive themselves? What would sort out their self-deceptions from the genuine end?
  • Most radically of all, what if the thing has already been on leave for a long while? Or it's been on leave intermittently in the past? What were the observable boundaries of these intervals? Are the "data points" for these boundaries appropriately global/cosmic in scale? Lastly, if it hasn't ever been on leave, how can that be substantiated, preferably even by dedicated cynics?
Any number of the preceding questions might have responses of varying soundness. This is okay. The major aim isn't to make believers speechless; it's to go through the exercise of reviewing the questions and responses. In the process, this review rigorously bares and tests the belief's distinct justifications. Putting a belief to work answering straightforward questions yields insight into what it's made of. Like the supernatural things themselves, the beliefs shouldn't be permitted to remain on leave from practicalities forever.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

speculative gratitude

Some beneficial acts don't receive the appreciation they deserve. Preventions are in that category. Although they decrease the risk of a tragic event, the result might earn barely any credit. A tragic event which doesn't happen is an invisible nonevent, so the prevention's valuable role is superficially invisible too. If the event has several complex factors affecting its occurrence, one might be tempted to wonder how much that single prevention truly helped to stop it. Worse, a tragic event which does happen casts immediate doubt on a prevention's effectiveness at reducing risk; it didn't "work". In an unfair twist, it will do that whether or not the prevention's promoters were completely upfront that risk wouldn't be eliminated.

In the more noticeable examples of prevention, the act is discernibly connected to a chain of causes and effects. It readjusted the path of this chain like a railroad switch connecting up alternative train tracks to form a redirected route. The original risk and the lessened risk are clear-cut. It's often seen better in retrospect. For instance, having a spare item is a prevention that's utterly justified right after the first item is lost or broken. Not having the spare would have led to the event of lacking the item. The prevention has ensured that the lacking "reality" is now contrary to fact: it's a happily avoided counterfactual. The happier deviations that define it, and the preventions that introduced these deviations, are demarcated, specific, and identifiable.

This imaginative mode of understanding is abstract, but another word for a counterfactual is a story. Storytelling commands human awareness. When a counterfactual is backed by a vivid story, its features come alive. It recruits the showier layers of consciousness. The appeal overshadows levelheaded estimates of low plausibility. A possibility might be highly unlikely, but if it feels real enough then it gives the impression that it was previously on the verge of coming true—until a decisive prevention intervened.

A last important analytical link is the prevention's performing agent. As surely as each counterfactual is linked to the prevention that rendered it a mere counterfactual, each prevention is linked to whatever agent put it into action. Hence, for a given agent, its unique influences and abilities effectively limit the preventions that have been or could be performed. If it were one average U.S. citizen, they wouldn't be individually praised for preventing armed conflict on the other side of the Earth (or scolded for not preventing it).

On the other hand, this commonsense limit breaks when the agent is omnipotent yet covert. An agent with these qualities could do virtually anything, but it doesn't openly affirm its miracle work when/if it ever does. The ramification is that there's no firm basis for distinguishing exactly what it has done and what it was aiming for. So the range of its hypothetical past preventions isn't inherently restricted. Did it act to prevent counterfactual scenarios P, Q, R, S, and so on? ...Maybe. It could have been involved.

When it comes to converting newcomers, there's a drawback in too thoroughly extending the concept of prevention to such an agent. If the agent constantly receives adoration motivated by the nonexistence of miscellaneous counterfactuals, then gradually it looks less and less like an objective, independent entity. It looks more and more like an idolized empty shell with medals pinned to it for invented reasons. Anyone can spin myriad tales of prevented tragedies large and small. These aren't narrowly targeted proofs of an agent's undeniable deeds. It's not persuasive to hear expressions of personal gratitude for personal speculations regarding deflected personal calamities. The endless trend is hard to miss: whenever a person can envision a way that their existence could have been worse for them, they won't run out of rationales for applauding the agent they hold responsible.

In addition, it has a second drawback that newcomers may spot. The belief ends up sounding greedy in a closely related "optimistic" form. According to the agent's own principle of making the believer's existence less bad, it probably isn't flatly opposed to making their existence more good too. If it is said to have intentionally steered away from unreal adverse events they envision, then shouldn't they ponder why it has intentionally not steered toward unreal enjoyable events they envision? To be sure, not starving merits recognition. But it's a benevolent sculptor of the cosmos, after all. Why quit there? What would have been so terrible about having a small fortune?

Monday, July 18, 2016

litter litmus

Of all the litmus tests to measure the inclination to avoid causing harm, littering is admittedly a low priority, relatively speaking. If I were somehow forced to choose exclusively between someone passing the test of not littering or passing the test of not attacking another, then of course I would choose the latter. If an incredibly bizarre situation implied that littering would reduce the threat to someone's life or body or property (distracting a predator?), then I wouldn't object. But the pettiness of normal, unforced littering is actually the main point of why I view it as an informative litmus test! Specifically:

First, the gain from littering is pitiful. The bother of transporting the piece of litter to a nearby receptacle is usually almost nothing. Someone who had the ability to transport something with them before it became "litter" doesn't abruptly lose that ability; empty containers take less effort than full ones. It's easier to comprehend an uncharitable decision when the reward from it is significant and prone to dominating the decision-maker's thoughts prior to the act. Littering can't fall back on that explanation.

Second, the gain from littering is temporary, but the undesirable effects of it will last longer. It's short-sighted. The minutes, perhaps hours, that littering spares someone are outweighed by the long time in which the litter will have the opportunity to irritate.

Third, the future impact will be (or would be) borne by people who are unknown. To show benevolence toward familiar people, especially people who will potentially repay the benevolence, isn't as revealing. In a sense, reluctance to litter is a sign of solidarity with "society" as a whole, because it's impossible to know who in society will be affected. Not littering is an individual tribute to the "common good".

Fourth, closely related to the third, not littering might signify that someone identifies with a guiding concept of model behavior. It might embody the willingness to ask the larger questions, "Would this decision be something that an ideal decision-maker would carry out? If everyone made this decision, what would happen? Would I approve of someone else making this decision?"

Fifth, circling back to the admission from the opening paragraph, the repercussion of littering is minimal. So, its form of injury is gentle and easier to overlook. The level of consideration it's associated with is greater than the baseline level associated with not stealing, for instance. Not ruining the pleasantness of the setting they're in is a more stringent standard of avoiding "harm" to them.

Day by day, I doubt that regular littering, or for that matter regularly not littering, is a conscientious selection, reassessed again and again. To the contrary, I'd primarily blame influences which are more or less automatic: personal habit and social custom. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated. I wouldn't be surprised to find that litter and littering could be unquestioned parts of someone's learned way of life. Consequently, they would see litter itself as innocuous, and the litmus test I'm rambling on about wouldn't occur to them—it wouldn't function as a test. From my perspective, that's a sadder result than failing it.

Monday, July 11, 2016

results may vary

It's common to receive plenty of captivating stories in reply to the straightforward question, "In your personal history, what have been some detectable effects of the existence of _____, the supernatural concept you follow?" And it's as equally common for the stories to have several dubious characteristics. Like a placebo pill relieving pain, the effect in the story might have been largely subjective in nature. Or it might have been embedded in a highly complex situation affected by an inseparable mixture of factors (e.g. the economy?), and the exact role played by delicate supernatural guidance would be impossible to distinguish by a disinterested observer. Or a repeated effect might occur sporadically. Granted, irregular timing isn't a clinching argument against an effect's validity. Nevertheless this characteristic should arouse suspicion. Coincidental rare events could happen independently, at the same rates, during the same time period, with equal probability.

To the questioner, an effect with unknowable timing seems like an awful motive to persistently follow a concept. After the concept's effects have failed to turn up time after time in the past, why would someone feel inclined to currently choose to follow it again? The key to understanding is to examine the choice from the viewpoint of the storytelling followers instead. In the moment they aren't choosing whether to renew their embrace of the concept; they're choosing whether to quit embracing it. They intensely remember the stories of when the effects have occurred before. And yet they know from experience the many cases in which they haven't.

Ergo they've intuited that those many cases of nonoccurrence have been temporary. So, they can eagerly disregard a recent sequence of cases of nonoccurrence whenever they contemplate the current choice. That choice presents two possibilities: if they continue on then the effect might reoccur, but if they quit now then it certainly won't. If they continue, they might be blissfully vindicated in the present; these vindications aren't definite but do occur often enough to leave fresh memories. If they continue and the effect isn't there, then at least there'll be more chances in the long as they keep those chances "alive" by refusing to stop in the meantime. They're led to wonder if this will soon be the time that some kind of corroborating effect reappears.

If the description sounds familiar, there's a good reason. It's an example of the widely applicable principle of a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. It's a strength, not a problem, for the effects to vary intermittently. The variance "trains" someone to retry no matter what. The lackluster statistics that the schedule generates can't compete with the pleasing surprises that the statistics are summarizing. A broken pattern attracts attention to positive results while a steady pattern deflects it.

Moreover, the schedule encourages two tendencies that feed itself. First, because it boosts someone's alertness so that they won't miss any effects that come along, they're more prone to categorize events as effects than to not. Events on the margin will be called effects, so the margin will in effect be redrawn in a lenient manner. And then it could be redrawn again, etc. Second, because a larger set of samples has a greater yield of unlikely outcomes, they're moved to merge their monitoring with peers who are also looking for effects of the same concept. Therefore, when any one of them monitors an effect and reports it, everyone can count it. Through their sharing of one another's occurrences—but not the stunningly boring news of each nonoccurrence, of course—they have a steadier supply to feed their commitment, even if the effects in their own lives aren't that steady.

The lesson here is to be prepared for a muted reaction to pointed questions about the fitful temperament of the effects that someone has narrated. The storyteller already realizes the long-suffering patience this characteristic demands. Their ongoing inability to forecast the next (supposed) manifestation of their concept's existence is partly why they're reluctant to give up on it too quickly.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

define faithless

Until I subscribed to materialistic naturalism, I didn't fully appreciate the rhetorical disadvantages it can have. So many other perspectives have been dominant throughout history. One of the subtler aspects of this historical domination is language. Words' various denotations and connotations lend greater support to one side. Productive discussions are more difficult. (Peter Boghossian has stressed this deceptive slipperiness of common words.)

"Faith" is one of these tilted words. It has accumulated diverse meanings and contexts of usage. It's happened to such an extent that, depending on the applied definition, I'm not technically "faithless". Apparently, I'm not faithless in the following broad ways.
  • loyalty. This kind of faith appears more often in the word "faithful". Whether the focus is a group or a cause, it refers to an undivided commitment. It requires refusing to betray/abandon the group or cause, especially when that would be easier or more profitable, or when competing pressures arise. Of course, the list of potential loyalties that need no supernatural frame is a lengthy one. Advocates of materialistic naturalism can be faithful to them without any contradiction whatsoever. In my experience, they have above-average contrarian tendencies and they prize their independence, but they're as loyal as everyone else to the groups or causes which they deliberately join. 
  • not capricious. This kind of faith is about not being controlled by whims. It's holding firm to an idea, not continuously dropping and picking it back up as the mood strikes. But the total opposite is undesirable as well: never ever discarding ideas is possibly a sign of aloof, complacent stagnation. Like the majority of faults, it's easier to perceive either incorrect extreme in others than in oneself. My winding path to materialistic naturalism was prolonged, careful, and informed. The very end represented a huge distance from the very start. But it wasn't capricious. 
  • reliable communication. This kind of faith is akin to credibility. It's the dedication to uphold one's own statements—to fulfill promises. It's backing statements with actions whenever applicable. It's paying the statements' costs. And I would say that this principle is more compatible with my current view than my former one. It fits well with the principle of estimating ideas' accuracy precisely according to the quality and quantity of corroboration. Both principles express that ideas should neither be held nor expressed in a manner which is isolated from realities and efforts. Just as prospective truths should be evaluated by linking them to the consequences they have (or in fact don't as the case may be), personal statements should have consequences on the speaker's behavior.
  • trust. This kind of faith is directed at trusting other people or collections of people. It's not trusting them to exist, but trusting that they will do good. It's trust that they will make admirable decisions or at least struggle to enact their good intentions. Sometimes this faith in the person derives from an ongoing reciprocal relationship with them. If so then this faith might have been confirmed repeatedly for years. Faith in someone who has shown their goodwill is hardly a groundless leap in the dark.
  • positivity. People plan, but they can't eliminate unfavorable chances. This kind of faith is the choice to not obsess on these risks. I'm fine with this, because someone may highlight the happier outcomes in their imaginations while they acknowledge the realistic odds of each and they prepare for misfortunes. This contemplation isn't worthless if it provides them motivation and guidance. And after they've already done all they reasonably can, having faith in a beneficial outcome causes no harm.
  • acceptance of imperfect proof. This kind of faith consists of proceeding on the basis of provisional ideas. It may be argued that any idea without invincible authority implies that someone must take it on faith; therefore faith is something everyone uses all the time, and it's hypocritical to not embrace it in the argued context. The error of this conclusion is that the category of ideas with imperfect proof is wide and mixed. This indiscriminate mass of ideas represents a crucial gradient of differing likelihoods. These differences are decisive. If validating an idea with "merely" a 90% likelihood qualifies as faith...then yes, I suppose I'm not faithless. But it's ludicrous to propose that an idea of 90% likelihood successfully earning my "faith" logically forces me to respond similarly to ideas of 10% likelihood.
  • awe. Some commonly try to associate awe with faith in specific beliefs—probably theirs. Either the awe inspires the faith, or the faith provokes and enables the awe, or awe and faith are more or less synonymous. They may murmur, "How can you not have faith? Don't you feel awe?" The honest answer is that I do—right before I cheerily skip the presumption of blaming it on something mysterious. At times one can be awestruck by an astounding yet demystifying explanation. Real objects of awe, i.e. things much grander than the scale of human existence, are everywhere. Classifying episodes of awe as faith would end up classifying me again as not faithless. (Or, ugh, "spiritual".)  
  • interest in paramount ideas. Right along with awe, some associate faith with any strong interest in paramount ideas. That's faith's "territory". They characterize faith-based thinking as deep, profound, introspective, elevating contentment over greed, and searching for luminous beings and not this crude matter. So reluctance to indulge in faith is shallow and mundane. The snag in this self-congratulatory generalization is that it conveniently ignores the opposite result: when less reverence for obtaining answers through faith is an effect of the determination to systematically investigate the questions. If thoughtful, fervent interest in paramount ideas is exclusive to faith, then I'm not faithless. 
Now that I've rambled on a while about not being faithless, am I a "person of faith" in the usual smug sense of that label? I'd rather not call myself that, and I suspect nobody else would find it helpful. I realize that by the most prominent definition I'm thoroughly faithless: I lack religious affiliation and all of its numerous expressions. 

My complaint is how this definition of faith is unintentionally accompanied by the peripheral faith definitions I listed. Placing people under the heading of faith grants them a halo (ha!) side-effect of hinting that they possess the qualities in the faith list. And barring people from it hints that they might not. I imagine the practical impact will shrink, as the social status of the concept of a person of faith continues to dwindle. If that vacancy were later filled by the scrupulously vague concept "person of patchwork spirituality", I'd judge it to be an improvement regardless.

Lastly, I'm compelled to mention the faith definition that writers with my view frequently prefer to underline: the practice of willfully neglecting, or only superficially pretending, to judge a given idea's accuracy via the means of neutral inquiry and analysis. Becoming progressively more and more faithless by this notion of faith nudged me to reexamine my opinions. I like to have faith that more people will be faithless in this regard too.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

introspect at your own risk

I've previously described connections between my present philosophy and the habits of thinking that I've absorbed at my software job. The catch is that all these habits of thinking are closer to suggestive comparisons than definite proofs. Others might not be that impressed. They might have an abstract technological job too but they routinely restrict the job's thinking style to work topics. Or they may attempt to apply it in directions that I oppose but they prefer ("a functioning program of high complexity implies a programmer"). Or they may explain with varying levels of credibility that this entire perspective is too specialized and mechanistic, so its metaphors are completely disqualified. They may ask, why am I seemingly obsessed with surveying the details of marvelous ideas, when the ideas feel so wonderful in rough outlines?

One answer to that question is...that the obsession is partially an offshoot of another habit to add to the list. But this one is undoubtedly more widespread to projects outside software: estimating prospective risk. For planning any ambitious project, it's essential to start as early as possible to uncover and compensate for risks to success. Fantasizing about the advantages it will have after completion is allowable, but sooner rather than later someone needs to confront tedious questions about the grounds for its potential existence. What will be the signs that it's done? What will it be made from? Who will make it? How many weeks will it take them? How many overlooked mysteries remain about its behavior? In one sentence, what are the actual risks of actualizing it?

The habit of estimating prospective risk doesn't mean that the estimator is incapable of dreaming of improvements. It might mean that like me they grow...leery of suggestions which are massive yet ill-defined. The effort to take a risk inventory demands sharper clarity, because the larger or fainter it is, the more risk it carries. Until the team determines what it will be expected to do, they don't know the constraints they will be working to satisfy. And they can't productively speculate about the risks of achieving the constraints. Itemizing the conditions to make something physical depends upon sketching the contours of that something with high specificity. Whether the thing discussed is a project or not, whether it's awe-inspiring or not, the habit of estimating prospective risk urges the question of the tangible requirements it would need to fulfill for it to be real. 

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

rickety trellis

For a large class of imagined complaints about materialistic naturalism, an appropriate reply is "go talk with the real people being stereotyped". If the complainer did, they might discover that advocates of materialistic naturalism aren't abominable, uncaring wretches. I've speculated that it partly comes from an old, laughable one-dimensional yardstick which mixes up religiosity and miscellaneous flourishing. The assumption is that everyone who most closely follows the correct system of beliefs is consistently better off than everyone who doesn't. To make the yardstick work, the numerous exceptions need to be ignored or reconciled. "That unhappy believer is doing it wrong."  "You only think you're happy when you're disagreeing with me."  "Pressuring people into (the right flavor of) religion makes them better citizens, children, etc."

One of these narrow-minded complaints is about not supporting personal growth. Some people strongly link self-improvement with the influence and pursuit of supernatural ideas, or at least motions in the general direction of "spirituality". As a result they deduce that unconvinced people like me are allegedly indifferent, pessimistic, discouraging, or even hostile toward self-improvement itself. We must be against self-improvement...because we're eager to spread the distinctive philosophical principle that, as much as possible, ideas shouldn't be followed without carefully checking the accuracy of the ideas' implications through logic and investigation.

I remember this dehumanizing cliché well from when I was on the other side. By definition "secular" people didn't believe in anything but atoms, and they believed that humanity was an offshoot of precursor animal species. Therefore they had no defense to living in a totally bestial, debauched mode. They had no ultimate trial in the afterlife to anticipate, so they didn't have motivation to contemplate ethics. Of course this harmonizes with the shallow accusation of dismissing former beliefs purely in order to live without rules.

In any form, the prejudice is ill-founded. I'm pleased by the effort to nurture greater excellence in people, when it isn't coercive. Although the list of worthwhile goals is debatable, especially the goals' specifics, I'd venture that my list of aspirations has many overlaps with the complainers'. I too would like to see more effective self-management, more empathy, less obsession on inanimate goods, more clear-headed decisions and thinking, less procrastination, more awareness of consequences, less fearfulness, more compromise for the benefit of all. These goals are generic. Someone can have these goals without first following beliefs with questionable corroboration. (For that matter, I know for certain that many followers don't broadly reject the goal of checking ideas' implications for accuracy; they dilute it by applying it very selectively and by accepting error-prone methods of "checking".)

Furthermore, the beliefs' role in personal growth is just as generic. It's comparable to a trellis for plants to grow on. A trellis has some characteristics which provide a setting and assistance for growth to happen. Yet no trellis is uniquely capable. A working trellis can have a variety of colors, sizes, shapes, and source materials.

By analogy, beliefs can function as a trellis for personal growth and still have issues. It might be circulating inaccuracies about topics large and small. Nevertheless it might supply opportunities for guided quiet reflection, mentors and peers, inspiration to grander ideals, confidence that behavior is malleable. Like the advice to lay down tensions, some of its characteristics benefit personal growth despite the context of suspect beliefs. I concede that the kind of beliefs I discarded have in some ways acted as an adequate trellis.

All the same, this trellis strikes me as a rickety one. To keep up the metaphor, it's a trellis that doesn't endure. It breaks after the assaults of erosion and too much weight. Or perhaps it's a trellis that's too little or misshapen. Its limitations or crookedness cause it to be outgrown. It might function for a while, but its downsides then emerge. Someone asks a forbidden question. The repeated failures to correspond to revealed realities pile up. The society's controlling pressure starts to feel constrictive. Stagnation arrives after the easier stages are done. Punishments elevate docile, cookie-cutter conformity over self-directed progress. "Moral instruction" abruptly veers into odd obsessions with apparently harmless activities.

In the end, I can follow materialistic naturalism and continue recognizing that growth is important. As I see it, my view forces greater emphasis on having the best people there can be. They're all we have, on the working premise that spectral rescuers can't be relied upon. Essentially, growth is now too important to rely on the same old rickety trellis.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Incredible Aid

Faith: Hello. You've reached the phone line for questions about Incredible Aid. My name is Faith. What's yours?
Pru: Pru.
Faith: And what would you like to know about our service today?
Pru: The description I read was sort of vague. What kind of aid do you do?
Faith: We do a wide range. We aren't restricted to any one kind.
Pru: Which kinds, then? Do you have examples?
Faith: That depends on you. Whatever you need. We don't want to discourage you from making requests to us, even if a request doesn't fit the mold.
Pru: But there are limits, right? You can't carry out every demanding request.
Faith: That's correct. You may pass along any request that makes sense to you, but it's up to our discretion alone whether to take action.
Pru: ...isn't that your role? Providing aid on request?
Faith: We have great expertise handling these decisions. Requestors must defer to our superior judgment.
Pru: Will you inform me if you decline?
Faith: Probably not.
Pru: I see... Why is it called "incredible" aid? Are you capable of unusual levels of aid?
Faith: Oh yes, beyond question. Our reach extends farther than anyone else. We have immeasurable resources that we could put to use if we chose.
Pru: I know I called this phone number only to ask for more information before signing up. How does someone contact you with actual, urgent requests?
Faith: Just say it. Whisper, shout, mutter. Or think it without moving your lips. Either way, we'll detect it remotely.
Pru: are you always listening and watching, even when I'm not trying to express a request?
Faith: Less privacy is an unavoidable side-effect of our constant 24-7 attention to you.
Pru: Well, when I do have a request, how will you tell if I'm being serious, or if I'm muttering something without thinking it through? What if you have sensible follow-up questions for me?
Faith: We'll know. We won't ever bombard you with questions in return.
Pru: Then how can I be sure that you've heard, and you've completely understood me?
Faith: Trust us.
Pru: Would you respond to a request in a way I don't expect?
Faith: At least some of the time.
Pru: When that happens, will you explain why?
Faith: No. Blunt information isn't the kind of aid we give.
Pru: Well, do you leave a note after providing aid? I don't mean to be rude, but how many requests have you accepted, on average?
Faith: We have pages and pages of incredible testimonials. For instance, many of those are interesting anecdotes about strangely helpful coincidences. Or about assistance from compassionate strangers.
Pru: If I don't need the extra aid for myself most of the time, can I ask for aid for close family members?
Faith: By all means. Our policy is virtually unlimited. You may petition for aid for everyone you know. Some do it for people they don't know. Fairly often we hear from a large group all at once. I think they do it in case we missed what only one of them said.
Pru: But that's impossible. What if they contradict each other?
Faith: We know which ones to ignore. We distribute incredible aid according to the best outcome we can manage.
Pru; What's your price? Is it a yearly subscription?
Faith: No price to get started.
Pru: And later?
Faith: Long-term we do expect evidence of deep commitment. That includes regular contributions in proportion to household income. We also expect each client to do whatever they can to bring us more clients.
Pru: Is there a lower tier?
Faith: I don't recommend it. Those who are less committed are generally unsure about the priority assigned to them.
Pru: Can I quit at any time?
Faith: Yes. As we see it, those who end up canceling couldn't have been full-fledged clients anyway.
Pru: Is there a penalty?
Faith: There will be some feelings of betrayal. We strongly encourage close bonds between clients. Actually, we prefer that our clients go to each other for aid first, before involving us.
Pru: Hold on. You've said that your aid is amazing and powerful. But my requests for aid aren't openly acknowledged...and I can't identify what form the aid is in...and my total commitment is required. Now you're saying that I should just be working with the other clients you connect me to? Are—are you a cult?
Faith: Thank you for calling. We hope that you will be joining us at Incredible Aid: Aid You Won't Believe.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

big talk

Gavin is headed leisurely down the sidewalk. He spots someone wearing a kitschy sandwich board that reads simply "THINK BIG". As he curses his own sense of curiosity, he approaches. Before he can speak, the wearer shakes his hand and strikes up the conversation. (After a while, he takes off the sandwich board and they find somewhere nearby to sit.)
Biggs: Glad you stopped to chat. Call me Biggs. And you?
Gavin: Gavin. So, what is it your sign wants me to think big about?
Biggs: Everything. Bigness is what you should focus your attention on. What do you believe is the central truth of existence?
Gavin: Do you mean religiously, or...
Biggs: Yes, but "religion" is nothing except a label. Language is a symbol, and symbols are inadequate substitutes for the reality of bigness. Bigness cannot be labeled.
Gavin: The bigness of what?
Biggs: Bigness itself. Bigness surrounding and joining all things. No one thing is big enough to be bigness all on its own.
Gavin: Isn't bigness a description, though? How can you believe in bigness without being more specific about what the bigness is describing?
Biggs: Bigness isn't shown through one specific thing. If all things vanished or shrunk, bigness would still be bigness. Bigness is eternal and needs nothing else. Bigness forms new things from out of its excess supply, like a fountain spewing droplets.
Gavin: Um, how can I tell if I'm believing in the real bigness or not?
Biggs: Belief is less important than connecting with bigness. Feel it. Don't fight it.
Gavin: Then how can I tell if I'm feeling it or fighting it?
Biggs: Like I said, the sensation of bigness is bigger than I can explain. You feel it when you're opening your arms to embrace the grandest cosmic wholeness of the universe. You fight it when you're being selfish and closed off. You experience a sliver of bigness when you realize you're like a fish in a wide ocean.
Gavin: Which substances would you personally recommend taking for enhancing that?
Biggs: Indulge or don't. The bigness is present before and after whether you do or not.
Gavin: Where did the bigness come from? Will it end? What does it want? What does it do? Does it think?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger than beginnings and endings. Its wants and actions are more than we can comprehend. We're too small to translate the concepts in its thoughts. It's always pushing forward, changing. When we ride it we want to have more unity, to be more than shrunken individuals.
Gavin: ...evolution would have to be started by bigness, though, right? Evolution depends on different rates of the survival and reproduction of individuals—or separate groups of individuals. Is evolution against bigness?
Biggs: Bigness has a bigger purpose. Through evolution the deaths make future lives better.
Gavin: You just said "better". Bigness does have a morality about what's better?
Biggs: Better means more variety, more complexity, more range of expression. That kind of better might not be good for us all the time.
Gavin: Are we usually on the side of bigness, then?
Biggs: Bigness doesn't choose sides. Bigness is bigger than sides. Bigness can't be stopped by anything. For our own benefit, we should listen closer to the lessons of bigness.
Gavin: If bigness can work through competition, can't competing be a form of listening closer to the lessons of bigness? What about natural aggressiveness?
Biggs: Competition and aggression are for beings that can't plug into bigness directly. Humanity can do that. Bigness develops into self-awareness through tiny pieces of it like us.
Gavin: At what moment in its species development did humanity gain that power? Can anyone do it at any time in their life?
Biggs: I said it was a feeling. We had the power as soon as we were conscious of what we were truly feeling.
Gavin: Is it possible that we could have a feeling, but it's not as meaningful as it appears?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger than appearances. Its meaningfulness is what it is, no more, definitely no less.
Gavin: With this much vagueness, can't bigness be part of any belief system?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger than belief systems. It's wise to recognize that our beliefs about it are never completely right or finished. We know for sure that it's not just this and not just that.
Gavin: So...violent, oppressive, fearful beliefs would be...
Biggs: In essence, rejections of bigness.
Gavin: The good parts are manifestations of bigness, the bad parts aren't?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger than narrow notions of good and bad. People revise their rigid rules in better or worse directions depending on the quality of their bond with bigness.
Gavin: And the moral dilemmas that people decide differently than one another?
Biggs: They decide as they're inside the frame of their lives. Bigness is bigger than anyone's life.
Gavin: What would you say if someone else had different ideas than yours about bigness?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger than my ideas and their ideas. We can both be partially right, because we're touching different aspects of it.
Gavin: recap, bigness in the abstract is everything and nothing, but it can be felt in a dumbfounded state of mind. By feeling it we're supposed to be less self-centered all the time. It's the origin and also the sum total of everything. Calling it "bigness" is too uninspired, though. Would you rather call it "God"?
Biggs: Bigness is bigger—
Gavin: Yes, of course, forget I asked. What's the point, given that we can't apply it or understand it?
Biggs: We can in limited ways. We get perspective. Everyone has a drive to be part of something big. We should confess that we already are. When we do, the tininess of our mishaps, worries, cravings, debates is crystal clear.
Gavin: I've got to admit that I've heard of worse beliefs. The problem is that I'd prefer well-supported interpretations and solutions to the stuff you mentioned. It's all tiny, I guess, but if I'm tiny too then it's not tiny to me.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

bottomless pocket of bits

One of the most treasured defining characteristics of information is its huge range of forms. During processes its form can change, e.g. during transportation, storage, and direction of actions. This is common knowledge in today's era of personal computing devices. It's accurate too for older forms of information such as telegrams and letters, of course.

In any form handled by any process, people would certainly prefer to not lose their valued information along the way. They wish to get/reconstruct the information that went through the process(es). Acceptable forms and processes are reversible. There should be a method to access the information by inverting the processes and forms—not necessarily into the original form but into a form that holds the same information.

Reversibility in turn is restricted by the amusingly named pigeonhole principle: whenever someone is placing mail into the numerous compartments of an old-fashioned desk, at least one compartment must have two or more letters whenever there are more letters than compartments. This principle is more general and useful than it seems because the difference in quantity is the sole condition. It applies to all kinds of sets and set members. When set B has fewer members than set A, then a one-way relationship directed from each member of A to one member of B requires that two or more members of A have the relationship to a member of B. (Note that sets A and B can be uncounted as long as someone knows that B's count is less than A's; mathematicians can exploit this principle on two infinite sets like the sets of integers and irrational numbers.)

The restriction on reversibility becomes immediately apparent by picking an element of B and asking which single element of A has the one-way relationship to it. The pigeonhole principle decrees that depending on the element of B someone happens to pick, there could be at least two possible answers. That information is gone. Strictly speaking the one-way relationship isn't reversible. An English letter substitution cipher conceals a message (poorly) by substituting a different letter for each. It's a one-way relationship between the letters of the source's plain alphabet to the letters in a jumbled "cipher alphabet". This relationship is rapidly reversible by the message's recipient: if plain E goes to cipher J, then cipher J goes to plain E.

But if the cipher alphabet has 18 letters—the sender has to type on a keyboard with missing keys?—then the recipient would have more trouble despite having the key. Then the pigeonhole principle guarantees that a letter in the cipher alphabet was substituted for more than one letter in the plain alphabet. After enciphering the message "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog", one cipher letter might occur five times in the sent message. Maybe A and B and C and H are all substituted by I. Or maybe T and U and W are all substituted by F. The recipient might still be able to use context and trial and error to deduce the plain message, but the cipher is less reversible. Information of the distinctions between A/B/C/H or T/U/W has been lost. If the information were a picture instead, perhaps it would be smudged or have fewer shades of color. If it were a song, perhaps there would be a smaller gap between its quiet and loud sections.

The inescapable upshot is that anything that processes information without losing distinctions needs to have the relevant capacity, i.e. the minimum number of representative states. Yet this need doesn't demand that one object has all the states. For instance, one object of 255 states can be replaced with eight cooperative objects which have two states, named "0" and "1".  The first state can be the sequence 00000001, the second 00000010, the third 00000011, and on and on. This is equivalent to numbering each input state in binary numbers. The individual binary digits are the familiar bits. Objects with few states, but massively connected together, can successfully absorb and emit a multitude of informative distinctions. People weren't the first to notice this. DNA is a famously excellent form of information built from sequences of four bases, A, C, G, T.

None of the preceding is controversial. Everybody admits that the information capacity of a year old SD card can be different than a 10 years old SD card with identical dimensions. The increase in the number of bits isn't magic. The one year old card's innards in total have more states available than the 10 years old card, probably thanks to the continuing miniaturization of components.

The endless conflicts begin when people transfer these analyses to the most prized conduit of information of all: the human brain. This topic has a perennially popular alternative that could be labeled the bottomless pocket of bits. In this alternative, it's assumed that the brain isn't capable of managing the bits passed to it. So the bits "really" go in and out of an incorporeal bottomless pocket, which is assumed to augment the brain's memory and abilities by inscrutable mechanisms.

The image of a bottomless pocket has made countless appearances in fiction. Animated characters have pulled object after object from their pockets, as if the objects expand and contract on command. Because the object pulled out is frequently a big mallet, the internet word for where these objects come and go is "hammerspace". Games containing puzzles about acquiring and using items have expansive "inventory lists", which hold more items of more sizes and weights than the character in the game could hold in their pockets. The handy convenience is undeniable. There is at least one equally well known detrimental example of an infinitesimal hiding place: wherever the missing socks go when the clothes dryer finishes running.

A justification for the idea of bottomless pocket of bits might be the assumption that some of the stuff in the brain can't be bits like the rest. So this inexpressible stuff resides in the pocket. That is to say, bits come in, divert to the pocket where this inexpressible stuff does some advanced work, and then the product bits come out in some form like changed behavior. The suggestion is that although the information coming from the senses is a believable stream of unremarkable bits, "deep" phenomena, such as abstract principles and words and hunches and wishes and empathy and kinesthetic skills and pattern observations, etc., etc., just cannot be translatable into normal boring bits. The hope is that existence in the super-special bottomless pocket permits different rules.

The problem is that this suggestion fails confirmation. These deep phenomena are observed to be too similar to other information in the brain. They're either instinctive or gradually learned and may be disrupted by various ailments. Some people are born without them or have a lot of difficulty developing them. They're heavily customized by the lifelong environmental, cultural settings of the person. The power to "feel" the right answer in a domain of expertise grows after the expert has been shaped by years of experiences.

Introducing the bottomless pocket of bits is a solution to a dilemma that isn't proven to exist. The brain's own capacity is unquestionably large because of its flexible high connectivity. It's a vast coordinated population. And the number of cells is dwarfed by the number of byzantine connections, which act as the forms and processes of information. A complete listing of all the connections would contain substantially more than a trillion items. This presents an astounding surface to etch information into, albeit with two cautions: not all the connections would be valuable (in fact a lot of pruning happens), and it's too naive and reductive to equate every one of these connections to one bit of information.

Like some of the examples from earlier, in the brain a whole complex chain of simple objects mirrors the information. When connections to subgroup 3 are active, subgroups 1 and 2 might be embodying slightly different "bits" than when connections from 1 and 2 to subgroup 8 are active. The collective is the unit of significance. This strategy comes with the distressing tendency to go too far in connecting dots and filling in missing data points. People can believe that they know more than the information realistically shows.

On the positive side, losing one cell doesn't lose one episode of memory. The total impressions evoked by new information persist more than the tiny details. Changes proceed in stages, not like flipping switches. The path to conclusions resembles a loud committee "voice vote" more closely than a neat dictate trickling out of a bottomless pocket. The structure matches the expectation for an information processor that's adaptable, economical, and bending not breaking after injury. Through changed connections, old pieces of information can be recruited and reused in novel remixes; the thinker can manipulate Y as a lightly modified version of a past X. Creativity is possible without an exotic auxiliary.

Having a better informed perspective on the human brain's roominess for information gives a basis for distrusting claims about information encased in cruder things. By referring to the same considerations as before, and appending the sensible rule that consciousness about things involves the minimal level of information handling, a dust mote can't have a consciousness akin to a human's. It can't be having thoughts because no states are changing in it. In a human brain, as everyone is aware from the innumerable fMRI studies, changes happen when thoughts happen. The brain performs mental tasks without a bottomless pocket; the dust mote can't.

This also leads to inferences about the type of ideas that could be in the hypothetical consciousness. Whether it's animal, vegetable, or mineral, without a human-like grasp of the variations of a type of idea, it can't be said to have comparable types of ideas in its consciousness. For example, a thing without the resources for assimilating elaborate visual information can't be having images in its "inner world". Human color vision is sophisticated. But how could something that doesn't even have separate information pathways for different colors be having dreams or daydreams in color?

In reality, a portable internet-ready device is a more fitting approximation of the bottomless pocket of bits. Its reliance on its internet connection acts like the pocket, so its own design can potentially be relatively primitive. It might not permanently keep any of the flowing data bits after it promptly produces a video or audio signal, shows a message, takes a picture, activates a circuit, etc. The bulk of its "intelligence" might not be within itself either. It might function as a specialized input/output "face" for some high-performing cluster of computers somewhere else on the other side of the internet. Deprived of the internet, its capabilities drop.

Moreover, the unmiraculous work underlying this real-world version reiterates the hand-waving incompleteness of the abstract versions. Sending bits is a lengthy procedure. The device breaks the bits into standardized chunks or packets with address and identification information. It transfers the packet into speedy adjustments of its electromagnetic connection medium (wire or wireless), compensating for interference of course. The packet joins larger channels. It's delivered via intermediary stops or hops to the destination address, this time compensating for temporary outages at any point in the journey. Then the receiving computer does the reverse to extract the bits out of the packet. It reassembles the chunks of bits and asks for missing chunks to be retransmitted. Finally it writes the bits for later retrieval; space isn't infinite but it's fairly cheap when it's bought in humungous quantities and usable for many purposes.

Every part of this procedure arose through the diligent efforts of inventors and maintainers. Initial techniques were improved. Miles of cables were laid. It turns out that feasibly accomplishing something like the bottomless pocket of bits is a marvel...of engineering. The luxury of ignoring constraints of volume, time, energy, entropy, and so forth is a feature of fantasized ideas.

Some less radical interpretations of a brain pocket do comply with the physical universe. In these the brain hoards information in dramatically exotic or miniscule matter: at the scale of DNA base pairs or at the extreme quantum scale of elementary particles/fields. (It's an inspiring technological goal. When people succeed at shrinking their information that far, the density will be staggering.) Nevertheless, the shortcomings remain. There must be enough cumulative states with enough organization, and there must be dependable, reversible processes to read and write the states. The smaller the scale, the less plausible those prerequisites are. It's easy to argue that there're a lot of intriguing niches that the brain could use. It's less easy to argue how the brain could ever so delicately cram bits into the niches, trust that the niches don't succumb to literally random fluctuations, and draw out the desired bits in the future without clearing the rest.

Drawing out the recognizable bits is the impressive phase. A hypothetical pocket accepting item after item could be bottomless in a very misleading sense. It might have a hole at the other end.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Till They Give Replies

The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. [...] I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
On a whim I reread Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. I suppose the impulse arose from my discussion of the sincerity of belief. In that entry I encouraged analyzing the deep-seated "statements" the believer makes through their outward actions—and the inward imprint left by the belief on the believer's stream of consciousness and their feelings. After intense self-examination, believers who shy from firmly articulating their positions may find that they believe in both less and more than they originally imagined they did. Like I stated before in an entry on another book by Lewis, he returned several times to the subjects of sincerity, self-deception, and wavering resolve. (The obligatory line from the Bible for this is "the heart is deceitful above all things", which apparently is Jeremiah 17:9.)

This book is a rewritten form of the old story of Cupid and Psyche. But the narrator and main character is Orual the older sister. She writes the full "true" account of her role and life, along with a passionate commentary. To stop the gods' wrath, Psyche was bound and left for them at a remote mountain location. Orual painfully missed Psyche, so she returned later to recover the body. She discovered her vibrantly alive.

Psyche explained that she was now living in a luxurious palace as the wife of the mountain's god. Curiously, by the god's orders, their encounters are always in the dark. But all Orual can see is the mountain's natural environmental setting. In an attempt to force Psyche to return home, she manipulated her into lighting a lamp next time the god met her. She suspected (and hoped?) that the unseen god was a fake, and she wanted to prove it to her. Psyche reluctantly followed the instructions, received harsh punishment for breaking the rule, and endured an exile far away. Decades later, Orual furiously recorded her personal account to "correct" the story but also to prosecute the gods themselves. The above quote is her shocked realization after she had her chance to deliver her complaint.
Nothing that's beautiful hides its face. Nothing that's honest hides its name. 

"[...] Who that loved you could be angry at your breaking so unreasonable a command—and for so good a reason?"
"Foolishness, Orual," she answered, shaking her head. "He is a god. He has good grounds for what he does, be sure. How should I know of him? I am only his simple Psyche."
When I previously read this in years past, I recall pitying Orual's stubbornness to not trust in the invisible spiritual realm. And I disliked her self-serving arrogance to reject Psyche's differing (bizarre) view of her own marriage situation. Yet presently, I'm...compelled to side with Orual. In the story her perception is limited, but in my opinion her objections are open-eyed. She has her substantial faults, but her blunt request for viable replies doesn't qualify. She herself doesn't "poison the well" for her well-chosen points. If there were gods, why would they consistently act act covertly at all times? Why would they judge someone for their amount of honest belief in allegedly objective stuff? As she pleads:
They would not tell me whether she was the bride of a god, or mad, or a brute's or villain's spoil. They would give no clear sign, though I begged for it. I had to guess. And because I guessed wrong they punished me—what's worse, punished me through her. [...] I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman's bluff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places?
Of course, my reaction is predictable. Holy places must be dark places because holy places are mythical. It's no surprise that those places, e.g. Atlantis or Prester John's kingdom, can only show up by apocryphal methods. Fantasy is an easy path that lies outside the bright light of straightforward inquiry. The details of prophecies and other psychic intuitions are peppered with holes that an audience can fill for themselves. Momentary visions and inconclusive signs of the spiritual domain shouldn't be considered satisfactory. Orual occasionally has these experiences and notes the inadequacy herself:
What is the use of a sign which is itself only another riddle? [...] They set the riddle and then allow a seeming that can't be tested and can only quicken and thicken the tormenting whirlpool of your guess-work. If they had an honest intention to guide us, why is their guidance not plain? Psyche could speak plain when she was three; do you tell me the gods have not yet come so far?
From time to time I think, "I'll stay an atheist until an unmistakable god tells me I'm not." I can't decide whether this thought is flippant or serious. I'm perplexed about why the lesson of this book appears to be that opposites are the exclusive options. The spiritual domain is either overwhelming or translated into a baffling puzzle. Spiritual beings are either too extreme to talk with or they're reduced to muttering paradoxes. They're either too near to permit people to live normally or they're too absent to appear in reports beyond scattered rumors.

Slightly rewriting Orual's questions: assuming there were gods eager to interact meaningfully, yet eager to not inundate beyond human capacity, why wouldn't the gods quickly try moderate strategies? If the replies were confusingly complicated, why wouldn't they take the time to break the replies up into cogent steps, instead of replying in impenetrable profundities? If coming to dinner in native shape would be unbearable, why wouldn't they resort to an avatar (tall blue torso optional) or a hands-on representative, instead of dumping the R.S.V. P. in the trash? If the divine language would be unintelligible, why wouldn't they condescend to outspoken English or Latin, instead of leaving out the equivalent of squiggles for people to decipher as they can? If Psyche's husband would wish to avoid undue suspicion, why wouldn't it be more forthcoming with either or both sisters about the need for its secretiveness—or at minimum the rationale for not revealing that need?

It's irrelevant to deflect by suggesting that gods won't give replies until people meet the conditions of no longer fooling themselves and/or admitting their moral failings. These conditions are unrelated. People constantly juxtapose inaccurate and accurate ideas. They might arrive at marvelous insights while misrepresenting or misunderstanding themselves. Someone's miscellaneous deficits don't require fixing or confession before they can be informed about some general topic. They may not end up listening to it fairly, but unless their questions are complete pretenses they would welcome it as a replacement for blind speculation. Yes, people often lack candor and an omniscient frame of reference; given that gods would be superior in this aspect then they could be a better example, not follow the mortals' fumbling lead.
I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.
Lewis is Lewis. The book includes the repeated sentiment that when people meet gods they're embarrassed that they're (ugh) people. At the end, face to face with them, Orual is embarrassed by her accusation that they neglected to give her all the facts she could've applied to avoid provoking them. Such as it is, this final nonverbal "reply" is one more undisguised evasion of her earlier thoughtful questions. The phenomenon of words falling short isn't an absolutely insurmountable barrier to transmitting meaning; it's arguably a typical case. Communicators may use relative analogies: X is more like A than B. They may use negation: X is unlike Q because of characteristic C. They may use approximations and sketches.

Alternatively—I'm playing along with the notion not defending it—if The Face were indeed the best reply to be given, it would be more just to never evaluate humans for their commitment before they've seen The Face. Perhaps they'd see it subsequent to physical death, which would entail waiving their beliefs and actions in life. Lewis might have learned toward this "universalism" kind of doctrine: everyone would have as many chances as there could possibly be, throughout eternity, to finally capitulate to the supreme master of the universe.

I would comment that I won't hold my breath to find out, but in this instance I wouldn't find out without totally stopping my breath. If Orual's statements were intended as illustrations of a fundamentally misguided standpoint, raised up then torn down, the statements should've been less wise.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

if only you try

Last time I encouraged believers to drop the excuse that they don't want to be tied down to stating their beliefs outright. Not to worry: assuming they express their beliefs somehow then that expression is making a statement. The expression might be mild. (It might consist of guiding other beliefs, like Einstein's belief "God does not play dice with the universe" guiding his beliefs about physics.) Its idiomatic meaningfulness might have greater pull on the believer than its literal content.

Tracing from the expressions back to the expressed beliefs is only step one. Step two is sifting through the presumable symptoms of the beliefs meaning something. In 2012 I gave step two an uninspired name to parallel the search for meaning in life which it filters: the "demand for meaning". It refers to pinpointing and validating the distinctive assertions imposed by found beliefs. The search for meaning isn't done until the searcher appraises their findings to judge if they're fake. A belief that can't survive relevant checks, or a belief that has no checks, is undeserving of loyalty. Believers who stop before step two shall become comfortable with the role of perpetual seeker.

Fortunately, translating a belief into digestible pieces isn't an advanced or rare undertaking; a timeless child's story can supply an example. What if the intrepid, well-traveled, talkative Peter T. Hooper tells Liz that he has collected hard to reach eggs by riding on top of a Ham-ikka-Schnim-ikka-Schnam-ikka Schnopp? Whether she trusts his tale or not, she probably wants definite information about the elements of this belief he's communicating. In essence, what is the Ham-ikka-Schnim-ikka-Schnam-ikka Schnopp, anyway?

Toward that goal Liz could ask pointed questions, assuming Peter can't show her a whimsical artist's rendering. She could focus on the realities that he would be expected to know if the belief of him on the top of the Schnopp were accurate. He wouldn't get credit for recounting additional information without explaining how he knows it, such as the Schnopp's age. Nor for cryptically calling the Schnopp a variant of another new creature. Nor for relaying hearsay from unknown or unqualified origins (internet public forums?). Nor for speaking exclusively in brief generalities or hunches.

To the contrary, persuasive answers would revolve around how its existence uniquely impinged on him. What was different because it was there? What perceptions did it register in his eyes, ears, fingers? What familiar creatures did it remind him of? How did he learn where to find one? What did it eat? The meaningfulness of the belief he proposes hinges on the kinds of particulars that Liz, or anyone, could potentially rediscover. He might have been on top of a rare creature with an official name that he doesn't know. The more unequivocal clarification of which belief someone's talking about, the less opportunity for confusion, and the more opportunity for inspecting its accuracy.

Liz may accept the belief in the Schnopp either with or without a comprehensive concept of what it is as well as the detectable outcomes its existence would/does lead to. But if the absence of the comprehensive concept nudges her to decline the belief, she shouldn't be scolded for an "oversimplified" and/or "close-minded" view on the belief. Beliefs can be minimally possible and be in competition nonetheless. During that competition, beliefs backed by elaborate, coherent, and abundantly verified concepts surpass beliefs that aren't.

Realities are complicated (and thereby more riveting). It's not feasible for every belief to be equally evident. Some beliefs can't help being more exploratory, abstract, or obscure. That said, children reading an imaginative book have enough shrewdness to understand that a creature in it should have more than a name and a few descriptive features before convincing anyone that it ventures outside the book's covers. Effective hoaxes require more effort than that. For genuine creatures such as the platypus, to avoid being labeled hoaxes might require more effort still...