Sunday, February 28, 2016

corroborated by an angel

Way back during my formative years, my family wasn't impoverished, but we were...frugal. The audiovisual entertainment options were limited. There was one TV set (although later there were two) connected to the outdoor antenna. The list of channels was whatever that antenna could receive with enough clarity. On top of that, my parents were choosy about the shows they'd allow. As a result I saw plenty of shows because others in the room had chosen them, not because I particularly loved to watch them.

Touched by an Angel is in that group. Angels who looked exactly like people infiltrated hapless lives to deliver encouragement, advice, and maybe scolding. If memory serves, in these episode climaxes the angel would finally announce their otherworldly status as an inexplicable overhead spotlight would illuminate them. They'd further announce that, contrary to earlier indications, the intervention's recipient was loved by "God" (the show's purposeful nonspecificity about this monotheistic deity irritated devout watchers). After looking up the list of seasons I think we stopped watching the show regularly after the fourth season. I haven't been inclined to return to it since.

Although in my opinion the premise didn't generate a noteworthy show, it did channel the popularity of angels. One aspect of this popularity is easy to comprehend: angels show up. Everyone needs aid sometimes. Angels represent the supernatural domain reaching out in love. Nevertheless, not long ago I had the stray thought that this model of angel activity is massively squandering them. In a number of ways they're gravely missing chances to accomplish more.

I don't mean that thousands of angels should be sent instead of a few. I mean that their actions should be more strategic and less piecemeal than on the show. For convenience, I'll give my hypothetical angel a name: Zerubbabel. To attract due attention, he shouldn't look exactly like a person. His appearance should raise questions and not blend into the crowd. He should come to Earth at a publicly visible, frequently passed location. Ideally he shouldn't materialize with a sudden pop and stand serenely on the ground. His introduction should radiate unignorable flair and pomp, though he shouldn't be dressed for war or carrying weapons.

Once he's here, he should communicate as quickly as he can to as many people as he can. Multiple languages are a necessity. He should consent to meet with the media. He should be patient and cordial when he states and restates his messages. Zerubbabel should respond to both sincere and incredulous lines of questioning. He shouldn't refuse to speak with anyone who's seeking a respectful conversation. He shouldn't be deceptive or evasive. A quote from him might be "I don't know," but "How dare you ask me that" shouldn't be.

I've mentioned that Zerubbabel shouldn't too closely resemble humans. As part of that, he should invite medical examination. Tests of his form should be carried out. He shouldn't be an untouchable glimmer. He shouldn't be a disembodied voice or hovering in the clouds. He should be accessible—open to social customs of body contact. He shouldn't be blinking out of sight and emerging elsewhere. If he has those capabilities, he shouldn't exercise them to increase his mystique by frustrating benign curiosity.

Even so, his inhuman talents should be prominently displayed. Under a broad scope of conditions, with little preparation or protestation or perspiration, Zerubbabel should perform beneficial spectacles. He doesn't need to be godlike. But he does need to somehow repeatedly substantiate that he's a being on a different level than humanity, who's speaking from a superior frame of reference. To eliminate accusations of trickery, he should welcome negative feedback and immediately perform past spectacles with the requested changes. The surroundings should be well lit and never previously visited by him. There should be several expert witnesses in the vicinity, if at all possible. There should be unrestricted recording devices, close-up and wide-angle.

I imagine my oppressive demands sound overdone, cynical, and inhospitable. Accepting them would still be worthwhile for an invaluable prize: redefining the unending dialogues on God-pertinent topics. Good-hearted Zerubbabel's utterings would force revolutionary readjustments to the viewpoints of millions. Based on the history of civilization, revising the outlook of many has greater effect than fixing the situation of a single victim. Everyone searching for proof of or guidance about the spiritual plane could look to Zerubbabel as a primary source.

...then again, hearers who disagree might just denounce him as a demonic deceiver, an extraterrestrial spy, or an insane accident of nature.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

embroidering at the edges

I've previously tried to sum up "materialistic naturalism" in two carefully measured statements. First, under sufficient impartial scrutiny, anything supernatural doesn't demonstrably exist or have indispensable relevance. Anything supernatural yields no identifiable repercussions besides those that mistaken ideas in general can have...such as sweeping influence over culture and personal behavior. Second, all the natural things not disqualified by the first statement come from, are composed of, participate in, and will eventually wear down into smaller pieces of, material stuff (physical substances/forces).

Understandably, this position appears narrow and minimalist to the many people who are determined to wholeheartedly follow the beliefs which it excludes. They may suggest a compromise: for many if not most domains of knowledge, they'll concur that materialistic naturalism suffices. The other beliefs they follow will be along or beyond the edges of that large conceded middle. Their view is like imagining that each person's comprehension is a whole fabric connecting their beliefs like threads. The middle of everybody's fabrics will be plain, ordinary, and indistinguishable from everybody else's. But the edges will be customizable opportunities to creatively embroider. There, each believer could feel empowered to embroider...and embroider...and embroider. Poking holes, so to speak, through another's edge embroidering would be considered mean and unnecessary, because everybody has compromised on not refashioning the middle. Those like myself who follow unblended materialistic naturalism would be accused of a literally negative recommendation: that to decline to embroider is the choice which is most consistent, most harmless, most productive, most upfront.

To maintain harmony, perhaps I should try embroidering a bit too. No one who acknowledges the validity of embroidering could object. I'll start from the base acceptance that most things will act normally most of the time. Yet suppose there is a frequently hidden mysterious power that manifests in confounding ways. This power emerges at several isolated points on Earth: a Pacific island, for example. Because of its unique properties this island tends to evade discovery, but from time to time vehicles of different types stumble onto it. So the island is inhabited. Furthermore, a succession of individuals are selected to act as caretakers of the island and its power. The role of caretaker includes unnatural but not unlimited abilities, especially a halt of normal aging. This is still only one rarely explored island and one person, so this still only qualifies as embroidering a tiny edge.

Then a violent confrontation happened between a specific caretaker and his brother. Afterward, the brother absorbed a different set of abilities from the island's power. His normal aging was also halted. Although they were fatal enemies, the prior caretaker had made it impossible for them to kill each other. Instead they competed to test whether the island's inhabitants were fundamentally good or evil, both the ones born there or newly arriving. The inhabitants became a tribe that knew about the caretaker and his brother without usually interacting with either directly.

However, a secretive research organization managed to find the island, penetrate its peculiar defenses, and settle there to perform an array of amazing experiments. It was so secretive that it never published its findings; it stayed outside the edge of known science. The tribe of inhabitants clashed with the organization, killed off its members, and then seized all of its facilities and equipment. The pivotal factor in the battle was a man who had left the organization as a child and grew up as part of the tribe. Later he successfully usurped and exiled the former leader of the tribe. The exile purely desired revenge and recapturing the island's wonders for himself alone. He didn't want to expose the island's existence to outsiders. So it continued to not be inside the four edges of a typical map. 

I'd possibly embroider some more...a lot more, but I'll quit. The details I've related are unconnected to almost everything and everyone in the world. To that extent I've stayed compatible with the middle portion of the fabric and stuck to embroidering at the edges. Is this case believable? If not, why is it less believable than the range of others? Why wouldn't it be equally protected by the proposed taboo against criticism of edge-only embroidering? In a category that's proudly unrestricted by concrete limits to start with, what criteria would indicate that a case has strained credibility to the snapping point?

A superb answer to these questions is to not assume—without compelling reasons—exceptional, preferential differences between the mundane middle and the wild edges. If my coworker doesn't show up at their normal start time, I don't assume that they're deceased. If I misplace my car's key fob, I don't assume that its atoms have left the cosmos. If I consume chemicals that "expand my consciousness", I don't assume that I've successfully established that neuroscience requires the notion of a human soul after all. If I read in the news about inexplicable observations, I don't assume that the future theory that will accommodate those observations will be an exact opposite of current theories. If there is a concealed Pacific island, it's not savvy to assume that it exudes extraordinary power. If there are missing vessels and aircraft, it's not savvy to assume that those were doomed to go off course and reach an island. If there is an organization performing quiet research, it's not savvy to assume that it's investigating occurrences of teleportation. If there is wreckage of a missing plane, it's not savvy to assume that it was faked by a wealthy man whose hope is to eventually return to the island he was exiled from.

Following materialistic naturalism doesn't actually imply that I think the search for knowledge is finished. Neither does it imply that I think everything left to know will be predictable. It implies confidence in the odds that the bedrock characteristics of new knowledge won't be kooky. The new will be metaphorically jogging in the same "ballpark" of materialic naturalism alongside the old and not sailing half a world away.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

tossing out the white pegs

A lot of my recent entries have been about the varied maneuvers carried out by bright, well-informed confident people in order to shield beliefs that have serious problems. These beliefs need to be shielded from reasonable doubt because they aren't supported well enough by normal means. Or, worse, they're in shrill discord with beliefs that do have better support.

One way to visualize these beliefs' shortcomings is Battleship. I'm referring to the simple, cheap, perennially popular type of games in which each player has a collection of narrow ship pieces and a private grid of spaces with little holes. First they place their nonmoving ships on their own grids. Then the players take turns calling out labelled locations on the opponent's grid. If any part of any of the opponent's ships is on that location, then that part of the ship has been "hit". It's signified by placing a red peg in that hole. If not, then the call is a "miss", which the caller signifies with a white peg. Using their pegs, they build up an increasingly informative history of their past calls. Once all the parts of all of a player's ships have hits, the opponent wins.

Each call is like a prediction about grid positions occupied by parts of the ships. That prediction is an identifiable and clear-cut repercussion of the caller's "ship beliefs" at that time. If they believe that the battleship sits in the first row starting at the left corner, then they will call location A-1. If it's declared a red-peg hit, then the belief has earned greater credence. If it's declared a white-peg miss, then the belief has lost credence. Red pegs and white pegs sort out prospective beliefs about the ship positions.

As previously stated, the principal goal linking these parts together is to eventually reveal (and sink) the opponent's ships. But what if one player's principal goal were different: to preserve for themselves, game after game after game, the belief that the battleship sits in the first row starting at the left corner? They wouldn't be enthusiastic about tracking that belief's misses, such as the games in which calling out A-1 resulted in a white peg. Staring at white pegs after misses would be counterproductive to preserving the belief. A position that continues to have no peg in it cooperates with the assumption that part of a ship might be there; a position with a white peg in it doesn't. For this strange player's different goal, tossing out the white pegs before starting is more advantageous.

Back in less frivolous domains, the identifiable and clear-cut repercussions of beliefs tend to be more nuanced. Detection is an elusive struggle. People can't call out unambiguously and obtain an all or nothing answer. Prevalent margins of uncertainty ensure that a third answer unavoidably exists, which is outside Battleship rules: indeterminate. This is the default solution for the followers who've tossed out their white pegs. Whenever they can, they'll promptly classify the pleasing results of their belief's "calls" red peg hits, not indeterminate. And they'll recall the stories to others and themselves for perhaps decades. In addition, whenever they can, they'll promptly classify the disappointing results indeterminate, not white peg misses. And they'll do nothing to rehash those stories; it helps that indeterminate results are less memorable.

Overall, the effect is curated escapism. The follower can say that they're aware of whether their beliefs are being confirmed, because after all they're looking at the calls and accumulating red pegs. At the same time they can say that their beliefs have perfect records of calls, because there are no white pegs to be seen. There are no results which they judged to be frank misses and remembered for comparison later.

Combating this strategy is a rationale of the black box analysis technique I described. The reminder is to judge a belief by what comes out of it and not by an attachment to the belief itself. If the belief's origin and individual characteristics were unknown, like an object encased by a black box, then the evaluation would happen through a consistent, unprejudiced audit of its products. In Battleship terms, this would be like making calls and placing pegs with as much impartiality as playing with an anonymous list of someone else's guesses about the ships. It's difficult, and the adjustment may be sluggish, but it's not impossible to learn to measure beliefs based on results.

The white pegs are not the opponent. Exposing the contents of the hidden grid is of more worth than refusing to see the failures of faulty concepts.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

living the dream

When I contemplate how my perspective changed—or didn't—as I gave up following insufficiently corroborated beliefs, I could compare it to living in a somewhat unreal "world" shaped by those beliefs. The typical illustrations of it from movie or television sci-fi are the Holodeck on Star Trek starships...and of course the Matrix. The flaw of these illustrations is that they're pictured as too, well, flawless. My principles of understanding metamorphosed into a Pragmatist-ish style years ago. On that basis, the breaking point of my former beliefs was precisely the noticeable flaws between the world I perceived and reckoned and the world that those beliefs should have implied. The seams were there all the time, but I didn't thoroughly realize that.

I consider the closer illustration to be the dream trap in the "Perchance to Dream" episode of Batman: The Animated Series, which I remembered after using Professor X as an illustration of something else recently (because my first exposure to X was also a '90s TV series). At the episode's very start, Batman is ambushed and hooked up to a device that forces him to vividly dream as if he were awake. The illusion is the setting of almost all scenes. It begins with him "waking up" at home. He goes through the day as a Bruce Wayne whose parents are alive and retired. He has imminent marriage plans with Selina Kyle. He's the formal owner though not the manager of his father's company. With his parents alive, he hasn't remade himself as Batman. There isn't a bat cave or any of his other standard equipment. His memories of reality are apparently as clouded to him as memories of a dream typically are.

As it proceeds, this episode includes four details that resonate with my experience. First, the figures around him collectively question Batman's (Bruce in their eyes) questioning. They tell him that these circumstances are totally normal; his frantic disorientedness is the curiosity. They're tenderly concerned about him and his mental state. They aren't callous or coercive or abusive. The dream is a jail, but they aren't acting like jailers. To some extent, their pressure eases Batman toward momentary enthusiasm for his replacement life. I can relate. The impulse to share the same beliefs as the people most important to me, as well as their complacency about the beliefs' accuracy, were partly why I was slow to explore my criticisms. I needed to grow comfortable with ignoring the impression that these criticisms had to be eccentric abnormalities of mine, because everybody else didn't seem as bothered. I was never mistreated or insulted whenever I hesitantly voiced these accumulating criticisms, but I was nudged, however tacitly, toward not disrupting my fellow believers too much with quibbles they didn't focus on.

Second, every time Batman reads something in the dream, the letters and words are jumbled. This is a repeated clue he must not be awake in the real world. In my case, I found that my beliefs were routinely jarring with knowledge obtained from other sources. I wasn't translating that knowledge into gibberish, but I felt like I was forced into viewing it with almost the same level of incomprehension. My beliefs and the outside knowledge were opposed. To continue following the beliefs, that knowledge needed to function to me like lies—or nonsense. And like in the episode, the telling factor was the consistent pattern. Though the issues might be demoted to trifles, the pervasiveness was troubling. It cropped up in multiple fields of independent study. I'd encounter the discontinuity by picking up a book, visiting a website, or turning the TV channel (e.g. I saw the NOVA coverage of Kitzmiller v. Dover prior to the time period I pronounced myself an atheist).

Third is probably the most thought-provoking element: Batman exists in the dream. More specifically, a mysterious "Batman-2", whose appearance is identical, keeps law and order on the streets. Batman—the dreaming protagonist Batman-1—is shaken and intrigued. The times when he says that he thinks that he's Batman, his hearers conclude that he's purely expressing a deeply confused envy of Batman-2. (On the assumption that the whole dream is formed from his wishes, the indication is that he would still wish for there to be a Batman if he weren't the same traumatized person.) Finally, the recurring sight of Batman-2's heroics—the stark reminder of his more ambitious self outside the dream—unnerves him so severely that he decides to instigate a meeting between the two rectangular-jawed men. For my past self, Batman-2 could have symbolized the form of inner reflection that was tightly restricted: adventurously pursuing the trail of signals wherever it led like a stoic, hard-bitten detective would. And it was similarly connected to a persistent, periodic undertone of awareness that my safer identity was predicated on suppressing that part of me. I had the somewhat guilty hunch that I could be someone else: someone who would absorb higher quality beliefs and be less conflicted overall. Just as acknowledgment of the second detail required honesty about the beliefs' contradictions with outside knowledge, acknowledgment of this third detail required honesty about the beliefs' contradictions with my personal best evaluations of accuracy/plausibility/logical consistency.

Fourth is Batman's unequivocal refusal near the end of the story to "live a lie". He's deduced, and received confirmation, that he's dreaming. He knows that he could possibly live a happier (but less interesting or challenging) existence...but he won't. Given his degree of fanatical, sacrificial commitment to his mission, he can hardly decide to give it up. To not be Batman would be unbearable. Pushed to this limit, he rather speedily opts for suicide as a potential escape. It works, obviously. He jolts awake and frees himself from the helmet device responsible. I'm not seriously about to state that I ever took an equally drastic risk. That said, turning away from specific beliefs and habits and in-groups represents killing the markers of earlier self-identity. Altering behavior to align with different beliefs, and bringing on the disagreeable ramifications, is distinct from solely pondering the beliefs.

I appreciate that my history or views aren't archetypal. My application of this episode certainly doesn't argue that its authors intended it to be used as such—not any more than the author of The Silver Chair would've intended the comparisons I extracted from that book. I'm not claiming that "Perchance to Dream" is a unique or ideal usage of the essentially uncomplicated story idea of tempting the hero with a fantasy. At least it's a highly distilled 22 minute example, broadcast widely, on a show regarded well enough to inspire a podcast to analyze it psychologically, for instance. And it's the one that captures the topsy-turvy transition of exposing the falseness of the standpoint passed down to me.