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.