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 fa├žade 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...