Saturday, January 28, 2017

swapping pictures

It's a bottomless source of ironic amusement that intellectual justifications for religious beliefs usually appeal most to the beliefs' current adherents. They relish hearing their cherished ideas defended and reconfirmed by multitalented communicators. And...I suppose I do too. That's probably why I took the time to read Sean Carroll's The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself and enjoyed most of it. I wish it all the popular or critical success that it can get.

With that in mind, it's no surprise that the book's major points weren't that groundbreaking or earth-shattering to me. His Big Picture is in harmony with mine. Nevertheless I appreciated Carroll's articulate and organized delivery as well as the specifics he laid out. I already knew about some of these supporting details and arguments—it's not my first exposure to these topics—but I learned some too. Obviously he can apply more physics knowledge to the Big Picture than I can, similar to how a neuroscientist can apply more neuroscience knowledge, or a philosopher can apply more philosophy.

As I see it, his model of "poetic naturalism" is consistent with my (poorly-named) "Pragmatism-ish". He proposes that there are diverse ways of conceptualizing reality. This diversity should be accepted but only on the overriding condition that each one can be mapped onto another without contradiction. Throughout these ways, ideas should be gauged with likelihoods that adjust appropriately as more samples of reality are taken. Likelihoods that aren't inherently 0 (logical impossibility) or 100% (logical certitude) shouldn't reach these extremes, yet likelihoods can and do reach values that are close to either pole.

Likewise in Pragmatism-ish, I've proposed that ideas, actions, and reality are in a triangle of relationships. Each of the three shapes/restricts/informs the other two. (I'm using the word "idea" in the most inclusive sense, so it might be a perception, concept, statement, hypothesis...) People perform the mental action of determining that if an idea A is likelier than not then idea B is likelier than not, if idea B is likelier than not then idea C is likelier than not, etc. These connections form a web (or network) of ideas. Eventually the web extends to ideas which may be termed "endpoints": ideas that should be expected to, with a particular frequency, match particular outcomes of particular actions really performed.

Once people verify these matches, or fail to, they can take the further action of judging what some of the ideas in the web mean as well as the ideas' accuracy. To probe a supposedly meaningful and accurate idea is to question how it's ultimately grounded. What is it connected to within the web, and what relevant endpoints have passed or failed fair tests? I've sometimes referred to measuring an idea's meaning by its "verified implications". A folksy version, which is so short that it's vulnerable to numerous willful misunderstandings, is that truth needs to works for a living.

Like Carroll, I would say that ideas containing an element of subjective experience can be valid as long as those ideas are kept in their correct place in the web alongside other more objective ideas. Then the limitation of subjective experiences is always evident: the experiences are events that happened in one subject's body (including their brain). The idea is still an expression of something real if it's understood to occur as a movement of the matter in that body.

Complexity is inevitable when the sifting process is conducted with the proper care and labor. There are many possible cases. Ideas with "tighter" connections to verified endpoint ideas merit more confidence than ideas with looser connections. On the flipside, ideas with no connections merit little. These freestanding ideas, which may be "freestanding" from the rest of the web because they blatantly clash with well-grounded ideas, are like when Carroll's statements in one domain don't map onto other domains. Another case is that an idea has meager meaningfulness because it connects equally well with opposite outcomes, so that in effect it's asserting nothing of consequence. Then there's the case of multiple different ideas connecting to the same endpoints, so that there's some rationale for claiming that the ideas share a meaning. Skilled translators watch for this kind of subtlety.

The abstraction of a web of ideas has a resemblance to Carroll's vivid "planets of belief". I admire his metaphor. It should be spread. The suggestion is that, within an intellectually honest curious person, compatible beliefs gravitate together to form a planet. Combining incompatible beliefs results in a tension-filled unstable planet. Outside influences can affect the planet's stability causing chain reactions and tectonic rearrangements. Under some circumstances, it can be prodded into breaking apart and reforming into a novel planet.

Some could object that Carroll ventured too far outside of his designated area, and he should've left topics beyond physics alone. My response would be that his readers should know better than to assume that he or anyone is able to cover the Big Picture comprehensively in so few pages. By necessity it's an overview or a taxonomy. Readers with greater interest will be doing their own follow-up reading anyway.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

opposing forces

Barnabas: If you don't mind, I'd like to jump now into the real purpose of my visit. I've heard about the...unusual ideas you've been spreading around.
Kyle: The Jedi Way.
B: Have you thought about how it compares to Christianity? Why does the Jedi Way make more sense to you?
K: It just does. I could argue for it using most of the arguments that you might have for Christianity's believability.
B: Doesn't it bother you that the stories behind the Jedi Way are fictional?
K: The amount of fiction in the Bible hasn't been a fatal problem for Christianity. I know there's been a ton of debate about how much of the Bible is factual or how much of it is metaphorical myths. What if the writers of the stories behind the Jedi Way were still "inspired" by the Force to insert certain ideas, even if they themselves thought they were writing fiction alone?  And neither of us were there when the events took place. Who are we to say that none of it took place, and not in any form? Maybe the stories contain some exaggerations and mistakes, but the events are told accurately, by and large.
B: Okay, then put aside whether the little details are fiction and stick to the major ideas. Lots of people have observed striking similarities to isolated elements of Taoism and Buddhism. Isn't the lack of originality suspicious?
K: No, it fits the typical pattern. Religions come about as offshoots of other religions. Each one takes cues from precedent. Do I even need to bring up Christianity's origin—
B: Look, be reasonable, the stories we're discussing are full of mystical powers. Why aren't all the believers of the Jedi Way showing these off?
K: Maybe the flashy powers were intended only for that time period. And maybe we don't have the same kind of effective belief that the people in the story did. The figures in the stories demonstrate that it's not necessary to have superhuman abilities in order to trust in the Force, be mutual allies with it, and refer to it in conversation.
B: If the Jedi Way is more true, why isn't it believed in by more people? I mean, compared to Christianity?
K: Popularity isn't an absolute proof. Worldwide, Christianity is claimed by less than half. Obviously there are countries all over the world in which the majority belief isn't Christianity. Christians must agree with me that culture and social pressure can be used to make "false" beliefs dominant.
B: Okay, but the Jedi Way group is so tiny that there isn't any official authority over it. Who decides what it is? Isn't it up to personal whim and invention?
K: It's based on the stories we already mentioned. It doesn't have an "official" authority, but Christianity doesn't have an "official" authority either. All of the traditional global religions are divided up into bits and pieces, and the bits and pieces have separate conflicting authorities. There may be one Bible, but there's constant fighting over how to interpret it, and over which parts are important.
B: Here's something: "one Bible", you said. The Bible is the Bible because of a deliberate process that canonized some documents but pronounced others to be heretical. Who decides which stories to refer to in the Jedi Way?
K: There are canon rules. I won't bore you with the details. But the point is that not every story that's ever been published is of equal rank in the canon. Some stories override others. Reconciling apparent contradictions is treated like a pastime. And again like the Bible, certain ideas within a canon story still lead to puzzles and controversy anyway. So-called "midi-chlorians"...
B: You're implying that a huge authoritative role is being played by corporations. Their primary goals are profit-seeking and self-preservation. That's unsatisfying, isn't it?
K: As a Christian, I'm guessing that you're not purely bothered by massive organizations with rich budgets. Or by the buying and selling of related merchandise. The conscious goal of an organization doesn't need to be the Jedi Way—like how I said earlier that the conscious goal of the story writers didn't need to be non-fiction. If we seriously believe that the Force is supreme, then the Force can use organizations to serve its purpose, no matter what the organization is pursuing. Christians say the same about God's usage of the actions of unbelievers. Also, to reiterate, of course no authority is able to dictate what every individual believes about the Jedi Way. Consider how often individual Christians loudly disagree with the rulings made by the supposed "hierarchies" over them.
B: Wouldn't you say that a few important subjects are overlooked, though? What is there for you to assert about ethics?
K: The ethical code preaches compassion, peace, knowledge, democracy, mediation, the greater good, wise judgment. The broad principles aren't unique to Christianity. And Christians differ about the best applications of their principles. They argue about what a "real" Christian should act like. Someone who sees their ethics as rooted in the Jedi Way is no worse off.
B: What hope would you offer to someone who's worried about their past evil actions? What does someone do to improve themselves? Why would they?
K: There's a light path and a dark path, and we have light and dark sides in us too. The dark is quicker and easier and unreflective, but the light is evident when someone looks more calmly at the big picture. The light is chosen because it's the light.
B: So I should assume no rewards in an afterlife? No afterlife whatsoever?
K: Under normal circumstances, nobody lives forever. They return to something grander than their bodies: the Force. Anyone who lives past death only does it as part of the Force itself. This shouldn't be thought of as scary. Life and the Force are bound together. It's like coming home. Personal identity is meant to end eventually.
B: That brings up something else. Isn't there a soul?
K: Yes, there are souls. There's more to the universe than crude matter. Souls are bound to the Force like life is, and souls can receive whisper-like intuitions of guidance. Some feel this more than others.
B: I'll admit that believers like you may feel something, but they're in error about what they feel.
K: No, I think you will find that it is you who are mistaken. People with various beliefs feel the existence of something colossal beyond their everyday experiences. Some are Christian, many are not, and a few are sympathetic to the Jedi Way. In any case, these feelings don't prove a single viewpoint above the rest. I could as easily say that a big gathering of Christians, working together, kindles the movement of the Force. Or that the Force may be strong in specific sacred locations.
B: Well then, focus on other personal experiences of God's power. Unexplained medical recoveries, highly suggestive coincidences, sudden rescues, surprise acts of needed charity, and on and on.
K: I don't know if you realize this, but Christians tend to be the only ones who think those occurrences are convincing enough. If we're saying that there's a hidden cause coming to our aid, why couldn't it be the Force, not the Christian God? What would you say about the times that I ask the Force for help, and then something good happens?
B: I seem to be wasting my time here. You know, in the end, doesn't your set of beliefs
K: Sitting on the other side from you, let me reply that the appearance of hokeyness depends greatly on a certain point of view.