Tuesday, February 28, 2017

surveying the chasm

Identifying with a group doesn't stop me from critiquing the attitudes and customs of some who are in "my" group. This was also the case when I identified with the religious groups of my earlier years. I despised the rampant traits of ascribing the worst motives to anyone who doesn't believe in an identical god concept, reflexively distrusting anything unfamiliar, insisting on unwavering conformity to the smallest of doctrinal trivia, and so on...and so on...

The grievance I have with a few atheists online is their pattern of communicating as if an unbridgeable chasm separates them from everyone who disagrees with them. Rather than asserting that their spirits have become holier than thou, they implicitly assert that their elevated thinking processes have, without exception, become "sounder than thou". The poor wretches on the chasm's remote side aren't like the sharp-witted people in the group. Those oafs are more or less guaranteed to suffer from confusions of all shapes and sizes. Through oppressive "faith" they're apt to adopt awful ethical principles and/or absurd statements. They might be described as objects of pity who were entangled in psychological traps during the gullibility of childhood. They do ponder about things, but they're unable to really comprehend and revise their mistakes. They don't notice self-contradictions. All expectations for them are lowered. When a low expectation is publicly met—perhaps published via a sensational, eagerly exchanged internet article—the usual arch reaction is, "No bombshell here, eh, am I right?" Commentary might feature terms like superstition, fairy tale, tooth fairy, Santa, magic, irrational, tribal, sheep, regressive, and of course hypocrite.

I recognize upfront that the unattractive tendency I purposely exaggerated isn't present in everyone who follows, tightly or loosely, my philosophies. Actually it might be mostly confined to a disproportionately loud, attention-grabbing minority. Or maybe it's more widespread but in a more moderate and tacit form. I need to watch out for when I slip into it occasionally.

Obviously it leaves a deeper impression on me because I started on the opposite side of the alleged chasm. Plus, I regularly interact with people who are "there" now. I'm motivated to mark our differences using more levels of contrast. I and a lot of other apostates know that we ourselves once appeared to live for a prolonged period on the old side even as we concealed our shifting sympathies and embryonic doubts. If there were a chasm, then aspects of us were already halfway over it, which led to us feeling like we were the odd ones.

Admittedly, there are significant numbers who haven't ever had these internal struggles to a comparable degree. Their entire selves are casually intertwined with one side. No part of them is receptive to alternatives. Staying put is as involuntary and vital as breathing. They themselves may be openly unconcerned by the prospect of chasms between them and other subcultures—they may insist on it. ("We take for granted that we're on the right track if we think and act nothing like you.") I can see how being around them often enough would entrench a chasm mindset.

Then there are the somewhat innocuous believers whose supernatural perspectives are fluid/informal, or fragmentary/unassuming, or almost totally irrelevant to their lives, or constructed by them from out of the miscellaneous sparkly bits of more complete beliefs. Each of their concrete opinions and values, evaluated purely in isolation, might bear a closer resemblance to the people who are said to be across a chasm from them, than to the radical believers whom they are said to belong with. They're strong candidates for joining together in causes in common.

Broadly speaking, I don't find it sufficient to represent a wildly varied assortment of views and people with the repugnant examples alone. I'd prefer constant acknowledgment of the challenge of making summary judgments about all the diverse paths people take to deviate from materialistic naturalism. The majority of these paths are (or derive from) the abundant products of unrestricted group-facilitated creativity, socially reinforced and embellished for generation after generation. In fact, it's difficult to validly address a solitary subcategory, Abrahamic beliefs and believers, without first imposing narrower conditions on which segments are being addressed.

I should clarify that my wish for fewer prejudicial generalizations is more about style than content. I'm not reversing my position about the other side's inaccurate notions. An error or misdeed can be called what it is. And although I'm maintaining that not all of my dissimilarities from all of that side's occupants are wide as chasms...I'd say an important gap does set the sides apart. In my reckoning, two attributes pinpoint the definitive disparity between Us and Them.

The first attribute is wary but expansive curiosity. This species of curiosity reaches out to a sweeping extent of well-grounded information. It's the willingness and hunger to draw from any source that has clear-cut credence. It's not unfiltered absorption of baseless speculation or hearsay. It's considering unlikable information without immediately rejecting it and considering likable information without immediately pronouncing it legitimate.

The second attribute is conscientious introspective honesty. This species of honesty is shown by persistently weighing the worthiness of personal thoughts, especially when the thought is dearly held. Honesty, e.g. not looking away, is essential twice: honestly examining thoughts below the superficial layers, then honestly grappling with the authentic evaluation. Depending on the person and the circumstances, they may not heed this attribute's tough demands until they're presented with the chance multiple times.

The details make the difference. I'm not proposing that curiosity and honesty are foreign to Them, only these precise forms. Or, as it was with me in the past, these forms could be operating in deceptively restrained states. In Them, expansive curiosity is prevented from being too expansive. Honest introspection is conscientiously carried out but not too conscientiously. Boundaries surround the safe territory. Some commonplace questions have whole sets of rote replies. They serve as tolerable escape valves for the inner tensions caused by nagging doubts. But unanticipated questions that cut too deeply are taboo—and some radical replies to the permitted questions are taboo.

Labeling such people on the side of Them isn't a shocking consequence of a rule that strictly ties the gap-not-chasm to the two attributes. But I'm fully aware that it relabels another group entirely: people who may agree with a great deal. The gap that's more meaningful to me is how conclusions are obtained, not on the conclusions. Concurring with me on selected subjects isn't quite enough evidence that we think alike.

It can't be assumed that the two decisive attributes are appreciated by someone who by chance has never been steered toward supernatural stances, or was actively steered away by the pressure of their in-groups. Their distaste for particular ideas may be as externally guided ("cultural") as my bygone loyalties to the exact same ideas. Or maybe they were pleased to drop the ideas because their disposition is inclined to be contrarian, nontraditional, or rebellious. Or maybe they were driven out by uncaring treatment and senseless prohibitions. These reasons and personal journeys aren't automatic disqualifications; if they still have the attributes I'm looking for then they're fine in my outlook. If not...they probably have my support anyway, but my ability to relate to them will be reduced.

Additionally, whenever people have followed unsystematic routes to proper conclusions, the chances are higher that they'll follow those routes to improper conclusions regarding other topics. Experience shows people's surprising ingenuity at harmonizing a "right" answer with plenty of "wrong" answers: examples abound in political discussions. To be correct about ____ isn't to gain universal immunity from error. As I've read again and again, if every religion vanished then people would fill the vacuum with poorly grounded beliefs of other kinds such as conspiracy theories and pseudo-medicines. Every day, lots of nonreligious people unfortunately fulfill this trite rule of thumb. (It deserves reiterating that this predicament isn't an excuse to decrease skeptical criticism of many types of religion. The excellent reason why these targets have been more frequently hit is that these beliefs have been more methodically spread, embedded, handed excessive power, and involved in one way or another with awful dehumanizing ethics.)

Yet the potential shades of gray don't stop here either. Time can be a factor. Attributes aren't necessarily permanent but are demonstrated anew by the ongoing project of reapplying them. They could wax and wane. Or they could be impaired by individualized blind spots. Someone can unintentionally fail to engage their curiosity as much as they could have or honestly pay as close attention to the underpinnings of their thoughts as they could have. The lesson is that sometimes there barely is a gap at all between the quality of justifications employed by Us and Them...much less a chasm between people whose brain functions have and haven't "ascended" to a superior enlightened plane. We remain Homo sapiens aspiring to possess the most accurate ideas we can find.

Monday, February 13, 2017

android deluge

Months ago I recalled an obscure catalyst of my gradual de-conversion: wrestling with the arguments of the "emerging church". But I recall another one too that isn't usually featured in de-conversion stories. My hazy thinking was prodded forward by a deluge of androids. I'm referring to machines intended to exhibit a gamut of person-like characteristics, from appearance to creativity to desire. At the time in 2008, the specific instances with the greatest prominence to me were in Battlestar Galactica (2004) and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. These two aren't uniquely important—obviously so, given that they were revivals of decades-old creations. The deluge of androids started in fiction long before these two. And it certainly has continued since, across a variety of media. By my estimate it's not lessening in strength...

It hardly needs saying that I'm not claiming that imaginary android characters proved or disproved anything. The critical factor they contributed was to broaden and direct imagination. They implicitly and explicitly highlighted the standard philosophical thought-experiments. "If an android were sufficiently advanced in its duplication of human thought and behavior, would its 'mind' be like ours? If not, why not? Is there a coherent reason why it becoming sufficiently advanced is impossible?" Some of these questions have been connected to "zombies" instead of androids, but the gist is the same.

As the unreal androids kept nagging me with the questions, my reading was providing me with corresponding answers. I was busy digesting two well-grounded premises, each of which are routinely confirmed. First, the elemental ingredients of humans are no different from the elemental ingredients of non-human stuff. The human form's distinctiveness arises from intricate combinations of the ingredients at coarser levels and from the activity those combinations engage in. Second, like I said in the preceding blog entry, information is encoded in discrete arrangements of matter (and/or energy flows). Ergo the details of the matter used in the arrangement aren't relevant except for obligatory requirements on its consistency and persistence. Information is perpetually copied/translated/transformed from one arrangement of matter to another. DNA molecules house information without having consciousness. The ramification of fusing the two premises is that because hypothetical androids are made of matter like people are, they're capable of manipulating information like people. This doesn't imply that it'll be easy to construct androids that encode information with comparable subtlety.

To admit this much is to invite the next epiphany. The perspective is reversible. If they're enough like us, then we're like them. Presuming that androids' intellects can function as artificial variations of people's intellects, couldn't someone with a twisted mentality—a sufficiently advanced android maybe—regard people as the original biological templates for androids? Calling the suggestion dehumanizing misses the point. Being a "conscious machine" all along, constructed from cells in place of gizmos, doesn't subtract from our subjective experience one bit. The experience of freedom is accessible to self-virtualizing robots.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


Last time, inspired by Sean Carroll's big picture look at philosophy, I repeated the big picture which I've expressed here before. As described by information theory, ideas in the loosest sense are symbolic arrangements of matter and energy flows. Brain matter has evolved accordingly to act as a flexible channel for the reception, assembly, modification, and storage of ideas.

Countless energy-consuming actions in the brain link ideas together. The links enable the ideas to be "hints" for one another. I'm not the first to suggest the analogy of a crossword puzzle. Each's answer's written clues might be vague, but the intersections of the words are crucial clues too. A strongly certain answer reinforces (or negates) the correctness of the answers that reuse its squares. The importance of context shouldn't be underestimated.

Through these linking actions, people will inevitably identify some linked ideas, endpoints, which should be relevant in some way to external actions. By "external" I merely mean that the actions don't happen solely inside the brain. The absorption of information via eyes and ears would be enough to qualify. Actions lead to outcomes, and outcomes are deeply affected by realities. Afterward, people can judge the level of agreement between the outcomes and the endpoints. But this isn't the whole effect. Based on the already mentioned links, their revised judgments of the endpoints' accuracy should revise their judgments of the linked ideas' accuracy. Ideas, actions, and outcomes are shaped by a triangle of mutual relationships.

I recognize that this big picture will provoke complaints. It grants a disappointingly mundane status to ideas and then it pairs this demotion with a sizable role for error-prone people. Wouldn't it be preferable if ideas were said to be unchanging and independent? That way, at least a few ideas exist "out there" by themselves, apart from relying on squishy, messy humans. This alternative is to insist that ideas are sturdy things

My view is that the sturdy-thing notion of ideas does have a diminished counterpart...but only through accepting a subtle redefinition. Instead of an idea having a quality of sturdiness, it can be evaluated by the number and intensity of the convergences it's involved in with other ideas. When a swarm of small easily-checked endpoint ideas have been tested as highly accurate (facts), and all these align well with a single general idea, it's like these ideas are converging on the single idea. The single idea represents a valuable summary, trend, or explanation. Brain actions such as deduction might produce convergences as well: if several axioms and proofs yield a single idea, then it's a valuable theorem. The ultimate result, after tallying an idea's convergences, is to situate it on a relative continuum. A hub idea involved in a multitude of convergences of various kinds is precious. But an isolated idea that's diverged from is suspect. 

Unfortunately, raw convergence isn't irrefutable. It carries its own inherent risk: it isn't necessarily universal. Its scope is possibly limited, even when it's quite dominant for ideas in its scope. Survey responses gathered in Connecticut could converge to an idea, but it might differ nonetheless from the idea that survey responses gathered in British Columbia converge to. Paying close attention to scope is just a price of replacing sturdy-thing ideas with convergent ideas.

But before fixating on the perceived inadequacies of ranking ideas by convergence, my advice is to methodically take an inventory of what it gives up by comparison. An idea that has been converged to many times, in many ways, is an idea that is very likely to be converged on once more. So it's probably beneficial for planning on the outcome of future actions. An idea that hasn't contradicted high-quality ideas is an idea that is very likely to not flatly contradict additional high-quality ideas. So it's probably beneficial as a lens for comprehending proposed ideas. An idea that has succinctly captured the pertinent similarities in a series of repetitive events is an idea that is very likely to echo the pertinent similarities in upcoming events in the series. So it's probably beneficial as a prediction or model of hypothetical events in its scope.

I'd say that the list of drawbacks is looking insignificant. For most purposes, a heavily convergent idea and a sturdy-thing idea are alike. The reason is that convergence is part of the original concept of a sturdy-thing idea in practice. On the assumption that an idea itself is a sturdy thing, then ideas/actions/outcomes would be expected to converge on it. The difference is whether convergence is interpreted as secondary to the idea or interpreted as defining its actual extent. Particular actions can't distinguish between the two interpretations. Perhaps the situation is reminiscent of a (positive) bank account balance. The account's owner can take the action of withdrawing currency from the bank account no matter what the account "really" consists of. For withdrawals the bank account is like a stack of currency in a locked drawer—although the equivalency doesn't work at a failing bank.

The prospect of agreeing to humble ideas could spur the forgivable question, "If not ideas, then what is considered sturdy?" And the answer is lots and lots of real stuff. The milk in my refrigerator is a sturdy thing. My idea that the milk has soured isn't. This idea is linked to the endpoint idea that in the near future I open the milk container, hold it close to my nostrils, inhale deeply, and experience a sensation of odor. The idea of the sour milk is linked to more endpoint ideas such as requesting that someone else sniff so I can watch their reactions. Depending on the outcomes of these endpoints, the idea of the sour milk might be a convergent idea or not. The milk's reality is gratifyingly sturdy. It affects the amount of convergence which my ideas about it have. The same may be asserted about a more "existential" idea about the milk: is it still in the refrigerator, or did some obnoxious household member empty it without telling me? My ideas about the milk, presently occurring in my brain, don't dictate whether the milk is now elsewhere. The actions I take won't imply that I'm finding the idea that the milk is elsewhere but that I'm thinking the ideas associated with realizing that I'm not finding the milk.

If ideas regarding soured milk seem far too frivolous, Sean Carroll's writing contains a fitting candidate which is definitely not. His "Core Theory" is an immensely convergent collection of ideas. Moreover, as he painstakingly explains, its confirmed scope is immensely broad. People's typical lives are within it. In effect researchers and engineers are rechecking it repeatedly as they act. It's not a sturdy thing...but nonetheless we're metaphorically leaning on it all the time.