Friday, June 23, 2017

environmental contamination

When people discard their beliefs about the supernatural, they pose a troubling but inescapable question to those they left behind: why? What prompts someone to alter their allegiances so drastically, after ingesting the One Truth for years and years? They opt to comfort themselves with a medley of convenient explanations. For instance, similar to their obsessions with "purity" in other domains, they can suggest that the apostate's thinking was contaminated. Wicked lies must have poisoned their beliefs, which were originally perfect and intact. If the crafty sabotage had been resisted, the beliefs would've been preserved indefinitely.

In rigid situations, this suggestion really could succeed. Like an impermeable museum display box enclosing an ancient artifact, total isolation does prevent or slow changes to hardened opinions. This is exactly why stricter groups tightly restrict their members' access to outside information in full or in part. The separation is sometimes enforced through an explicit set of rules, sometimes through the social pressure of the group's treatment of the offender.

The obvious weakness with this practice is that it must be extreme, or else contamination will creep in somehow at some time. If the follower is determined to circumvent the barriers, and they're not under constant surveillance and confinement, it will probably fail sooner or later. But if the follower opts for the opposite reaction of internalizing the barriers, the risk of "contamination" drops to near nil. They resolve to act as their own sentinel, eagerly watching out for and squashing potential threats to the beliefs they follow.

When I was younger, I was more like the willing participant than the rebel. I didn't want to consume media that was openly antagonistic to the core beliefs I had. I knew such media would've upset me, so it didn't feel like an appealing use of my time. And in that period I categorized myself as an unshakable follower; I wasn't especially worried about wading into unending philosophical wars. I hadn't dissected my assumptions enough yet. The most potent issue of all, the problem of evil, wasn't urgent to me yet because, er, things in my surrounding egocentric awareness were largely pleasant.

Surprisingly (...or not...), the contamination of my thoughts happened anyway. I didn't need to search far and long for alternatives. As it turned out, these were lurking in my environment. Standard biological evolution is one example of a subject that I eventually stumbled on without trying. I didn't bother to read a lot about it or biology or creationism or Earth's age. The religious groups I was in didn't heavily emphasize the importance of rejecting it, although some individuals, such as the parents who home-schooled, did enthusiastically inject it into discussions. I thought of it as "controversial" among believers—like disagreeing about Bible editions—so perhaps I was cynical that a closer look would give me a firm, worthwhile answer.

My neutrality shifted in high school after someone lent me their copy of the slyly written Darwin's Black Box. It presented "intelligent design" through a breezy mixture of easy-to-read prose, arguments built on commonplace analogies like mousetraps, and technicalities drawn from biochemistry. It provided lengthy chemical names. But like a "For Dummies" book, the major points didn't require deep understanding. In comparison with past creationist works, its official position was "moderate": its single-minded focus was on the alleged infeasibility of gradually evolving microscopic cellular systems, rather than on completely refuting all evolution. Moreover, it underlined its attempt at moderation by conspicuously declining to offer a name for the off-stage Designing Intelligence. No quotations from sacred texts were included. It didn't ask for agreement with dogma. Like typical science books sold to the wide market, it was hopefully aimed at anyone with a casual interest. Sections nearer to the end spelled out the ostensible goal, which wasn't to justify a belief in the author's preferred god. It was to achieve the status of legitimate counterbalancing science. 

After I returned the book, I mostly didn't think about it. I did note that neither it nor its intelligent design ideology were in major news outlets or publications, except in quotes by public figures such as George W. Bush. Biology certainly hadn't been triumphantly upended. In a few years I had perpetual access to broadband internet at college, so one lazy day I remembered it and performed a spontaneous internet search. I discovered that the reasoning of Darwin's Black Box had been speedily dismantled right when it came out. Its list of biochemical challenges was countered by plausible evolutionary pathways. After observing its low reputation in the eyes of the majority of specialists, my previous naive trust in it sank. Of course, if I hadn't read it, maybe I wouldn't have been motivated to browse evolution-favoring websites in the first place.

This wasn't the last time that the one-sided clash of evolution and intelligent design sprang from my environment into my thoughts. Kitzmiller v. Dover came along. It was a trial about inserting references to intelligent design into the curriculum of public school science classes. The author of Darwin's Black Box was one of the witnesses. His ridiculed answers were disastrous for his cause. Although a courtroom isn't the appropriate setting for scientific judgments, the verdict was unequivocal and impressive. Intelligent design wasn't suitable for science class in public school. My vaguely noncommittal attitude turned strongly in favor of evolution. To repeat, I already knew there were believes like I who admitted evolution's accuracy, so this adjustment didn't push me to reconsider everything.

Anyway, biology and geology weren't my usual subjects when I was at the library or the bookstore. I was intrigued by physics and psychology. Nevertheless, these areas transmitted contaminants too. I was nonchalantly skipping books about atheism, but I was reading books that relayed information in the absence of religious slants or premises. I learned that up-to-date physics was amazingly engaging, extensive, and confirmed. But unlike religion, its various findings didn't support the story that anything related to humans, or specifically human-like, was central to the "purpose" or the functioning of the cosmos. In big scales and small, human concerns and abilities weren't essential. Despite their supreme cleverness, they were one species on one planet. Fundamentally they were derivative. They were built out of atomic ingredients and dependent on numerous strategies to redirect entropy for a while.

I absorbed the implicit style of mostly leaving ghostly stuff out of normal physics phenomena. I just assumed that the divine and demonic realms existed apart and parallel in some undetectable, undefined way. The realms' understated interventions on the mundane plane were generally compatible with physics—recovering from an infection or obtaining a new job—except on rare occasions such as starting the universe or resurrecting. In short, the arrangement I settled on was a popular one: more physics-plus than anti-physics. My thoughts were contaminated by an acknowledgment of physics' effectiveness at comprehending things. The symptom of this contamination was that by default I inferred particles and forces at work everywhere, not spirits.

As for psychology, religion's role was more prominent. The trouble was that its role was so frequently described as harmful. It could be tied in with a patient's delusions of paranoia or megalomania, or lead to anxious guilt, or shortsightedly stifle the real root causes of distress. Some thinkers labeled it a sophisticated manifestation infantile coping mechanism. I took some offense at that, though I did take the hint to ensure my beliefs about the supernatural weren't reducible to direct gratification of my emotional needs.

One memory that's grown funnier to me is my head-spinning encounter with the book that grabbed me with its overwrought title, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It explained the Bible as reports of ancient auditory hallucinations. I wasn't nearly ready to take its argument seriously, so its raw effect on me was more emotional in nature than intellectual. I was engulfed in the initial shock that this kind of bold speculation dared to exist. It was inviting me to demote the Bible to a mythological text and the voice of God to a trick of the brain. I hadn't faced these irreverent options so bluntly before. It was like an "out-of-belief experience", temporarily floating out and above the ideas and looking down at them like any collection of cultural artifacts. My faith stayed where it was, but I didn't forget the dizzying sensation of questioning all of it.

I don't want to give the wrong impression about packing my leisure time with education. I read lots of fiction too. Yet it wasn't an environment free from contamination either. When I looked up more of the works by two authors of fiction I'd enjoyed, Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams, I collided with more atheists again. I read Asimov's "The Reagan Doctrine" online. It was short, but it was so self-possessed and methodical in the facts it applied to break apart the false equivalence of religiosity and moral trustworthiness.

After Adams' death, I bought The Salmon of Doubt without skimming through it. I was anticipating the unfinished Dirk Gently portion. I hadn't known what else was in it. It contained a number of Adams' non-fiction essays and interviews, and several of these featured his strikingly unapologetic atheism. For example, he created the metaphor of an ignorant puddle declaring that its perfectly fitting hole must have been created for itself. I hadn't purchased a book centered around atheism, but nonetheless I had purchased a book with passages that were cheerily atheistic. In the environment of fiction I'd been contaminated by the the realization that there were people who were convinced that I'd been gravely misled all my life...and who had written stuff I liked...and who seemed good-humored and reasonable. They weren't any more detestable or foolish than us followers.

This realization didn't spin me around 180 degrees. Nothing ever did. My reversal was the result of a fitful sequence of little (20-degree?) turns. However, there were a few sources of contamination that immediately preceded my breakthrough: artificial intelligence, information theory, and cognitive science. Like the rest of the contaminants, these didn't develop overnight but started out as innocent-looking seeds. The earliest crucial one was Jeremy Campbell's The Improbable Machine. I was a teen when I picked up this book on impulse (the store had steeply cut its price). It was a wide-ranging exploration of the theme of connectionism: artificial intelligence by mimicry of the brain's evolved layout of legions of tiny interconnected units acting cooperatively. According to it, the opposite extreme was the route of translating all the brain's abilities into orderly chains of logic.

Before, I'd been accustomed to assigning artificial intelligence to the narrow project of constructing bigger and bigger logic machines—the fragile sort that Captain Kirk could drive insane with a handful of contradictory statements. Campbell's thesis was that connectionism was a promising model for the brain's more soulful traditional powers: intuitive leaps, creativity, perception, interpretation of ambiguous language, etc. I was accidentally contaminated by the faint suspicion that souls, i.e. nonphysical spirits/minds, weren't strictly necessary for doing whatever the brain does. I began to imagine that the puzzle was only difficult and complex, not doomed to failure by mind-matter dualism. Tracing the brain's powers to its very structure had the long-term side-effect of casting doubt on blaming something inhabiting the structure.

A decade later, I returned to these topics. My career in software was underway. I regularly visited blogs by other software developers. The recommendation to try Gödel, Escher, Bach showed up more than once. I ignored it for a long time because of my preconceptions. When I finally gave it a chance, Hofstadter's compelling effort stirred my curiosity. I moved on to devouring more of his, and I also checked for more of Campbell's. This time I sped through Grammatical Man, which ignited a prolonged fascination with information theory. I consumed more on this subject. And I paired it with cognitive science, because I wanted to know more about the brain's dazzling usage of information. Amazon's automatic recommendations were helpful. Some books probing consciousness concentrated more on anatomy and some more on philosophical dilemmas. My first Daniel Dennett buy wasn't Breaking The Spell, it was Consciousness Explained.

The accelerating consequences were unstoppable. My desire had been to read about how people think, but the details were often contaminated with well-constructed criticisms of the whole principle of the soul. I'd once been confident that the mystery of inner experiences was invincible. It was a gap that my faith could keep occupying even when all else could be accommodated by nonreligious accounts. Instead, this gap was filled in by the increasingly likely possibility that inner experiences were essentially brain actions.

For me, the scales were tipped. The debate was decided. All the signs of an immaterial layer of reality had been exposed as either absent, illogical, fraudulent or illusory, or at best ambiguously unconvincing. I recognized that I could continue believing...but if I did it would be with the shortcoming that the unsatisfying "truth" of the beliefs exerted no distinguishable difference on reality. If I'd then been familiar with Carl Sagan, I could've compared the beliefs' contents to his famous illustration of an invisible, silent, incorporeal dragon in the garage.

I made a slow, deliberate choice between two sides. Contrary to the contamination excuse, interfering outsiders weren't responsible for misleading me. I wasn't playing with fire, either intentionally or not. I didn't hastily abandon my beliefs as soon as I became aware of another stance. I wasn't an impressionable simpleton who thoughtlessly trusted the internet. Enlarging my knowledge didn't forcibly corrupt or "turn" me. The hazard was never in merely seeing the other side. It was in paying close attention to what each side used to validate itself. The pivotal contamination was learning that the other side pointed to data, mathematics, self-consistency, appreciation of common flaws in human cognition, and prudent restraint before relying on unverified beliefs. But as for the side I'd been taught...

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