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Bubbles and Reality August 18, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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forever_blowing_bubbles_by_nac_nud-d4antnuPicture a child blowing bubbles, those glistening balls of air floating on the breeze, dancing, colliding, bursting, and perhaps a few being carried up and away until it leaves our vision. These generally spherical objects, puffs of air derived from within us, are compelling aesthetically, scientifically (because surface tension is a thing), and perhaps philosophically.

We use the concept of a bubble in a few ways. We use them as a metaphor for things like our social and/or cultural circle. In economics, it’s a metaphor for a period of growth which is artificially inflated, and thus will burst at some point leading to price crashes (like in 2007-2009, with the housing market crashed). In cosmology and theoretical physics, some use the analogy of a bubble to explain the topology of the universe.

In short, we like bubbles and use them as imagery for all sorts of things (including everything, it seems).

But, let’s get back to actual bubbles for a second. Essentially, a bubble is a segment of the environment we live within (an atmosphere of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other constituent parts of the “air,”) separated from the rest of the atmosphere by a thin layer of liquid. Usually soap if we are “blowing bubbles.” There is no fundamental difference, generally, between what is inside and outside the bubble, it’s just that there is a barrier which is permeable, breakable, flexible. And yet it persists and separates what is within from the rest of the world. It is the barrier which defines the bubble, not its contents.

A bubble is a shape of reality, separated by a thin film which creates a temporary definition and shape isolated from the rest of the environment. It’s sort of like our worldviews. Our conclusions, opinions, and our very being, and our community all exist, metaphorically, like a bubble to the environment of humanity. Those opinions are made up of the same stuff as other people’s opinions, just shaped, prioritized, and arranged differently. Once again, it’s the barrier, the structure, and the perspective which separates one worldview from another, not the constituent parts.

living-in-a-bubbleWe all are made of the same stuff. We have brains, organs, and bodies which have some basic similarities. We float about in our human environment, and our perceptions, experiences, emotions, and cognitive abilities are a permeable barrier which defines what is within us and what is not. And if you have ever gone through enough trauma, significant change, or have simply changed your mind in some significant way, then you might understand what it means to have your bubble “burst.”

But, perhaps similarly, if you have ever found yourself faced with something difficult to comprehend, tolerate, or believe, then you know what it’s like to have that surface tension hold.

And, unfortunately, the truth is not the criteria by which that surface tension holds or bursts. More often than not, it is our comfort, our emotional experience, which is the arbiter of this tension. Because in many cases, that surface tension holds in lies, holds back the truth, and sometimes that bubble is as much a hindrance towards understanding as it is a defense against harm, lies, and manipulation.

We love our own bubbles, and sometimes when we form that new bubble we shape it in comfortable ways. Sometimes it seems as if we were to allow our bubble to burst, we would cease to be. But this is an illusion. Our subjectivity, our pride, our fear, and our little bubbles of reality–our very identity–are made of the same stuff as what’s outside of it, and we might be better, more often than not, of simply bursting that bubble ourselves, from time to time.

We might be better questioning the wisdom of holding onto our identity, our voices, and our limits too tightly.

If you don’t believe me, then consider this; if you have ever seen someone you distrust, dislike, or disagree with in their ridiculous bubble, remember that you aren’t immune to the same psychological bubble maker in your own mind, and you are very likely doing the exact same thing they are doing.  You are comfortable in your bubble just like they are.

Your insistence that you are right, you are better, and that you are different from them might be a complete lie created through the refraction of that liquid barrier between you and the world. That barrier, its tension holding together your very identity, acts like a lens to bias everything you see, and it might be better to break that lens now and then, insofar as you can, than to continually take pride in it because it is yours. That is the seed of narcissism and self-absorption.

We all are comfortable in the little lies we tell ourselves in order to make ourselves comfortable.

All of us. Without exception. Yes, even you, dear reader. And yes, even me.

Don’t let your pride and comfort keep you separate from reality. Burst your god damned bubble already.

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The Yellow Pill: fan-fictioning reality June 12, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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pills2A little over a week ago, I ran into this wonderful piece of writing on the interwebs that starts with this image (on the right), and then transforms into an interesting piece of science fiction writing.

I suggest you read through it. I think it’s good, despite it’s somewhat theistic leanings (it’s fantasy, after all; fantasy can have all sorts of impossible beings to make interesting stories). But something within this piece has stuck with me, because it resonates so well with my experience.

This is from the beginning of the story, describing what happens if you choose the “yellow pill” (emphasis mine):

People’s minds are heartbreaking. Not because people are so bad, but because they’re so good.

Nobody is the villain of their own life story. You must have read hundreds of minds by now, and it’s true. Everybody thinks of themselves as an honest guy or gal just trying to get by, constantly under assault by circumstances and The System and hundreds and hundreds of assholes. They don’t just sort of believe this. They really believe it. You almost believe it yourself, when you’re deep into a reading. You can very clearly see the structure of evidence they’ve built up to support their narrative, and even though it looks silly to you, you can see why they will never escape it from the inside. You can see how every insult, every failure, no matter how deserved, is a totally unexpected kick in the gut.

This has been ringing in my head for over a week now. No, it’s been ringing in my head for at least a year, but this put succinctly an idea I’ve been wrestling with for quite a while, especially recently.

It has been ringing in my head because I can see this, clearly, in every direction. And it’s bothering me because it rings an unpleasant chord within me. This image of the yellow pill messes with the nature of reality in subtle and terrifying ways. If you consider that your worldview is nothing but a set of mini-corrections of memory, interpretations, and bias-shifts of thousands upon thousands of moments, experiences, and interactions, it might turn out that your entire reality is a fiction where you are composing yourself to be the hero.

And if everyone sees themselves as the hero, at least the vast majority of them are wrong. More importantly, it might mean that your most cherished and emotionally powerful beliefs might be incorrect. And since you act based upon your beliefs….

You get the gist.

If you are not careful, you might shift from making yourself matter to making yourself matter at the expense of others. Because you don’t actually need to be a narcissistictic asshole, sociopath, or douchemuffin to do this; everyone does it. It is the nature of our minds to do this. and if you don’t think you are doing it, then you are probably doing it more than others.

We all are carrying slightly (or, perhaps, not-so-slightly) modified versions of reality with us, all the while interacting with people to swap those versions of reality to make social groups, cultures, etc. It’s like reality is some show we all watch, and we all write fan fiction of it in our heads. Our friends are the ones whose fan fiction is more like ours, or which at least fits into the same universe coherently. Those who are either simply distant or recognized enemies are writing fan fiction that conflicts with ours too much to coexist. But in their fan fiction, they are the heroes as much as we are in ours.

Who is right? Are you going to use your narrative to determine this? It’s like a question I sometimes ask Christians; if you read the Bible, how do you know whether God or Satan is the good character? No, seriously, how do you know? If you don’t have the cultural context of Christian history and culture, would it be obvious? I don’t think it would be.

truthIn our heads, we think of ourselves as good,. Therefore, how we remember, interpret, and react to events to which we find ourselves subject will prop us up as the good character in the story. Nobody, except insofar as we are self-deprecating, writes ourselves as the anti-hero. And even if we are self-deprecating at times, in the larger narrative we see ourselves as the brave hero who circumvents, transcends, and rises above these moments of self-deprecation and challenge.

It rises like the three-edged sword of perspective; with the sun gleaming off of it, directly into one’s eye, blinding all who wield it.

I have certainly observed my own mind doing just this.  In some of my private journal writing and therapy, I have experimented with articulating my own experiences in ways that is full of hurt, anger, and both blame and personal responsibility. In venting, I was allowing the emotions which were causing me strife to compose a story based in that pain. Such compositions of emotion, while compelling, are at bottom biased and subjective. What’s more, I noticed that at other, later, times when I tried to create a more nuanced and rational articulation, the narrative derived from emotion somehow seeped in, tainting the truth. We scoot towards the comfortable end of the interpretation couch, and thus couch our descriptions accordingly.

When we make decisions from a place of emotion and subjective narration, we are opening ourselves up to lying to ourselves for the sake of comfort and self-image, and thus (ultimately) to everyone else. What’s worse, is that because emotion is the basis for all motivation and reasoning, we can rationalize, quite easily, that we made a rational decision when we have done nothing of the sort. I do this. I recognize it. What bothers me is when I see other people doing it all the while being overtly defensive about where they are sitting on their couch. Pointing out, to them, that they are sitting on the dog will usually be met with anything except recognition of that fact.

Further, when our friends act to make us feel better about ourselves, they become pulled into the narrative through the compelling nature of that emotion. Our mirror neurons fire, we empathize, and we feel their pain and the nuance and skeptical parts of us get ignored. And slowly, ever so slowly, what actually happened gets lost among those closest to us, and we develop a nice, comfortable echo-chamber for our stories. The longer this happens, the harder it is to leave the bubble that you create for yourself to see anything except your own fan fiction. Eventually, you might start to believe that your fan fiction is the original story. And this is disappointing to me in a deep way which makes me profoundly sad.

What’s the solution?

I don’t know. I want to say that we can talk, allow ourselves to hear the things which are painful to hear, but I just don’t believe that’s possible in the vast majority of cases. Unless we are willing to consider that our whole worldview, everything we think about a subject, a person, or even ourselves might be completely wrong, there is no solution here. Because unless you have the courage to consider that those really deep, profound, big feelings that you have are lying to you and leading you astray, there’s no escaping that bubble.

And this is because we have, in our culture right now, this myth that our own story, our own voice, and our own feelings are of some primary importance above that of other things. Our own personal journey is held up not as a tool for gaining perspective, but for gaining Truth. And while such personal struggles towards finding what we believe and feel may give us a sense of empowerment, it does not necessarily bring us truth. Because whether it is someone else or ourselves which dictates the narrative, we live in a dictatorship.

You do not have your own truth. Believing such a thing traps us in a narrow window of belief in which we might insist upon sticking to our guns rather than hear what another might have to say from their own foxhole. There is a risk in “finding our own voice,” because it often leads to an unwarranted confidence in our conclusions. The personal achievement of discovering something you believe and feel strongly about may feel empowering, but that empowerment is often a mirage.  Freeing ourselves from the power of others, for example, feels relatively powerful. But that’s exactly how that controlling person felt the entire time they controlled you. Again, a dictatorship is a dictatorship, whether its you in control or someone else. No sense in organizing a coup just to make yourself the dictator. I guarantee that as soon as you do, someone else will start planning the next coup.

It does not matter if you are only a dictator of yourself, because so long as you define the truth through your own subjectivity, you will inevitably impose your truth onto others, whether you wish to or not.

Strength of character does not come from finding our own voice. In fact, it’s impossible not to find our own voice. Every thought, feeling, or action is our own voice, whether it speaks in our interest or not. What our culture calls finding our own voice really is the willingness to accept your own narrative as a signpost towards TheTruth. This seems, to me, to be nothing more than self-absorption, obliviousness, and possibly narcissism. It is, in short, a idolatry of the self and our limitations of perspective. I want no part of it.

Strength of character comes from the willingness to silence your voice for a moment and allow your ears to function for a while. Because while your voice is talking, you’re not listening. And if that voice is singing in your head while you are listening, then you are not having a conversation at all, but merely posturing.

I’m going to fight the voice in my head that tells me I’m right, which refuses to hear what does not fit in my narrative, and that composes rather than listens.

Being hurt by others is no excuse to be self-absorbed and deaf. It will not offer protection nor wisdom.

—-

For similar thoughts, see these posts:

Truth or Happiness

Objective Judgment

Waits, measures, and standards April 22, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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ProtagorasWho are we to judge? Well, without us (or some other sentient species) the concept would be meaningless, right? Humanity is the source of all meaning (being that there are no gods and the universe is not conscious), and thus the only source for any judgment, criticism, or any analysis at all about anything, right?

So what of Protagoras’ statement on the right? Are we, as people, the measure of all things? Perhaps. But allow me to draw out two possible interpretive directions which we could go with this to tease out a potential problem here.

On one hand, this could be interpreted to mean that human individuals are the arbiter of measurement. On the other hand, we could take this to mean that the collective set of humanity is the scale of this measurement. This, of course, brings about all sorts of potential problems, because the first leads to a kind of solipsism or egoism in terms of our making sense of things, and the other opens up the many problems involved in communication, understanding, and all the related sociological and cultural issues related to agreement and disagreement.

And from either, chaos only can ensue.

Individual power and Groupthink

In some sense, I create my own meaning and value.* But I only can do so for my own life. If I were to try and spread this meaning any further, at best I could only make connections with people of similar perspectives (whether due to physiological similarity, common experiences, or some combination of both) or manipulate or control people (who have less strong senses of self worth, perhaps) towards opinions and behaviors which are in my own interest. The first is simply accident, the second is potentially abusive and toxic.

Strong, intelligent, and/or charismatic personalities have been finding those connections and leading people towards their values for as long as humans have been able to communicate concepts, very likely. The results of this type of human interaction over the millennia are every aspect of culture which we see; concepts, languages, religions, tribes, families, cults, etc. But there are many such people, with varying degrees of ability, intellect, and desire to control. Most of them will have little to no actual control.

And do not get me wrong, I’m not describing evil, sociopathic, power-hungry people solely. In fact, there are many people who have done many helpful and non-harmful things with their ability to control. This ability, itself, is neutral. It is merely a power set which has one type of effect on groups. We must distinguish between the ability to control and inspire people and the message being disseminated. Of course, certain types of messages will spread easier than others, and whether all of those viral ideas are bad or good are well beyond my ability to judge with any authority; I simply don’t have the data to support any hypothesis on the matter.

The bottom line here is that if I were to attempt to impose my own values onto the greater world, at best I could lead or join a group of people with similar ideas. At worst I could find people who would be willing to obediently submit to my ideas for reasons related to lack of self-worth, co-dependency, or simple apathy. In most cases, people end up in some space between those two, and the larger sociological and cultural effect is groups of people who stick with their own. In-group and out-group effects take shape, and the next thing you know is you have would-be autocrats and groups thinking similarly.

And not all of them will get along. It’s pretty universal, sociologically speaking.

Standards

So, what are the standards? Are they those of my heroes? My tribe? Are they mine? Are they the standards of my group? Probably one of those. But are they my standards because they are right, or are they right because they are my standards? And how much does the tribalistic and Groupthinky tendencies of all of us affect what standards I’ll think of as right? After all, I likely either chose my group because of our similar values, had my values shaped by someone else who was able to influence me, or influenced others towards my values to create a group of like-minded individuals.

At some point in the past, I would have written some nice-sounding composition about how the scientific method, logic, and critical thinking would step in here to be the arbiter.  And, to some extent I believe this still; whatever method eliminates, best, personal bias and errors is extremely useful in determining what the truth is. But this is a naive and, I believe, short-sighted solution to the problem. It sounds nice, it’s technically true, but the simple fact is that it does not actually cut through all the noise.

It’s impotent against our tendencies to get stuck within our webs, whether those webs are of our own making, our hero’s making, or if we worked together on it as relative equals.

Patience

So, perhaps I should not be talking about patience. I, as those close to me know, struggle with patience. It is, in many ways, the point at which I am weakest. But, perhaps because of this, I have a somewhat privileged perspective over how powerful patience is. I see people who are, by nature, patient and I see how powerful it is. I also see how it’s lack (usually upon later reflection) can be a detriment.

OK, so what does that have to do with finding meaning, measuring the truth, or how to behave?

To be honest, I am not exactly sure yet. But that has been a thing I think about, recently.   And I am not sure if I’ll ever figure it out, precisely. I have some thoughts which are partially formed, immature, and growing, but I do not want to spell that out yet. To do so would be to impatient. I need to allow myself to settle back, let the thoughts mature, and keep watching, listening, and when I better understand maybe I’ll come back to this.

For now, I don’t have a lot of answers. I have a lot of questions, uncertainties, and (certainly) insecurities. I have a lot og unknowns. They are becoming less terrifying to me, recently. They are still scary (and perhaps they always will be), but perhaps they will no longer compel impatient fearful reactions.

But, in the end, these are my values, my meanings, and my struggles. I can only hope that some of you recognize what I;m talking about and maybe you can identify with me in that sense. And if this leaves you cold or confused, then this is not for you.

So, what about Protagoras’ saying? Are we humans the measure of all things? Well, trivially yes. But right now I doubt that it’s any one of us, any group of us, or even any one philosophical system which is the scale upon which to make such measurements. That measurement, I think, comes more from those small, subtle moments of uncertainty and questions which are the connective tissue of growth and maturity.

My recommendation is to be wary of not only absolutes and certainties, but also over-confidence. Those who appear certain may not, in fact, have anything to offer you except their own certainty.

*That is, the extent to which we actually can choose our meaning and value is somewhat dependent upon whether our will is in any meaningful way free. In either case, the creation of this meaning happens within me, so free or not is is of my creation.

On absolute truth and those disrespectful accommodationists February 29, 2012

Posted by Ginny in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”

De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)

In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”

A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.

I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.

The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accommodationist.

Gnosis February 26, 2012

Posted by Ginny in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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In the last week or so, I’ve begun a project of going through the emails, blog posts, and private journal entries I wrote throughout my deconversion from Christianity. There are a lot of them, and I may pull them together into a book project in the near future, but for now I want to comment on some thoughts they’ve provoked.

One advantage to having detailed personal records like this is that they guard against hindsight bias and retroactive interpretation. I haven’t looked at most of these writings for years, and I find, looking back, that the story I tell now about the trajectory of my deconversion isn’t entirely accurate. When I want to give the short version of my history with religion, it goes something like this: I was raised in a conservative branch of Christianity and accepted it pretty much without question for the first 25 years of my life. Around the time I was 25, I began seriously questioning my faith, and actually stopped believing in God,  although I wasn’t happy about that. I was basically an atheist, though I didn’t use that word, for about a year and a half, then I found a definition of “faith” that allowed me to go back to calling myself a Christian, although never with the same kind of faith as before. Then, around my 29th birthday, the last reasons I had for clinging to Christianity fell away, and I became a full-fledged atheist.

That’s the short version, and it’s broadly accurate, but in retrospect I missed a lot of the complicated nature of that in-between time, between “Yes I am definitely a Christian” and “Yes I am definitely an atheist.” For those who have never had God-belief as an element of their psyche, it might be difficult to understand exactly what was going on there, and it certainly muddies the definitions of “belief” and “knowing” that I’ve been using in the last couple of years. So let me try to explain it.

During part 1, the Christian part of my life, I absolutely believed in God. I would have found it impossible not to. Even if someone had rationally convinced me that there was no good reason to believe in God, I’d have been nodding along and saying, “You’re right, there isn’t a good reason to believe,” and wondering the whole time what God thought of this conversation. It was not something I was consciously maintaining or defending: it was just there, in my brain, a part of the way I thought about the world. To say “I don’t believe in God” would have been a lie, even if I had wanted to disbelieve and had every rational cause for disbelief.

At this time in my life, nearly the opposite is true. If evidence for a god’s existence started springing up all over the place, that internal state of belief still wouldn’t appear in my brain, at least not immediately. I could acknowledge, “Yes, given a Bayesian probability analysis it seems overwhelmingly likely that a deity is the cause of these things we are witnessing,” but in the back of my head I’d still be thinking, “But there can’t really be a deity… let’s keep looking for other explanations!”

It’s important to note before I go further that neither of these belief-states are unchangeable: as evidenced by the fact that my first one did eventually change. I’m no neuroscientist, but my guess is that these belief-states are simply strong neural patterns, habits of thinking that can’t be changed instantly, but only worn away over time as new patterns are developed and rehearsed.

The middle state, that transitional period of 3-4 years, is where things are weird. The things that were going on in my brain at that time don’t fit into a simple category of belief and knowing. The moment that really kicked off that whole transitional phase of my life was a moment where my rock-solid, undeniable belief in God was removed: and my emotional response was anger at God for removing it.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I stopped believing in God, and I was angry at God for making me stop believing in him. Clearly, then, on some level I still believed in God, and interpreted even my unbelief through a theistic worldview. But something very significant had changed in my brain, and the best way I could put it to myself was that I had lost my belief.

This state continued, by the way, even after I reclaimed a “Christian” identity. My state of belief didn’t change very much during this time; instead I changed my definition of “faith” to give myself a way back in. My reasons for doing that belong in another post, but from the point of view of mental states of belief and knowing, I didn’t change very much during those 3-4 years.

In atheist circles there’s been a lot of buzz recently about the difference between knowledge, belief, and certainty (prompted mostly by Richard Dawkins’ “shocking” revelation that he wasn’t 100% certain that no god existed, which anyone who’s actually read The God Delusion already knew (actually, anyone who’s read the subtitle of The God Delusion should have known: the word almost is there for a reason, people)). The relevant ground has been pretty thoroughly covered (and is being added to by Shaun even as I write… we’ll see which of us posts first! (I have a parenthetical addiction, by the way; I try not to use at all, because when I start it gets hard to stop)), so all I want to add is my own experience, and how it fits or doesn’t fit into the tidy “atheist/theist” “gnostic/agnostic” categories.

At no point in my life have I been 100% certain that my beliefs about God or gods were accurate. Even aside from evil genius / brain in a jar / Matrix scenarios, I recognize that my foundational assumptions about what constitutes a good basis for knowledge are just that: assumptions, that could be incorrect. I do the best I can with what I have.

I don’t use the word “know” a lot with reference to theism, just because its meaning is too ambiguous. Some people use “knowledge” synonymously with “certainty” (in which case I am an agnostic atheist), some people use it in less absolute terms (in which case I might be a gnostic atheist, depending on how severely you draw the line), and some people equivocate (in which case I’m not playing.)

Belief, now, is a harder question. I don’t think belief is a simple idea, based on my own experience. If all I’d ever experienced were those two states of initial full belief and present full unbelief, I probably would think it was simple. But my transitional phase leads me to think that there are several different strains or mechanisms of belief, which in most people (perhaps) are concordant, but which can also be conflicting. With part of my brain I believed in God, and with part of it I did not, and that was a very different mental state from the ones that came before and after.

Next up: digging a little deeper into the anatomy of that in-between time.

Truth and honesty as indicators of respectibility November 5, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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It has been asked of me, more than several times over the years, why I care so much about what people believe.  Why can’t I just live and let live.  Well, I do.  It’s just that I don’t think that living and letting live necessarily involves not asking why people live the ways they do.  I’m not stopping anyone from living by wondering why they live the way they do.

I have said it many times, but the truth is important to me.  This is not to say I assume that all my beliefs are true, only that I try to believe things for good reasons.  I try to have evidence, or at least good reason, for accepting ideas as true.  So, if I do believe something I do think it’s true, but realize that I might be wrong and so I maintain an open mind about that possibility.  This necessitates listening to criticism, going out of my way to challenge ideas (both mine and others’) in the face of dissenting opinions.

This skepticism of mine is part of my life project to be honest, open, and direct with the people around me.  It is a value of mine to live authentically, which for me means that I don’t hide who I am to people, try not to allow self-delusion to survive within myself, and be open about my strengths and my faults. I challenge others because I challenge myself.

One implication of this is that I don’t want cognitive dissonance to exist within my mind, and don’t happily tolerate it in others.  I don’t want to have ideas which are in methodological or philosophical opposition to one another, and I am sensitive to it in others.   Cognitive coherence is a goal at which I will inevitably fail, but I strive for it nonetheless because to do otherwise is to capitulate to intellectual and emotional weakness.

Another implication is that I do not respect the idea that an opinion or view “works for me” as being sufficient to accept it as true.  I actually care what is really true, not merely what coheres with my desires.  This attitude is essential for a healthy skepticism.  The desire to apply skeptical methodology to all facets of reality (sometimes referred to as “scientism”) is a value of mine, and I think it should be a value for everyone.

And this is why meeting someone who has little inclination towards this skepticism, who believes things which are not supported by evidence and do not care to challenge them, raises flags for me.  It is, in fact, reason for me not to trust them.

Now, wait (you may be saying).  How does being non-skeptical about things make a person untrustworthy?

Well, it does not make them completely untrustworthy.  It would not necessarily mean that I could not trust them to watch my bag while I run into the bathroom or have them feed my cats while I’m out of town.  No, it merely means that I will have trouble accepting some claims they make.  It makes me trust them less intellectually.

They have already demonstrated that they are capable of being comfortable with cognitive dissonance, or at least in holding beliefs uncritically.  They have demonstrated that they have less interest in holding true beliefs than holding comfortable ones.  So if they were to claim some knowledge, opinion, etc I would be in my skeptical rights in having some issue with their trustworthiness.

This, of course, does not mean they are wrong.  People with all sorts of strange ideas can be right about other things.  It means that I would be more willing to demand argument or evidence for their claims, since they have already compromised their credibility in my eyes.

It also makes it harder to actually respect them, as people.  It makes it less likely I will want to become closer to them personally.  In potential romantic partners, unskeptical attitudes and beliefs are a turn off, for example.  Beliefs in astrology, psychic powers, homeopathy, wicca, or even some aspects of yoga are indicators that a person may not be a new best friend or romantic partner.

Such beliefs are indicators that while we may get along well enough socially or in light conversation, our goals in life are incompatible.  As a result, there is only so close I am willing to get because the attitude they take to the truth makes them vulnerable to deception.  They have not exercised critical thinking to themselves or the world, and it seems likely that they may not know themselves well enough emotionally and/or intellectually and therefore are more likely to subject themselves, and thus people they are involved with, to undesirable situations.

This is not to say that people who believe these things cannot be educated or better informed, only that until they are willing to critically challenge such things they will occupy a place in my head of lesser reverence.

So, call be judgmental, elitist, and arrogant if you like.  But I will judge unsupported ideas as flawed, consider demanding higher intellectual standards as preferable, and do not think that pride in these standards to be unwarranted.   I am judgmental (so are you, so is everyone.  I am just honest about it).  I am elitist, and I don’t care if it offends your sensibilities.  But arrogant? Well, I don’t think my ideas of self-importance, based upon my standards, are unwarranted. I think they help to make me a better person.

I’m honest, I care about what is true, and I hold myself up to high standards.  If you don’t care about these things, then I likely don’t respect you.  Live with it.

 

Honestly…what is with your truth? October 24, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I have been spending some time recently thinking about truth.

No, that’s not quite right.  I haven’t necessarily been thinking about truth, but I have been thinking about the subject of truth.

That’s not quite right either.  I guess I’ve been thinking about thinking about truth.  Meta-truth, if you will.  And as I did so, I started to get that semi-relativistic head-throbbing that comes when trying to work out the paradoxes of epistemology.  So I took a step back, took a deep breath, and eventually I realized something.  It’s nothing hugely profound, or even novel.  But I think it’s important, nonetheless.

Perhaps we are putting too much emphasis on ‘truth.’  Perhaps this is the wrong primary approach.  This word ‘truth’ is, after all, deceptive.  Because we are not often very certain of it’s parameters or its contents, we are often left with jumbles pieces and we know not how to assemble them.  We end up being circus clowns of truthiness, juggling and dancing to keep up while endeavoring to keep a straight, serious, face.  Truth is serious stuff, after all, and not for clowns.

This reminded me of something that good old Soren Kierkegaard said:

One must not let oneself be deceived by the word ‘deception.’  One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the truth.  Indeed, it is only by this means, i.e. by deceiving him, that it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in error.

Yeah! Take that all you people in error.  I’m gonna kick the truth into you…or something….  You’re gonna wish you ain’t done been wrong in all that error-having you have had….  Sorry, lost it there for a second.  Kierkegaard has that kind of affect on me, it seems.

(BTW, this is not license for people to keep lying for Jesus)

I will not comment on the quote itself, but will prefer to allow it to speak for itself.  I have always liked it though, and am glad to pass it on.

What is the truth? Is there (or is there not) a god? I don’t know.  How to evaluate something that is often so nebulous and slippery as the concept ‘god’ which makes belief in often impossible for the mere fact that we don’t know what the term is supposed to indicate. How can I say it does not exist when I don’t know what it is?  How can I believe in it for the same reason?

(And how do so many people keep claiming that atheism is the claim that there is no god in light of this impossibility?)

But at least we can ask people to be truthful, to tell the truth as best they can, in order to have an honest discussion. But something is not quite right about that phrase.  For some time I could not quite put my finger on what it was, but then it occurred to me; I’m not so much advocating truth as I am advocating honesty.

The simple, brute, fact is that we can’t always know that we have the “truth” in order to give it to others.  If someone asks me to give them the truth, I often have little choice but to cock my head and follow-up with some question.  I need clarification.  And even if I receive the ideal level of clarification, I won’t necessarily be able to give the TruthTM.

But I can be honest.  I can even give good reasons that support the opinion I am being honest about.  But do I dare call it truth?

It seems that such a step is often considered arrogant.  How do I know it’s true? What if I’m wrong?

What I think is going on here is that the term ‘honesty’ has a flavor to it which is often soft and bland.  It has no zing to merely be honest.  People want the truth, right?  Being honest is merely stating an opinion.  But giving the truth…well that’s just sexy!

There is a responsibility behind claiming to give the truth which may not seem as naturally wedded to being honest; and perhaps for good reason.  But I feel that in presenting our beliefs, we have a responsibility to make sure that those belief have gone through some thought, fact-checking, and other considerations.  They, perhaps, have not gone through peer-review, but that is what saying them is for.

And to think those ideas to be true? Well, at some point the ideas we hold, especially if they survive our vetting and the conversational battle-field, we will believe with the force of ‘truth’ (whatever that is) whether it is objectively true (whatever THAT is…) or not.

But recently I’m preferring the concept of honesty, responsible honesty, to truth.

And honesty, in light of politics (both governmental and interpersonal), is an idea perhaps more fundamental and important.  The simple fact is that I don’t often believe that many people are truly…honestly…being honest with themselves or with other people.

I think that would be a good place to start for many people I’ve known in my life.

But they might not even know I’m talking about them.  While they may see the truth in what I say, they may not see the dishonesty in which they live.

Truthiness of religion December 9, 2009

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New atheists.  That is what we are called by some.  I find the label somewhat misguided, but I understand why it is applied.

Many people are not used to hearing about atheism, challenges to faith, etc. It is new to them.  They may know atheists, and likely do not know that those people are atheists, but they may know that they don’t attend a church or participate in any faith.  Many people, atheists included (but don’t call them that!) prefer a reverential approach to their believing neighbors.  They don’t bring it up because they don’t really care or they find it distasteful.

And so when they see us, the “new atheists,”TM they view our criticism and challenges as overly aggressive in our tone and approach.  They view these aggressive tactics as hurting our cause in society by pushing people away rather than trying to be their friends.  I don’t see evidence for this harm.  I see theists becoming defensive because they are not used to the criticism.  I see their coddled status being taken away, and they don’t like it.

Too bad.

Why shouldn’t we be critical? Religion does cause harm.  Faith, belief without or in spite of evidence to the contrary, is largely responsible for the anti-intellectual and anti-scientific fervor that exists in various cultures, particularly our own American culture.

But those faitheists and accomodationists will continue to claim that religion is good in many ways and that we are being too harsh in denouncing religion wholesale.  I agree.  I think that there are aspects of religion and religious culture that are good.  Religion can be good; it helps people in need, supplies hope, and it provides a basis for teaching morality. Or at least one kind of morality or another.

Yes, religion can do these things, but I see no reason why only religion of faith can do these things.  A religion of faith? Why add that qualifier, you may ask.  Well, first of all not all religious people necessarily have faith, depending on your definition of faith.  Further, not all people that have faith necessarily have a religion.  Religion is…well, religion is complicated.  I will not try to define this term here, but I want to address it in a tangential way.

The Religious Instinct

There are sets of emotions, behaviors, and dispositions that tend towards ‘religious’ behavior.  It can include rituals, music, states of mind, etc.  But this is an expression of a more general psychological disposition that we all, or at least the vast majority of us, share.  It is expressed through music, poetry, the fine arts, and perhaps even philosophy.  It is an expression of those experiences internal to each of us that feels like it is coming from somewhere…else.

It is sublime, beautiful, and it has its own subtle rules and constraints that we can apprehend in rarer states of mind.  When one is enthralled in an ecstatic moment, there is a kind of flowing of emotion, meaning, and beauty that seems to transcend us.  It doesn’t actually transcend us, but it gives the sensation of transcendence.

As a writer, I know this well.  There are time when, in writing, I find myself almost transported and feel as if the words are coming through me, as if I were but a conduit for some ideas.  I understand the concept of inspiration.  I know why people think that God works through them because I feel that experience myself.

So, why am I an atheist then?

What I look like while inspired

Well, because when I’m in that state of mind, I’m being creative.  I’m using natural tools of my brain to create, understand, and communicate.  I am not being methodical, careful, nor remotely scientific.  That is, I am not concerned with what is true in these moments, even if at some of these moments I may get the delusional idea that there is more truth there than in cold, rational, analysis.

Beauty is truth, and truth beauty?

There is a sense where the moments of beauty and poetry that overcome me seem to reveal a kind of truth.  It feels as if the universe has opened up to me and given me a slice of something that my rational mind was unable to find.  And sometimes, upon further reflection, I find that it may have found a bit of truth before unseen.  But that is the important part of that; upon further reflection.

Because how many times have ideas or thoughts from inspiration turned out to be duds? Most of the time, some if the time? Always? I suppose it depends.  But it is upon sober, rational reflection that we will find whether or not the moment of inspiration has given us gold.  The reason is that there is a difference in approach.  The moments of beauty, sublimity, and transcendence are the result of our brain doing what it does, not as it can be trained to do.

And I’m glad that this part of our minds exist because it is from these ecstasies and sublimities that we create.  Not discover, elucidate, or comprehend, but create.

The aspects of our minds that find revelation,  communicate with the spirits, or attain a slice of heaven are the same parts that write novels, create sculpture, and write poetry.  In this mode of thought there is a freedom of form, expression, and a lack of criticism.  Yes, that’s it; a lack of criticism!

Not that we can’t look at two creations and judge one or the other more or less beautiful (or at least argue about why we think one is more beautiful), but that one looked on its own not criticized in relation to the world, generally.  It is not pointed at and said that the thing does not appear to be like anything else that is real.  A sculpture of a dragon is not looked at and scolded for not representing a real animal.  A poet is not criticized for not representing a real conversation or speech.  A theologian is not criticized for not representing the universe as it really is.  That’s not the point, right?

Well, if you talk to Karen Armstrong, you may get such a response.  But the fact is that theologians, most of them anyway, do claim that they are describing reality. They are not merely creating, they claim.  They are talking about not only truth, but Truth.

But where do these truths come from? Revelation, communion with a deity, book (which ultimately go back to revelation or some claimed historical event), etc.  They come from the mind, and many of them from ancient minds not trained in the meticulous rational skills which would be necessary to analyze these experiences.

When theologians tackle these issues, whether today or the ancient theologians that dealt with these religious beliefs, they only apply rational thinking to keep the stories internally consistent while forgetting that the person who first experienced the idea was as fallible as you or I in determining truth from these internal experiences of ecstacy and transcendence.

Method

If we want to discover what is real, we need to be meticulous.  We need to check assumptions, use empirical methods, and try to devise a way to prove our idea wrong.  And so long as we cannot prove it wrong and the evidence supports the idea, then we provisionally hold our hypothesis as true.  The longer it withstands scrutiny, the more it becomes a theory.  Not just some guess or inspiration, but an idea that stands up against attempts to knock it down.  In other words, we need to use the scientific method.

Does this sound like what poets do? How about novelists? How about theologians? ‘Well, of course not,’ they will say.  ‘These things are not subject to empirical study.’  Really? Why not? ‘Well, it takes away from the beauty; science cannot explain beauty.’

Perhaps not.  Or perhaps it can.  That is not what is at issue.  What is at issue is that our minds are capable of different kinds of thought.  Some of our mental capabilities provide for us this ‘religious instinct’ that we are all familiar with to some extent.  But this instinct is part of our creativity, and is only tangentially helpful in a pursuit of truth. Our creative powers may, occasionally, provide us with insights into a new way of thinking about a problem, but once we have the idea we must switch to using our learned critical skills on to test the idea.   We cannot just dream and create answers to real world problems, we have to criticize them.

Our creative powers which provide us with the transcendent experiences, sublime emotions, and inspiring ideas are a great tool for the creative process, but not for attaining truth.  If we want to know what is real, we need to be critical, meticulous. and scientific.

Religion claims to have truth; it claims it knows something about what is real.  By being critical of those claims and the methods by which those claims are attained, atheists (‘new’ or not) are not being disrespectful.  Anyone who claims to have the truth and who subsequently calls criticism of their methods or conclusions disrespectful is either insecure about their position or does not understand how to think critically.

In many cases, it is both.

So yes, the parts of our mind that religion uses; the creative, transcendent, and sublime aspects of us that supply us with beauty, love, and all of those wonderful things are great.  So, if that is all that religion is, then there is not much of an argument.  That is, if the vague and meaningless God of theologians like Karen Armstrong is all that religion provides–a thing that need not even exist to be important–then religion is simply a nice story with which I can have little quarrel.

But if religion also deals with what is true, at least in the same use of ‘true’ as we mean when we say something is real, then criticism is warranted.  I may find many aspects of religious practices to be beautiful, but I don’t think they are true.  And that is what is at issue.  If those artistic expressions that come from creative people–mythology, morality stories, and the like–are not intended to be literally true, then they are just stories we can enjoy on their own merit.  But this is not the case.  Christianity, Islam, etc are believed to be actually true and real, not just stories.

Anything that is proposed as the truth in society of culture is open for criticism.  To actually step forward and do so is the responsibility of a citizen who cares about the truth, reality, etc.  To postulate a story about the universe as true and then remove it from the realm of critical analysis, or to not at least try to validate it oneself while having faith in it is not strength nor reverent behavior, but weakness.

Allowing ourselves to be swallowed up by stories birthed in the ecstatic moments of artistic creativity and then to claim it to be true is not clear thinking.  We need to train ourselves to be better thinkers and to accept criticism or to get used to feeling disrespected.

Respect is not warranted when art is presented as truth.  The truth, as the Vorlons say, points to itself.  It does not need us to create it.

The pseudo-depth of religion October 17, 2009

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We, unfortunately, live in a largely anti-intellectual and unsophisticated culture.  There is not ample interest in things philosophical or subtle.  I will not lament this here for its own sake, but I will mention this as a pretext to address another issue.

We are pattern seeking beings that desire meaning and purpose in life, but we are rarely exposed to the various approaches to finding these things.  The depth of that search is often too terrifying to traverse, and so we try to find other ways to fulfill this need.  And, lucky for us, culture and its complex structure has supplied our history with just such a function.  The vast majority of people are usually exposed to one source of meaning and purpose; am ancient cultural tradition that still holds sway for many people.

I want to call it religion, but that is too simplistic in the end.  It is my view that religion is a natural expression of our desire to explore the world for meaning. It is a way to look inward and in many cases to project outward what we desire to find there, and to latch onto narratives, myths, and the illusion of ‘something more’ in order to add color, depth, and importance to a world that seems meaningless.

It is a kind of metaphysical or ‘spiritual’ impulse to explain the universe in terms of intent, intelligence, and often in love.  And the result of this impulse that we share are the many religions an spiritual pursuits of the world.  These are the vehicles of providing meaning, purpose, and intent into an otherwise meaningless existence.  And because we sense this meaninglessness often enough, we seek shelter from those cold winds of loneliness and purposelessness.

That is, people seek the part of our psychology that is responsible for the religious cultural impulse to find meaning.  The easiest way to do this is to take an atavistic glance back to the introduction to such feelings; the religion of our childhood.  And if not our childhood, the religion of our early attempts to look for meaning in the world.  For many, groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ (or some similar group) seek to fill the insecure holes that creep into our lives in a time of emotional upheaval and change of the early tastes of freedom that college provides.

In general, whenever the insecurities and fears of life emerge, the desire to see meaning and purpose weaved into the fabric of life and reality act as a sort of blanket against the coldness of the world.

But before I continue I must hark to the whisper of a ghost which has come my way.  A strange and somewhat lively sprite—lively for a dead man, anyway!  A moving of thoughts tussles its way to my mind’s ear and words resolve into a thought:

Mystical explanations are considered deep.  The truth is that they are not even superficial

And with such a deep strike into the heart the thought evaporates and the spirit haunts another.  Or perhaps it has sunk so deep into me that I can no longer distinguish between it and myself.  The difference—it is indifferent!  But the whisper of the name of “Nietzsche” reverberates throughout and my mind returns to the task at hand.

But this spiritual visit has had a purpose, I fathom.  Because in a largely unsophisticated world, the early reaching for meaning and purpose are mitigated by religion; they are softened for us by a pseudo-depth of assertions of truths that are always bolstered by nothing but faith—in other words by sheer preferential desire for them to be true.

It is common for people to scuttle through there youth while largely unconcerned with the ramblings of religious ideologies.  Yes, if pressed they parrot the memories of their early exposure, but they live secularly and leave to Sundays (or some other bequeathed holy day) the quandaries of any depth.  It is only to these holy days that purpose and the insecurities of meaning emerge into the sunlight of our thoughts.

We have not yet allowed the scab to form over such insecurities in order to have our fears heal.  And so we protect our raw minds from the exposure to the dangerous world and we often miss the sophistication and depth which lives there while distracted by this protective preoccupation.  Because we spend so much energy nursing our fears in public, we miss the true depth of the world.

And so what of true depth and subtlety?  What of philosophy? Why, upon the hardship of emotional turmoil, of loss, or of dissatisfaction do people turn to their lord, to the false depth of dogma and myth rather than to do the real, hard, and growth-inspiring work of looking deep within without the lenses of faith and childhood brainwashing?

We avoid the difficult in life and revert to looking at it through Christianity or some other absurd softening of our mortality and ultimate meaninglessness.  And in doing so we miss that it is our responsibility to lend meaning to our lives.  We must take responsibility for how we face death, loneliness, and dissatisfaction.

So often churches will remind us that in the pursuit of money, power, or otherwise transient things, happiness can only be temporary.  They cannot supply real meaning for us, which we crave.  But then they assert that a real happiness, a real and eternal answer may be found.  But this is only an assertion.  It is a promise that cannot be kept.  It is another distraction from the truth that mature and aware adults have to face.  It is a fantasy to cover a scary world.

The thing is that the churches who remind us of the ultimate meaninglessness of our earthly desires are correct.  They just fail to acknowledge that they are not offering anything different.  Their mystical explanations are only deep in an illusory way.  Their façade is not even willing to dip its little toe into the waters of the universe out of fear that the water is too cold.  And it is cold.

Warmth can only be found with one-another.  And so churches, in gathering communities, are creating a mirage; it is not the message of eternal life that provides meaning and purpose, it is the company that sits upon this superficial message that supplies the meaning.  It is the illusion of having eternal companions, covered by real but temporary ones, that perpetuates the illusion.

When we find meaning and purpose in shallow promises of eternity, we find not even a shallow pool in which to swim.  The universe is deeper than we can comprehend.  Its true beauty lies beyond the fear that is manipulated by religion which only thinks itself deep.  Come and join the universe and dive into fathoms unfathomable.  Rather than transcend this world, transcend your fears of it and come swim with us in oceans of reality.  And when you do, you will find true warmth in the company of the disillusioned and the free.