Sunday, February 27, 2005

The psuedo individual

Another quote from Niedzviecki's book "Hello I'm Special".

Alienated from religious institutions, desperate to become more ourselves, to determine the narrative of being a better me, some of us are turning to spiritual entrepreneurs [like Semon and Linn]. Why? Because they understand that we want a connection to meaning and spirituality, but we want it to be about us specifically.

As Niedzviecki says, I wonder what happens to a non-conformist when they recognize that their rebellion has just made them into the 21st century equivalent of a "suit". While I applaud any effort to try and develop one's talents, I think motivation for these pursuits is a key delineator. Like Niedzviecki observes, I think society today is more encouraging of individuality that it has been in the past. However, as arrogant as this may sound, I am not sure the number of truly independent people has kept up with the push. Part of the conflict against established institutions, like the church, may arise because society encourages true individuality. Unfortunately most people can't do this unless society supports them in their attempt.

In terms of religion, I think many of the complaints from within the church follow the logic of the new non-comformist. Rigid expectations prevent the individual from being accepted. This hinders what they are able to do and become. The irony in this complaint is hard to contain. If one truly is an independent individual, only physicial coercion is a reasonable excuse for lack of development. Sure conforming to group norms is necessary to maintain viable social interaction, but I have a hard time fathoming that someone who is going to be strong enough for full independence will be too weak for the give and take of sociality. Sure, living a double standard may be hard, but can a truly original individual expect to be faced with anything but this? Perhaps it is like Niedzviecki says, what the psuedo individual really wants is for society to change to support them. Real rebellion is not sought, only rebellion that supports their outlook and way of life. While change is inherit in this position, the rebel here isn't out for independence, they are out for fascism where they become themselves by getting others to support their endeavor. The weaker they are, they more they need society to change to support them. In this sense the new individual is like those guided clients on Everest. They want to be able to say they did a hard mountain, but they want the consequences that define it as such minimized for their window of opportunity.

Part of the irony of this problem is that many people's journey to individuality involves tearing down established institutions. Ostensibly this is done to make them more inclusionary, not to destroy them. But, in terms of the parable of the talents, this seems at odds with development of the individual. Do we become something more than ourselves by tearing down instead of building up? Perhaps this is where many institutional critiques miss the boat. Perhaps many feel that changing the old hierarchy does mean they are creating something new. Personally, I would disagree. All that is done is a course correction. The components that power the structure are still in place. Hidden though they are, they must now support the new course. The assumption is that the supporting framework does not matter. But it means that nothing has been created that was not there before.

Perhpas this is where the weakness of psuedo individuals lies. If all one does is actualize themselves, they get in a Cartesian like circle. To be taught by the outside world, one must be willing to change to it, not vice versa. Perhaps this is some of what Jesus' admonition to be humble like little children encouraged. Independence means being able to function in spite of confines. In this sense, isn't a universal God living outside our universe not the ultimate psuedo-individual? Limited to nothing singular, but part of everthing, he is never forced to act within any confines. He does not have to "be" anything because the universe always adapts to him. The personal traits required for this type of being are much different than the ones required for a God who must be independent within the universe. I think the latter would require huge amounts of humility as one learned to work with, rather than over power, what was present.

Thursday, February 24, 2005


After stumbling across an episode of Richler & Inc dealing with the irony in much of today’s individualism, I have been reading I’m Special (sorry not available south of the border). Part of his premise is interesting. What are the consequences of making perceived individuality the new conformity? Here is one quote from the book: (pg 36)

In searching for tradition without the strictures that tradition used to entail, our society is altering the religious institutions we created to give meaning and order to our lives. Can we have a sense of tradition without traditional tradition? The new conforming individualists want exactly that. They want religious institutions to adapt to their needs, ambitions, and desires.

Kol Emeth is just one of many religious institutions meeting the needs of new generations of individualists who want to feel, but not necessarily be.

Earlier in the book Niedzviecki makes the point that today everybody has the desire to feel special. People want to see their lives as tending to something that makes them stand out. The irony comes because this individuality is used to become part of a group. In this case, a group of “non-conformists” of whatever persuasion one desires. According to him, what happens is that the individual still wants to belong to something. However that belonging is manifested not by conforming to established groups, but by having groups establish around themselves. In other words, the new individual expects to be able to change the world to make it accommodate them. Priest craft allusions aside, I think this has numerous interesting implications for religion. Are most religions just an established way of making the universe fit previous desires? Do some of our feelings of divine acceptance arise because we change our conception of god in much the same way individuals expect the world to change for them? Do our desires to have a superficial sense of uniqueness make it harder for the rare individual to be truly unique?

Monday, February 14, 2005

Evolution - Are we kidding ourselves?

No this isn't another evolution post. Well, not really. I am still working througg Why we lie. This book deals with deception from an evolutionary psychologist's perspective. Going through Sunday, I found another interesting section.

Our minds are anticipatory engines equipped by natural selection with intimations of the tasks required for survival. At that fateful moment when our species became its own main predator, these well-practiced cognitive routines swung into action in the social arena.

And a short while later

An artful wheeling-dealing species must must have a knack for predicting controlling, and understanding behaviour. In order to do so, it must have an intuitive grasp of how to infer others' mental states and how these mental states work together to produce behaviour. For this reason, we spend a good deal of our time trying to figure out the mental states of others-their beliefs, desires, goals, and fears-so as to manipulate their behaviour in ways that serve our own interests.

Now Smith, being more wary than I, doesn't immediately jump to the thought, like I am going to, that much of our mental processes may have evolved to enable us to figure out other people rather than to try and figure out ourselves. Thus the mind is less of a self-reflexive tool that it is an external-anticipatory one. In the next paragraph (page 106), Smith states;

A savy social operator needs to have an excellent grasp of human self-interests, because it's impossible to beguile others unless you understand what makes them tick. However, self-deception, which is also essential for competent social manipulation, pulls us in the opposite direction, leading us to disavow knowledge about human self-interest, and encouraging a rather naive conception of human nature.

I think ties in to some of what I was trying to get at last year when I talked about everyday zealotry & cultural cults , well at least as much as it relates to the encouragement of a naive view of human nature. People have a tendency to want to fit in to groups where they understand the "unconscious" language that Smith used to pillar the preceding quotes. To my mind, people need venues where the sincerity of actions (and ideas) can be easily referenced. So in my view, cults would, ironically enough, provide a venue where things are reliable, at least within their predetermined dogmatic confines. Of course to outsiders most stereotypical cults have leaders who are purposely acting from without these confines. This could also be their draw. If one is willing to fully accept a number of common far out beliefs, chances are that this person's world view is similar enough to yours to make them again, ironically enough, reliable in a intra-deceptional role. Of course by this I don't mean that they won't deceive, only that it will be easy to pick up on these deceptions.

Now what other consequences would Smith's ideas have for religion?

For one, I think it makes it easy to see the motivations for humanist perspectives. Another is that it makes having a very tight community, keyed up on potential differences necessary to analyze the value of member stated "God said" proclamations. If all I have to do is say "God said give me all your money," I am at a pretty big advantage over you. Thus members should, somehow, be very sensitive to possible deception. Perhaps this explains some of the animosity that unfortunately exists over religion. People are naturally hesitant about accepting others when they can reach an apparentely deceptive conclusion from the same set of base facts.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Everyday Zealotry and Cultural Cults

As I was looking for an old post, I noticed I couldn't find it. I think I wrote it up, but never posted it. Here it is. This was from last March. I am going to leave it as it is, even though I am sure I would present things slightly differently now.

For part 1, click here

Zealotry, Part II

What are the human institutions that we would consider most cult like? Most people would say it is the ultra right wing religious extremist. Some staunch conservatives would argue that many liberal groups like the anti-globalism crowd fit the bill. But what is it that makes a group or institution a cult? Previous discussion mentioned the fact that it may just be exceptional people joining a group that re-enforces specific extremes. However, don’t most groups encourage group defined behavioural expectations?

For instance, lets take a group of colorful university art students. Most are proud of their individuality and the freedom they feel to express themselves. Many like to express this freedom and individuality through particularly “artsy” clothes, accessories, and behaviours. Belonging to this group usually requires similar expressions of “freedom”. Like many other science students, I found the irony in the position rather amusing. Of course many art students also found the behavioral code of the science majors equally as amusing. Stereotypes whether people want to admit it or not, usually develop for a reason. Useful ones also tend to apply to a sizeable portion of the group they assess.

Groups need something around which to coalesce. Often behavioural codes and attitudes reflect this coalescence. As these groups solidify, something within them seems to generate behavioural expectations, common mannerisms, similar world outlooks, language nuances, etc. The degree to which this happens, is of course a matter of opinion and study. Perhaps an example from the other night will help to illustrate this. Stupid Mormon games. Whether we are proud or ashamed to admit it or not, most members have at one time or another participate in this phenomenon.

For me, it was last demonstrated at a mormon party – a ubiquitous ceremony more mysterious than any temple rites could possibly be. Out of a group of 20 people, I knew the girl hosting the party and one other. The host’s roomate got everyone together to play a game. I could feel the dread creeping over me like a polyester sacrament sheet sliding over a pressboard altar. Some eyes darted around with a nervous twitch. For some, YSA family home evenings had foreshadowed what was about to unfold. Others were placid, still chewing their cheesecake cud. “Everyone hold out 10 fingers”. I attributed the growing excitement of the group to the naked fingers that were now exposed, erect and devoid of any matrimonial bands.

Instructions continued with a well rehearsed enthusiasm trained to motivate the most recalcitrant pubescent math student. “You need to say something that you have never done that other people have. If they have done it, they need to put down a finger, you then get to keep yours up”. While thoughts of the Jennifer Garner movie (30 going on 13) danced through my head, I knew a decision was at hand. This was not just a subtle interrogation technique designed to separate the outgoing or rebellious from the arrogant or timid. It was a test of my theories of cult behaviour. Either I somehow made a good show to keep my standing with the host I was vainly trying to date, or I would have to leave, sequestering myself in a prison of non-comformity and eternal celibacy.

To me the irony of the game was the only interesting thing. “10 fingers” or its equivalent social constructs are based on an open ended, informal way of judging social norms. They let people turn a group into a live version of the movie “The singles ward”. If you are wild we still accept you. You just fit the jack mormon side of our group. If you are uptight, you are still accepted, you just fit the molly side of the group. However, deviation gets accepted on one condition– people can figure out a reason for it. In other words, people know that you understand the unspoken rules of the game.

I could have said something like “I have played 10 fingers and never enjoyed it”. The resulting conundrum people would have faced deciding if they too agreed with this statement would have expressed my disdain for mormon culture and secured my place in the group. Whether or not my response was kosher is beside the point. By participating I was expressing an understanding of the hidden cultural rules. I was giving others the chance to understand me. No matter how rebellious the answer, one would still be conforming. Anything is OK as long as you play by the group rules. The group can encourage everyone to take part, by accepting most any behaviour. All that is required is awareness of the unspoken rules. Basically it is “Do what you want, as long as we can understand it”. In broader terms it amounts to “anything is acceptable, as long as we can see that you are using the same memes that we are”. To me, this is the key point in everyday zealotry or cultural cults. (by definition memes are an unconscious way of looking at things. They are the “how could it ever be any different” type of thoughts. For liberals it may be things like “genocide is bad”, for conservatives it may be things like “liberals are short sighted” :)

Society is based on cults. It is the only way it can function. Society must be able to tolerate large differences between individuals, yet still have a glue that lets one treat their neighbours as them self. This can happen as long as we can see the motivations or reasons behind another’s actions. For instance when a serious crime is committed we somehow feel more at ease knowing why it was done. A murder in a neighbourhood isn’t nearly as disturbing if it is “solved”. If we know the underlying rules people play by, we can assume that behaviours within these bounds will be rational. Unexpected things won’t happen. In evolutionary terms, knowing that a neighbour won’t suddenly attack us out of the blue, lets us feel at ease with their presence. The more defined and consistently applied the underlying rules get, the more at stable we feel within that group. Now, I am not saying that behaviours have to be the same, only that the rules from which they arise have to be highly intelligible (again not necessarily in a conscious way).

So what are examples of these “societal cults” and institutions? From the 10 fingers example, I would say that there are a variety of levels. The smallest would be the nuclear family. Some people think that frequent arguments are a normal means of discussion. Telling someone off doesn’t really mean you want them gone, it is just a vehicle to express emotion. On the other side, a disapproving look by a parent may be all that is needed to send a child to their room crying. Unless the rules or memes are understood, you can’t function as a part of the family. Because memes are based on non-overt thinking patterns, it is very hard for outsiders to fit in. Because individuals are rarely aware of them, memes are difficult to teach. To become part of a family like this, you have to accept the underlying ground rules. Because this group is so small, the rules are usually fairly numerous and specific. Because so many memes are available from which to interpret action, a wide range of divergent behaviours can be accepted without loosing status as a member of the group. Here I would say that divergence is based on a standard deviation from the group (ie take the average distribution of all members and see how much an individual compares)

Peer groups also fit into the “societal cult” mode. There is an underlying way of seeing the world that is usually common to a peer group. Members may have various ways of expressing this, but there is always some common basis for the group. Often members can be seen fitting into a normal distribution ala “The Singles Ward”. Members still have to be able to interpret your actions in a way that makes sense to their world view. In other words superficial things like wearing black, lots of makeup, and enjoying piercings, would still mean rejection from a Goth group if you could fundamentally not see anything wrong with the current hegemony and thought student body president or cheer leader was a noble aspiration.

As we move into larger social groups it seems like specific behaviours are used as a way to try and quickly judge what memes others are playing by. I don’t think behaviour is necessarily the trump card that determines whether or not one fits in. Instead I think it is what causes the behaviour that makes this determination. What this means is that cults are judged not on some arbitrary measure of “normalcy”, but instead on a level of rationality – rationality based on our memes and our world view. I would argue that any behaviour is rational from the frame of reference of the individual doing it. In fact I remember reading an interesting book that analyzed numerous “random” acts of violence to see why they were committed. Each had quite clear, though not immediately apparent motivations. Perhaps this is why some fundamentalist christians still consider mormons cultists. From their biblical inerrant frame of reference, the things mormons come up with may not be logical. We may look like we have the same values, morals and behaviours, but to them, our underlying rule book is incomprehensible. It may be like a Jesuit missionary trying to figure out blackfoot tribal religion. It just doesn’t make sense.

So how does this discussion of cults matter? If societal norms are cultish, and all cults are bad, then their influence on us is probably just a matter of degree. But how do we figure out the degree? I don’t think looking at the behaviours encouraged is very efficient. They may not reflect the memes underlying them. I also don’t think looking for perceived levels of conformity is very good. What may seem like conformity may just be an amalgamation of similar minded people. I think the degree of cultish influence in our lives is determined by how willing we are to go with the flow - in what ever venue or group this may be. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean how likely we are to go along with superficial behaviours. Instead, it probably is how likely we are to conform our world views, our memes, to any given group. If playing “10 fingers” at a mormon party is incomprehensible to me, doing so to fit in is as cultish as donning an orange harri-krishna robe and shaving what is left of my hair.

Following this line of thinking through, perhaps the most important thing to be aware of with cults, is how much of my world view originates from them. If this is the case, the most powerful cults in the world are the ones that deal with our day to day lives. It is the social protocols and cultural biases we inherit from our society that are the most cult like. These create outlooks that we could never imagine being different. They are so fundamental to our way of being that we can barely identify what they are. They are so fundamental and important that there is no real way of escaping from their influence. They have as much, if not more, effect on our lives than the lunatic that believes their nose is a space alien giving them instructions as they sneeze.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Big Bang Review

Clark links to a good Farms review article by Hollis Johnson on "The big bang, what does it mean to us?" Here is an excerpt I like

Copan and Craig commit what I call the Aquinas fallacy. Seeing religious beliefs supported through scientific arguments reminds us that Thomas Aquinas used the scientific knowledge of his day, drawn principally from Aristotle, as a framework for his systematic theology. The resulting mixture of biblical teachings and Aristotelian science, often called scholatsticism, was accepted and taught by Roman Catholics for centuries. It is still alive, though its scientific elements have had to be revised. The original acceptance of this doctrine led in the West to the sharp separation of science and religion into two distinct and often competitive enterprises. The Aquinas fallacy consists of assuming that the current science, including both fact and speculation, provides final answers... Science, however, is an ongoing, self-correcting process leading to increased knowledge and understanding, and many wrong ideas are suggested and discarded before a corrected understanding eventually emerges.

Copan and Craig take the standard hot big bang model as a final scientific description of the origin of the universe and use it to establish a doctrine of “creation from nothing.” But the scriptures, I believe, were written with purposes rather different from the attempt to understand and explain the universe. It is essential to realize that both the scientific and the religious canons of knowledge are incomplete, and it would be wrong to assume that either gives definitive answers about the other.

Personally, I take the view that both religion and science are evolving. Trying to fix theological doctrine in the present denies that there is much more to receive and evolve. It also seems to take the narcissistic stance that we presently have everything that ever could be needed. Of course if heaven is a stagnant place this is definitely required. A dynamic after life doesn’t require this.

However the part of the quote I really enjoy is that fallacies occur when a static view is taken on one of the two elements, science or religion. It seems like static views while great for centering one’s life, don’t lead to much progression in comprehension, unless of course connecting dogmatic dots from a limited perspective is the type filler you prefer.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Natural Born Liars

I have finally managed to find some time to start in on one of my Christmas presents, Why We Lie by David Smith. While I haven't gotten very far into it, I did find one early passage interesting (page 27).

Deprssives, they [mental health professionals] claim, believe false ideas about themselves and others. They are self-deceived and out of touch with reality. Irrational, self-deceptive thinking is alleged to be a factor distinguishing depressed people from "normal" ones, but this psychiatric homily turns out to be badly mistaken. Scientifc research leads to the opposite conculsion that depressives seem to have a better grasp of reality than the "normal" psychiatrists tha treat them.

Further on the author continues;

Allor and Abramson found that the depressed individuals assessed both situations [credit for personal roles in a game] far more realistically . The rather startling conclusion is that depressives may suffer from a defecit in self-deception.... If mental health depends upon a liberal dose of self-deception then perhaps, as the philosopher David Nyberg wryly remarks, "Self knowledge isn't all that it's cracked up to be."

If this is true, I wonder how many people could survive if they were to constantly view events around them accurately? Now obviously the way "accurate" is being used in the quotes probably only accepts immediate judgments, discounting long term possibilities. I think perhaps this might be a big difference between depressives and non-depressives. Nonetheless, how many people would be able to struggle through life without many of the dreams, hopes and illusions we create for ourselves?

I certainly think some can. Tenacious individuals like this may be rare, but like one of my favorite movies, Touching The Void illustrates, some people are less inclined to give up than others. Indeed I wonder if part of this trait isn't a key element to this life.

To many, the apparent lack of divine intervention in catastrophes is hard to fathom. The capabilities humans have for causing suffering to each other is huge. Many people reconcile these events by assuming the existence of a greater good. Others may assume a more hands off role for god where these events are just natural consequences of our existence (for instance removing pain sensors from our body would make life a less painful experience, but it may make a lot of other things, like survival, more difficult, if not impossible). In terms of David Smith's ideas, I wonder what the consequences are of a depressed, and hence (from the afore mentioned perspective) more accurate view of god are?

Are many people strong enough to make it through life with the apathy and loss of hope that seem to accompany the accurate view of reality associated with this take on depression? Would an increase in accuracy offset associated losses in drive, motivation and other factors? In general, would we even be able to live with a less fantastical view of god?

Now many people would say that knowledge of god and depression just aren't compatible. I would tend to agree, however, I would add that I don't think the stereotypical view of depression is being discussed here. I think what is at hand is whether or not idealized beliefs, and the accompanying loss of accuracy they usually hold, are always worth the help they give us to function?

Personally, I think many of the problems associated with "realistic" views are situational. Problems occur because of discrepancies with past perspectives, irrational desires for things to change, and knowledge that others seem to function quite well with a rosier, if less accurate take on things. Most people tend to be content when they go with the flow of the crowd. Indeed I think we underestimate the role that culture plays on what we are able to accept and enjoy. Thus my view that many of our conceptions of god are perhaps based more on what we would like to believe that what may actually be real.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The unification of aberrance

While I am sure most people have already checked out the Questions for Terryl Givens post, I thought I would put a link to it because of how interesting a post it is for those that may have missed it.

To me the most interesting point was how mormonism is a great resource to look at how canonized scripture evolves. Honestly, I think I have been too myopic to really see mormonism as being one of the few religions that can provide a source for this study. While I’m sure that some other aberrant cultic groups have developed their own scriptures, I think the wide spread use of The Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants and Pearl of Great Price certainly does put mormonism in a league of its own for study. After all it seems like many religions proudly base themselves on ineffability that is created by never questioning the environment that preceeds the canonization of scripture. While this certainly does foster a world view that seems beyond question, it seems to avoid the fundamental question of why one particular paradigm is chosen over another one with similar internal consistency.

For instance, if some of the more divisive creeds had gone another way, I don’t doubt that fundamentalist’s convictions would be any less strong. Perhaps this is because what matters isn’t so much what is believed, but how ardently one believes it.

Now this flies in the face of the extreme protectionism evangelicals have towards the bible, and the correct interpretations that lie therein. It also appears to contradict the rigidity of interpretation muslim fundamentalists bestow on their scripture. Are these views even possible if one is intimate with the way scripture is created? For instance if Paul talked about how he really wished he could re-write some of his epistles to make things clearer, would fundamentalism even be possible? Would fundamentalism be possible if, as an associate of John you heard him describe his vision in the same way one might describe a monumental event they saw, accurate but always with slightly different takes, insights, and focus.

And though these colorations to scriptural history are almost a certainty, their evolution to dogmatic unequivocancy is rarely studied. Allowing that to happen is shaking the bedrock of a fundamentalist faith. No wonder it is guarded so carefully, couched in references to blasphemy, divine denial and cultish clandestiny. And so one denies that the Bible could ever exist one jot or tittle different. Indeed many try to latch onto the security of fundamental faith by applying the same fastidious housekeeping to Joseph’s translations and revelations. People purify themselves within a paradigm of their choosing. For some it is the Bible, for some the Koran, for others the standard works. While this shows conviction to God, the if one is fully purified from their environment, they will never be able to see out of their creation. Hence the need for perfect pointers and an innerrant resources. And hence a blissful existence in a world that can only be partially revealed. I wonder if the fundamentalist's demands for the immediate self satisfaction of perfection don't require us to always be the culmination of existence. There can be no waiting for more information, this leads to revolution and change. There can be no ambiguity because this means absolute certainty has been superceeded by another design.

Unfortunately, evolution in use of modern revelation seems to indicate that certainty isn’t necessarily a product of revelation. It may be a product of the canonization of thought. The canonization of thought occurs because there is a need to unify. But with so many possibilities to choose from, people have a nasty way of limiting themselves to a single choice. Perhaps revelation really isn’t meant to get everyone on the same page, it is meant to keep us from focusing on a single page that we invariably turn into a limiting agent.