Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Problems with the concrete

I was going to put this up on Bob & Logan's page, but thought it was too much of a threadjack. Like many I appreciate John Dehlin's podcasts. I think universalizing perspectives are much more pleasant to listen to than over zealous bias. Judging by the ex-mo, or post-mo boards it is just unfortunate that lots of people have to go through such a bitter stage before moving on. Indeed I don't know if people ever fully remove many of those scars - especially in a culture of oppression empowerment.

With mormonism, it seems like people filter in one of two ways; total rejection, or universalizing acceptance. Universalizing acceptance is the less probable route. It seems to get further broken down into two subsets; those that want to stop and change the bad, and those who don't see it as a big issue. Again I think the former is more likely.

While nothing is clear cut like this, I wonder if our natural tendencies to "fix" things may help analyze the situation.

A focus on changing institutions and doctrines, puts a lot of faith in what they actually do. It implies overt means are useful in controlling implicit environments. We rationalize systems until they are perfect. Religions certainly have a tendency to do this. However I wonder if this neglects a possibility that "perfecting" may sometimes, or even most of the time, cause more harm than it actually solves (usually in the long term, not short term). See a Belmont club post on Darfur for an unorthodox perspective.

I can certainly see that universalizing tendencies are a prime goal of useful religion - like Dehlin's new order stance. However on this road lots of things get tossed out. People don't want to continually subject themselves to obvious errors in the system. Benefits are great, but this means people are always having to weigh the pro's and con's based on the moment. Because of this people often say that most any perspective is useful. What matters most is how it resonates with them. I won't deny that this isn't of a first order importance. However second order effects shouldn't be neglected in this process.

For example, why did Christ get baptized? It seems like there is something beyond universalizing ideas. There are universalizing practices as well. While we can say Christian acts are what matters, I suspect this neglects the possible importance institutions play, especially in the eternities.

WIth greater knowledge, there is a greater ability to see the consequences inherit in a grey world. While we like to think God's omniscience can result in actions that avoid any of these, I wonder about the functional possibility of that. What if God's knowledge just makes him more aware of the dangers and negative consequences involved in action-any and every action? This certainly seems like a curse of the tree of good and evil. No matter what Adam and Eve did, they would be instructing their kids towards evil. If this is the case one would either have to quit acting, act perfectly in limited ways, or say screw it forge ahead.

The catatonia of the first seems like a traditional Christian's heaven. The second seems like Satan's plan - fine if being perfectly limited is preferable to the imperfections of unlimitedness.. The latter requires a complete revamp in one's conception of God. It requires one to believe that God's actions may not be perfect, at least in any commonly accepted way.

Personally I like the latter. The world is screwed up because we are just plowing ahead with imperfect things. The very act of "perfecting" them may be impossible, or at least have secondary consequences that self perpetuate. Organizations are important because they will always do more than what an individual can. Neglecting them is as unwise a position as is belief in their possible perfection. In this way one may best view them as tools for self perfection than as tools for other's perfection. Their self rationalizing tendencies mean a continual exposure to new domains may be the only way to keep them form self implosion. Of course one could also create a destabilizing feedback loop. I think Atran had quite a bit to say about that.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

PC Polytheism

Contrasting Religion and the non-denominational progressive PC movement
Part II

Normally we don't think of the PC movement as a formal religion. While the "faith based" label is getting applied more and more to certain segments, what is the real difference between politically correct progressivism and traditional religion?

In the past I have talked about how zealotism is more defined by what is socially acceptable than by any other standard. I have also mentioned how self referential social sciences recreate scriptural authority by cross referencing and footnoting. I have also postulated that PC faculties have become the new theology departments. I also mentioned how mildly counter intuitive ideas are the ones get the most play on both sides. However, these, and all the other conclusions I have reached all seem superficial. After all, there are numerous differences between PC religion and traditional religion: no god like authority, no infallibility, no divine beings, no supernaturalism, no ultimate moral judgments, no divine repercussions, etc One could say that this means the PC'er has just become their own god, however that just doesn't seem overly accurate. There is most definitely a group movement that has occurred and is continuing to occur. Whether it is happening because of a group shift to new implicit assumptions, or whether it is occurring from overt strategies to change the status quo, one is probably correct in saying a new cultural religion is emerging. This movement, like another is most likely a combination of progressives and late adopters. But while it has the feel of a religion, it lacks many of the defining characteristics that define such, and provide such a source of derision.

I would postulate that the only difference is that this new religion has moved from physical polytheism to abstract polytheism.

Traditional religions are usually physically polytheistic. They believe in divine beings. These divine beings are counter intuitive in the way they supersede normal physical laws. Even strongly trinitarian religions end up physically polytheistic in practice - was Christ fully God in every sense? The counterintuitive, and hence unpopular aspects of religion revolve around the physical. The new progressive religious movements of today are physically coherent, but abstractly counterintuitive. Idealism may be successful in a rationalized system, but in practice it is usually slightly off. Obviously this new religious movement in not abstractly monotheistic. There is not one single "idea" or god around which it is unifying. Instead it has numerous different "divine" like "ideas". Each one allows the followers to pick and chose aspects that are most appealing while maintaining a sense of unity. Thus a large segment of the population is moving from physical religion to abstract religion - from a religion about beings, and concrete actions, to a religion about ideas and what thoughts are appropriate. When analyzing this idea, one should really take a book like Atran's, Boyle's or Dennet's and see if the religious critiques about physical counter-intuitiveness apply to the new abstract counter-intuitiveness. My guess is one would be surprised at the parallels.

Critically orthodox

Contrasting Religion and the non-denominational progressive PC movement

This week at school we had a good inservice with one of the leaders of critical thinking in education. While she wasn't overly impressed with the small town charms of a religious community, after the presentation, and an exciting day guiding begginers down high water rivers I started thinking about the similarities and differences between traditional LDS theology and socially progressive guerilla religions . Specifically there was some hypocrisy in how critical thinkers are supposed to remove prejudices as they analyze other points of view from within the context and assumptions in which they are created. (I think the instructor thought since this was a religious town there was no way anyone was ever going to come close to any critical thinking skills - at best techniques would be applied haphazardly in non-significant ways) Obviously removing prejudices is functionally impossible - most are after all implicitly based. However limiting prejudices and minimizing assumptive conclusions certainly isn't impossible. If this is the case, why do few people who are not religious fail to analyze religion with this in mind - ie from a perspective of generous orthodoxy?

I think the main reason is many critically educated people have come to reject religion as a tumor - superficially innocuous, but fundamentally destructive. They see extreme conclusions and assume the system is rationalized for such ends. Because of this, they may also reject anything with a tinge of religion, especially when it is formalized. In effect, religion has, ironically enough, become a cardinal sin. Anything associated with it is heretical, and anything springing from a font of heresy need not be taken on its own ground. Instead the effort to analyze and confront such ideas may be seen as a waste of time. While individual ideas may sometimes be of worth, the extent to which they are corrupted means it is better to toss them out wholesale rather than waste time confronting them with little chance of success. In terms of cultural change, revolution is the solution, not change from within.

However this strikes me as avoiding the whole issue of religion. Certainly it is easier to start with a clean slate and then think critically, but this denies the power of the whole concept. I will admit that most standoffishness in this regard may just be due to the fact the two sides talk past each other, and socratic dialog is limited by perceptions of fundamentalism. In effect, the whole concept of critical thinking fails to engage religion because of the effort required in anything other than academic debates. In day to day situations it seems like traditional tools like sin, heresy, orthodoxy, and social pressure seem to be the most efficient in day to day situations. Of course they are labeled differently today, and due to rapid socially change haven't acquired the connotations and bagger of the former. However PC tools seem the same, although they appear less benign. Perhaps this is due to a polytheistic approach where deities are replaced by ideas.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


There have been few posts lately as the rivers come up and waterfalls seek my attention. However, I was given a copy of 1421 about how the Chinese likely mapped most of the world during this exploratory phase. I must say the whole idea has been fascinating on many levels.

One, it is amazing how supposedly concrete ideas can get turned over quite quickly. I think a lot of historians or archeologists are quite conservative in how they are taking these new ideas. Second, it is interesting to see how some of the rather fanciful phrases of explores can actually be taken quite literally. Obviously not everything is literal, but tales of some of the rich cities and such seem more plausible with Chinese colonization in North or South America.

Second, I think people often overlook how prevalent ocean going exploring is. I think the test of the reed boat that sailed from Africa to Brazil? exemplifies this thinking.

Third, I really get a kick how the lay public has brought to light so much information that conservative or reactionary academics are readily out of step with things that seem obvious. Of course academics have a right to be skeptical, after all they are trained not to jump to conclusions. However, the amount of new information that can be gleamed from a few such jumps (Like Menzies did) is pretty remarkable. I don't think scientific plodding would have stumbled upon this for quite some time.

All in all, in certainly puts a new spin in some of the things I will be looking at the next time I go through the book of mormon. Not that I imagine 1421 exploration having a part in the narrative, only that there are lots of possibilities that some may discredit, but may turn out to be quite reasonable later on. It is a fascinating read, especially if you like the idea of unexplored civilizations.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Self Justification and dissonance

One of the problems of an unbalanced dependence on rationality is dissonance. Eventually, specific self justifying systems become more and more removed from actual events. In the start of the chapter "the rational courtesan", John Ralston Saul is highly critical concerning the difference between Robert McNamara's intended outcomes for the arms sales, world bank loans and the eventual outcomes that were diametrically opposite. While one certainly can say that these cases are much greyer than Saul presents, it seems apparent that idealistic projections mirror rational projections. The validty of this mirroring is probably based on the extent to which each fails to deal with human complexities, irrationality and chaotic meddling.

Most people naturally assume that religion is the ultimate self justifying system. Hence many people claim that dissonance is the end result of any sustained belief. In this case it is ironic to see rationalism suffer from the same criticism. Succeptibility to dissonance seems to depend on the degree to which seemingly insignificant facts are omitted. In terms of a scientific critique of religion, one would have to say that religion ommits key facts that, while they appear to be insignificant, are likely become anything but. Similarly a critique of the absolute nature of science would only be valid if science omitted some seemingly insignificant but ultimately chaotic facts. So the real question between science and religion shouldn't really be about who has the right facts at present (certainly things can change and grow), but who can incorportate the necessary facts. As Saul mentions, rationalism has left out chaotic facts about people.

Right now one really would have to conclude science is at the same stage. While it certainly can make some pretty good predictions involving people, it certainly isn't infallible or all reaching. Of course neither is religion. Realistically most people would conclude that science has no need to go down that road. If it doesn't any possible claims involving human interactions must suffer the fate of rationalism; they can be logically consistent, but ultimately only self justifying. Thus science may be able to discover an unchanging world, but it is not able to explain our relation to it - well at least not at any level that can effectively deal with human interaction. It certainly works well in dealing with absolutes, just as it works well when our chaotic nature is removed from the equation. It may leave one wondering if our chaotic nature is in fact real? If it can't be dealt with I don't know how science could say it is anything other that irrational lunacy. While this may certainly be true, an alternative is to treat our chaotic influence as if it was real. (Note I certainly don't mean that the chaotic aspects of human influence can't be noticed, only that they don't correspond to any sort of physical reality (communally accepted and domain independent))

Of course how does religion handle things? I don't see any reason why religion can't assume any of the facts that science does. Certainly it has dogmatic assumptions about the supernatural. But it doesn't seem to have to exclude any claims of science.

Problems with solidification

Why plugging all your cracks with drywall mud may be the wrong kind of sealing ordinance

Sitting down after spending a few hours mudding my drywall, I found a few minutes to again pick up Stages of Faith. While fairly tangential, a short passage got me thinking back to how as children we seem quite adept at accepting answers that can only be partially understood, and only partially comprehended. Perhaps it was just me, but at four, when asking why the sky was blue, Rayleigh scattering seems something one needs to file away for future use. However, while specifics of an answer may be unintelligible, I suspect that such things just "keep the doors open" until background connections are able to mesh with the perceived depth of response.

From page 132 in Stages of Faith, quoting Bettelheim,
A young child's mind contains a rapidly expanding collection of often ill assorted and only partially integrated impressions: some correctly seen aspects of reality, but many more elements completely dominated by fantasy.

Like Fowler, I suspect that children's fantasy may have a much closer correlation to reality than some superficial judgments may imply. After all, how accurate can answers be when the thought process is not only completely novel, but the language available is vague and imprecise. For those who have dived into a foreign language, imagine trying to explain a novel discovery without access to mental translations and without pauses or breaks. With unformed schemas and fewer rote connections to draw on, when pressed for answers, fantasical ideas may, in large part, be the result of badly described and poorly sorted reality. I still remember how confused I would get when I couldn't call all grown adults daddy. Looking back the idea of subsets was probably what baffled me.

Ruminations aside, I wonder if our youthful ability to deal with and file vague concepts is more of a positive than a negative. It certainly seems to correspond to periods of great growth and change. World outlooks can change on a dime, and processing routines seem better able to reconnect to new ideas. When one thinks about it, having so many concepts in limbo, waiting as it were for filing, such conditions of flexibility are required. Of course as we age, standard procedures become more refined, and thought patterns coalesce. While this is obviously very beneficial, I wonder if one can run into problems assuming that complete concretization is appropriate. In other words solidifying our view of reality towards those things on our current experience, while useful at the moment, may be limiting. This would mainly be contingent upon future change. Of course, the type of change required seems dependent upon some other things as well.

1. The solidification towards absolutes is difficult to undue. From a mormon perspective, (alma 34:34) the influence our physicality has on us, may be hard to undo without it. In one of my last posts I was trying to get at the same idea from more of a cognitive stance.
2. Change may involve alternate ways of looking at present constructs. I suspect if we were to encounter something completely novel, we wouldn't have a hard time reorganizing ways to deal with it. If however, things are only visible from more open perspectives, the more ingrained our outlook becomes, the less likely we are to see novelty.
3. Maintaining an ability to deal with vagueness implies that absolutes may be functionally impossible, or at least well out of reach. (this isn't to say that some absolutes don't exist, gravity for example, only that the world around us, including personal interactions, can't be broken down into a summation of absolutes)

These points seem quite feasible in mormon theology, or at least my version of it. The ups and downs of the scriptures make absolutism a hard case to argue. Post mortal progression and growth seems to imply an ever changing environment. While we like to think of this life as a short step away from final judgment, it may be a bit presumptuous to think we are at the final rung of progression. If this isn't the case, this life may be much more preparatory than judgmental. The divine use of religion as a source of tension and re-evaluation instead of a source of absolutes and scientific knowledge implies that a discovery of absolutes is less important than maintaining flexibility (well that is one possibility at least). Perhaps Jesus' injunction to be humble like little children means more than we think. Perhaps there is also a reason why religion encourages tension. We like to turn everything into a rut that leads to definitiy when it perhaps we should be following a path that leads to an unexpected type of divinity.

Stages of Faith - Tension

Stages of Faith 2

Concerning practical polytheism, Fowler had this to say from his book stages of faith

Here I use this anthropological term to characterize a pattern of faith and identity that lacks any one center of value and power of sufficient transcendence to focus and order one's life. For the polytheist not even the self - one's myth of one's own worth and destiny-can lay a compelling enough claim to unify one's hopes and strivings. The polytheist has "interests" in many minor centers of value and power. He or she may exhibit the pattern described by Robert J. Lifton's image of the protean man, a personality pattern he found in postwar Japan and in the United States in the sixties. Proteus was a minor sea god in the court of Poseidon who could readily adopt any form or guise he desired, but who found it impossible to maintain any particular identity or commitments. Protean people make a series of relatively intense or total identity and faith plunges, but their commitments prove to be transient and shifting. They thus move from one faith relational triad to another, often with sharp discontinuities and abrupt changes of direction.

page 19

I think the purpose of religion is best thought of as a tension. There are numerous equilibrium points that are easy to fall into. It might be protean polytheism, or diffuse polytheism where nothing ever has much importance. It may be religious fundamentalism or atheistic assurance. It might be a strongly deterministic god or practical agnosticism. In many things, the balancing point between these extremes seems to be unstable. That is not to say many people don't have moderated, nuanced views, only that over time, once we have seen the other side, we tend to become much more sure of our own position. While this doesn't seem like much of a problem, it can be if it limits our ability to move from the comfy coziness of deeply ingrained stability.

Now again, I am not saying stability and stagnation are bad, only that they can be if we confuse entrenchment for progress. In this case what may appear as a fabulous way for discovering the universe may in fact be a fabulous way to discover a tiny part of it. Bursts of activity tend to happen as we rationalize disparate points. It happens when we try and see how one equilibrium position can be connected with another. These connections open up a flood of new possibilities as weightings have to be re-evaluated and the freedom from a background of rigid cognitive subconscious enables novelty. Supposing that such a spark of creativeness is vital for exploring the unseen parts of our environment, we may well ask what should the major focus of revealed religion be?

1. It should enable a complete understanding of our material world through revelation that dictates scientific and technological advancement (ex God reveals to us scientific laws that can help us explore the universe or better our lives. new drugs, new physical laws, etc)

2. It should group people based on their commitment levels, personal preferences, hopes and aspirations. In this way it can unify minor differences creating a common perspective that solves many socially related conflicts, and enables the power behind group action. (ex. there are many different kingdoms of glory where we can work with those who share our way of being, and this life is a sorting process. Revelation provides doctrines that are key for this sorting)

3. It forces a continual re-evaluation of facts, opinions and ideas. While this may prevent the easy attainment of many answers, if our perspective is in fact rather limited, it can keep us from solidifying around absolutes that may be incorrect or valid over a limited domain. (ex facts from mortality, while useful are less important than whatever key may exist for discovering other aspects of our environment. Revelation is about keeping us on track with a long range methodology.)

Obviously many people fault religion because it doesn't provide a type 1 answer (controversial dietary laws aside :). The lack of this type of revelation implies that such advancement is not the primary purpose of religion. (some would argue that God's inspiration provides new ideas, scientific and otherwise, however it doesn't seem like this is the point of revelation. The book of mormon stones, and the ships of Noah, the Jaredites and Nephi aside - and perhaps some temple construction)

Answer 2 seems a popular idea. The earth as a test meme seems quite prevalent. The type 3 answer doesn't seem at all popular. While Atran from In Gods We Trust, seemed to think that religious thought is inherently circular (because it arose out of a hyperactive agent detection routine that feeds back on itself), most people critique religion because it provides a continually moving target. However I wonder if in this critique, we usually don't neglect some of the potential benefits of continual re-evaluation and reformulation. This seems a natural thing to forget when we assume the immediate product always outweighs the process.

Is your meme my god

I just listened to the good RSA symposium between Denkins and Alister McGrath about Dennet's book Breaking the spell of religion. I think one of the most interesting points demonstrated was the failure to admit to the prejudices of one's own belief system is the surest way to believe you have the winning argument. I think antagonism towards religion only proves this point. The degree to which religious like beliefs are mocked is often correlates to the degree to which someone is blind to the circular nature of their own belief system. This isn't to say some modes of thought are better at certain things than others, only that we tend to forget that individual priorities mean what we value may not be the same as someone else. Hence the circularity caused by background perspectives.

While Dennet is much broader in his definition of religion than most, McGrath's meme critique seems to assume a broader definition still. It seems to define religion in terms of faith claims rather than the supernatural. Therefore memes theory functions in a similar role as god, albeit in a much more palatable way for society. In relation to this, Dennnet raises a very interesting point, science has evolved a way to largely remove bias from its findings, making it able to escape endless cycles of handwaving.

With this possibility, I find it ironic that so many people who attack religion seem to do so in rather religious like fashion. I would suppose, from Dennet's position, atheism or feminism becomes becomes no different from traditional religion as long as they are unable to find tools to remove the inherit biases their own memes engender. Perhaps it is as McGrath says, any organization has its fanatical elements. Today's problem with religion may not be as much what it is about, but rather how it is perceived, presented and used.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Originally uploaded by cgoblemoblo.

An interesting podcast from Science Friday about great discoveries had this quote from Alan Lightman

"I am writer as well as a physicist, and I know in my little corner of the world that when I have had a creative moment it has felt exactly the same in science and in art. There is a feeling as if your head is lifting off your shoulder and you loose all tract of your ego, you loose track of your body, time and where you are. It is a wonderful ego free state. What is always ironical about this and gives me a laugh is that many scientist have big egos."

While one could immediately jump into similarities between this and conventional takes on spiritual experiences, this won't be my point.

If one takes a limiting view of religion, assuming only that it is a natural phenomena, one doesn't have to assume spiritual experiences have no value. While I assume supernatural experiences do correspond to a certain reality (probably less than some, but more that others), from most any open perspective one would have to say spiritual experiences correspond strongly to a moment of creative synthesis. Ideas come together, assumptions harmonize, and, perhaps most important of all, (subconcious) background ideas seem to fit together providing a sense of euphoria wherein one believes answers in any direction are possible and at one's fingertips. Now obviously people take this in different ways.

People who tend to see religion as a natural phenomena would probably say visions like Nephi's and Lehi's are explained as they reached this state, and applied their religious assumptions to create an experience that harmonized with their view of God and the world.

People from a more classical religious background would probably say this state corresponds to a chance to see the harmonization God lives under. The reflection of this means that events are perceived as they should, with past, present and future discernible and illuminated as an eternal perspective.

Atheists would probably say it just corresponds to mental feedback loop where strong harmonization has caused a resonant state.

From any of theses perspectives, though I don't know how one could deny the utility of such experiences? Certainly one could say that natural perspective is dangerous because it allows people to propagate ideas that may not be "real". While I would tend just to say I believe that there is a reality behind these events, the benefit of such harmonizing experiences seems to be based on the process of rationalization.

Background ideas and subconscious preferences are hard to work with. Indeed the whole idea of an unconscious mind has gone through a series of rises and falls. Nonetheless it certainly seems true that there are numerous non-overt thoughts whose balance colours our decisions. When we deal with hard science issues, these things usually don't matter much (except perhaps in exploration). As we move over to the realm of ethics and morality though, they certainly to. It is hard to get away from the idea that morality is based on the sum of these background preferences. If this is the case then, any tool which lets us deal with these things would certainly seem to be very valuable.

Indeed I remember being relatively young, hearing that the way one organizes their thinking determines the problems one is optimized to solve and trying to figure out a way to think as symbolically as possible in order to not be limited by the speed of self talk and the size of short term memory. Of course it wasn't very successful. Most everything in life is best dealt with common methods. Yet I wonder if religion's focus on spirituality doesn't offer tools for just such types of meta-representational subliminal thought?

The harmonization with god that religion values, may, in large part, correspond to a complete rationalization of ones thoughts ideas and desires with one's environment. Of course this idea isn't new. It is what religion is really after. What is interesting is to think of the consequences of a society that is fully rationalized this way. There is certainly a sense of perfection, but also lots of chance for progression.

The paradigm effect

Originally uploaded by cgoblemoblo.

Colin Blakemore and Grahame Cooper at the University of Cambridge published a paper in 1970. They raised kittens in pitch darkness, except for 5 hours each day during which they were put in pens painted with either vertical or horizontal stripes. After five months, the kittens were let loose in a normally lit room. Those that had been exposed only to horizontal lines would repeatedly walk into table legs, while animals exposed to vertical lines couldn't see horizontal edges. Each was effectively blind to edges in the direction they had not been exposed to during the formative period.

New Scientist, 5 November 2005 page 32

It certainly seems clear that the paradigm one uses to see the world affects the things one sees in it. I wonder if one can get this idea from Alma's rebuttal to Korihor that all things testify there is a Christ. Either nothing does, or every thing does. It just depends on the perspective taken. However this doesn't explain what is correct. It only move the decision of correctness from a realm of absolutes to one of perspectives. This isn't a whole sale shift though. Obviously some things, are much more appropriate from an absolute frame instead of a relative frame and vice versa. (hard science -absolute, ethics and morality - relative)

I would say the decision about which paradigm is most valid largely depends on what one is trying to accomplish. From previous posts I have mentioned that quite a few things can get created by simply having a committed group of people working together. Obviously not everything can, but by and large it is surprising how often the limiting factor often is willingness, not capability. So it seems that as the level of novel creativity increases, so to does the need for more open paradigms. One can try and apply the results of creative exploration in an absolute way, but the search itself seems to be quite relative.

So applying this to religious thought, the degree to which one should apply absolute versus relative assessments on the world seems to depend whether one is trying to creatively explore it, or dedicatedly follow others explorations of it. Both seem valid. Mixing up the tools with the task, however doesn't seem to fare very well.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Finding Senses

While there is a great degree of overlap in the way we sense the world, our individual experience with reality certainly can't be said to be universal. For instance deaf people experience a different type of reality from blind people. Those with down's syndrome experience a different reality from those with autism. While one can try and say reality is a singular entity, our interaction with it seems to make this more idealistic than practical (at least for things that can't easily be changed)

With any perspective it is hard not to assume the way one interacts with the world isn't mitigated by cognitive structures. Now this doesn't imply any value judgment on those on whom these structures are distributed. One certainly could try and rationalize why a sufficiently powerful god would cause (or allow) such things, the simplest explanation seems to be that it is just how things work out. Thus one could view the expenditure required for a fix to be inefficient, other requirements too pressing, the task too difficult, the net results beneficial or any combination thereof.

Ironically though, many people seem to have a hard time accepting that some people just don't have the same spiritual experiences others do. From a believer's perspective, many people just can't accept that Joseph Smith had a vision, that the testimony of the 12 witnesses is valid, or one's born again experience or personal testimony is valid. From another perspective, people may have a hard time accepting that sincere prayer and effort can't result in a spiritual experience. It seems odd to accept a normal distribution for certain cognitive traits and not for this one.

It certainly seems as if religious tendencies are an inherit human tendency. This doesn't mean everyone has such tendencies though. Nor does it require that such tendencies can only describe a fictitious reality. It simply means that the difficulty making this sense a commonly accepted paradigm, means it is really quite inappropriate to require everyone to act as if it were universal.

So if one falls into either end of the spectrum, what does one do? I think the parable of the talents is quite appropriate. People rarely seem to go wrong making the best out of what they have. This seems to imply accepting one's state instead of trying to act average. To my mind, anything else denies the reality they experience. This would require living in an incongruent state. This type of incongruence rarely seems to foster happiness, sustainable growth, or the character development that most paradigms value.

So what is one to do? Finding ones senses seems key. It also seems key to resist an assumption that all other perspectives are invalid just because they are based on a different perspective of reality. Truth, and its continual discovery seems to be based on not getting caught up in tight, self rationalizing systems.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Optimization for the chaos of free will

Originally uploaded by cgoblemoblo.
VB3 - Rationalism vs. Religion : Optimization for chaotic agents

In his book "Voltaire's Bastards", John Ralston Saul is critical of highly specialized bureaucrats. The complaint is that they have highly rationalized solutions that work well within their sphere of control but fail miserably when applied to external areas where they have no control and cannot rationalize conditions.. Specifically he believes that a lack of understanding and involvement with the gritty aspects of the outside world lead to the disasters of rationalized idealism.

The technocrats of our day make the old aristocratic leaders seem profound and civilized by comparison. The technocrat has been actively - indeed, intensely - trained. But by any standard comprehensible within the tradition of Western civilization, he is virtually illiterate. One of the reasons that he is unable to recognize the necessary relationship between power and morality is that moral traditions are the product of civilization and he has little knowledge of his own civilization.

VB page 110

As I continue to think about the role between science and religion, this paragraph seems particularly apt. Science specifically focusses on context independence. One's personal perspectives should make no difference on the results expected. While we may be tempted to assert the universality of religious experience, personal perspectives certainly matter. How necessary is a knowledge of one's own "civilization" when dealing with questions involving free agents?

One of the signs of a dying civilization is that its language breaks down into exclusive dialects which prevent communication. A growing, healthy civilization uses language as a daily tool to keep the machinery of society moving. The role of responsible, literate elites is to aid and abet that communication.

VB page 110

Certainly Saul seems to be mixing in a bit of hyperbole here. Growing civilizations have no need for complicated language because progress isn't limited by how good, sustainable, or effective ideas are, only how quickly one can move on to the next project. Because of this, growth is rarely sustained. Either the foundations are too wobbly, or competition eats up resources and revenues. Nonetheless, the idea that "language" (in the abstract sense) is a key in preventing rationalism from losing touch with the real world is reasonable.

One of the complaints about organized religion is that it can often be out of touch. Of course, Saul would say this is also the case with anything technocratically oriented. They are very precise, but fail to adequately accommodate external factors. Rationalism (and idealism) only works under homogenous conditions, or when control can be used to make things function as if they were. In this light, it is interesting to take a look at Jesus' example.

Most of the records of his ministry revolve around his interaction with common people. He certainly had great disdain for the rationalized technocrats of his time. While he proposed idealized solutions, his focus didn't seem to be one of sophistry. They seemed to revolve around interaction. While some may disdain theologically adaptable religions because of the amorphous way they avoid rational study , one really has to wonder if this isn't a good way to deal with chaotic based moral issues?

If absolutes don't exist, rationalism can never completely handle the changing conditions caused by chaotic free will. Since it resists prediction, dialogue with those exercising chaotic free will would be necessary input. In this way, chaos is manageable on a short time frame. As much as I love science, it specifically removes itself from any sort of dialogue with the agents it studies. The lack of a feedback loop may make it impossible to fully comprehend or describe the chaos of human interactions. On the other hand, religion, while poor at objective study, may be well suited for these tasks.

It is a unifying force, optimized to concretize abstract relations. It gives people a very good common sense feel for what is communally right and wrong. In this sense, religion functions as a vehicle for maintaining contact with chaotic agents. Jesus' example with average people may have significance beyond charity. Religion may be more of an inclusive tool that facilitates dialogue, feedback and communal growth than as a tool for rationalized discovery of theological ideals.

It isn't surprising that the modern manager has difficulty leading steadily in a specific direction over a long period of time. He has no idea where we are or where we've come from. What's more, he doesn't want to know, because that kind of knowledge hampers his kind of action.

Instead he has learned to disguise this inner void in ways which create a false impression of wisdom. Voltaire had a genius for deflating the credibility and thus destroying the legitimacy of established power. His weapon was words so simple that anyone could understand and repeat them. Genius, unfortunately, is something which can't be passed on. Voltaire did however introduce an auxiliary weapon which was perfectly transferable. Skepticism. It was a useful tool when applying common sense to the unexplainable mysteries of established power. Skepticism was something that most men of average intelligence. It was to become the great shared tool of the new rational elites.

But it is virtually impossible to maintain healthy skepticism when power is in your hands. to do so would require living in a state of constant personal conflict between your public responsibilities and self-doubt over your ability to discharge them. Instead the new elites rolled these two elements together into a world weary version of skepticism which is what we know as cynicism.

VB page 112

Of course cynicism lets one choose what to believe. It facilitates "self justifying or violently efficient" beliefs. Religions certainly are highly susceptible to this. It provides leaders with access to tremendous power. It provides them with the tools to form rationalized systems that even hand picked "fact finding" commissions could never match. We try to mitigate this by selecting leaders who are very self sacrificing and thus less susceptible to power. However it is interesting to note the historical role prophets have played. Largely acting outside the system their calls to repentance and claims of authority have a nasty habit of destroying rationalized edifices that creep into organized religion. In this sense, what practical religion may need is not tighter rationalism to facilitate philosophical or perhaps even scientific vindication, instead, it may need tools to prevent such overly specialized rationalism. A focus on practical morality, especially one that accommodates dialogue with chaotic free will seems to be a good way to avoid overly precise structures, power, and domain specific results.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Guerilla Religion

When one looks, at least superficially, at the legal systems of North American society, obfuscation appears an effective tool to avoid repercussion. Guilt beyond reasonable doubt encourages criminals to pursue methods that increase uncertainty. In the application of law, a strong resistance to arbitrariness favors complication over common sense conclusions. Now this certainly protects the innocent. The extra work required to punish the guilty, to many, seems a justifiable balance. However the long term consequences may mean society is unable to deal with large scale guerilla wars. They can be challenged tactically, but strategically, a lack of arbitrariness may be a fatal flaw in a ideological and media based confrontation.

Religiously, the rise of guerillism in our society is quite apparent. Organized religion is taboo precisely because of its arbitrary tendencies. In its place individualism reigns. However the only consistent means by which individuals can succeed against organizations is with a response (ouda) loop that overpowers the benefits of group action. Extreme incompetence and disorganization on the part of organizations seems to enable this. However it is doubtful that every religious organization can be categorically inept (the benefits of group action almost always succeed in the long run). The other way is to have constantly changing conditions. Social progressiveness seems to assume that a rapid rate of change is a way to stay ahead of the consequences of stagnation, or the natural consequences of stability depending which view one favors. The other way individuals can succeed over organizations is within an obfusciscious society.

The complexity of today's rational state, its empowerment of experts, its resistance to accept any arbitrariness combine to empower the individual over the organization. However, what seems to be happening is that complexity is emerging as the new hideout for religion. By this I mean that it is a new vault where people can go to for vindication and empowerment. The rules are communally accepted and internally consistent. They are dogmatic in nature and morally based. The difference between this, call it guerilla religion, and organized religion is that the former can attack, but cannot itself be attacked, unless one takes an extremely arbitrary perspective on things. In this sense, is it any wonder that fanaticism and fundamentalism have increased? Realistically, if one wants a fight, how else does one combat religious guerillas? The irony with terrorism seems profound. Guerilla based neo-humanism in conflict with guerilla based diplomacy. The former fighting an unconventional ideological war via conventional means, the latter fighting a conventional ideological war via unconventional means.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Religion & Science 2

Scientific Reality

Jeffrey at Issues In Mormon Doctrine has had a series of good posts on Dennet's "Breaking the Spell of Religion". While most of my comments never quite manage to be in sync with the subtleties required, the novel threads I end up thinking about after the face must mean I am at least adjusting my track, or perhaps just getting successively more off base.

One issue that has taken me a while to come to grips with is the various things people mean when they say something is scientific. Many branches of study seem to cling to the coat tails of science in a way that is analogous to how religions cling to divine endorsement. Often it is used as a tool of authentication rather than a means of establishing rigorous absolutes.

Going through Voltaire's Bastards, one certainly gets presented with the idea that much of what we assume to be valid may in fact just be the finalizing of a self justifying and hence, logically consistent system. However, one assumes science is independent of this for a few reasons.
1. Science is weakly dependent on value judgments. Facts are able, in most part, to speak for themselves. If not, they can be explained in a way that minimizes subjective interpretation.
2. Scientific results are context independent. They specify the conditions under which they are valid. Eventually conclusions can be shown to be correct in any attainable situation.
3. As an extension of 2, context independence infers that reality is what is being described. Repeatability solidifies this assumption.

In the scientific pursuit one of the things sought are unimpeachable results. These should apply to any specified conditions, or at least be simplified approaches that apply to limited domains (Newtonian mechanics vs. quantum mechanics). They should be repeatable, hence reliable. In other words they should describe reality. Following this line, one can come to the conclusion that reality is anything that can be depended upon and is context independent. More specifically many people would say that it corresponds to something absolute. Science is a means to describe this absolute reality.

An absolute, science communicates in communal fashion. It's results are thing upon which every logical person can agree. Those that don't are factually and demonstrably incorrect. This means it is based on communal realities. Now of course it happens that shared realities are the ones most likely to represent physically reality. However our experience of reality can't occur without participation. While philosophers will probably call me a fool, I don't think we can logically talk about reality as an absolute without reference to our experiential contact with it. In other words, it is like trying to talk about the momentum of an electron without reference to it's position. While precise momentum measures are possible, we can't take this figure and extrapolate it back to a given position. Their distinguishabilities are inversely related. When we talk about science discovering absolutes, we can't talk about it independent of experience. Of course degree to which experience interacts with reality varies depending upon the object and, perhaps, the observer.

If I am a schizophrenic and hear voices of an imaginary person communicating with me, in what way is this less real than another person who has an actual person talking to them? It is less real because no one else can experience it. While this obviously isn't a very useful way of dealing with things, what happens if other people were to act as if the schizophrenic voice was real? Obviously we would say we are entering into a world of pretend. It falls apart because there is no way different people could experience that same thing. Each "voice" would be different, hence unreliable. If, however, people understood the imaginary voice as communicating the same thing in a repeatable fashion, is it still unreal? As the voice becomes more anthropomorphized, the answer mimics reality more and more. Questions like this really lead one to question the value in the difference between actual realities and functional realities. If they are indistinguishable, what is the difference? To some extent, is this what religion may actually be proposing?

One of the first problems is that we can no longer deal with one reality that we all experience. There are individual realities that have substantial overlap, especially in certain areas. In this realm, religion has a niche. The unification it facilitates may enable its fundamental promises. It implies that what one accepts, to some extent, is able to change the reality one experiences. Fundamentally this is what repentance is about. Real change is feasible, and paradigm shifts can enable things that otherwise would not be possible.

To me this leads to an interesting way to think about the three degrees of glory. Somehow people in one degrees are able to share a reality that is fundamentally different from those in another. It could be a similar idea of how god works and how to follow his example. In this way it would be analogous to Christ's proclamation that if you have seen him and what he has done, you have seen the Father and what he has done. While Jesus and the Father are not physically one, it's a good bet they have a similar take on how things work. I don't think it a religious stretch to say that their reality is quite a bit different that what many of us would accept, conceive, predict, or apply.

Similarly there are certain other shared realities that are possible. Some may involve no spiritual promptings at all. In this regard I find the cognitive sci approaches to religion interesting. They seem to imply that religious inclination is at least fairly widespread. The conclusion that the supernatural, while not actually real, is nonetheless an effective way to embody ethereal connections seems fairly analogous to the mormon conception of the telestial kingdom. Distinctions in the other kingdoms could also be based on the way one perceives, shares and experiences reality.

Religion & Science 1

From religion to science

When religion tries to become scientific a couple of outcomes seem likely.
1. Religion chooses which facts and studies to accept, becoming at most a pseudo science. Intelligent design defense seems to fit in here. Proponents use the science label to justify and proof text positions..
2a. Rationalism is mistakenly presented as science. Thus people who say religion is scientific are at best saying it is rational. Historicity approaches to religion seem a good example of this. The more one values the simple edge of Okam's razor, the more religion is seen as a useful myth. (Here I mean rationalism as the attempt to make things logically consistent with what is currently accepted)
2b. On a similar note, a few may confuse philosophical consistency with scientific truth. Thus they may propose that they are scientifically studying a world that is, in large part, hidden from us. Few people would really accept philosophy as real science.
3. Religion uses scientific methodology as a basis for revelation. Scientists get up in arms because results are always extremely contextual, scientifically unreliable, and inherently corrupt. Using these results could lead to patently false conclusions (the tooth fairy is a real entity).

There are probably a few other categories of outcomes. The first seems inherently distasteful to me. I have never been overly fond of proof texting and self justification. Apologetics certainly has place in a PR world, but it is poor way to discover anything useful.

The second is probably much more diverse that I have indicated. Since I accept that the conclusions of religion are improbable (although certainly not impossible), I tend to think attempts at complete rationalization have severe restrictions due to their inability to deal with vagueness.

I am rather partial to the third. While it certainly can lead to compartmentalization of truth (ie my revelations don't apply to everday life, and scientific conclusions can be superceded), I don't think it has to. The problem seems to be how we view reality, and how willing we are to let in data that could lead to erroneous conclusions. Science is based on using data that is acceptable to everyone. While certainly dependable, it may be limiting to assume all things can be so universal.

Are there any other general categories of outcomes that can be expected if a religion tries to become scientifically based?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

VB 3 - Central Ideologies

Voltaire's Bastards
Central Ideologies

As one looks closer at society, extreme positions tend towards functional similarity. According to Terror & Liberalism, the extreme left is increasingly finding itself supporting regimes, or at least states, that are every bit as genocidal as their professed epitome of evil - nazism. While few countries are able to match German efficiency, I wonder if we aren't some times overly confident and adept in the creation of self justifying systems. Complexity can be a wonderful tool for creating the types of insulation necessary to make anything else seem foolish.

The Right and the Left, like Fascism and Communism, have never been anything more than marginal dialects on the extremes of reason. They are the naive answers that one would expect from a central ideology which, in its very heart, believes in absolute solutions. And so, despite this confusion of false ideologies, the ethic of reason has continued to spread within our societies. Certain characteristics of that ethic, less apparent in the beginning, have seeped through into dominating positions. It has produced a system determined to apply a kind of clean, unemotional logic to every decision, and this to the point where the dictatorship of the absolute monarchs has been replaced by that of absolute reason. The development and control of intricate systems, for example, has become the key to power

VB page 20

I have mentioned before that rationalism is very successful. I certainly can't imagine the world without it. However that does not mean that we aren't susceptible to over extending it in much the same way that people over extend religion. I think my posts ON IDEALISM have gotten at this idea. Often what matters isn't how things could work in an ideal world, it is how they function in practice. Pragmatism wins because it deals with the context that idealism forgets. However, just as extreme liberalism may find itself justifying Iraqi beheadings and condemning Californian executions, context can become an all encompassing shroud.

We see signs of failure, but the system provides no vocabulary for describing this breakdown, unless we become irrational; and the vocabulary of unreason is that of darkness, so we quite properly avoid it.

This absence of intellectual mechanisms for questioning our own actions becomes clear when the expression of any unstructured doubt - for example, over the export of arms to potential enemies or the loss of shareholder power to managers or the loss of parliamentary power to the executive - is automatically categorized as naive or idealistic... Our society contains no method of serious self-criticism for the simple reason that it is now a self-justifying system which generates its own logic.

VB page 21

Many people ask whether or not religion can stand up to scientific scrutiny. Does it have to throw up a wall of sacredness to avoid being shaken to myth? This seems to presuppose the existence of absolute solutions. While John Saul's comments certainly can be questioned, I wonder if some of the baggage brought to the debate doesn't illuminate some interesting duplicities concerning self justification.

Certainly science tends towards context independence. But in the debate, are we mistaking rationality for science and justifying it through self determining logic? When the solutions one is looking for are context dependent, a wrench certainly seems to get thrown into the mix. After all context independence seems a basic assumption upon which things naturally get framed. I wonder if, in some instances, we are mistaking rationality for science and religion for irrationality.

Rational complexity seems to have defined religion as its opposite. As they apply to moral fields, they may actually be sides of the same coin. The only difference could be the extent to which they have embraced scientific methodology When applied to moral fields, is rationality the scientology of religion? Does it hide behind the protective cloak of science in the same way religion hides behind its sacred walls?

To me the question seems to center around the extent to which science can stick to each.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

VB2 - rationality's communication problems

Voltaire's Bastards 2
Rationality's communication problems

People like specific solutions. In societal terms we want to have a knowledge that the direction we are tending is the best possible course. We instinctively shy away from leaders who would answer with vagueness, indicating that the specifics we rely on really don't matter much in the end. This tendency seem analogous to religious tendencies towards highly specific extrapolations. From Voltaire's Bastards:

Our unquenchable thirst for answers has become one of the obvious characteristics of the West in the second half of the twentieth century. But what are answers when there is neither memory nor general understanding to give them meaning? This running together of the right answer with the search for truth is perhaps the most poignant sign of our confusion.

page 17

Confidence towards religion or rationality is based on the ability to understand. Realistically, religious language, while much deeper than most people can fathom can be interpreted to a point where sudden clarity seems apparent and limitations obvious. This seems similar to a move along Fowler's stages of progression. The limiting factor is often a deciphering of language and meaning. However, should we suppose that rationality suffers no such equivalencies? Continuing,

It is a curious sort of confusion. Organized and calm on the surface, our lives are lived in an atmosphere of nervous, even frenetic agitation. Hordes of essential answers fly about us and disappear, abruptly meaningless. Successive absolute solutions are provided for major public problems and then slip always without our consciously registering their failure. Neither the public and corporate authorities nor the experts are held responsible for their own actions in any sensible manner because the fracturing of memory and understanding has created a profound chaos in the individual's sense of what responsibility is.

This is part of the deadening of language which the reign of structure and abstract power has wrought. The central concepts upon which we operate were long ago severed from their roots and changed into formal rhetoric. They have no meaning. They are used wildly or administratively as masks. And the more our language becomes as tool for limiting general discourse, the more our desire fro answers becomes frenzied.

page 17

In the moral realm it is common to think of rationality as a saviour. Yet, the more complex its associated language becomes, the more religious in nature it appears. While an ability to decipher significant levels of interactions may lead one to believe that absolutes can be discovered, this very complexity may sow the seeds of its own inapplicableness.

Yet there is no great need for answers. Solutions are the cheapest commodity of our day. They are the medicine show tonic of the rational elites. And the structures which produce them are largely responsible for the inner panic which seems endemic to modern man.

pg 17

Perhaps there is something to be said for reliance on vagueness. While not a popular thought (it certainly could stymie progress), perhaps forcing reliance on over specificity may be one of the underlying principles true religion should teach.

VB 1 - religion of rationality

Voltaire's Bastards
The religion of rationality

Let's face it, religion today has a bad name. What protestantism was to Catholicism, individual morality now is to organized religion. And yet the more one looks at our society the clearer one fundamentally ingrained religious tendencies appear. While this certainly doesn't imply people are out recreating pseudo synagogues, cathedrals and catechisms, it does mean many of the principals that lead to religious belief and organization somehow get represented in people for whom religion has become a hiss and a byword.

Like many avante garde modern moralities, adherents of politically correct morality could probably best be described as a religious sect. However in place of formal organization, the fear of such has lead to what could best be described as a guerilla organization. Coincidentally this seems to mimic the success tribalism is having dealing with large world powers - it decentralizes responsibility preventing any sort of consequential accounting. Modern "religion" seems to be re-inventing moral dogmatism under other auspices, couching itself in sacrosanct positions that empower it to define new heresies. Fundamentally, has anything except the structure really changed?

John Ralston Saul, perhaps expressed similar ideas in his 1992 book Voltaire's Bastards. However his concern is that our modern faith in reason has left us blind to issues surrounding it's use.

One thing is clear: despite successive redefinitions by philosophers, the popular understanding and expectations have remained virtually unchanged. This stability seems to withstand even the real effects of reason when it is applied: to withstand them so effectively that it is difficult to imagine a more stubbornly optimistic concept, except perhaps that of life after death.

pg 15

What is John Ralston Saul talking about here? Religion? The endless circularity that occurs in philosophy? The ineffectiveness of idealism? Actually, it seems to be about a miscalculation concerning the dogmatic nature of reason.

The original easy conviction that reason was a moral force was gradually converted into a desperate, protective assumption. The twentieth century, which has seen the final victory of pure reason in power, has also seen unprecedented unleashings of violence and of power deformed. It is hard, for example, to avoid noticing that the murder of six million Jews was a perfectly rational act. And yet our civilization has been constructed precisely in order to avoid such conclusions. We carefully - rationally in fact - assign blame for our crimes to the irrational impulse. In this why we merely shut our eyes to the central and fundamental misunderstanding: reason is no more than structure. And structure is most easily controlled by those who feel themselves to be free of the cumbersome weight represented by common sense and humanism. Structure suits best those whose talents lei in manipulation and who have a taste for power in its purer forms.

pg. 16

While many find religion easy to critique because of disappointment in moral absoluteness, I wonder if the world of reason in to which they escape is fundamentally different in anything other than degree? While science certainly leads to true and false answers, believing that life can apply black and white rationality may be quite a leap of faith. Despite it's limitations, is it possible that aspects of religious morality may be functionally equivalent to more progressive attempts at delineating the same?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

InG we T -Sin's Locus

In Gods We Trust
Ritual 3.1 - Sin's Locus

According to C. Ward and Beaubrun, possession exorcism affords positive advantages to the individual in such cases: direct escape for a conflict situation and diminution of stress and guilt feelings by projecting blame onto the intruding spirit. The critical advantage of the Pentecostal Church or the village holy man over doctors and folk healers is community support. The group accepts the cause of a person's difficulties to lie beyond the individual's responsibility or control and also accepts the collective burden of comforting, caring for, and eventually curing the individual.

-Atran pg 166

As Atran points out, one potential benefit from the development of sin is how it separates an individual from responsibility. Obviously this is sure to have some negatives associated with it. However, it certainly does make it easier for people to hate the sin and love the sinner.

Along related lines, it seems to give society the chance to create programs, traditions, or attitudes that can help remediate a given set of problems. For instance, many of the supposedly sexist sexual guidelines of the past are probably rooted in well meaning, and for their time period, successful attempts to deal with the risk of unplanned pregnancies. This is not to say the past had all the right answers, only that methods were created to deal with the problem.

It seems reasonable to assume that some people in the church use Satan as a foil to externalize some locus of control. Indeed I wonder if many of the people who conceptualize all sin as the results of an extremely active devil may not also be the ones who wish for more social engineering to combat the problems they see surrounding us. As a corollary, people who see sin as a real representation of their true character may be more inclined for personal rather than environmental solutions.

InG we T - Implicational logic

In Gods We Trust
Ritual 3.0 - Implicational logic

By tuning out the scripted routine and forgetting changing details, participants are able to turn their attention to the "logical" structure and implications of religious doctrine presented in exegesis, argumentation, and sermonizing. As the "inexorable implicational logic" of religious doctrine becomes transparent to participants, the "codification and transmission" of religious belief take on a "high degree of ideological integration, coherence, uniformity, stability" Indeed the systematic, logically integrated character of institutions is an adaptation to conditions of frequent reproduction.

Last year I wrote some posts on TRIBAL RELIGION. One aspect of tribal religions is their lack of universality. Tribal religions are often defined by the inability to fully accommodate outsiders. To have a true sense of their meaning, one has to be born into them. This is the only way to fully understand the hidden meanings that support a unique and basically non transferrable world outlook. Outsiders, like anthropologists, can try to decipher meaning, but hidden memes will always destabilize projections.

Religion it seems, becomes more logical the more one gets in tune with the hidden assumptions behind it. Like Atran mentions in the previous quote, implicational logic become transparent to participants. The reproduction of memes is easy for religion to accommodate. This is because in one sense, the real value of religion doesn't lie in philosophical based doctrines, rather it lies in the ability to give representation to deeply seated memes, heuristics, and even universal assumptions.

In this sense religion mimics deep assumptions about the world. As we look at our own religious views, perhaps we can become too proud of their seemingly logical irrefutability. We assume others just need to see things more from our perspective in order to be convinced. Perhaps we think our perspectives are more useful for others than they may actually be. Perhaps it is too easy to get caught up in the apparent correctness of our view, making a firm foundation of personal experience and validation even more important. If not, we may be wont to follow a path that, as we progress, appears to be more and more correct. As ever the importance of initial direction may only be offset by the importance of humility and a repentant attitude.

InG we T - Big Brother

In Gods We Trust
Commitment 2.6 - Big Brother

According to Jared Diamond, who relates a form of the "religion is oppression" argument: "Bands and tribes already had supernatural beliefs, just as do modern established religions. But the supernatural beliefs of bands and tribes did not serve to justify central authority, justify transfer of wealth, or maintain peace between unrelated individuals". True "religion" arose only when a central authority, or what Diamond calls a "kleptocrat," co-opted preexisting supernatural beliefs to set up a pyramid scam. In this game of social deception wealth flows up the social hierarchy from plebes to patrcians on its way to the gods. Of course, the plebes never see wealth get past the patricians, but they believe it does. The kleptocrat's trick is not entirely a con. He gets people to cooperate with one another under the belief that Bid Brother is always lurking about in search of defectors. The plebes hope to emulate Big Brother by spying on an policing one another, which helps maintain personal security through public order. It also gives people a motive to sacrifice themselves for nonkin

In large societies stability depends on the strength of the central authority. Whether this authority is fascist or democratic doesn't change the requirement that diversity must be balanced by organization. The more diverse a population, the more unifying elements are needed. It seems as if there are several current attempts to supply things around which our increasingly diverse population can unify.

Human rights and social progressiveness seems to be one tenet that seemed to gain notoriety in the 90's. The growth of feminist movements, queer studies, and various other minority voice issues seem to have an underlying theme that the embrace of diversity can function as a social glue. Not being a sociologist I will refrain from citing self referential studies, and merely conclude that, in practice, an embrace of diversity seems to often be a one sided affair that seems to self justify exceptions. Thus it rarely has the enforceable tendencies that would allow it to survive as a tenable rallying point.

Natural religion seems quite capable of providing a rallying point for civilization. According to Atran so far, it seems like an abstractly created Big Brother is a fairly universal human tendency. For it to function as a unifying force, however, one would assume there has to be some continuity in the social norms (memes) that it enforces. This explains why many people are concerned about the unraveling of social values that is occurring today. Despite what may be broadcase, individual points themselves may not have much intrinsic value. However, the diverging paradigms that are manifest and created as a result of these challenges may undermine our sense of internal policing. If we truly believe that the other side is out to lunch, unable to act rationally (from our frame of reference), and likely to push their agenda over our own values, there is little chance that their naturally evolved Big Brother will police them in a way that is mutually favorable.

Religion seems to overcome this by the display of commitment. Throughout this 5th chapter Atran points out that natural religions require commitment displays that are hard to fake. These displays must be costly, enforceable, somewhat prescribed, and hence limiting, and easily interpreted. This tendency to allow others to judge commitment, makes fooling the system more difficult. In this sense then, the creation of organized religion follows from the facilitation of such acts. Chances are you wouldn't put someone who skipped out every other Sunday as a teacher in charge of a whole ward. Neither would you trust a patriarch who never seemed to think about the scriptures or the gospel.

Perhaps some of this is what we feel is missing in politics. We expect historic displays of commitment, but, due to our diversity, must reject the narrow mindedness that such seems to entail. Being committed to generalities never seems to inspire much trust, though it certainly is superficially successful in our PR world.

A final quote from the summary of chapter 5:

All religions require their members to sacrifice immediate self-interest is displays of moral commitment to a particular way of community life whose rightness and truth is God give. For these displays to work their magic, however, they must be convincing. In the statistical long run, and on the average, displays of commitment are convincing only if people are sincerely committed to live up to their promises no matter the cost. To be convincing, then, displays of commitment must be uncontrollable and unreasonable enough to be hard to fake. They must be emotionally expressed and passionately held.

InG we T - quasi-propositional beleifs

In Gods We Trust
Commitment 2.5 - Quasi-propostional beliefs

From page 113
Religious doctrines, rites, and liturgies are only diversely connected sets of examples that serve as public entry points into the vast network of mostly unarticulated commonsense beliefs that nearly all human beings share or have ready inferential access to. In fact, the so-called norms and values of religious traditions are not rules, principles, axioms, or injunctions with fixed factual or propositional content. They are public representations of quasi-propositional beliefs. Quasi-propostitional beliefs may have the superficial subject-predicate structure of ordinary logical or factual propositions, but they can never have any fixed meaning because they are counterintuitive. Their cognitive role is to mobilize a more or less fluid and open-textured network of ordinary commonsense beliefs in order to build logically and factually impossible worlds that are readily conceivable, memorable, and transmissible.

One of the complaints against Mormonism is the ever shifting theology and doctrine. Religious attackers get frustrated as they assume religion should be creedal based and definite. Our open theology can be very frustrating because there seems to be such a church emphasis on religious conservatism and orthopraxy. In essence, they are attacking our beliefs as too quasi-propositional, just as Attran attacks religion in general. Personally I think many of these attacks come because people fail to account for vagueness and propositional uncertainty. Outside of faith in Christ, repentance and baptism, theologically, Mormons are pretty open about the uncertainty, or more accurately the lack of importance of much else. Sure conservatives may not come across this way, but chances are if the prophet told them things had changed, they would be quite accommodating. (look at polygamy WofW, black & priesthood, etc). In this sense, the fluidity LDS have with theology may partially arise from the lack of fixed meaning towards other's revelations.

As I mentioned over at ISSUES IN MORMON DOCTRINE, I think revelatory experiences can never be communally applicable. For them to have any weight, they must be experienced first hand. The fluid nature of quasi-propositionals ensures that we must always search for meaning that is ever changing. From Attran's point this makes religion a costly wast of resources. From a Mormon perspective it forces one to seek grounding spiritual experiences. In this light, scriptures are less about certainty of meaning than they are keys for enabling equivalent personal experiences.

The problem arises with the apparent ease we have in creating, and building upon counterfactuals. We tend to take these relatively rare personal experiences and feel free to apply them where we will. We seem to have a tendency to turn them into fantasy, or at least use them to justify other pleasing fantastical assumptions.. Perhaps it is just me, but I think we may abuse the reality of these experiences if we use them as an excuse not to deal with reality. There should be no caveat assumptions that things will work out when Satan is bound. There should be no assumptions that communal issue problems will be worked out once society is purified. It seems to me that the reality of the gospel indicates that there are workable solutions available. It is the working through these solutions that creates the fantasy that we may envision. Dreams are ethereal until somebody puts them down on paper and gets busy making them.

religious counter-intuitions...draw attention to those aspects of the world that people wish were otherwise. Such counter-intuitions evoke other, logically and factually impossible worlds that are nonetheless readily conceivable because they leave intact most of the everyday world - minus a few worrisome facts and inferences.

InG we T - the fallacy of convergence

In Gods We Trust
Commitment 2.4 - The fallacy of convergence

More often, religious prescriptions and commandments do not constitute social norms in the sense of shared rules or injunctions that determine behaviour. Instead, they stipulate only a bare, skeletal frame for collectively channeling thought and action....Their expression perfomatively signals and establish a cognitive and emotional commitment to seek convergence but doesn't specify what people should converge to. Supernatural agents are guarantors and placeholders for appropriate actions in future circumstances. The truth about them is accepted on faith and communicated through ritual display, not discovered or described as a set of factual or logical propositions.

It is interesting that Atran considers religious propensity an enabler for a convergence. I assume he believes this to be an artifact associated with abstract thinking skills. I would tend to assume the same. Whether or not there is something around which to converge is the crux of the religious argument.

If religion is entirely an unintended consequence associated with abstract, then humans should not be able to use it as a tool for group convergence. The ever mutating forms of religions and their associated conflicts seem to bear this out. However one could equally say that the growth and relative stability of world religions are a counter point. Indeed the apocalyptic nature of some of the New Testament seems to prophesy convergence (although one could certainly see it as convergence by eliminating everyone who doesn't agree). While this question certainly seems non falsifiable for either side, a few points could be significant.

This first is the mutation of religion. If there are mutations in religion, then there is most likely nothing substantial around which to converge. Thus God remains a fantastical supernatural being who is an invented artifact of our abstract thought. The founding intent of catholicism seemed to be an encouragement and facilitation of convergence. LDS views on the apostasy would say for religion to be convergent, there must be communication between god and man, which was not present until the restoration. All religions seem to excuse convergence by blaming individual weakness. As Atran points out, this will always prevent scientific accountability. However, I wonder if part of the fallacy of convergence is the belief that large scale convergence is necessary.

The LDS notion of multiple kingdoms, and MY TAKE ON IT (creating heaving) seems to make it possible to believe that small scale convergence may be all that religion needs. People go as far with it as they want. Everyone gets off at a different point. (link on mormon terrestial is Protestant heave) It seems that the only type of convergence the gospel suggests is that everyone will confess that Jesus is the Christ. Even that may not happen for quite some time in the hereafter.

InG we T - Societal Morals

In Gods We Trust
Commitments 2.3 - Societal Morals

From page 112

Simple consent between individuals seldom, if ever, successfully sustains cooperation among large numbers of people over long periods of time. Displays of commitment to supernatural agents signal sincere willingness to cooperate with the community of believers. Supernatural agents thus also function as moral Big Brothers who keep constant vigil to dissuade would-be cheaters and free riders. To ensure moral authority survives without the need for brute force and the constant threat of rebellion, all concerned - whether master or slave - must truly believe that the gods are always watching even when no other person could possible be looking. Once these sacred relations become a society's moral constitution, as in our "One Nation Under God," they cannot be undone without risking collapse of the public order that secures personal welfare. This is one way that the conceptual ridge of our evolutionary landscape connects with the ridge of social interaction.

According to this chapter, supernatural entities function as big brothers because of our awareness and sensitivities concerning false belief. Abstract thinking gives us the ability to assign intention to seemingly non-random events. Thus supernatural beings arise as plausible explanations for some of the doors abstract thinking opens. Our heuristics for false belief detection, make us conscious about our actions, or at least the way they may be perceived. This combination explains why we believe God is always watching. It also explains why people may be so concerned about the consequences of eliminating the unifying effect of religion in our society.

We can only operate in large groups if we believe other people are generally acting on a set of accepting laws and behaviours. While exceptions will always occur, society is glued together because it is accepted that these individuals will be punished, eliminating the benefits that one could get as a rogue. Once people stop playing by these rules, society can't help but collapse. The evolutionary cognitive arms race has selected for people who have no trust with strangers who may not play by accepted rules.

Can an open society ever create a strong enough sense of nationalism or strong enough cannon of accepted social guidelines to replace an evolutionary programmed Big Brother?


I think this ties into my thoughts on the religion like tendencies of progressive left wing humanism. Removing the acceptance of the universality of religion means some other universal set of rules must take its place, well as long as society is not to break down in chaos. I think the emphasis on human rights indicates that some believe there is a large enough core base of universally accepted moral values to enable us to get rid of those that may be tied into superstitious beliefs.

InG we T - finishing up

Since most comments on the book were covered some time ago, I stopped posting my responses. Having not posted anything for quite some time though, I though perhaps I might as well throw my responses online. They are still rough, and I haven't bothered cross linking things like I normally would, however since I doubt I will get around to correcting that, I am posting them nonetheless.


I have really appreciated all the work John Dehlin has put into his podcasts. Specifically episodes on masonry, David O. Mckay and mormon assimilation have stood out. While it is certainly been a while since I have posted anything, after listening to the stages of faith casts, I thought I might try and pry myself away from renovations to post a few thoughts.

The first time I was presented with Piagetian stages in 2nd year University. The concept seemed to gel. I certainly think the idea of schemas is quite useful. However I have never really appreciated many other hierarchal "stage" concepts. Partly it's because of how easily value judgments seep in. More significantly though, rarity is often unnecessarily associated with progress or perhaps more accurately usefulness. Liberalism offers an easy venue to justify superiority. Happily the sincere stories of the podcast certainly avoided these issues even if the whole concept of stages nonetheless encourages it.

While I certainly think Fowler's stages presuppose levels of merit, that point certainly seems debatable. To me, what is interesting in how unstable the equilibrium point is between relatively blind belief and functional disavowal of supernatural influence. As John mentioned if one moves out a believing paradigm one usually ends up an the realm of atheism or abstract new age supernaturalism. But why is this so?

Certainly some concepts in mormon religion can be hard for some to reconcile. From some perspectives, dissonance requires continual shifts in paradigms that can be taken as proof of religion's futility. Alternatively one can say that lack of stable, paradigms encourages a spirit of repentance and humility; or even that an acceptance of dissonance requires an extreme form of liberalism similar to Fowler's 5th level. While I certainly won't deny any of these possibilities, like assumptions of progressional merit in stage theories, they seem to reach beyond the mark.

Psychological approaches to the supernatural certainly allow one to think of religion as just an effective vehicle in the accomplishment of rather practical goals. If we take the logic in Abraham at face value, God, being the smartest of all of us will just use the most effective tool he can to accomplish what he wants. But why then are rather obvious solutions to the problem of belief left undone?

For a while I have been positing that time constraints involved with a hands off God can answer many questions, well at least for me. Alternatively one could also suppose that there is just a very high cost associated with maintaining traits that can only develop at certain unstable equilibria. But then doesn't this imply that Fowler's higher stages are what should be sought?

Not necessarily. Fowler's higher stages seem to be equilibrium points as comfortable as any previously mentioned. The pain in achieving them may give a sense of accommodated tension, but it is also missing the unnerving quest for answers that unstable equilibria provide. Unfortunately the purpose of this instability is exactly mirrored by the effect one would expect when trying to explain irrational beliefs in a supernatural religion. The latter conveys a sense of depth by providing a circular feedback loop with ever changing parameters. The former assumes that traits associated with unending reformulations are divine.

Friday, January 06, 2006

InG we T - Societal Morals

In Gods We Trust
Commitments 2.3 - Societal Morals

From page 112

Simple consent between individuals seldom, if ever, successfully sustains cooperation among large numbers of people over long periods of time. Displays of commitment to supernatural agents signal sincere willingness to cooperate with the community of believers. Supernatural agents thus also function as moral Big Brothers who keep constant vigil to dissuade would-be cheaters and free riders. To ensure moral authority survives without the need for brute force and the constant threat of rebellion, all concerned - whether master or slave - must truly believe that the gods are always watching even when no other person could possible be looking. Once these sacred relations become a society's moral constitution, as in our "One Nation Under God," they cannot be undone without risking collapse of the public order that secures personal welfare. This is one way that the conceptual ridge of our evolutionary landscape connects with the ridge of social interaction.

According to this chapter, supernatural entities function as big brothers because of our awareness and sensitivities concerning false belief. Abstract thinking gives us the ability to assign intention to seemingly non-random events. Thus supernatural beings arise as plausible explanations for some of the doors abstract thinking opens. Our heuristics for false belief detection, make us conscious about our actions, or at least the way they may be perceived. This combination explains why we believe God is always watching. It also explains why people may be so concerned about the consequences of eliminating the unifying effect of religion in our society.

We can only operate in large groups if we believe other people are generally acting on a set of accepting laws and behaviours. While exceptions will always occur, society is glued together because it is accepted that these individuals will be punished, eliminating the benefits that one could get as a rogue. Once people stop playing by these rules, society can't help but collapse. The evolutionary cognitive arms race has selected for people who have no trust with strangers. After all, strangers may or may not play by accepted rules.

Can an open society ever create a strong enough sense of nationalism or strong enough cannon of accepted social guidelines to replace an evolutionary programmed Big Brother?

InG we T - Supernatural expansion

In Gods We Trust
Communication 2.2 - Supernatural expansion

Humans have an ability and tendency to take small packets of infromation and assume large background stories. Put in Atran's words,

A few fragmentary narrative descriptions or episodes suffice to mobilize an enormously rich network of implicit background beliefs.

When this is applied to the malleability of abstract beliefs, we have the potential to create our own Gods complete with fully fleshed out narratives.

All things being equal, some supernatural beliefs are better candidates than others for cultural transmission and retention in any given population of human minds because (1) they are more attention-arresting; (2) they have greater inferential potential (3) they cannot be processed completely; (4) they are more emotionally provocative.

Atran cites a number of examples that make this list easy to understand. Perhaps applying this list to the most famous Christian narrative of them all is reasonable. A 30 year old man doesn't seem to make an overly arresting as a deity. Certainly the Jews of Jesus' time didn't think so. His virgin birth has high inferential potential. His human nature certainly leads to the idea that he could be fully processed, however, his trinitarian claims oppose this. Emotional provocativeness seems to depend on his acts of charity, the cruel (although for the time, not unusual) death, and his low caste status. These are rather ordinary things that probably become significant because of their baseness.

From my perspective, the areas where God could be made more supernatural are the areas where things may have become leavened. Perhaps it is just my perspective, but it seems like these are also the areas that traditional Christians defend vehemently against corruption: virgin birth, mystery of the trinity, and significance of the cross. Has traditional Christianity unknowingly done its best to supernaturalize the possible down to earth nature of divinity?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

InG we T - Feedback loop errors

In Gods We Trust
Commitments 2.1 - feedback loop erros

Atran has a very interesting critique of religious thought in the start of his section on counterintuitive worlds. He starts off by discussing a feedback loop of inference and interpretation.

If one understands what a speaker intends, there is a smooth flow of communication. Information is processed subconsciously (or at least non-overtly), because it does not need to be questioned. Meaning just seems natural, and obvious. According to Atran, "you stop cognitively processing information the moment communication makes sense. (If there were no such stopping rule, inference and interpretation would go on forever)". This is contrasted in a very interesting manner with another Atran quote on religion; "To be sure, people interpret God's message in particular ways for specific contexts, but they have no reason to ever stop interpreting."

This seems like a popular complaint against religion. It is a moving target stuck in a feed back loop where reinterpretation is mistaken for depth and a lack of definitiveness for the complexity of God. Traditional religion never gives people a reason to stop interpreting. Because of this, it seems infinitely complex and mysterious. Some people like this, others don't.

Perhaps this tendency occurs because we like to remove ideas of vagueness as we rationalize our paradigms. Problems occur when people assume entrance into Atran's feedback loop is real religion. It seems like the feedback loop falls apart once reinterpretation stops. Since traditional Christians assume, in a neoplatonic like way, that we can never fully comprehend God, the loop is fundamental and, perhaps, not problematic to their world view. Since I assume a real God is knowable, I think this loop can function as an irreligious opiate. While it may be a corollary associated with exploration, getting out of it seems to require putting down roots and working through problems. It does not seem to get solved by progressive idealism.