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.