Thursday, November 4, 2010

The meaning of existence

I live each day where I find myself and carry my solace with me. I do not feel a need to control my environment nor have it control me. There is no prewritten script that we ignore to our detriment.

I also do not look at life as a quest dictated by arcane and ancient mythologies. There is no grand, mysterious prize hidden from view that we must find through much hand wringing and reading of the tealeaves. There is knowledge to be gained and progress to be made. However, the vast majority of real progress made by our species has occurred at the likes of Pasteur's workbench, Edison Labs, MIT, and Johns Hopkins. Clinging too tightly to the past, listening only to one's emotions, and living in the future tends to result in events such as the trial of Galileo, rejection of medical advances, and refusing to look at mountains of scientific research.

I find enjoying each day, contributing, and being engaged is where life really is. Once upon a time, I lived my life in some nebulous future state but found that I was not living at all. Invariably when the future finally arrived with each passing second, if I bothered to notice at all, it was often not the existence my imagination had conjured. At that point, in my life I assumed that this meant I was somehow unworthy or had not acted according to the rules of the game. If only I had spent two more minutes a day in silent mediation, or read one more verse the outcome would have been so much different. What a painfully legalistic existence that. What omniscient deity would be so petty and punitive?

Attempting to control in minute detail the course of one's own life and those around us is similar to trying to grasp a wave as it crashes on the sand. We can adjust our position as the waves continue to arrive but arrive they will and in the way the local environment directs. We can hope for a different shape to the waves and grasp at them with our tiny hands. However, we will find that the water merely slips through our fingers as the waves hurry on to their destination.

I choose to walk through the waves when it is fitting and enjoy the constant rhythm of life's ocean that it has followed for billions of years. There is no imperative to stand in the way of the ocean and attempt in vain to bend it to my will. The ocean and I are fellow travelers in a complex walk sculpted by our milieu. I will live today and share the gift of each fleeting moment with my sojourning companions.

Trivia overwhelms core religious beliefs

James 1:27 "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the...widows in their affliction..."

What is often observed are religious goals that are focused on observance of trivia. Dogmatic rules dictating dress codes, forms of prayer, and ritualistic observance. What of the love and support of the downtrodden? Where is the true service to those in need?

Many religious cultures seem to become bogged down in bureaucratic and legalistic minutia when humankind and the religious organizations themselves would be better served by sticking to the basics. Everyone, including me, has his or her own pet beliefs and these beliefs affect the surrounding culture in either positive or negative ways.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Over-interpreting evidence

Religious belief is often based on gross over-interpretations of the available information. One stark example is the more or less historically accurate section of the Old Testament after 600 BCE. The evidence quickly vanishes into oblivion and borrowed myth as the time recedes from there. The evidence is very thin and shaky yet believers are willing to make sweeping assumptions from shreds. There are so many other potential explanations for the writings in the Bible other than divine guidance yet thees other possibilities are often dismissed. Rather than accepting the incidental historical shreds as merely incidental they often do just the reverse. The anomaly is twisted in their minds to reject the large amounts of counter evidence.

The same is done with the fleeting feelings that are used to build faith. It is not uncommon for a believer to refer to a few instances and sometimes just one instance where they had a special feeling. All of the other times when they felt nothing are overshadowed as they over-interpret the few moments of emotion.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dealing with Uncertainty

What we as a society currently view as explanations for various aspects of our universe and all things therein are merely models and subject to change. Actively entertaining multiple possibilities at one time is an integral aspect of many more progressive worldviews. The lack of dogma and the interest in discovering "game changing" advances is refreshing. This is in stark contrast to deterministic and rigid views that there is one answer and a person must seek that answer from someone in authority over him or her.

Because our universe and our societies are complex dynamical systems most things are probabilistic and not deterministic. We will never be able to predict perfectly and there are no truly optimal decisions but merely many near optimal decisions from which to choose. Exiting a worldview containing an omniscient, omnipotent god who knew the beginning to the end and emerging into the bright light of uncertainty, probabilities, and largely or completely unpredictable emergent patterns was disconcerting to say the least. The numerous interactions in any complex system including our own lives means that there are a range of possible outcomes to any action. Some outcomes are more likely than others but nothing is a given. Over time I have come to accept, feel comfortable with, and even embrace this reality. In fact the world makes much more sense when viewed through the lens of complex systems.

It is not uncommon for those with a view that there are perfect answers to struggle with decisions and over analyze possibilities. They are often so concerned about selecting "the one right path". Rather random emotions and spurious correlations often make them feel as if they are approaching the path that will lead them to success. They are oblivious to the realities that many differing paths will lead to success and that virtually any path will likely contain challenges and unpleasant surprises. After all of their hand-wringing they embark on their "one correct, god-defined path" only to find that things do not always work smoothly. When troubles ensue they are quick to blame themselves for some perceived sin or for not being righteous enough to "hear" the correct guidance. It is all a maddening exercise in futility based on fundamentally flawed premises on how the world works. If they could only let go, relax, enjoy the journey, and be willing to learn from mistakes and the "imperfections" of life. There is no such thing as perfection in the sense that there is one ideal decision for any situation. Until they accept that reality they will spend a life of recurrent frustration and unwarranted self-recrimination.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Moving the Goalposts

Moving the goalposts is a logical fallacy in which the arguer changes the original claim without acknowledging the changes have been made. The arguer also does not respond directly to the evidence presented against his or her original claim.

Similar efforts have been undertaken with the Bible. This varies from person to person but similarly it has generally moved from the inviolable word of god, to an accurate historical account, to a collection of myths mixed in with a bit of history. Attempts to hang onto the tattered remnants of false hopes and beliefs even though those beliefs have no resemblance to the original position of any given individual.

Even though the original premise utterly collapsed years ago people still hang onto the tattered remnants of belief. This is based on the goalpost that now only requires the Bible (or Koran if you prefer) to be a morality tale. So even though the apologists are trying to prove a very different hypothesis than they were years ago the quest is somehow still valid. I would argue that the game ended the first time the goalposts moved. What has actually happened over the last several decades is the equivalent of not only moving the goalposts down the field but planting it in a different country and using it for a different game.

Magical Thinking

There are so many ways that we deceive ourselves. It would appear that humans are actually very bad at correctly viewing the world. From an evolutionary perspective many things really did not matter. The key factors were finding food and shelter in addition to successfully reproducing.

If a person's concept of the factors that influenced the course of his or her life was radically wrong it would not generally make any difference in their ability to survive. Questions such as "Is there a god?", "Does my god want me to pray to the east or in the evening" mean absolutely nothing in terms of survival. The answers that he or she would find would be heavily influenced by identifying patterns (that do not exist) in largely random data. As time progresses the answers would be pre-determined and taught by his or her culture from childhood. In more primitive societies belief would then have a survival advantage because of the need to have the support and protection of the society.

Given our complex, multi-faceted world I used to think that magical thinking was less likely to occur. It would appear from the behavior of billions of people (including me) that magical thinking is still the norm rather than the exception. Upon further reflection, this would seem to be the most logical state. In reality, as mentioned previously, magical thinking does not have much influence on survival in real terms. There is really no evolutionary pressure to not think magically. Even in today's world reproductive opportunities are not significantly reduced by magical thinking. In fact, if a particular magical belief is predominate; magical thinking may even increase a person's opportunities to find a sexual partner or partners. Furthermore, it is becoming less likely with improved standards of living and health care that any given person will not reach an age where reproduction is a viable option.

There are also the pressures imposed by various elements in any given society. We, on this board, have observed this numerous times. Challenging religious beliefs often results in someone or many someone's engaging in very strenuous efforts to defend the challenged beliefs. The defenses expose the underlying mechanisms used to justify continued belief in what has become unbelievable. Every argument can take many specific forms but a brief sampling:

1. Appeal to antiquity: "Our faith has been around for 150 years, or 1500 years, or 2000 years, ...; therefore my beliefs are correct."

2. Appeal to authority: "These experts (followed by a list of highly educated and successful people; physicists, biologists, financiers, etc) believe; therefore our religious claims are accurate."

3. Sunk costs: "Our ancestors gave so much for our religion thus sealing their beliefs in their sacrifice; therefore my religion is correct and denying that it is god's one true way would be disrespectful to my ancestors and their sacrifice."

4. False dilemma: "Either we continue to believe in my god and my religion must continue to exert pressure on society, or society will degenerate into immorality and lawlessness."

5. Negative proof: "You cannot prove that my god does not exist ; therefore there is a good chance that my god exists."

6. Package-deal: "Because my religion has always been an integral part of my family's culture; then my religion must always be part of my culture. If I separate my beliefs from my culture my culture will no longer be viable."

“...many human beings prefer certainty… matter how oppressive and primitive, to the risks and responsibilities of freedom." - Ralph Peters

Many religious texts are filled with an unbelievable number of rules. These rules range from the macro to the micro and can cover any aspect of life. For example if one were to follow all of the rules in the Bible, the follower's world would be devoid of decision-making and the associated risks for many things.

The result would seem to be people who are not accustomed to the responsibilities of being free and are severely weakened. Among those in the Abrahamic faiths, many believers do not take a literal view of their canonized scriptures. Thus they are not burdened with the micromanaged lives of the more fundamentalist among their ranks. Fundamentalist and literalistic lifestyles are similar to strapping a person to a board and not allowing them to exercise his or her muscles. The muscles are never allowed to develop and the person would end up being weak, uncoordinated, and physically unskilled.

The punitive god of these belief systems creates a following that views freedom and mistakes as a negative. The believers point at this danger of "sinning" or making errors as a reason to remain strapped to the board. They are afraid to stand up, learn to walk, and develop coordination. While learning to walk children stumble and fall. This is essential for growth and not something to avoid. Fundamentalists have been conditioned to believe that even some simple mistakes can be catastrophic and should be avoided at all cost.

The Emergence of Ethical Behavior

Some within various belief systems seem to struggle with the concept of ethical behavior from atheists and agnostics. There seems to be a belief that people with gravitate toward selfish and destructive behavior without direction from a deity and that deity's spokespersons.

In the book "Emergence" Steven Johnson writes:

"We're naturally predisposed to think in terms of pacemakers, whether we're talking about fungi, political systems, or our own bodies. Our actions seem governed for the most part by the pacemaker cells in our brains, and for millennia we've built elaborate pacemaker cells into our social organizations, whether they come in the forms of kings, dictators, or city councilmen. Much of the world around us can be explained in terms of command systems and hierarchies..."It amazes me how difficult it is for people to think in terms of collective phenomenon..."

The same inability to understand seems to exist in the minds of many people living within hierarchical religions and societies. How, they wonder, can people not descend into debauchery, criminal actions, and anti-social behavior without the guidance of religion or a strict set of laws? It is anathema to them that people can actually cooperate and show compassion on a daily basis without someone standing over them to keep them in line.

The questioner fails to see the regression issue with this concept. If it takes an authority figure to keep a person living ethically then who keeps the leaders in check? If they point to a god or divine being, who keeps god or the divine being in check? If civil and productive behavior cannot arise from within then all societies would have descended into chaos long ago. Indeed, they never would have been able to organize into a meaningful, cooperative entity.

Even something as simple as slime mold is able to organize and work cooperatively without frequent readings from the Bible, Torah, or Koran. The slime mold also does not need to attend regular services at their local church, synagogue, or mosque in order to keep from going rogue. Perhaps there is something in the complexity of humans that renders us in need of constant guidance. However, where is the evidence of such a need?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Evolution and religious belief

There is no reason why humans would evolve to think logically. Humans are definitely pattern matching animals which is a low effort method of making sense of the world. It is efficient and it often works well. This is particularly true for hunter gatherers when it is necessary for survival to figure out the patters in the seasons, vegetation yields, migration patterns of animals, etc.

Religious thinking and magical thinking may also have an evolutionary advantage. Because natural selection favors those who are able to adapt and cope with their environment then the ability to find some plausible explanation for hardships can be adaptive. Stated directly, the people who get depressed and give up are going to starve to death. However those that exhibit hope and perhaps faith may be more inclined to press forward and thus are more likely to survive.

Chimps do not have sufficient neural matter to think in the abstract ways required for religious belief. However chimps, dogs, cats, mice, etc can exhibit superstitious learning. This is a result of the pattern matching nature of all animals. When a stimulus and response are linked via some other mechanism or happen at a high enough frequency separately that they appear to be connected superstitious learning can take place.

A belief system does not necessarily need to be true or necessarily based in reality to be advantageous. Religion seems to fall into this category. Religion seems to fail all logical tests but it helped to cement communities together which had survival advantages and as mentioned above it provided hope in the face of daunting challenges. There are some negative side effects when the hope and faith placed in a deity leave the person in a dangerous situation that they should rightly escape. However our planet and our interactions with our environment are complex enough that a degree of erroneous decision making is not catastrophic or necessarily harmful in many instances.

So on question might be what role should religion play including what level of commitment, and what particular belief system or systems are adaptive? It really depends on the state of the world at any given point in time. I think it also depends on the belief system. Fundamentalist belief systems often lead to intolerance and destructive behavior. I am not convinced there is any perfect balance between believers and non-believers percentage wise at any given time either. Even in our modern world where religion is not so essential for dealing with troubles the more liberal faiths seem to provide benefits for many people. We have yet to fully address all of the challenges facing society (i.e. poverty, illness) thus there is often a role for the support and hope that can be provided by religion. Atheism and agnosticism are more logical but can be difficult positions to hold when faced with a serious illness or the death of a close friend or family member. Some people have the emotional resources to cope sans religion and others not.

There is also the issue of societies regressing as well as progressing. During the stable and advanced states of ancient civilizations such as Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Persia the religious tenor seemed to be more liberal and somewhat on a par with liberal mainstream Protestants, liberal Judaism, etc in terms of acceptance of others and general lack of dogmatism. Definitely differences but overall rather liberal in comparison to some of the surrounding societies. When each of these societies slipped back into a more primitive state it seems that religion regained a state of importance and level of interpretation fitting to the society.

A more fundamentalist approach likely created survival advantages in situations where there were not enough resources to feed and shelter two separate populations for instance. The moral issue is important but from a pure issue of survival defense of the in group at the expense of the out group resulted in the survival advantage. I am not convinced that we have seen such a situation in the last several centuries although we as a species continue to act in many instances like that is the case.

So a short answer would be it really depends on each individual's current internal and external state in addition to the general state of the society. It also depends on the belief system in question and the level of adherence to the given belief system.

Creating a dangerous world

Reminding believers that they are in a dangerous world increases stress and emotional arousal.

"...stress and emotional arousal narrow attention, making people 'more susceptible to poorly supported arguments, social pressure, and the temptation to derogate nongroup members'" this in turn leads to the loss of "access to counterarguments....Because the cult frowns on or punishes disagreements, the apparent consensus helps eliminate lingering doubts." (Meyers, 2004).

It is an ever tightening spiral into reinforcement of illogical and indefensible arguments. This is common in many belief systems and also in politics.

Answers to prayers and intelligent/successful believers

Here is a potential reason that many believers are intelligent. An intelligent person is more likely to "receive answers to their prayers." Not because there is a supreme being answering those prayers but because they are able to make things happen in their lives. They may also have better metacognitive skills and perhaps subconsciously chose to pray for things that they implicitly know are within their capabilities.

People who prayed and ended up homeless, chronically unemployed, institutionalized, or generally failures by society's standards generally do not have a voice in society. So we hear the small fraction of one percent of the population that have been "blessed"/lucky/won the genetic lottery and the other 99.99% of the population does not have a voice.

A similar situation likely occurs in those who become religious in a war zone. People return from a war zone or other calamity and recite how they prayed and their lives were spared. We do not hear about those who were "righteous" and prayed during these calamities and died because they are...well...dead.

Magic? Blessings? Nope...just luck and having a chance to talk about said luck.

Religion and Evolution

There are many crosscutting issues in this topic. Some of the preposterously untrue items within religion can be likened to junk DNA. There are segments of DNA that do not accomplish anything. They do not cause problems for the organism so there is no selection pressure to eliminate the junk DNA. The preposterous things in most religions are often similar to junk DNA in that they are little more than curiosities in terms of actual behaviors in a person's day-to-day existence. They do not cause any harm but they also do not do any good. People tend to lump most things from a belief system together and do not have access to the correct type of information or the analytical and scientific tools to successfully parse the various components of their religion.

Religion provides hope and help people overcome very difficult times in their lives when they may just give up and perish because of external factors or at his or her own hands. Religion often provides a tight-knit community including emotional and material support in times of want.

As humans we are not very good at determining true causal relationships. The beneficial aspects of religion are very difficult for even a very fastidious observer to parse from the erroneous. The scientific method is so new and little more than a century has passed since the advent of robust social science studies. Even with this scientific toolkit and the research findings that have amassed over the preceding decades, it is difficult for people to separate fact, fiction, logic, and their own emotions.

Religion did and does have some survival advantages. The challenge is for the believer and nonbeliever alike to determine what factors help, those that harm, and which are benign but relatively useless.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Discrediting “apostates”

If TSCC can discredit someone then the arguments against Mormonism become less effective. The idea is to destroy the credibility of the speaker or writer. Overt acts and open attacking an "apostate" makes the organization look very guilty. Destruction of credibility leads to the person telling truth looking foolish. Tactics have been perfected for such things and are used by organizations on a regular basis.

1. Whispering campaigns

2. Careful selection and editing of a person's words. It is very obvious this is going on when what the TBM is saying to your face bears absolutely no resemblance to what they are saying to everyone else. The problem with gossip is it often does get back to the person being talked about. This can be disconcerting to the "apostate", making them overly cautious in terms of what he or she says, and limiting his or her interactions. When the gossip consists of blatant lies this can cause the "apostate" to wonder what else is being said behind his or her back.

3. Death by a thousand cuts. A little slander here, a small lie there, a bit of gossip over there.

4. Strategically planned "slips" or comments that "just crop up" in a personal conversation with someone's boss or colleague. These comments do not need to be true and often are not.

5. Isolating the "apostate" socially. "Do not associate with apostates." This can lead to job loss, inability to obtain a comparable position, a necessity to move long distances, and isolation from former support networks.

6. Quietly encouraging a spouse to divorce the unbeliever. This does not need to come directly from the bishop or stake president. There is enough material floating around from years past that TBM friends, visiting teachers, etc will be unwitting accomplices in these efforts.

7. The above tactics have the added benefit of leading to what are referred to as "nth order effects". If you begin applying this type of stress to a person it can often lead to bankruptcy, additional stress that can increase health problems and the cost of medical care, bad decisions on the part of the "apostate", correct and incorrect accusations from the "apostate", among many other things.

All of this is much more effective than blatant attacks. It makes TSCC look like the victim and the "apostate" look like a putz. Quite a racket actually. The true perpetrator of the problem, TSCC, becomes the perceived victim. This type of turning the tables is very, very common. It is not necessary to touch a person to effectively destroy them.