The Smallest Prayer in the Cosmos

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Put yourself in his shoes. He’s small. There’s electric pain in the elbow that hit the wall you went into. Recognise how hard it is to separate out the physical sensation from how you feel. You hurt.

Every Sunday you go to church with your mum and dad. He’s well liked, they say she’s shy and “you must take after your mummy”. Everyone sings songs and two little girls in dresses shove each other at the back of the room. We all bow our heads to pray. You close your eyes tight because it doesn’t work if your looking. All the children go out. In Sunday school there’s a story about Jonah and a whale and God was angry because Jonah tried to run away. You like Sunday school, you like the stories and God helps people. On the wall there’s a poster with footprints and another one that says “faith can move mountains”.

It’s Tuesday, P.E. day and you’re running out of excuses. You say you don’t feel well, your tummy hurts. Your teacher looks at you funny and sends you to the office. You can’t do P.E. If anyone asks about the bruises again he’ll get angry. Your mum will get in front of you like last time…your eyes water and you try to think of something else while waiting quietly for lunch time.

You like Lego and you’re sat in the living room building an aeroplane. You want to make a machine that will shrink you like on T.V. so you can fly to Disneyland. The plane has boosters so you can go fast and you’ll probably have a dog too. “I’ll fix the damn thing myself”. Your train of thought is derailed. The washing machine’s broken and you recognise that tone of voice. You go cold, you want to leave but you don’t want to move. The phone rings, he answers it, it’s okay.

At bedtime you say your prayers with your mum and when she’s gone you say the real ones. “Dear Jesus…”. You don’t want mountains to move or water to turn into wine. What you want is for him to stop hitting her and maybe if you believe hard enough, if you close your eyes tight enough and press your hands together, God will do this for you. But he doesn’t. It doesn’t stop. Maybe God answers other people’s prayers but not yours. Not when you need it.

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This story is fictional, although it is probably less so for some than others. It was inspired by a discussion I had a few months ago where I was struck by just how inadequately phrases like “abusive environment” convey their meaning.

Can Will be Free?

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The idea of free will is both enabled and hampered by the understanding that we live in a universe of causes and effects. Without cause and effect, how could we hope to exercise free will? However, in a universe of cause and effect how can we be sure that our will is free from the influence of complex causal relationships? We generally engage with causality in a fairly loose way. I might say for example that I was late for work because the traffic was heavy or my energy bills have increased because oil is more expensive. In so doing I’m simplifying causality by failing to account for all of the factors. We also tend to consider snapshots of action. Yes, I might be late because traffic was heavy but the traffic might be heavy because someone’s car stopped working. Their car might have broken down because the owner failed to get it serviced etc. etc. along numerous causal chains. Our ideas about will and free will are also pretty fuzzy but seem to center on conscious choice, self-determination, independence and action initiation e.g.:

Will: “the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/will)

Will: “the faculty of conscious and especially of deliberate action; the power of control the mind has over its own actions” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/will)

Free will: “the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; the ability to act at one’s own discretion.” (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/free-will)

Free will: “the ability to decide what to do independently of any outside influence” (http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/free-will)

If we agree that “will” is a word we use to describe the mechanics of decision-making and action-initiation in a person then perhaps we can say that “free will” is a word we use to describe the operation of decision-making and action-initiation in a person without external influence.

Let’s consider a scenario where I place my hand on a hot surface and rapidly withdraw it. The act of withdrawing my hand is a reflex, an involuntary response. Sensory nerve impulses travel from my hand to my spine and motor nerve impulses are sent from my spine to my arm. There is no processing in my brain, no thought nor decision-making. We can comfortably say that there is no free will involved in this process. Let’s imagine another scenario. I’m sitting in a park and I suddenly become aware of a dark, rapidly moving shape approaching me and I dodge it. I look at the object and realise it was a ball. Here a stream of basic visual data is very quickly processed by my brain. The processing determines that there is a risk the shape will hit me. There is an instinct that such an occurrence could be a danger to me and a message is sent from my brain to my limbs to move. When the potential threat has passed I take the time to identify the shape. Things happen too quickly for me to consciously consider the situation, there is an imperative for action and there is no space for free will. Now imagine that I see the ball approaching me from some distance. Since my instincts don’t tell me I’m in immediate danger, the problem of the ball shifts to my consciousness. I identify the shape and it’s likely characteristics, consider potential ways to act that may involve imagining outcomes, lock in the decision and act, perhaps attempting to kick the ball, catch it or simply moving. Of the three scenarios, the last seems to be the one where free will could occur and what sets it apart from the other two scenarios is consciousness.

The conscious component of choice-making involves considering a problem with regard to your knowledge, understanding and experience. It involves drawing on your experiences and it’s coloured by your emotions. You draw on these and your imagination to predict a course and then behave. This is not a seamlessly conscious process but appears to involve shifting parts of the problem in and out of consciousness. It feels seamless though, so it may be that our brains furnish us with a consistency of experience that isn’t really there. Humans are very good at spotting patterns and quickly acquire an appreciation for cause and effect. Recognising patterns of cause and effect allows us to predict outcomes, which means we can act with intent. When we act with intent and correctly predict the outcome of our actions we feel that we have control. If I pick up a pen and write my name I can feel confident that there are few factors outside my control that might cause my goal to fail. I feel I have a lot of control. If I pull the lever on a slot machine and hit the jackpot, did I do that? I certainly played an essential part but I appreciate that there are many determining factors outside my control so may choose to call the outcome lucky. The more control I feel I have the more I believe I am exercising my will.

It might be useful here to draw attention to the distinction between believing I have free will and it being true. By way of an analogy, when I was a teenager I used to play video games with my younger brother. He was too young to play against me but wanted to join in so I would give him an unplugged controller, play against the computer and pretend he was playing too. He believed he was playing the game. He thought he was controlling the character on the screen but there were factors at play that he was unaware of. Similarly, if there is free will it’s constrained by factors that we perceive and others we don’t. If our wills were immune to influence then advertising would be a waste of time and money. Awareness of some of the factors that influence our decision-making can cause us to feel more in control or help us to realise that we aren’t, but perceiving the chains that bind you doesn’t make you free. If we are aware that we may be subject to influences that we don’t perceive, how can we ever be certain that we are exercising free will?

If there is free will then it’s boundaries are determined by where we choose the delimit the individual. If we decide to view a person who has been schooled in approaching particular problems in particular ways as distinct from and responsible for the application of that schooling then we might say free will exists. My inclination though is to say that we each have the ability to make decisions and initiate action but that it is not possible to do so without external influence. There is a conceptual relationship between cause and effect, decision-making, action-initiation, perceived control and responsibility. There comes a culturally appointed time in a person’s life when they are considered to be responsible for who they are what they do. We don’t view young children as responsible because we don’t credited them with an understanding of the implications or their acions but understanding is a relative thing. There is often a fog at the edges of our decision-making into which causal links disappear from view. The clearing in the fog that surrounds us can give the impression of self-determination but if we choose to examine closely our beliefs, knowledge and strategies we’ll find the external influences. Free will as it is currently defined probably is an illusion but that doesn’t diminish what is means to be human. You can and will exercise choice, it just isn’t free from external influences.

 

 

The Power to Define

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So many of the discussions I encounter about religion centre on the power to define and so many of the disagreements revolve around assumed understanding. Let’s take for example the statement “The Bible is the true Word of God”. On the face of it this is a disputable but fairly straight forward claim, which implies a true or false answer. Either the Bible is the true word of God or it isn’t. We should avoid the immediate temptation to engage with a claim on its own terms and take a moment to think about the implied knowledge that is seeking tacit acceptance. This example refers to “the Bible”, but which Bible? There is an assumed understanding that there is only one Bible but this a mental abstraction of all Bibles, which obscures the many variations between versions and translations. The example also refers to “Word of God”, but which god? We might assume Christian but what does that mean? Many groups identify as Christian, include Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and each have a different Bible. Of course Jewish and Islamic holy texts are based on the same sort of source material as well. The embedding of assumed understanding in linguistically simple claims can be used as a means of setting the parameters of a discussion but I think in most cases it happens unintentionally. I think that someone making such a claim may do so from an ingrained perspective that they have difficulty transcending. Clarifying the detail of a simple claim is a useful way to raise consciousness.

I’ve noticed, as I’m sure many will have, a lot of discursive struggle around the word “atheist”. This has particularly to do with how it’s defined, who has the power to define it and the consequences of definitions. It is interesting to note that dictionaries differ in their definitions, ranging from “do not believe in God” to “lack beliefs in gods”. This is interesting because it reflects the embeddedness of certain assumptions in cultures. It can amount to the defining of atheism through monotheism and raises questions over who ought to be defining atheism? Many arguing from a religious perspective represent a view that atheists deny their god(s). Conversely, many atheists represent atheism as a state of having no beliefs that gods exist. I have encountered quite a few posts that either implicitly or explicitly frame atheism as a belief system that claims a Christian god doesn’t exist. Having thus defined atheism the argument will proceed with a declaration of how it is impossible to disprove their god and so atheism is illogical. So you see, the power to define is extremely significant in discussion. If person A is allowed to define person B then they can in essence silence discussion from the outset. I’m sure many will have seen this video clip of an interviewer asking for views about atheists from people in Turkey. Some of the words used to describe atheists are: animals; not human; ignorant; infidel; liars. We should approach any clip with scepticism, especially if it shows a consistent and extreme view from a small sample. The point to take away though is how easily a component of a person’s outlook can be redefined and swollen to be the entirety of their personhood.

“New Atheism” is a phrase I keep seeing and to which any number of beliefs and behaviours seem to be attributed. It’s often used to refer collectively to the works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Never mind that these authors offer quite different perspectives, they are lumped together and associated with charges of racism, hate, fear-mongering and intolerance. Writing in The Guardian, Jeff Sparrow portrayed New Atheism as:

“…a movement too often exemplified by privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots. But that’s only part of it. For, of course, the privileged know-it-alls are usually white and those they lampoon the most are invariably Muslim”.

Notice how Sparrow made New Atheism a socioeconomic issue or the way he introduced race then invited readers to regard “Muslim” as a race. Unfortunately, an accusation of bigotry doesn’t have to be qualified or evidenced for it to do damage to reputations. Consider the course of events following Ben Affleck characterising Sam Harris as racist on the Bill Maher show. All it takes is for a popular celebrity to get the wrong end of the stick and it provides an excuse for people to no longer engage with Sam Harris’ arguments. I wonder if “New Atheist” is just a conveniently ill-defined phrase that facilitates the grouping and dismissal of heterogeneous views that some just don’t want to engage with. In other words, a way to deny people a voice and silence debate. In my view it’s probably more useful and honest to discuss specific behaviours and beliefs than it is to refer to analytically dubious categories of people.

I’m big on discussion and enjoy talking through and challenging people’s ideas. I think critically engaging with each other in an honest way is a useful means by which we can broaden our view of the world. Part of that is appreciating the implications of the power to define and the presence of assumed understanding or knowledge in claims about the world. Being aware of these helps us prevent discussion becoming too narrow and can help us avoid misunderstandings arising from assumption.

Embarrassed about God

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While eating my lunch the other day I was gingerly approached by a guy in his late teens who, standing next to me, with his head turned down and feet shuffling, said in a tone of voice designed not to travel: “My church are praying for people in the area. Do you know anyone who needs praying for?” His embarrassment was palpable. It was the sort of embarrassment that any degree of empathy makes contagious. After politely telling him that I’m an atheist, he walked away looking visibly relieved. The incident recalled to my mind how I felt when school friends learned I went to church or the embarrassment I used to feel on behalf of members of the congregation who would start speaking in tongues. I felt that way automatically. I had no control over it. I was embarrassed on behalf of others because I sensed that social norms had been broken. I was embarrassed for myself because I felt my school friends would consider me stupid. Why stupid? Because I couldn’t give a good enough account of my beliefs. I knew there was a lot about Christianity that didn’t add up but dealt with it by not dealing with it.

I’ve encountered arguments suggesting atheists are smarter than the religious. I’ve also seen the contrary, that only the most intelligent scholars can understand holy texts. I’m not convinced much is achieved by arguing about IQ. In my experience those who hold religious beliefs do not do so as a result of extensive study into multiple explanations of existence, where the most robust is selected. Some may arrive at their beliefs this way but I suspect that many religious people know comparatively little about other religions or choose not to see how similarly justified they are. I imagine fewer still attempt to engage critically with their own religious ideas. Whether there are compelling rationales for holding religious beliefs or not, as a church-going school kid I had difficulty accounting for my beliefs because they were based on emotion not on reason. My inability to explain my beliefs and the consequent embarrassment were because I believed teachings that appealed to emotion but I didn’t possess the oratory artistry to communicate them. I had no answers to questions about the logistics of the story of Noah’s ark, why the plagues of Egypt weren’t in the history books or why the Bible should be considered any more true than the holy books of other religions. I had school friends effortlessly poking holes in what was supposed to be the word of God. That was embarrassing.

Embarrassment is of course a socially conscious emotion. It has to do with social conventions and our perceptions of how we will be judged by others. Where a religion gets to determine social norms in a particular context, there will probably be less embarrassment when openly discussing and practising that religion. The following clip showing a child named Bethany “receiving the holy ghost” strikes me as profoundly odd. Watching it makes me feel awkward, embarrassed, honestly a little angry but also hopeful. There’s a moment at 1:26 where Bethany’s sister walks into the frame, looks at the camera and shyly rejects an invitation to join in. A hand can be seen guiding her back towards her sister. She waves to the camera and backs out of the scene, clearly embarrassed by the circumstances. I grew up in a fairly secular society and attended a school where the kids had quite a mix of backgrounds. It was against this backdrop that I really began to reflect on how ridiculous some of my beliefs seemed and how odd some of the rituals were.

The experience of embarrassment feels bad so we tend to want to avoid it. This social mechanism keeps us consistent with the group. In extreme circumstances this can have an homogenising and isolating effect but where an influx of new group members is permitted and where there exists a plurality of ideas, embarrassment can serve a useful purpose, showing us when we are out of step with our peers. It has nothing directly to do with truth since majority beliefs and values are not true by virtue of their popularity but it can be understood as a kind of collective-aware course correction. It can also help highlight beliefs and behaviours that are worth reflecting on. Thinking about our embarrassment can help reveal assumptions and values that are so normal that they are only rendered visible through their transgression. If you feel embarrassed, why? Do you feel defiant of embarrassment and what does that mean? Where something might be odd or cause embarrassment in a one context, why is that not the case in another? Have you ever felt embarrassed about God?

On the Writing of Deepak Chopra

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I had intended to write generally on the topic of pseudo-profundity and bullshit. The subject was discussed last year by Pennycook et al. in their article “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit“. Put briefly they argue that pseudo-profound bullshit involves using buzzwords to make statements that are syntactically plausible and give the impression of imparting profound knowledge, while actually communicating little or no meaning. They suggest that bullshitters are motivated by a wish to impress and bullshittees are inclined towards uncritical belief. A name that inevitably arose in connection with pseudo-profound bullshit was Dr. Deepak Chopra. The mini-bio that accompanies Chopra’s writing includes the claim that he is a “world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation” and states that “The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Dr. Chopra #40 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine”. Just allow that to sink in. He currently has about 2.8 million Twitter followers. A significant number of people take him seriously and the marketing of his ideas has made him very wealthy. So instead of writing generally about pseudo-profundity I would like to take a look at Chopra’s current work.

Diving straight into his most recent post entitled “How the Universe Solved the Hard Problem by Intent” we’re immediately told that consciousness is a secret, that there is a reason for this that can’t be explained and that consciousness is responsible for its own secrecy:

“For some inexplicable reason the most common element in every possible experience–consciousness–has kept itself a secret.”

It turns out that the Wikipedia entry for consciousness is over 10,000 words and has 162 references, so even in plain terms it isn’t as mysterious as it’s made out to be. Suggesting that consciousness can engineer its own secrecy implies that consciousness has consciousness. It’s treating consciousness as an entity rather than a property of an entity. He goes on to suggest:

“If we were unconscious, the world would literally disappear in a puff of smoke. This obvious fact implies something that isn’t so obvious: Maybe consciousness and the world appeared at the same time.”

This unsupported “fact” simply isn’t true. People are unconscious from time to time and world continues just fine. We can be fairly confident from geology and archaeology that the world pre-dates people. What Chopra is getting at here is his view that reality is a kind of collective mental projection. He proposes that:

“A cosmos devoid of consciousness isn’t conceivable, and yet the reason for this exists completely out of sight.”

If it feels like it’s hard to get at the meaning of the sentence quoted above it’s because it is hard. Most writers seek to communicate their ideas as clearly as possible but the literary style Chopra uses frustrates quick comprehension. You can restructure the sentence to make it easier to read: We aren’t able to see the reason why we can’t imagine a cosmos without consciousness. We can see from the restructured sentence that although a bunch of words are used, not much meaning is communicated.

I’d like to pause here for a moment to let you know that Chopra is a licensed physician and former chief of staff at a hospital in the United States. He isn’t shy about using his title M.D. when promoting his ideas. Keep this in mind while reading the following quote from the same blog post:

“The difference between being blind and being able to see lies in the mechanics of how the brain processes sunlight—that much is clear. Yet the step in the process that matters the most, converting sunlight into vision, is totally mysterious.”

According to the RNBI age related macular degeneration is by far the biggest cause of blindness in adults in the UK. The WHO cites glaucoma then macular degeneration as the biggest causes of blindness in the world. These are conditions of the eye not “mechanics of the brain”. Chopra is just plain wrong about blindness and sight but arguably worse is the fact that the assertion is coming from someone identifying himself as a medical doctor.

I could go sentence by sentence, assertion by assertion through the whole post but the point is that Deepak Chopra puts across vague points using vague language in a pattern that can appear to some to be profound but in fact carries little meaning. When encountering a statement that looks complex but profound, the actual profundity of a statement can be assessed by breaking it down and looking at its parts. If Chopra just wants people to be impressed by him and people want something impressive-sounding to believe, what’s the harm? Okay, well we might object to the idea that the money that finds its way into Chopra’s pockets could be better used to solve concrete issues. Maybe we feel that as a medically trained professional Chopra could be making a tangible, beneficial difference. We could take issue with the notion that the sorts of ideas he circulates are used as a basis for alternative “healing“. In fact Chopra is sponsoring the Consciousness Field Project that is investigating the potential for transmitted intention statements to enhance peoples’ lives.

“The intention statement is imbued by the team during deep meditation into a crystalline electronic device and broadcast thousands of times each day to participants.”

The project is also partly funded by participants who will each contribute $33 a month (a total of $600). I think this is the first study I’ve seen that charges people to participate. If anyone feels that they need some pseudo-profundity in their life, the satirical wisdom of Chopra website can generate some for you for free.

Reflecting on Believing

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“I can believe whatever I want.”

While this may be true to some degree, it probably feels truer than it really is. There are things that are so at odds with our understanding of the world that you would reject them without thinking, although they may be technically believable. There are propositions that clash with many of your already dearly held beliefs so that to believe them would prove extremely difficult. Some beliefs might clash with others you hold but can coexist so long as they aren’t considered too deeply or forced to brush up against each other too frequently. Some may be deeply considered and supplant previously held beliefs. Others slot in naturally and compliment your existing beliefs. You might not even realise you acquired them. So perhaps we can’t choose what to believe in all cases but we can certainly exercise some agency. We have the ability to identify and reflect critically on our beliefs and decide if they are useful and reasonable.

“What I believe doesn’t matter to anyone else, it’s my business. You believe what you want and I’ll believe what I want.”

We should be free to evaluate propositions to see if we believe them and we aught to be able to ask questions in an environment that is free from coercion. That said, your beliefs hold real world consequences, not just for you but for others around you too. Beliefs can be powerful and life-determining. I’m reminded of Yeonmi Park who fled North Korea. Even in the safety of South Korea she wouldn’t allow herself to think negative thoughts of the North Korean regime because she believed that Kim Jong-un could read her mind and would punish her. What you believe impacts on the decisions you make and how you behave. If you believe for example that the combined MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine could give your children autism then you might decide not to vaccinate them. If there is a significant causal link between MMR and autism (there isn’t) you may have lowered their risk of having autism but not diminished their risk of having some pretty nasty illnesses. If enough people believe in the vaccine/autism link then conditions are ripe for an epidemic. There is a difficult balance to be struck between freedom to believe as we wish and challenging beliefs that are potentially harmful.

“We may not all believe the same things but you should respect my beliefs.”

This begs the question, why? Generally the word “respect” is used to mean “admire” or “honour” and I wonder if those expressing this opinion genuinely reciprocate. I think we should be respectful of people and respect ideas/beliefs that merit our respect but we should not expect any particular beliefs to be respected automatically. This should be true of all beliefs including those that are religious or about the supernatural more generally. Problems can emerge however while evaluating each other’s beliefs that can cause dialogue to shut down. For example, asymmetries in what people consider to be persuasive evidence can make discussion around beliefs very challenging. Let’s say I was involved in an air traffic accident and as a result I believe that air travel is so dangerous it should be banned. You could show me all the statistics in the world about how safe air travel is compared to travelling by car but in my mind the emotional weight of my experience will trump the stats. Some beliefs are more intertwined with our identity than others and the more those beliefs feel like a part of who we are the more any questioning of them feels like a personal attack. The answer to these challenges may be to find common ground where we’re able to agree on standards of evidence and build trust so that we are comfortable with asking each other questions. I think if I felt uncomfortable with any of my beliefs being earnestly and politely questioned, I would take it as a red flag, as a sign that I need to consider this belief more closely.