Addiction, Belief, Bible, and Bad Financial Advice

My name is Kevin and I’m a belief addict. Here’s my story.

The Widow’s Mite

I once told a friend who was a legend in the financial planning industry how I was attempting to follow the advice of the Bible story known as “the Widow’s Mite”:

[Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury,  and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

Luke 21:1-4 (NKJV)

“That’s dangerous advice,” my friend said, always blunt, “It makes no sense today. It will hurt you.”

Did he just say Jesus gave bad advice?

I had no comeback. I was an evangelical Christian at the time, trying to follow all kinds of Biblical advice in my career and finances. “Dangerous advice.” “Makes no sense today.” “Will hurt you.” How could that be? I mean, we’re talking Jesus here. And anyway, doesn’t God’s advice move with the times?

If you start wondering if Jesus gave bad advice or that something he said is outdated, you’re not an evangelical Christian anymore. You violated the Protestant Reformation doctrine of sola scirptura – the belief that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible.

“[Martin Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian.”[1]

You can’t be an evangelical without the Bible, especially the parts about Jesus. Question either, and you’re out. You’re no longer a believer.

Go ahead – move a mountain!

Jesus himself set up the primacy of belief:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

And it’s not enough just to believe – you also have to not doubt. Plus there’s one more implicit clause in there:  if the mountain doesn’t move, it’s all you fault. If you start out believing but then have your doubts, belief won’t work for you. Jesus’ disciple James made sure we got the point:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Okay, I think I get it — God gives generously, but if you doubt you can’t receive. Right? God does His part, but you can screw it up. Does that strike anyone else as sort of… unfair?… lopsided? If nothing else, God doesn’t seem to be very effective in the way He “generously” hands out advice. And why do I keep calling God “He” anyway?

But you don’t think that way when you’re in the grip of belief.

You are always the problem.

Belief seeks its own purification by cleansing itself from doubt. It does that by making the believer the problem. To stay on the right side of belief, you need to believe your way through your doubts. Belief is a closed loop — you either believe or you don’t – you start in belief and end in belief. Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!”

I wandered intellectually my first couple years of college, then had to declare a major. Okay, let’s see… I’m a Jesus Freak… I know, I’ll be a religion major! Studying the world’s religions, I was soon swimming in doubt. I told that to my “that settles it” friend. He handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

I can still see the hardness on his face. Religions venerate those who long endure and despise those who don’t. My character and commitment were suspect. I declared a new major the following quarter. Lesson learned: you don’t entertain doubt, you double down on belief.

Belief’s endless loop is what snared me, got me addicted. It played directly into a tendency I’d demonstrated all my short life: be exceptional, take everything to the extreme, out-commit, out-work everybody. Decades later, I would learn where that came from. But as a kid, an adolescent, and a young adult, it was my identity, my calling card. Eventually it would also be my ruin.

After we graduated, we missed the intensity of our college experience, and looked for ways to replicate it. Our leaders — zealous young men like me, only a few years older but they seemed so much wiser — started writing books about how to create authentic new testament churches, meeting in small groups and homes, teaching the Bible and doing miracles. We called this “church planting” and prided ourselves on the idea that we were doing just as the early apostles had done.

That’s who I was when I had the “that’s dangerous advice” encounter. In the face of that blunt dismissal, I needed to prove up my beliefs by pushing them to the limit, one more time.

And so I did.

Belief reminds you that if your doubts persist, there are consequences. Turns out there are also consequences to not doubting when you really ought to – which was how my life played out for the next couple decades, as I set about to prove that Jesus’s financial advice was doable.

My education in bad financial advice started early.

Everybody went to church where I grew up: mostly Scandinavian Lutherans, enough German Catholics to make up a parish, plus the “other” — Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Methodist…. My family was “other” – we went to the Congregational Church, where we were into the 60’s Revolution. We read poetry, played guitars, thought believing everything the Bible said was anti-intellectual. Our Sunday bulletins from HQ advocated social justice. I can still see one of them like it was yesterday: stacks of coins like poker chips, with the words “and God said to him, you fool!” – that was from the Bible, the back cover said.[2]

The Parable of the Rich Fool

One of the multitude said to him, “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or divider over you?” And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”

Luke 12: 13-21 (RSV)

Powerful stuff. I was an impressionable 7th grader. I pinned the bulletin up in my room, and kept it with me for years.

Consider the lilies…

About that same time, my older sister was into art and calligraphy. She made a poster with some watercolor lilies and these lines:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his Glory was not arrayed like one of these.

Luke 12: 27 (RSV)

I loved it, memorized it, used to sneak into her room to look at it when she wasn’t around. The text comes right after the Parable of the Rich Fool:

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

Luke 12:22-32 (ESV)

That was the sum total of my financial education growing up: don’t worry about money, don’t worry about making it, don’t worry about saving it, don’t worry about where it comes from or what it’s for, and whatever you do, don’t ever get rich or you’ll end up like the guy with his new barns full of harvest and the grim reaper at his door. And the best part was that if you just keep your priorities straight – i.e., you keep believing what the Bible says — everything you need will just show up – food, drink, the whole deal.

When I read that now, I think it’s crazy. I agree with my friend: it makes no sense. But as a pre-teen I thought it was the ultimate in cool.

I never grew up.

My financial education was fixed at age 12. It survived intact through college economics, a few years in insurance and financial planning, an MBA program, all the way into a career in law. There was plenty of fodder for doubt all that time, but it never touched me.

Never mind that my radical Biblical economics didn’t have much company. Most Christians seemed to know it didn’t work. Maybe that’s what the Book said, but… well never mind. But I minded a lot. I had something to prove. I was a commando Christian, living on the edge, taking belief to the extreme, going where weak belief dared not go, out if front showing everybody else back there that Jesus’s unorthodox advice really did work.

Hmmm, no ego in that…

I was committed. I probably should have been… committed, that is.

One Disaster After Another

The first couple decades of my adult life followed a pathetic pattern of first doing well in my career and then dropping out to pursue some kind of Christian vision. Making a living always came in second to the important stuff and besides God would provide, just like Jesus said. The result was a series of financial disasters about every two or three years, followed by me sulking back to work until I had enough savings to afford getting inspired and trying again. It helped that I was smart and worked hard, so new employers kept forgiving my patchwork resume.

After yet one more disaster to end all disasters, I finally started to learn self-awareness, started asking questions, started doubting. I didn’t know yet that to doubt at all is to end belief – that’s all it takes to break the spell.

A couple decades later, and I was what I am today: an atheist. I didn’t see that coming, didn’t set out to become one, resisted for a long time, finally just sort of drifted into it. I’ve read others who’ve told the same story. We’re not as alone as we think we are.

The Self-Help Gospel

Along the way, I spent considerable time hanging out in the world of self-help. I am going to write separately about that, so I won’t say much at this time, just that after a few years I finally saw the remarkable similarity between self-help and Jesus’s teachings on belief. I had never heard so much God language since my early Christian days, although people often substituted “The Universe.” Create your own financial and career reality by believing it into existence, and God/The Universe will back you up. But you do need to believe, and keep believing, keep intending and reminding yourself first thing in the morning and before going to sleep at night, and you need to make your a board and read this book and especially that one, and you need to go to these seminars, and lay your money down everywhere you go… all to stay pumped up, to keep believing. And if it didn’t work for you, well you are responsible for everything in your life, so if it’s not what you want you need to up your belief commitment – do more, more, more.

Believe, believe, believe… Christianity and self help were indistinguishable. Life as a “believer” –- religious or secular -– worked the same way: believe and don’t doubt, and you get the goods.

A couple key experiences kept repeating, and the lessons I drew from them started to loosen the tether.

One was that belief was never about the thing you were trying to believe into existence — the mountain you were telling to get up and jump into the sea. Instead, belief was one long exercise in the dynamics of belief itself. Belief was about believing. You spent all your energy believing and believing in your belief. You never got out of the loop.

Another – the hardest lesson of all — was that believing was the culprit, not me. It wasn’t all my faulit after all. Gospel Finance 101 truly was lousy advice, even when it was recast as self help. It truly didn’t work in today’s world. It truly was dangerous. It truly did hurt me – and my family.

The over-arching problem was how belief operates in the human brain, and in human culture.[3] When you start to doubt, you drop out of the cultural context that’s been supporting your belief system. Without constant reinforcement, the neural pathways that run your belief fall into disuse and eventually go dormant as you start looking elsewhere for answers, which requires new neural pathways, and in time your new skeptical neural pathways take over.

But belief isn’t all bad.

Belief is inspiring and motivating. It throws off the restraints of normal and mundane, replaces them with a world of new possibilities. The brain hormone dopamine is what’s behind all the punch and pizzazz. Dopamine makes the unreasonable and impossible worth doing. It’s the crowd chanting “go for it!” We get a rush of it when we break out, try new things, take risks.

Larry Smith is an economics professor at Waterloo University in Ontario, and a career inspiration Meister. As of this writing, his combative, tongue-in-cheek TED Talk “Why You Will Fail to Have a Great Career” has been viewed closing in on seven million times. Here’s the Amazon blurb for Prof. Smith’s book No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need To Do To Have A Great Career:

“This book captures the best of his advice in a one-stop roadmap for your future. Showcasing his particular mix of tough love and bracing clarity, Smith itemizes all the excuses and worries that are holding you back—and deconstructs them brilliantly. After dismantling your hidden mental obstacles, he provides practical, step-by-step guidance on how to go about identifying and then pursuing your true passion. There’s no promising it will be easy, but the straight-talking, irrepressible Professor Smith buoys you with the inspiration necessary to stay the course.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is another inspiration Meister, and his own weather system. His website says he’s a “psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, exploring the depths of human potential.” These are his books. He wrote the following in a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Why Inspiration Matters.”[4]

“In a culture obsessed with measuring talent and ability, we often overlook the important role of inspiration. Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.”

Good for dopamine: it gets us moving, and that’s usually a good thing.

But it might be too much of a good thing.

“I need to get motivated.”

You might want to rethink that.

Google “how to motivate yourself” and you get lots of self-help inspirational quotes and to do lists. They’re okay as far as that goes, but they’re not the whole inspiration story. We need inspiration to get going, but all that dopamine can be too much of a good thing. The following is from Larry Howes — “lifestyle entrepreneur” and former arena football player and member of the USA men’s national handball team.[5]

“One of the most dangerous drugs an entrepreneur can become addicted to is motivation.

“I’ve heard far too many entrepreneurs say,  “I just need to get more motivated” in order to start a project or achieve a goal.  This usually means they’ll spend a few hours reading or listening to other people’s success instead of creating their own.

“This is how the motivation addiction begins.

“Don’t get me wrong – motivation is great.  It’s nature’s reward for achievement, but it can easily become your “drug” of choice if it’s misused.

“This may sound a little funny, but one of the best drug dealers in the world is your brain. Your brain is wired to release a shot of dopamine each time you … achieve goals, take risks, try something new. They’re all natural highs and designed to keep us coming back for more.

“It’s great to be goal driven and to have feelings of fulfillment following our achievements, but the moment we began wanting those feelings before doing the work we’re in HUGE trouble.”

The issue is dependence: the motivated feeling isn’t easily summoned; and reliance on it is dicey. Plus, dopamine acts like any addictive substance: each successive time you reach for a shot, you need more than last time:

“Once again, there’s nothing wrong with motivation or learning from the success of others, but that moment we need the ‘reward feeling’ of motivation in order to get started, we’re in serious trouble.

“Not only does it take away from precious time you should spend working, it also means that you’ll need a higher dosage of motivation as time progresses.”

And don’t fall for the line that you can be anything you want, adds “journalist, author, and broadcaster” Leslie Garrett: your brain will hurt you if you do, this time because of the “stress hormone” cortisol.[6]

“As long ago as the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle celebrated the value of a meaningful goal when he coined the term eudaimonia (‘human flourishing’). The concept re‑emerged in the 16th-century Protestant concept of a ‘calling’. More recently, in the 1960s, a whole generation of young people brought up at the height of an economic boom began asking whether work could amount to more than just paying the bills. Couldn’t it have something to do with meaning and life, talents and passions?

“It was then that the episcopal clergyman Richard Bolles in California noticed people grappling with how to choose that special, meaningful career, and responded by publishing What Color is Your Parachute? (1970), which has sold more than 10 million copies, encouraging job‑hunters and career-changers to inventory their skills and talents. Bolles bristles at the suggestion that he’s telling people to be ‘anything’ they want to be. ‘I hate the phrase,’ he says. ‘We need to say to people: Go for your dreams. Figure out what it is you most like to do, and then let’s talk about how realistically you can find some of that, or most of that, but maybe not all of that.’

“The situation even endangers health. In 2007, psychologists from the US and Canada followed 81 university undergraduates for a semester and concluded that those persisting in unattainable goals had higher concentrations of cortisol, an inflammatory hormone associated with adverse medical outcomes….”

Dopamine is why belief is addictive, why belief always wants more, more, more. It’s not a legally controlled substance, but it ought to be – especially for people like me.

Use it at your own risk.

I kind of wish somebody had told me that. But I doubt I would have listened.

Addict? Who me?

[1] Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen (2017)

[2] Apparently it was okay to use the Bible for our social causes, even if we dismissed it for other purposes.

[3] See this blog’s series on Belief Systems and Culture, also Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief.

[4] Harvard Business Review (Nov. 8, 2011).I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Harvard Business Review Scott Barry Kaufman Why Inspiration Matters” and it will come up.

[5] “Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity (And How to Fix It” Forbes (Aug. 20, 2012). I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Larry Howes Forbes Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity,” and the article will come up.

[6]You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015)

A Talk at the Rock: How to Instantly Polarize a Crowd and End a Discussion

AreopaguslImage from Wikipedia

The Areopagus is a large rock outcropping in Athens, not far from the Acropolis, where in ancient times various legal, economic, and religious issues got a hearing. A Bible story about something that happened there two thousand years ago provides surprising insight on today’s hyper-polarized world.

Backstory:  A Dualistic Worldview

In the 17th Century, Frenchman René Descartes sorted reality into two categories: (1) the natural, physical world and (2) the unseen world of ideas, feelings, and beliefs. This duality was born of the times:

“Toward the end of the Renaissance period, a radical epistemological and metaphysical shift overcame the Western psyche. The advances of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon posed a serious problem for Christian dogma and its dominion over the natural world.

“In the 17th century, René Descartes’s dualism of matter and mind was an ingenious solution to the problem this created. ‘The ideas’ that had hitherto been understood as inhering in nature as ‘God’s thoughts’ were rescued from the advancing army of empirical science and withdrawn into the safety of a separate domain, ‘the mind’.

“On the one hand, this maintained a dimension proper to God, and on the other, served to ‘make the intellectual world safe for Copernicus and Galileo’, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).

“In one fell swoop, God’s substance-divinity was protected, while empirical science was given reign over nature-as-mechanism – something ungodly and therefore free game.”[1]

Descartes articulated this dualistic framework, but it had been around from prehistoric antiquity. It still persists today, and neurological research suggests the human brain comes pre-wired for it. This is from Psychology Today[2]:

“Recent research suggests that our brains may be pre-wired for dichotomized thinking. That’s a fancy name for thinking and perceiving in terms of two – and only two – opposing possibilities.

“Neurologists explored the activity of certain key regions of the human forebrain – the frontal lobe – trying to understand how the brain switches between tasks. Scientists generally accept the idea that the brain can only consciously manage one task at a time….

“However, some researchers are now suggesting that our brains can keep tabs on two tasks at a time, by sending each one to a different side of the brain. Apparently, we toggle back and forth, with one task being primary and the other on standby.

“Add a third task, however, and one of the others has to drop off the to-do list. Scans of brain activity during this task switching have led to the hypothesis that the brain actually likes handling things in pairs. Indeed, the brain itself is subdivided into two distinct half-brains, or hemispheres.

“Some researchers are now extending this reasoning to suggest that the brain has a built-in tendency, when confronted by complex propositions, to selfishly reduce the set of choices to just two.

“The popular vocabulary routinely signals this dichotomizing mental habit: ‘Are you with us, or against us?’ ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’

“These research findings might help explain how and why the public discourse of our culture has become so polarized and rancorous, and how we might be able to replace it with a more intelligent conversation.

“One of our popular clichés is ‘Well, there are two sides to every story.’ Why only two? Maybe the less sophisticated and less rational members of our society are caught up in duplex thinking, because the combination of a polarized brain and unexamined emotional reflexes keep them there.”

“Less sophisticating and less rational” … the author’s ideological bias is showing, but the “unexamined emotional reflexes” finger points at both ends of the polarized spectrum. And because our brains love status quo and resist change, we hunker down on our assumptions and biases. True, the balance can shift more gradually, over time – the way objectivity ascended during the 18th Century’s Age of Enlightenment, but Romanticism pushed back in the 19th — but usually it takes something drastic like disruptive innovation, tragedy, violence, etc. to knock us off our equilibrium. Absent that, we’re usually not up for the examination required to separate what we objectively know from what we subjectively believe — it’s all just reality, and as long as it’s working, we’re good. If we’re forced to examine and adjust, we’ll most likely take our cues from our cultural context:

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives. We form our worldview implicitly as we grow up, from our family, friends, and culture, and, once it’s set, we’re barely aware of it unless we’re presented with a different worldview for comparison. The unconscious origin of our worldview makes it quite inflexible.

“There is [a] potent force shaping the particular patterns we perceive around us. It’s what anthropologists call culture. Just as language shapes the perception of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child constructs meaning in the world. Every culture holds its own worldview: a complex and comprehensive model of how the universe works and how to act within it. This network of beliefs and values determines the way in which each child in that culture makes sense of the universe.”[3]

Culture has been sculpting the human brain ever since our earliest ancestors began living complex social lives millions of years ago. It’s only when the cultural balance runs off the rails that our brains scramble to reset, and we’re stressed while they’re at it. We would do well not to wait until then, and learn how to embrace both ends of the dualistic spectrum, argues one computational biologist[4]:

“Neuroscience was part of the dinner conversation in my family, often a prerequisite for truth. Want to talk about art? Not without neuroscience. Interested in justice? You can’t judge someone’s sanity without parsing scans of the brain. But though science helps us refine our thinking, we’re hindered by its limits: outside of mathematics, after all, no view of reality can achieve absolute certainty. Progress creates the illusion that we are moving toward deeper knowledge when, in fact, imperfect theories constantly lead us astray.

“The conflict is relevant in this age of anti-science, with far-Right activists questioning climate change, evolution and other current finds. In his book Enlightenment Now (2018), Steven Pinker describes a second assault on science from within mainstream scholarship and the arts. But is that really bad? Nineteenth-century Romanticism was the first movement to take on the Enlightenment – and we still see its effects in such areas as environmentalism, asceticism and the ethical exercise of conscience.

“In our new era of Enlightenment, we need Romanticism again. In his speech ‘Politics and Conscience’ (1984), the Czech dissident Václav Havel, discussing factories and smokestacks on the horizon, explained just why: ‘People thought they could explain and conquer nature – yet … they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it.’ Havel was not against industry, he was just for labour relations and protection of the environment.

“The issues persist. From use of GMO seeds and aquaculture to assert control over the food chain to military strategies for gene-engineering bioweapons, power is asserted though patents and financial control over basic aspects of life. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge (1976) referred to such advancements as ‘techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’. With winners and losers in the new arena, it only makes sense that some folks are going to push back.

“We are now on the verge of a new revolution in control over life through the gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9, which has given us the ability to tinker with the colour of butterfly wings and alter the heritable genetic code of humans. In this uncharted territory, where ethical issues are rife, we can get blindsided by sinking too much of our faith into science, and losing our sense of humanity or belief in human rights.

“Science should inform values such as vaccine and climate policy, but it must not determine all values…. With science becoming a brutal game of market forces and patent controls, the skeptics and Romantics among us must weigh in, and we already are.”

That’s probably good advice, but we need to push through a lot of cultural status quo to get there. That’s especially true because the 20th Century brought us change at ever-accelerating rates — objective reality went spinning away and we crashed into the extreme belief end of the spectrum:

“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard — letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts.

“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.

“Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”[5]

When we can agree that our conflict is a matter of my data vs. yours, we can debate rationally. But when it’s my beliefs vs. yours, what used to be discourse dissolves into stonewalling and shouting. Belief seeks its own perfection by eliminating doubt, and therefore devolves into fundamentalism, where discussion is a sign of doubt, punishable as heresy. Fundamentalism can be secular or religious – it’s the dynamic, not the content, that matters

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others. It is used to justify imperial hubris, war, intolerance and repression as a regrettable necessity in the march of human progress. The fundamentalist murders, plunders and subjugates in the name of humankind’s most exalted ideals. Those who oppose the fundamentalists are dismissed as savages, condemned as lesser breeds of human beings, miscreants led astray by Satan or on the wrong side of Western civilization. The nation is endowed with power and military prowess, fundamentalists argue, because God or our higher form of civilization makes us superior. It is our right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical. They are utopian. They will lead us out of the wilderness to the land of milk and honey.”[6]

Fundamentalism is where the open mind goes into lockdown. Objectivity loses its grip and the question “Are you with us, or against us?” gives way to its declarative version, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”[7] Dualistic thinking ceases to be more than a source of “popular clichés,” and becomes instead a rigid disincentive to public discourse, as competing polarized beliefs dig in for a grinding, maddening war of attrition. What used to be public discourse is lost in a no-man’s land of intellectual wreckage created by each side’s incessant lobbing of ideological bombs at the other’s entrenched subjective positions. Each side is convinced it has a God’s-eye view of reality, therefore God is on its side, which motivates securing its position by all necessary means.

A Talk at the Rock

The Christian scriptures illustrate how all this works in a story from one of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys.

“Now while Paul was… at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So, he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.  And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’[8]

The Epicureans and Stoics were the materialists of their day – their thinking leaned toward the objective side of the dualism. When Paul came to town advocating ideas (the subjective end of the dualism), their brain patterning couldn’t process Paul’s worldview. They needed time, so they invited Paul to a Talk at the Rock (the Areopagus).

At this point, the author of the story –- widely believed to be the same “Luke the beloved physician”[9] who wrote the Gospel of Luke – inserts a biased editorial comment that signals that nothing’s going to come of this because “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”[10] I.e., reasonable consideration — public discourse – was going to be a waste of time. But Paul had prepared some culturally sensitive opening remarks:

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: To the unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’”

He then offers up the idea of substituting his ‘foreign god’ for the Athenians’ statuary, altars, and temples:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”

You can sense the crowd’s restless murmuring and shuffling feet, but then Paul goes back to cultural bridge-building:

“Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ [referring to a passage from Epimenides of Crete], and as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’[{From Aratus’s poem Phainomena].”

Nice recovery, Paul. So far so good. This feels like discourse, what the Rock is for. But Paul believes that the Athenians’ practice of blending the unseen world of their gods with their physical craftmanship of statuary, altars, and temples (a practice the church would later perfect) is idolatry, and in his religious culture back home, idolatry had been on the outs since the Golden Calf.[11] At this point, Paul takes off the cultural kit gloves and goes fundamentalist:

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

That’s precisely the point where he loses the crowd — well, most of them, there were some who were willing to give him another shot, and even a couple fresh converts:

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”

“Some men joined him and believed….” That’s all there was left for them to do: believe or not believe. You’re either with us or against us.

Paul had violated the cultural ethics of a Talk at the Rock. It was about reasonable discourse; he made it a matter of belief, saying in effect. “forget your social customs and ethics, my God is going to hurt you if you keep it up.” With that, the conclave became irretrievably polarized, and the session was over.

Paul triggered this cultural dynamic constantly on his journeys – for example a few years later, when the Ephesus idol-building guild figured out the economic implications of Paul’s belief system[12]:

“About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.  For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, ‘Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.’ When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’”

Jesus had previously taken a whip to the merchants in the Temple in Jerusalem.[13] Apparently Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen saw the same thing coming to them, and made a preemptive strike. The scene quickly spiraled out of control:

“So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.  But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.”

A local official finally quelled the riot:

“Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

“And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, ‘Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” and when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.”[14]

It Still Happens Today

I spent years in the evangelical church – we were fundamentalists, but didn’t want to admit it – where Paul’s Talk at the Rock was held up as the way not to “share your faith.” Forget the public discourse — you can’t just “spend [your] time in nothing except telling or hearing something new,” you need to lay the truth on them so they can believe or not believe, and if they don’t, you need to “shake the dust off your feet”[15] and get out of there. These days, we see both secular and religious cultural institutions following that advice.

Will we ever learn?

[1]How The Dualism Of Descartes Ruined Our Mental HealthMedium (May 10, 2019)

[2] Karl Albrecht, “The Tyranny of Two,” Psychology Today (Aug 18, 2010)

[3] Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] Jim Kozubek, “The Enlightenment Rationality Is Not Enough: We Need A New Romanticism,” Aeon (Apr. 18, 2018)

[5] Andersen, Kurt, Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017)

[6] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

[7] The latter came from Jesus himself – see the Gospels of Matthew 21: 12-13, and John 2: 13-16. Jesus was a belief man through and through. More on that another time.

[8] The Acts of the Apostles 17: 17-20.

[9] Paul’s letter to the Colossians 4: 14.

[10] Acts 17: 21.

[11] Exodus 32.

[12] Acts 19: 23-41

[13] Mathew 21: 12-17; John 2: 13-21

[14] Acts: 23-42

[15] Matthew 10:14.

Belief in Belief

ya gotta believe

New York Mets fans at the 1973 World Series
(they lost)

The quest to resolve the consciousness hard problem needs a boost from quantum mechanics to get any further. Either that, or there needs to be a better way to state the issue. As things stand, neuroscience’s inability to locate subjectivity in our brain matter gives pro-subjectivity the right to cite quantum mechanics as its go-to scientific justification.

The $12 Billion self-help industry and its coaches, speakers, and authors love quantum mechanics:  if subjectivity works on a sub-atomic level, the argument goes, then why not apply it on a macro, conscious level? Meanwhile, quantum scientists seem to have resigned themselves to the notion that, if their theories don’t have to be grounded in traditional objective standards like empirical testing and falsifiability, then why not hypothesize about multiverses and call that science?

Thus scientific rationalism continues to be on the wane — in science and as a way of life — especially in the USA, where belief in belief has been an ever-expanding feature of the American Way since we got started. To get the full perspective on America’s belief in belief, you need to read Kurt Andersen’s book, Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017), which I quoted at length last time. (Or for the short version, see this Atlantic article.)  The book provides a lot of history we never learned, but also reveals that the roots of our belief in belief go back even further than our own founding, and beyond our own shores. Although we weren’t founded as a Christian nation[1] (in the same way, for example, that Pakistan was expressly founded as a Muslim nation), Andersen traces this aspect of our ideological foundations to the Protestant Reformation:

“[Luther] insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for himself or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

“Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people — that is, critically expanding individual liberty — Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a Christian. You couldn’t earn your way into Heaven by performing virtuous deeds. Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered.

“However, out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.”

But even the Protestant Reformation isn’t back far enough. Luther’s insistence that anybody can get all the truth they need from the Bible is the Christian doctrine of sola scirptura, which holds that the Bible is the ultimate source of truth. And the Bible is where we find the original endorsement of the primacy of belief, in the teachings of none other than Jesus himself:

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart,  but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.”

Mark 11:23 (ESV)

Thus, the Christian rationale for belief in belief goes something like this:

  • “We believe the Bible tells the truth;
  • “The Bible says Jesus was God incarnate;
  • “God knows what’s true;
  • “Jesus, as God, spoke truth;
  • “Therefore, what Jesus said about belief is true.”

The rationale begins and ends in belief. Belief is a closed loop — you either buy it by believing, or you don’t. And if you believe, you don’t doubt or question, because if you do, belief won’t work for you, and it will be your own fault — you’ll be guilty of doubting in your heart or some other kind of sabotage. For example,

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

James 1:5-8 (ESV)

Thus belief disposes of every criticism against it. You’re either in or out, either with us or against us. Or, as a friend of mine used to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” And if your doubts persist, there are consequences. When I expressed some of mine back in college, the same friend handed me a Bible and said, “Read Luke 6: 62.”

“Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Luke 9: 62  (ESV)

End of discussion.

But not here, not in this blog. Here, our mission is to challenge cherished beliefs and institutions. Here, we’ll to look more into what it means to believe in belief, and consider other options. In the meantime, we’ll set aside the hard problem of consciousness while we wait for further developments,

For more on today’s topic, you might take a look at Should We Believe In Belief? (The Guardian, July 17, 2009), and be sure to click the links at the end and read those pieces, too. All the articles are short and instructive.

[1] For a detailed consideration (and ultimate refutation) of the claim that American was founded as a Christian nation , see The Founding Myth, by Andrew L. Seidel (2019).

How Impossible Becomes Possible (2)

While objective, scientific knowledge scrambles to explain consciousness in purely biological terms (“the meat thinks”), subjective belief enjoys cultural and scientific predominance. And no wonder — the allure of subjectivity is freedom and power:  if scientists can control the outcome of their quantum mechanics lab work by what they believe, then surely the rest of us can also believe the results we want into existence. In fact, isn’t it true that we create our own reality, either consciously or not? If so, then consciously is better, because that way we’ll get what we intend instead of something mashed together by our shady, suspect subconscious. And the good news is, we can learn and practice conscious creation. Put that to work, and we can do and have and be whatever we want! Nothing is impossible for us!

I.e, belief in belief is the apex of human consciousness and self-efficacy:  it’s what makes the impossible possible. At least, that’s the self-help gospel, which also has deep roots in the New Testament. We’ll be looking deeper into both.

The Music Man lampooned belief in belief as practiced by con man Harold Hill’s “think method.” The show came out in 1957. Five years before, the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking, and twenty years before, Napolean Hill published Think and Grow Rich, in which he penned its most-quoted aphorism, “Whatever your mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”

Americans in particular have had an enduring allegiance to belief in belief, ever since we got started 500 years ago. Since then, we’ve taken it to ever-increasing extremes:

“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation.

“Why are we like this?

“The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.

“America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, and by hucksters and their suckers, which made America successful—but also by a people uniquely susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem’s hunting witches to Joseph Smith’s creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Trump. In other words: Mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that ferment for a few centuries; then run it through the anything-goes ’60s and the internet age. The result is the America we inhabit today.

Fantasyland

Belief in belief soared to new heights in mega-bestseller The Secret:

“The Secret takes the American fundamentals, individualism and supernaturalism and belief in belief, and strips away the middlemen and most the pious packaging…. What’s left is a “law of attraction,” and if you just crave anything hard enough, it will become yours. Belief is all. The Secret’s extreme version of magical thinking goes far beyond its predecessors’. It is staggering. A parody would be almost impossible. It was number one on the Times’s nonfiction list for three years and sold around twenty million copies.”

Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen (2017)

American culture’s embrace of belief in belief was supercharged in its earliest days by the Puritans, about whom Kurt Andersen concludes, “In other words, America was founded by a nutty religious cult.” Maybe that’s why The Secret distanced itself from those Christian moorings:

“The closest antecedent to The Secret was The Power of Positive Thinking in the 1950s, back when a mega-bestselling guide to supernatural success still needed an explicit tether to Christianity.

“In The Secret, on the other hand, Rhonda Byrn mentions Jesus only once, as the founder of the prosperity gospel. All the major biblical heroes, including Christ, she claims, ‘were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of.’”

Fantasyland

The Secret also stakes its claim on the side of subjective science:

“There isn’t a single thing you cannot do with this knowledge,’ the book promises. ‘It doesn’t matter who your are or where you are. The Secret can give you whatever you want. ‘Because it’s a scientific fact.’”

Fantasyland

But The Secret is just one example of the subjective good news. Believe it into existence —  that’s how the impossible is done American, self-help, Christian, subjective science style. Never mind the objective, empirically-verified, scientific “adjacent possibility” approach we looked at last time — that’s just too stuffy, too intellectual. Belief in belief is much more inspiring, more of a joyride.

And that’s a problem.

More next time.

So Consciousness Has a Hard Problem… Now What?

god helmet

We’ve been looking at the “hard problem” of consciousness:

  • Neuroscience can identify the brain circuits that create the elements of consciousness and otherwise parse out how “the meat thinks,” but it can’t quite get its discoveries all the way around the mysteries of subjective experience.
  • That’s a problem because we’re used to thinking along Descartes’ dualistic distinction between scientific knowledge, which is objective, empirical, and invites disproving, and belief-based conviction, which is subjective, can’t be tested and doesn’t want to be.
  • What’s worse, science’s recent work in quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning has blurred those dualistic lines by exposing the primacy of subjectivity even in scientific inquiry.
  • All of which frustrates our evolutionary survival need to know how the world really works.[1]

Some people are ready to declare that subjective belief wins, and science will just have to get over it. That’s what happened with the “God Helmet” (shown in the photo above, taken from this article), Dr. Michael Persinger[2] created the helmet for use in neuro-religious research:

“This is a device that is able to simulate religious experiences by stimulating an individual’s tempoparietal lobes using magnetic fields. ‘If the equipment and the experiment produced the presence that was God, then the extrapersonal, unreachable, and independent characteristics of the god definition might be challenged,’ [says Dr. Persinger].” [3]

The God Helmet creates subjective experiences shared among various religions, such as sensing a numinous presence, a feeling of being filled with the spirit or overwhelmed or possessed, of being outside of self, out of body, or having died and come back to life, feelings of being one with all things or of peace, awe, fear and dread, etc. Since all of these states have been either measured or induced in the laboratory, you’d think that might dampen allegiance to the belief that they are God-given, but not so. Instead, when the God Helmet was tested on a group of meditating nuns, their conclusion was, how wonderful that God equipped the brain in that way, so he could communicate with us. Similarly,

 “Some years ago, I discussed this issue with Father George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer who was then Director of the Vatican Observatory. I asked him what he thought of the notion that when the 12th‑century Hildegard of Bingen was having her visions of God, perhaps she was having epileptic fits. He had no problem with the fits. Indeed, he thought that when something so powerful was going on in a mind, there would necessarily be neurological correlates. Hildegard might well have been an epileptic, Father Coyne opined; that didn’t mean God wasn’t also talking to her.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science. Aeon Magazine (Oct. 9, 2013)

If we’re not willing to concede the primacy of subjectivity, then what? Well, we could give up on the idea that the human race is equipped to figure out everything it would really like to know.

 “It would be poetic – albeit deeply frustrating – were it ultimately to prove that the one thing the human mind is incapable of comprehending is itself. An answer must be out there somewhere. And finding it matters: indeed, one could argue that nothing else could ever matter more – since anything at all that matters, in life, only does so as a consequence of its impact on conscious brains. Yet there’s no reason to assume that our brains will be adequate vessels for the voyage towards that answer. Nor that, were we to stumble on a solution to the Hard Problem, on some distant shore where neuroscience meets philosophy, we would even recognise that we’d found it.”

Why Can’t The World’s Greatest Minds Solve The Mystery Of Consciousness? The Guardian (Jan. 21, 2015)

“Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking. We cannot hold ten thousand words in short-term memory. We cannot see in ultraviolet light. We cannot mentally rotate an object in the fourth dimension. And perhaps we cannot solve conundrums like free will and sentience.”

How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker (1997)

Evolutionary biologist David Barash attributes our inability to the vastly different pace of biological evolution (what the operative biology of our brains can process) vs. cultural evolution (what we keep learning and inventing and hypothesizing about). Trouble is, the latter moves way too fast for the former to keep up.

“On the one hand, there is our biological evolution, a relatively slow-moving organic process that can never proceed more rapidly than one generation at a time, and that nearly always requires an enormous number of generations for any appreciable effect to arise.

“On the other hand is cultural evolution, a process that is, by contrast, extraordinary in its speed.

“Whereas biological evolution is Darwinian, moving by the gradual substitution and accumulation of genes, cultural evolution is … powered by a nongenetic ‘inheritance” of acquired characteristics. During a single generation, people have selectively picked up, discarded, manipulated, and transmitted cultural, social, and technological innovations that have become almost entirely independent of any biological moorings.

“We are, via our cultural evolution, in over our biological heads.”

Through a Glass Brightly:  Using Science to See Our Species as We Really Are, David P. Barash (2018)

Give in to subjectivity, or just give up…. We’ll look at another option next time.

[1] The study of how we know things is Epistemology.

[2] Dr. Persinger was director of the Neuroscience Department at Laurentian University in Ontario, Canada prior to his death in 2018.

[3] “What God Does To Your Brain:  The controversial science of neurotheology aims to find the answer to an age-old question: why do we believe?” The Telegraph (June 20, 2014).

Subjective Science

quantum mechanics formula

What happened to spark all the recent scientific interest in looking for consciousness in the brains of humans and animals, in insects, and … well, everywhere? (Including not just the universe, but also the theoretical biocentric universe and quantum multiverses.)

“It has been said that, if the 20th century was the age of physics, the 21st will be the age of the brain. Among scientists today, consciousness is being hailed as one of the prime intellectual challenges. My interest in the subject is not in any particular solution to the origin of consciousness – I believe we’ll be arguing about that for millennia to come – but rather in the question: why is consciousness perceived as a ‘problem’? How exactly did it become a problem? And given that it was off the table of science for so long, why is it now becoming such a hot research subject?”

I Feel Therefore I Am — How Exactly Did Consciousness Become A Problem? And why, after years off the table, is it a hot research subject now?  Aeon Magazine (Dec. 1, 2015)

From what I can tell, two key sparks started the research fire:  (1) the full implications of quantum mechanics finally set in, and (2) machines learned how to learn.

(1)  Quantum Mechanics:  Science Goes Subjective. Ever since Descartes set up his dualistic reality a few hundred years ago, we’ve been able to trust that science could give us an objective, detached, rational, factual view of the observable universe, while philosophy and religion could explore the invisible universe where subjectivity reigns. But then the handy boundary between the two was torn in the early 20th Century when quantum mechanics found that subjectivity reigns on a sub-atomic level, where reality depends on what researchers decide ahead of time what they’re looking for. Scientists tried for the rest of the 20th Century to restore objectivity to their subatomic lab work, but eventually had to concede.

 “Physicists began to realise that consciousness might after all be critical to their own descriptions of the world. With the advent of quantum mechanics they found that, in order to make sense of what their theories were saying about the subatomic world, they had to posit that the scientist-observer was actively involved in constructing reality.

“At the subatomic level, reality appeared to be a subjective flow in which objects sometimes behave like particles and other times like waves. Which facet is manifest depends on how the human observer is looking at the situation.

“Such a view apalled many physicists, who fought desperately to find a way out, and for much of the 20th century it still seemed possible to imagine that, somehow, subjectivity could be squeezed out of the frame, leaving a purely objective description of the world.

“In other words, human subjectivity is drawing forth the world.”

I Feel Therefore I Am

(2)  Machines Learned to Learn. Remember “garbage in, garbage out”? It used to be that computers had to be supervised — they only did what we told them to do, and could only use the information we gave them. But not anymore. Now their “minds” are free to sort through the garbage on their own and make up their own rules about what to keep or throw out. Because of this kind of machine learning, we now have computers practicing law and medicine, handling customer service, writing the news, composing music, writing novels and screenplays, creating art…. all those things we used to think needed human judgment and feelings. Google wizard and overall overachiever Sebastian Thrun[1] explains the new machine learning in this conversation with TED Curator Chris Anderson:

 “Artificial intelligence and machine learning is about 60 years old and has not had a great day in its past until recently. And the reason is that today, we have reached a scale of computing and datasets that was necessary to make machines smart. The new thing now is that computers can find their own rules. So instead of an expert deciphering, step by step, a rule for every contingency, what you do now is you give the computer examples and have it infer its own rules.

 “20 years ago the computers were as big as a cockroach brain. Now they are powerful enough to really emulate specialized human thinking. And then the computers take advantage of the fact that they can look at much more data than people can.

No wonder science got rattled. Like the rest of us, it was comfortable with all the Cartesian dualisms that kept the world neatly sorted out:  science vs. religion,[2] objective vs. subjective, knowledge vs. belief, humanity vs. technology…. But now all these opposites are blurring together in a subjective vortex while non-human intelligence looks on and comments about it.

Brave New World, indeed. How shall we respond to it?

More next time.

[1] Sebastian Thrun’s TED bio describes him as “an educator, entrepreneur and troublemaker. After a long life as a professor at Stanford University, Thrun resigned from tenure to join Google. At Google, he founded Google X, home to self-driving cars and many other moonshot technologies. Thrun also founded Udacity, an online university with worldwide reach, and Kitty Hawk, a ‘flying car’ company. He has authored 11 books, 400 papers, holds 3 doctorates and has won numerous awards.”

[2] For an alternative to the science-religion dualism, see Science + Religion:  The science-versus-religion opposition is a barrier to thought. Each one is a gift, rather than a threat, to the other, Aeon Magazine (Nov. 21, 2019)

 

The Greatest Unsolved Mystery

sherlock holmes

Academic disciplines take turns being more or less in the public eye — although, as we saw a couple posts back, metaphysicians think their discipline ought to be the perennial front runner. After all, it’s about figuring out the real nature of things”[1] and what could be more important than that?

Figuring out the human mind that’s doing the figuring, that’s what![2] Thus neuroscience’s quest to understand human consciousness finds itself at the front of the line as the greatest unsolved scientific mystery of our time.

“Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Daniel Dennett wrote that: ‘Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery.’ A few years later, [David] Chalmers added: ‘[It] may be the largest outstanding obstacle in our quest for a scientific understanding of the universe.’ They were right then and, despite the tremendous scientific advances since, they are still right today.

“I think it is possible that, compared with the hard problem [of consciousness], the rest of science is a sideshow. Until we get a grip on our own minds, our grip on anything else could be suspect. The hard problem is still the toughest kid on the block.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science, Aeon Magazine Oct. 9, 2013

“Hard problem” is a term of art in the consciousness quest:

“The philosopher [David] Chalmers … suggested that the challenge of explaining consciousness can be divided into two problems.

“One, the easy problem, is to explain how the brain computes and stores information. Calling this problem easy is, of course, a euphemism. What is meant is something more like the technically possible problem given a lot of scientific work.

“In contrast, the hard problem is to explain how we become aware of all that stuff going on in the brain. Awareness itself, the essence of awareness, because it is presumed to be nonphysical, because it is by definition private, seems to be scientifically unapproachable.”

Consciousness and the Social Brain. Michael S. A. Graziano (2013).

Solving the “easy” problem requires objective, empirical inquiry into how our brains are organized and wired, what brain areas and neural circuits process which kinds of experience, how they all share relevant information, etc. Armed with MRIs and other technologies, neuroscience has made great progress on all that. What it can’t seem to get its instruments around is the personal and  private subjection interpretation of the brain’s objective processing of experience.

“First coined in 1995 by the Australian philosopher David Chalmers, this ‘hard problem’ of consciousness highlights the distinction between registering and actually feeling a phenomenon. Such feelings are what philosophers refer to as qualia: roughly speaking, the properties by which we classify experiences according to ‘what they are like’. In 2008, the French thinker Michel Bitbol nicely parsed the distinction between feeling and registering by pointing to the difference between the subjective statement ‘I feel hot’, and the objective assertion that ‘The temperature of this room is higher than the boiling point of alcohol’ – a statement that is amenable to test by thermometer.”

I Feel Therefore I Am  Aeon Magazine Dec. 1, 2015

Neuroscience does objective just fine, but meets its match with subjective.

“The question of how the brain produces the feeling of subjective experience, the so-called ‘hard problem’, is a conundrum so intractable that one scientist I know refuses even to discuss it at the dinner table. Another, the British psychologist Stuart Sutherland, declared in 1989 that ‘nothing worth reading has been written on it’.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

Recently though, neuroscience has unleashed new urgency on the hard problem:

“For long periods, it is as if science gives up on the subject in disgust. But the hard problem is back in the news, and a growing number of scientists believe that they have consciousness, if not licked, then at least in their sights.

“A triple barrage of neuroscientific, computational and evolutionary artillery promises to reduce the hard problem to a pile of rubble. Today’s consciousness jockeys talk of p‑zombies and Global Workspace Theory, mirror neurons, ego tunnels, and attention schemata. They bow before that deus ex machina of brain science, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

Impressive, but are they making progress? Not so much.

“Their work is frequently very impressive and it explains a lot. All the same, it is reasonable to doubt whether it can ever hope to land a blow on the hard problem.”

The Mental Block – Consciousness Is The Greatest Mystery In Science.

The quest to map and measure the “personalized feeling level” of consciousness has taken researchers to some odd places indeed — as we saw in the video featured last time. Zombies also feature prominently:

“All those tests still face what you might call the zombie problem. How do you know your uncle, let alone your computer, isn’t a pod person – a zombie in the philosophical sense, going through the motions but lacking an internal life? He could look, act, and talk like your uncle, but have no experience of being your uncle. None of us can ever enter another mind, so we can never really know whether anyone’s home.”

Consciousness CreepAeon Magazine, February 25, 2016

More about Zombies and other consciousness conundrums coming up, along with a look at what made consciousness shoot to the top of the unsolved scientific mysteries pile.

[1] Encyclopedia Briitanica

[2] We’ll see later in this series what made illuminating the human mind so critical to science in general, not just neuroscience in particular.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [9]:  Reckoning With Mystery

pontius pilate

“What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate
John 18:38 (NIV)

On the science side of Cartesian dualism, truth must be falsifiable — we have to be able to prove it’s untrue. On the religious side, to falsify is to doubt, doubt becomes heresy, and heresy meets the bad end it deserves.

Neither side likes mystery, because both are trying to satisfy a more primal need:  to know, explain, and be right. It’s a survival skill:  we need to be right about a lot of things to stay alive, and there’s nothing more primal to a mortal being than staying alive. Mystery is nice if you’ve got the time, but at some point it won’t help you eat and avoid being eaten.

Science tackles mysteries with experiments and theories, religion with doctrine and ritual. Both try to nail their truth down to every “jot and tittle,” while mystery bides its time, aloof and unimpressed.

I once heard a street preacher offer his rationale for the existence of God. “Think about how big the universe is,” he said, “It’s too big for me to understand. There has to be a God behind it.” That’s God explained on a street corner:  “I don’t get it, so there has be a higher up who does. His name is God.” The preacher’s God has the expansive consciousness we lack, and if we don’t always understand, that’s part of the deal:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

Compare that to a cognitive neuroscientist’s take on our ability to perceive reality, as explained in this video.

“Many scientists believe that natural selection brought our perception of reality into clearer and deeper focus, reasoning that growing more attuned to the outside world gave our ancestors an evolutionary edge. Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, thinks that just the opposite is true. Because evolution selects for survival, not accuracy, he proposes that our conscious experience masks reality behind millennia of adaptions for ‘fitness payoffs’ – an argument supported by his work running evolutionary game-theory simulations. In this interview recorded at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival from the Institute of Arts and Ideas in 2019, Hoffman explains why he believes that perception must necessarily hide reality for conscious agents to survive and reproduce. With that view serving as a springboard, the wide-ranging discussion also touches on Hoffman’s consciousness-centric framework for reality, and its potential implications for our everyday lives.”

The video is 40 minutes long, but a few minutes will suffice to make today/s point. Prof. Hoffman admits his theory is counterintuitive and bizarre, but promises he’s still working on it (moving it toward falsifiability). I personally favor scientific materialism’s explanation of consciousness, and I actually get the theory behind Prof. Hoffman’s ideas, but when I watch this I can’t help but think its’s amazing how far science and religion will go to define their versions of how things work. That’s why I quit trying to read philosophy:  all that meticulous logic trying to block all exits and close all loopholes, but sooner or later some mystery leaks out a seam, and when it does the whole thing seems overwrought and silly.

The street preacher thinks reality is out there, and we’re given enough brain to both get by and know when to quit trying and trust a higher intelligence that has it all figured out. The scientist starts in here, with the brain (“the meat that thinks”), then tries to describe how it creates a useful enough version of reality to help us get by in the external world.

The preacher likes the eternal human soul; the scientist goes for the bio-neuro-cultural construction we call the self. Positions established, each side takes and receives metaphysical potshots from the other. For example, when science clamors after the non-falsifiable multiverse theory of quantum physics, the intelligent designers gleefully point out that the so-called scientists are leapers of faith just like them:

“Unsurprisingly, the folks at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think-tank for creationism and intelligent design, have been following the unfolding developments in theoretical physics with great interest. The Catholic evangelist Denyse O’Leary, writing for the Institute’s Evolution News blog in 2017, suggests that: ‘Advocates [of the multiverse] do not merely propose that we accept faulty evidence. They want us to abandon evidence as a key criterion for acceptance of their theory.’ The creationists are saying, with some justification: look, you accuse us of pseudoscience, but how is what you’re doing in the name of science any different? They seek to undermine the authority of science as the last word on the rational search for truth.

“And, no matter how much we might want to believe that God designed all life on Earth, we must accept that intelligent design makes no testable predictions of its own. It is simply a conceptual alternative to evolution as the cause of life’s incredible complexity. Intelligent design cannot be falsified, just as nobody can prove the existence or non-existence of a philosopher’s metaphysical God, or a God of religion that ‘moves in mysterious ways’. Intelligent design is not science: as a theory, it is simply overwhelmed by its metaphysical content.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

And so it goes. But what would be so wrong with letting mystery stay… well, um… mysterious?

We’ll look at that next time.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [8]: Science and Snake Oil

snake oil salesman 2

Science requires that its findings be falsifiable:  you have to be able to prove them wrong. That they might be right isn’t enough; if they can’t be wrong, they’re not science.

Belief in the supernatural isn’t falsifiable, therefore it’s not science:

“Most supernatural religious beliefs aren’t falsifiable. The existence of a God who created and manages the world according to a fixed eternal plan, Jesus’s miracles and resurrection, Heaven, Hell, Satan’s presence on Earth — these can never be disproved.”

Fantasyland:  How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History,by Kurt Andersen (2017)

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because no one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense.

“We often see what we already believe is there, not what is actually in front of us. Perhaps the greatest of all examples of this are religious experiences. People with religious experiences always see in their visions what they have been taught all their lives. For example, a Muslim will never see a vision of Jesus in his religious experience and a Christian will never see Mohammed.

“All scientists know that the methods we use to prove or disprove theories are the only dependable methods of understanding our universe. All other methodologies of learning, while appropriate to employ in situations when science cannot guide us, are inherently flawed. Reasoning alone — even the reasoning of great intellects — is not enough. It must be combined with the scientific method if it is to yield genuine knowledge about the universe.”

The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, Paul Singh (2016)

Consider falsifiability’s take on homeopathic medicine:

“Homeopathy, its fake medicines prescribed to cure every disease, is a product of magical thinking in the extreme.”

Fantasyland

“We can find many ways to criticise the premises of homeopathy and dismiss this as pseudoscience, as it has little or no foundation in our current understanding of Western, evidence-based medicine… Even if we take it at face value, we should admit that it fails all the tests: there is no evidence from clinical trials for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies beyond a placebo effect. Those who … continue to argue for its efficacy are not doing science. They are doing wishful-thinking or, like a snake-oil salesman, they’re engaged in deliberate deception.

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019.

“Homeopathy was the original ‘alternative medicine,’” Kurt Andersen writes. He describes how it was soon joined by mesmerism, phrenology, séances, and traveling snake oil salesmen, brought to us by illustrious champions such as Methodist John Wesley, Presbyterian Sylvester Graham (as in graham crackers), John Kellogg (of cereal fame), and “Dr. William A. Rockefeller, Celebrated Cancer Specialist” (father of John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil), Along the way, it helped to spawn “New Thought” religion — e.g., Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science churches and today’s New Age movement.

Alternative medicine works because of the placebo effect:

“Many nostrums were the products of knowing charlatans, but many of the most successful inventors and promoters were undoubtedly sincere believers themselves. If the patients who had faith in the miraculous treatments, they could even seem to work. The term placebo had just come into use as a medical term.

“The upside was that homeopathy inherently fulfills the Hippocratic Oath:    . Homeopathic medicines contain negligible active ingredients. If thousands of homeopaths and millions of patients, as Mark Twain said, wanted to ‘bribe death with a sugar pill to stay away,’ that was their problem.”

Fantasyland

In her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, Lissa Rankin M.D. tells how she switched from conventional to alternative medicine after realizing that lots of people in placebo control groups actually do get better taking those sugar pills. They may be in the minority, but still…. I once heard a medical researcher tell a group of MS patients to “Find your placebo — if you think it will help you, it probably will.”

But placebos aren’t science, and the “Scientific Proof” in Dr. Rankin’s book title is off target. Last time we heard about the science behind your GPS. You don’t want it to “probably” work, or work just some of the time, or so rarely it’s a “miracle” when it does. You want it to work every time, everywhere. If it doesn’t, then the science behind it has been falsified (proven wrong), and it’s back to the drawing board.

Eventually science and investigative journalism teamed up to put the snake oil peddlers out of business:

“[At the start of the Twentieth Century,] medical science advanced, and the American Establishment decided to put an end to large-scale quackery. The new mass-market magazine Ladies’ Home Journal stopped accepting ads for patent medicines, and Collier’s published a game-changing eleven-part  investigative series on the ‘tonics,’ ‘blood purifiers,’ and ‘cures’ racket — and a year later the Pure Food and Drug Act became federal law, putting most of that industry out of business.”

Fantasyland

We’ve been digressing a bit. Next time, we’ll get back to what this has to do with consciousness and the self.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [7]: Science and Metaphysics

college photo op

It’s a fine September day during freshman orientation week, and we’re a photo op:  a circle of students on the grass outside a stately hall of higher education. Our leader asked us to tell each other what we hope to learn while we’re here. “I’m interested in metaphysics,” one girl says. I don’t know what that means, and being a clueless frosh, I don’t bother to find out until decades later. [1]

This is from Online Etymology:

metaphysics (n.)

“the science of the inward and essential nature of things,” 1560s, plural of Middle English metaphisikmethaphesik (late 14c.), “branch of speculation which deals with the first causes of things.” … See meta- + physics.

“The name was given c.70 B.C.E. … to the customary ordering of [Aristotle’s Physics], but it was misinterpreted by Latin writers as meaning “the science of what is beyond the physical.”

Metaphysics is what happens when scholars think about the big picture. René Descartes was doing metaphysics when he split reality into seen vs. unseen, knowable vs. mysterious:  “He developed a metaphysical dualism that distinguishes radically between mind… and matter.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Metaphysics catches some grief about whether it’s a legitimate academic discipline, but counters that you can’t think about… well, anything… without first thinking about the bigger picture:

Metaphysics, the philosophical study whose object is to determine the real nature of things—to determine the meaning, structure, and principles of whatever is insofar as it is. Although this study is popularly conceived as referring to anything excessively subtle and highly theoretical and although it has been subjected to many criticisms, it is presented by metaphysicians as the most fundamental and most comprehensive of inquiries, inasmuch as it is concerned with reality as a whole.”

Encyclopedia Brittanica:

Even science has to concede metaphysics’ primacy:

“It turns out to be impossible even to formulate a scientific theory without metaphysics, without first assuming some things we can’t actually prove, such as the existence of an objective reality and the invisible entities we believe to exist in it.

“This is a bit awkward because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to gather empirical facts without first having some theoretical understanding of what we think we’re doing.

“Choosing between competing theories that are equivalently accommodating of the facts can become a matter for personal judgment, or our choice of metaphysical preconceptions or prejudices.”

But Is It Science? Aeon Magazine, Oct. 7, 2019. (The remaining quotes are also from this source.)

Scientific inquiry begins subjectively — with beliefs and assumptions that can’t be scrutinized by scientific method — a detail which, if left unintended, puts scientific inquiry on a par with, let’s say, late night dorm conjecture about the meaning of life. Science tries to rise above by requiring that its theories be falsifiable:  they have to be expressed in a way that lets you objectively prove them wrong.

“The philosopher Karl Popper argued that what distinguishes a scientific theory from pseudoscience and pure metaphysics is the possibility that it might be falsified on exposure to empirical data. In other words, a theory is scientific if it has the potential to be proved wrong.”

Falsifiability means you can’t appeal to metaphysics to avoid empirical scrutiny. Trouble is, our brains, once wired with our beliefs, make sure our experience conforms to them. But still…

“For me at least, there has to be a difference between science and pseudoscience; between science and pure metaphysics, or just plain ordinary bullshit.”

To be reliable, science has to make sure its metaphysics and physics line up in actual experience. For example, whatever  your metaphysical theory of the grand cosmos, you still need physics to make your GPS work:

“When you use Google Maps on your smartphone, you draw on a network of satellites orbiting Earth at 20,000 kilometres, of which four are needed for the system to work, and between six and 10 are ‘visible’ from your location at any time. Each of these satellites carries a miniaturised atomic clock, and transmits precise timing and position data to your device that allow you to pinpoint your location and identify the fastest route to the pub. “But without corrections based on Albert Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity, the Global Positioning System would accumulate clock errors, leading to position errors of up to 11 kilometres per day. Without these rather abstract and esoteric – but nevertheless highly successful – theories of physics, after a couple of days you’d have a hard time working out where on Earth you are.

“In February 2019, the pioneers of GPS were awarded the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The judges remarked that ‘the public may not know what [GPS] stands for, but they know what it is’. This suggests a rather handy metaphor for science. We might scratch our heads about how it works, but we know that, when it’s done properly, it does.”

More about falsifiability vs. faith, subjective vs. objective, real vs. fantasy, and other Cartesian dualisms next time.

[1] Now that I know what “metaphysics” means, I realize I was interested in it, too. In fact, metaphysics has been something of a defining pursuit of mine for most of my life, although less so lately. More on that another time.