Archive for the ‘Metacognition’ Category
Back Again to There: A Nontheistic Statement of Faithiness January 20, 2012 | 10:47 am

[Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to There and Back Again. If you haven’t read that post, start there (including the comments) and then come back.]

I finally figured out what was bothering me. While driving to the Science Online 2012 open mic night and listening to Jon Watts’ Lifted Up, I suddenly had an epiphany. Suddenly, things made sense. And it all came back to a mathematical formalism.

The formalism is the disproof by contradiction. That formalism can be colloquially expressed this way: if assuming X leads to a conclusion of not-X, then not-X is true. In this case, the specific expression is as follows: assuming rationality forms the foundation of lifestyle and morality, I have found rationality cannot form the foundation of lifestyle and morality. Therefore, rationality cannot form the foundation of lifestyle and morality.

This is a radical transformation. It is much more radical than anything else I have encountered, because it dislodges and renders impotent any question about why an action should take. This is fundamentally different than the ethical/lifestyle systems proposed to me, and it is easy to see why once you spell them out.

  • Enlightened hedonism, for instance, might claim that they are acting on this philosophy, because they are optimizing the phenomenologically self-justifying good of pleasure. Humanism or utilitarianism, insofar as they might justify themselves through enlightened hedonism, are also founded on this argument. Yet the self-justifying good of pleasure is a course that has to be maximized, and therefore there are better and worse ways of being in the world, and rationality is presumed to be critical in determining which ways are better and which ways are worse.
  • My position is actually more skeptical than the skeptics. The skeptics presume that one should live based on rational claims and oppose non-rational claims. Yet rationality itself is self-defeating, and so does not stand up to the skeptic’s own standards. (Skeptics refusing to apply their own standards to themselves is a recurring problem I have with skepticism as a community, BTW: a case in point.)
  • I don’t know much about Buddhism, but my understanding is that its core teaching is that attachment is the source of suffering, and so the goal is to not be attached to outcomes. If that’s true, than in a way, I’m more Buddhist than the Buddhists, because I’m also not attached to not being attached. (And I must admit, I do feel like I have reached a sense of Enlightenment.)

My new standpoint is the ultimate “Fuck it, let’s go bowling.” philosophy, and so I have adopted the Dude’s answer as a hyper-absurdist effort to counteract the rationalist trap. As soon as you engage a rational argument, you’re playing that ultimately self-defeating game again. Yet what is true or not true does not matter, not because of any statement about the value of truth or nihilism, but because fuck it, let’s go bowling. Why I believe something or act a certain way is not a question I have to answer, because fuck it, let’s go bowling. I’m not optimizing my happiness. I’m not striving towards an ethical life. I’m not playing into a grand narrative. I’m fuck it, let’s go bowling.

When I realized this — when I realized that my nagging issue with rationality leading to irrationality was that it proved rationality was false, and when I really realized how deep the denial of rationality went, then suddenly I was free. I saw the world differently in a moment. It was astounding.

Now, some of you may be saying, “Took you long enough.” There are a lot of people out there who have criticized me for thinking too much. I couldn’t just let stuff go, however, as long as there seemed to be compelling ethical mandates—or even the promise of compelling ethical mandates just under the next book cover. But that effort has not only yielded nothing, but actually outright self-destructed. Now I’m free of the mandate; that’s what it would take, and it finally go there: rationality is self-defeating.

(BTW, I should note that “Fuck it, let’s go bowling” is actually Walter’s line, not the Dude’s, but it so perfectly sums up the philosophy that I’m sticking to it. And besides, fuck it, let’s go bowling.)

(Also BTW, if you’d like to prove to me that rationality can form the foundation of lifestyle and morality, you’re welcome to try in the comments. Start by listing off all your presumptions. I’ll even give you Cogito, ergo sum for free, although you have to presume or argue any nouns you’d like to drive from those verbs. Also, please keep in mind that Hume pretty well destroyed inductive reasoning, so arguments from science are first going to have to undo Hume.)

There and Back Again: A Journey Into and Out of Faith January 15, 2012 | 02:00 pm

The gods forgot that they made me
So I forget them, too
I dance among their shadows
I play among their graves

(David Bowie, “Seven”)

Science tells us we are merely beasts, but we don’t feel like that. We feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts, forever craving transcendence.
(VS Ramachandran, cognitive neuroscientist)

For the last few years, I have been a seminary student. Although hardly “evangelical”, I entered seminary with a strong faith in a benevolent God that I attached to Christianity. During my time in seminary, my experience with the Society of Friends (Quakers) and my (notably extracurricular) reading of Leo Tolstoy’s presentation of Christianity strengthened my faith quite a bit. I believed that an incarnated God had laid out a proper mode of life and that the right focus for life was transformation into the unsullied image of that incarnated God. It was a standpoint that I was very comfortable with and very excited by, and it shaped how I made decisions and where I placed value. For more on those beliefs, see my other blog and my Ask a Quaker guest post on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

At the end of last semester, however, that all collapsed, and I am left as a kind of weak atheist. The post mortem of my faith is a complicated narrative: there is no simple cause of death. Many people who leave seminary as weak atheists (including Bart Ehrman, who teaches at The Other School), entered as evangelicals or fundamentalists. When their self-authorizing and monolithic interpretation of the Bible is pummeled to dust and the faux-rational Christianity is revealed to be a mess of paradox, their faith becomes shaken and they end up leaving seminary as atheist-materialists, often with the same evangelical zeal for atheist materialism that they had for Christianity. Although that’s a common story, it’s not mine.

My Christianity has not been fundamentalist or evangelical: instead, it has been an on-again/off-again relationship. I became an ardent atheist as a teenager, even self-identifying as a LaVeyan Satanist at times. This came from recognizing only two kinds of Christianity as a child: a kind of weak Protestant liberalism on the one hand, and a kind of overbearing Protestant fundamentalism on the other. The first did not seem to actually require anything distinctly Christian, and the latter did not seem to actually engage reality. Yet even in my most atheistic of moments, I had a sense of spirituality—a sense that the modern narrative of the utterly isolated individual was somehow wrong, and that the union of individuals was holistic and synergistic. In college, I encountered a moderate liberal Christianity in the “neo-orthodox” vein. Its arguments convinced me: Christianity taught a proper ordering of the individual, which is truly to be in a properly ordered community.

Despite neo-orthodox teachings, though, simply going to church and doing the nonproductive repetition of the liturgy didn’t seem to satisfy that spiritual aspect. I joined Freemasonry (eventually becoming 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite) and continued to study esoterica, including the (publicly accessible) teachings of the A∴A∴. At this point, my Christianity began to wane into a kind of Calvinist-flavored deism. That’s when things suddenly changed.

Up to this point, I never had a real sense of relationship with God. Prayer had never established a “relationship” with God, except in the kind of one-sided relationship that I have with my favorite TV or book characters. (Sarah Howell has an excellent blog post called “Prayer Doesn’t Work“, and it sounds exactly like my thoughts on the matter…but with more apparent faith remaining.) For some reason, however, I suddenly had a sense of “calling”. This was not the kind of “calling” that comes from careful reasoned thought and the recommendations of others: this was a strong sense that something beyond me was calling me into seminary. It was a profound and constant pull, and it did not seem to originate from within me nor did it seem to be under my control. The feeling was amazing and profound, and after some time I had no choice but to relent to the calling—it was that powerful.

I moved to Durham and started attending seminary. While there, my faith was transformed but did not weaken. Without a doubt, however, I was challenged. There were a number of things I had taken on faith because it was where “all scholars agreed”. These points, however, were rapidly removed as I discovered just how little agreement there is among scholars, and how artificial the points of agreement are: in theology, there are certain axiomatic claims that are required in order to be a part of the conversation (e.g. get published in a particular journal), and these axiomatic claims then become the points of seeming universal agreement. Similarly, I discovered just how contextual and utterly Western the creeds are, which reduced my respect for them down to effectively nil. That wasn’t the hardest blow, though.

Most damaging, however, was discovering just how interested the church was (and is!) in reifying and reinforcing boundaries between people-groups—a horror especially when contrasted with the church’s relative disinterest in helping the poor and actually behaving like Jesus taught. This was a major problem for me, because the core assertion of neo-orthodoxy is that the church somehow contained and embodied the right interpretation of Jesus’s teachings. Yet the practices of the church (both historically and presently) and the places where the church spends its time are so utterly different from the model of Jesus that I could no longer trust in the tradition of the church. In the history of the church, the truly holy—even those obviously aspiring to be truly holy—seemed to be the rare and precious exception, not the norm. How could I trust that institution to teach and transform me into holiness if it consistently failed to do so for everyone else?

At the same time as I encountered these struggles, I encountered the tradition that I draw from Gandhi’s Christian followers (e.g. J.C. Kumarappa), Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy (esp. What I Believe), Christian agrarianism, and the early Quakers. These people had an alternative take on Christianity focused on the Sermon on the Mount. It was a spiritually and socially conscious Christianity, and it seemed to be the true tradition of Jesus. This became the Christianity that I identified with, although I eventually quietly dropped the active use of the “Christian” label because of flak from Christians who thought I didn’t meet the minimum requirements for it. That fight rapidly became exhausting, and the benefits of keeping the label were rapidly offset by the annoyingly constant challenges.

The end of my faith, however, came through the study of cognitive science, and especially the cognitive science of religion. Through all of this, my faith was backed up by that sense of calling. No matter what else happened, no matter how else I made sense of reality, I had to account for this experience of being moved by something beyond myself. However, through studying cognitive science, I discovered an entirely reasonable explanation. From David Eagleman’s Incognito (and reinforced by VS Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain), I learned that the mind can experience an emergent subconscious as being an utterly alien presence.

The clincher, however, came when I read Harvey Whitehouse’s Modes of Religiosity. In there, Whitehouse lays out (with strong empirical evidence) how the ideas contained within repetitious and ritualized practices become “sleeper agents” in the brain, surfacing to make sense of strange or disquieting experience. This expression of the practices’ ideas are experienced/interpreted as spontaneous expressions of divine presence or ordering.

This was, in short, exactly what I experienced. My only experience of the divine now had an entirely this-worldly explanation. Without that support column, my faith rapidly crumbled. My Tolstoy-Quaker religiosity was all stipulated on the existence of God, and I no longer have any basis to believe in the Christian God. Although some are more than happy to be a part of a religious community that affirms something they don’t actually believe in, I am not. I am still processing my relationship to Quakerism, but in terms of my relationship to Christianity, I’m out.

Now, at this point in atheist conversion narratives, people sometimes start to talk about how free they felt and how great it is that they were no longer shackled by the expectations of their faith community. This is definitely not my experience. At the end of the day, I am a child of the Enlightenment: I have a commitment to rationality and to living my life in a rational way. All systems of rationality, however, need their axioms. Nietzsche and the existentialists showed that there is no intrinsic value in the world, but Christianity was a counter to this nihilism, providing a set of axioms and a guiding methodology for life. Without Christianity, I am back to the world of nihilism. Rationality no longer has a foothold by which to guide life.

Asking around, the only advice I find from atheists is to “do what you want”, but what should I want? Like all humans, my desires are utterly mutable—the very existence of marketing and psychotherapy is because of this fact. (Not to mention operant conditioning! I’m reminded of The Big Bang Theory on this point.) If I don’t take control of my desires’ mutations, I am simply submitting yourself to the vicissitudes of corporate marketing departments and political spin-meisters. Like the Machines in The Matrix, politics and capitalism are constantly consuming humanity and feeding us illusions. Evidence suggests that playing into their illusion is a path to a life of quiet despair, yet with no values, there is no guide about what desires actually are good or bad to pursue. Satisfaction and reward are both stipulated on accomplishment, which itself presumes a set of values.

Worst of all, though, this idea that you should “do what you want” seems like it is an utterly un-rational punchline to an extensive pro-rational argument. Be rational and doubt everything. Be rational and be a skeptic. Be rational and seek the truth. But once you do all of that, forget being rational, because it can’t help you anymore. I was happier and more satisfied as a Christian: it was a sick trick to lure me out of that joyful place with rationality, just to drop me in a place of nihilistic disillusionment and then tell me I should abandon rationality and seek a joyful place.

This frustration is compounded by the fact that I have little in common with evangelical atheism and its promissory materialism. I find most self-proclaimed skeptics to be annoyingly un-skeptical, but instead committed to their own particular materialist dogmas (e.g. Michael Shermer, as I discuss in this book review). The problem of qualia still prevents me from buying that the only thing that exists is the “physical world” as science constitutes it, or from taking the only philosophically defensible materialist stance—namely, that subjectivity doesn’t exist (e.g. Daniel Dennett, as I discuss in this book review). I am inclined towards John Searle’s “biological naturalism” conception of consciousness, but it’d be nice if we had any idea how physical material could produce whatever it is that qualia are. The question of “the mind’s eye” (which some people don’t have!) might be an interesting angle of attack, since it puts the question in sharp focus…

Since subjectivity exists, I still have space for a kind of hollow “spirituality”. Surprisingly, little has changed on that front: God is now absent, but God was never particularly present before, despite my earnest desires. Since the Bible drops out with Christianity, my interpretation and expression of spirituality is now more purely phenomenological rather than theological. The existence of mirror neurons and the human ability to have a theory of mind means that I am still able to have an intersubjective spirituality, as well. This has actually sharpened my interest in the spirituality of sexuality, which has been a long-running interest of mine.

Right now, I am struggling to re-situate myself. I am haunted by Camus’ question: “In a world without God, why not commit suicide?” (For his answer, see here.) I am reconsidering all of the projects, dreams, and relationships that I used to have, trying to see if they can still retain some kind of joy and impetus in the face of my epic disillusionment. I have continued on with the projects which are hold-overs from before the disillusionment, trying to retain some kind of momentum. But ultimately, I now live in a world which feels flat, and I am living a life without direction. Thanks a lot, Rationality.

[Editor’s Note: This post has a follow-up at Back Again to There.]

On Silence and SSRIs July 21, 2011 | 02:33 pm

A while back, I posted that I just have nothing to say — blogging and internet arguments just have a lot less interest to me than they used to. Partially, two years into a solid study of religion has validated SMBC-style cynicism, and partially, I’m preferring to spend time studying up on certain things I don’t know rather than talking here about how much I do know.

There is a blog post on the atheism-theism debate which I’d like to create, simply so that people who want to have that conversation with me can leap over the initial formalities. At this point, though, I’m kinda lacking the motivation. I’d also like to try to communicate what my summer at Urban Ministries of Durham means to me, but every time I sit down with that one, I’ve been struggling to put something down into words. Also, there’s the issue of trying to decide what doctoral programs I’m going to apply to, and what the rest of my life is going to look like as a consequence. The sheer magnitude and complexity of that kind of decision has also left me dumbfounded.

Despite all that weighty silence, there is an experience I’d like to share. Earlier this summer, I found myself not taking much of an interest in anything, even those things which I previously enjoyed. I was also somewhat irritable and felt fatigued almost all of the time: life was a slog. It came as a surprise when my shrink suggested that this was depression, since I did not feel particularly “down and out”. Unlike my experience of depression as a teenager, this depression did not have an attendant sense of worthlessness or despair. But having now been on an SSRI, B12, folate, and fish oil for about a month, things are getting better. Even some things I didn’t realize were problems—like some obsessive and anxious thoughts which were intrusive but “seemed reasonable” at the time—have been put into perspective. I’m still having trouble being particularly interested in things, including socializing. But my energy is starting to come back, which is making it easier to balance my lifestyle in a more healthy way.

I’m sharing this for a few reasons. First, if you thought I was irritable near the end of last academic year or going into this summer, or if you’re wondering why my open source project contributions or social involvement have dwindled, this is why. Second, I wanted to be open about my use of psychiatric medication to supplement my lifestyle changes and other therapies, because there is still a stigma associated with the use of psychiatric medication, often borne on an illusory sense that everyone else can live their life without any help. Finally, if life is seeming really hard even though things are objectively going well for you, you may want to consider the possibility that you’re experiencing a low-grade depression and seek help for that.

The difference between an eternal noob and the not-yet-an-expert June 23, 2010 | 10:16 am

me: “I’ve been lost here before!”

my friend: “Ah, so you know where you are?”

me: “No, I told you- I was lost then too. I still don’t know where we are, just that I’ve been here before.

When I was 17, my parents moved my family from Bettendorf, Iowa, to Chelmsford, Mass. Among many other interesting aspects of that move, it taught me one important skill that has stood me in good stead throughout my life: the ability to get lost. And the varying degrees of being lost, from “I’m not sure exactly where I am, but I know which neighborhood I’m in and the direction I want to head” to “I’m not sure which state I’m in, and since I’m in the land of the big square states this could be a problem”- and yes, I have been the latter (unsure if I was in Nevada, Utah, California, New Mexico, or Arizona). And how to find my way back again. And, most importantly- why to get lost. And the why is the most important. Most people look at you funny if you state your intention is to go get lost. But you can’t learn something new unless you’re willing to leave the familiar and well known.

I thought about this when I was reading Thomas Petersen’s blog post on why your mom sucks at computers (for the record, my mom sucks at computers only compared to her professional-programmer husband and three professional-programmer children). What struck me was his mother’s unwillingness to get lost, and incapability of dealing with it when she did get lost. This is what differentiates the eternal noob- someone who will never know their way around- and the person who will be a native (aka expert), and just isn’t yet- the willingness and ability to get lost, and wander around finding what is out there. This is a skill, and it can be learned (or relearned, as it is- we are all born explorers). I certainly didn’t have it as a skill when we moved to Chelmsford, I learned it. Your mom can learn it too. Maybe you can as well.

Why I Quit Twitter February 6, 2010 | 12:58 pm

This post is a couple of weeks late- life intervened.  But for those of you following me on twitter, you might have noticed that postings from me have been sparse of late (and by “sparse”, I mean “non-existent”).  This is because I’ve quit twitter.  I’ve stopped posting and stopped reading.

I can not explain on twitter why I quit twitter.  Which is why I quit twitter.  Confused?  That’s exactly my point.

Read the rest of this entry

What Do You Have on Sex, Spirituality, and Religion? January 12, 2010 | 10:43 am

If you bump into interest books, articles, blogs, or blog posts regarding sex, spirituality, and religion, let me know. I’m gathering up information for another project. More details forthcoming.

Why I Love Descartes January 2, 2010 | 11:59 am

He’s a philosopher who hates on philosophy.

Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part I:

Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that when I saw that it had been cultivated for many ages by the most distinguished men, and that yet there is not a single matter within its sphere which is not still in dispute, and nothing, therefore, which is above doubt, I did not presume to anticipate that my success would be greater in it than that of others; and further, when I considered the number of conflicting opinions touching a single matter that may be upheld by learned men, while there can be but one true, I reckoned as well-nigh false all that was only probable.

“That’s Great. Now What?” (The 7 Minute Sermon) December 29, 2009 | 01:39 am

While home for the holidays, I preached a sermon at Plymouth Presbyterian Church, the church where I grew up and where my parents still attend. The sermon title is “That’s Great. Now What?”, and it’s about the Christian experience of being given revelation and left to sort out the details for ourselves. It was the Sunday after Christmas, and I chose Deuteronomy 34 and Mark 16:1-8 as my Bible passages. Through providence or luck (depending on how you reckon such things), the Deuteronomy passage was where a church Bible study had reached, so that worked out well for them.

My mother told me that I had to keep it to 7 minutes, and those who know me from the No Fluff tour know that I barely clear my throat in 7 minutes, so I was moving at a good clip. There’s also a couple of major gaffes where I was thinking a bit ahead of what I was speaking. Instead of editing around those, though, I decided to just leave it au natural. All in all, I’m rather proud of it.

Here’s the link: “That’s Great, Now What?”.

Priorities December 15, 2009 | 04:57 pm

You want to know something that is really an abomination against the Christian way of life? Borrowing and lending money for interest.

Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-37, Deuteronomy 23:19, Psalms 15:5, Proverbs 28:8
Nehemiah 5:1-13, Pslams 37:21, Proverbs 22:7

How about we, as Christians, regroup and deal with that little issue? Seems like an easier one to handle than the whole gay thing (presuming, of course, the “gay thing” is a problem). I mean, if you’re out to convince other people not to be gay, that’s hard. But not lending or paying interest? That’s something we can fix in our own lives!

Besides, you can argue that gays are damaging our culture, but I’ve got real-world evidence that lending and borrowing money at interest (esp. in the corporate form of banks) is literally destroying our way of life. How many people have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their family farms and family shops? The loss of the “little guy’s” inheritance is a horrid tragedy according to the Bible: 1 Kings 21, Leviticus 25:23, Numbers 36:7, Ezekiel 46:18.

So, I don’t want to hear anything else out of the anti-gay Christian movement until the whole movement is done lending or borrowing money at interest. (This includes profiting from the lending/borrowing money: i.e. investing in banks.) K?

The Sin of Intellectualism December 12, 2009 | 11:45 pm

Some navel gazing in the vein of Experience of a Freemason: Thoughts a Few Years In, this time about the nature of my faith and my path to Duke Divinity.

But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good. 1 Thessalonians, 5:21


From the most awesomely titled An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Being an Explanation and Vindication of the People Called Quakers by Robert Barclay1 (Proposition II, Section III), written in 1675:

For as to the first it is acknowledged, that many learned men may be, and have been, damned. And as to the second, who will deny but many illterate men may be, and are, saved? Nor dare any affirm, that none come to the knowledge of God and salvation by the inward revelation of the Spirit, without these other outward means, unless they be also so bold as to exclude Abel, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Job, and all the holy patriarchs from true knowledge and salvation.

1 Google Books link

Over two years ago now, my reality was warped by “Speaking of Faith”. They have an episode on L’Arche, a faith-based community for mentally handicapped people. That episode documented a kind of love and faith and friendship with God that indicted my own cold, intellectual relationship. Read the rest of this entry