Does prayer beget opposable thumbs?

The University of Oxford has apparently taken £2M toward answering “Why do we believe in God?” From the Times article:

They will not attempt to solve the question of whether God exists but they will examine evidence to try to prove whether belief in God conferred an evolutionary advantage to mankind. They will also consider the possibility that faith developed as a byproduct of other human characteristics, such as sociability.

I found this in a discussion about the study in the Galilean Library, which is a wonderful resource for thoughtful, and almost more importantly, civil discussion across the philosophical spectrum. I added a (typically long-winded) point of consideration, summarized by saying that, as much as “God” might just be a label for the collection of “all things we think we don’t know, or which are currently ineffable and beyond our scrutiny,” then any such study, however expensive, really aims to investigate just one in a class of cultural metaphors, models, for things we want to understand.

There are undoubtedly flaws in viewing all our cognitive endeavors as mere mapping sensation to lingual metaphors, as it is certain to be a crude approximation, if a valid approximation at all; but just as in the case of the infinite square well, first-order, crude models work well as insertion points to broader and/or deeper analysis. And lest it be thought that I’m of the same “science != religion” mindset I was just a few short years ago, here’s a hopefully fruitful excerpt.

Of course, science itself probably holds no special claim to some objectivity, some circumnavigation of our use of metaphors as models. Just because scientific models use polynomial notation, and are algebraically derivable, and embed quite a lot of effective structure in the mathematical language they inhabit, doesn’t mean they’re anything more than just intricate metaphors. Niels Bohr developed a pretty model for the atom, but this perfect picture has since been rebutted. It worked, though, and, in many contexts, is a fine picture of atomic structure. Physics students still make use of metaphors in university, e.g. the infinite square well. These are simplified pictures used to motivate a subtle concept, before their complexity is increased on the way to deeper understanding.

The specific question about whether belief in “God” conferred/confers an evolutionary benefit is interesting, and something I’ve pondered for a while. In general, it seems that people with some kind of workable model prosper to a greater degree than those who don’t, independent of the model’s approximation of “truth.” This is related, I think, to results of a study concluding that those able to deceive themselves tended to be happier than those who aren’t, given that (a) models are only ever approximate, and (b) the utility of a model is probably proportionate to how strongly we believe in it’s explanatory power.

I need help, and I need to help.

Of all the memes wriggling across The One True Web (that social network that includes and exceeds the digital), I suggest that the greatest compels some to describe helpful normative domains, and compels others to seek these out.

I came across the following, via kottke.org, and while it’s not quite as concise as other efforts, “Taleb’s top life tips” nevertheless makes for interesting brain fodder. I’d care to hear which of these are particularly interesting to you.

  1. Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.
  2. Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues.
  3. It’s not a good idea to take a forecast from someone wearing a tie. If possible, tease people who take themselves and their knowledge too seriously.
  4. Wear your best for your execution and stand dignified. Your last recourse against randomness is how you act—if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour. You will always have the last word.
  5. Don’t disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time. We don’t understand their logic. Don’t pollute the planet. Leave it the way we found it, regardless of scientific “evidence”.
  6. Learn to fail with pride—and do so fast and cleanly. Maximise trial and error—by mastering the error part.
  7. Avoid losers. If you hear someone use the words “impossible”, “never”, “too difficult” too often, drop him or her from your social network. Never take “no” for an answer (conversely, take most “yeses” as “most probably”).
  8. Don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip and, of course, profiles of authors). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants… or (again) parties.
  9. Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet.
  10. Answer e-mails from junior people before more senior ones. Junior people have further to go and tend to remember who slighted them.

Additionally, though within a more focused scope (and from the same source), Kurt Vonnegut advises on how to write with style. Herewith, a full reproduction. (I’m open to suggestions if reproducing these here, even with proper credits, breaks with good sense.)

In Sum:

  1. Find a subject you care about
  2. Do not ramble, though
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Have guts to cut
  5. Sound like yourself
  6. Say what you mean
  7. Pity the readers

I find, for some, that the first is surprisingly difficult. I rather have a hard time choosing a subject I care most about; it’s my utter failure at commiting to any one subject that leads to my abject frustration in making headway in any of them.

Mr. Kottke seems to revel in this meme. You can find similar material throughout his archives.

There’s an invisible hand beyond economics.

Sometime ago, I read two pieces a synthesis of which might be interpreted to say that all we can hope for in life is to concoct an artifice which distracts us from the impending and concurrent oblivion of purposelessness which would otherwise crush us. Herewith my earnest and hopefully readable attempt at such a synthetic enlightenment.

The Yin

From Whiskey by way of the singular Hydragenic:

… creativity is essentially an overwhelming presence of awareness, and may very well be mindfulness, and could be a form of meditation, or it could be more like lucid dreaming (outside of dreaming – as in, lucid wakefulness), or it could be the state attained through the creative mind, which seems to be on a whole different level of consciousness altogether.

Hydragenic responds “intuitively.”

Yes, yes, yes. And can we throw the word ‘otherness’ in there somehow as well? Creativity as an approaching of the divine via a process of lucid mindfulness that allows us to appreciate, however briefly and superficially, the intrinsic strangeness of everything other than oneself.

Hg soaks in this for a bit, and illuminates some deeper reflection, steeped over years and an embrace of the strange.

We’re all looking for meaning in life, one way or another. I’ve come to the conclusion that meaning comes from creativity. Creativity in its broadest sense: the bees in the garden gathering pollen to make honey, friends and family making relationships and babies, businesses concocting fascinating products, singers pulling together words and melodies, painters filling canvases with dreams and desires.

Thus, so far, we get the picture that meaning is a consequence of, and not a cause of nor reason for, our existence. A search for meaning, then, should not be a search for some pocket of import somewhere in the aether, should not be an effort to distill some back-of-the-universe answer to the question “What is the purpose of life?” Rather, we have but to create our meaning, and live our meaning.

Where, in other hands, this sort of inspection might yield a gaudy melodrama, Hg finds empowerment, in the attribution of meaning to those who would build their own.

To discover something is to encounter its essence, which the dictionary describes as “the basic, real, and invariable nature of a thing or its significant individual feature or features”. Its true identity, in other words: what makes it different to everything else. It strikes me that art – creativity – is the process of divining and defining uniqueness. It’s fine to make connections between things, but ultimately those things are separate.

Does that sound too bleak? I see it as strength, as infinite richness. Too abstract? We all encounter art on a daily basis, in one form or another. Too solipsistic? I can’t dispute that: all I am is all I am.

The Yang

Jared Christensen has touched on a parallel set of observations. Though mostly specific to the software industry (my own feeble gross overgeneralization of a culture, but it suffices), Jared’s piece provides a subtle but explicit hook to abstraction. And, anyway, the “software industry” is just instance of a class of social dynamic systems, which allows for a natural comparison across common points of structure.

Sometimes I look around at the state of software, and systems in general, and wonder if they are run by [agents of chaos (my paraphrasing)]. Or perhaps the chaos began by human fallibility, but now the mess is willfully maintained in order to feed this ecosystem that thrives on the system failure. Do companies actually put overly complex, mildy [sic] destructive products out into the market, intentionally giving rise to and continuing to feed an ecosystem of other companies that thrive on repairing the damage? Are some systems designed to be so irritating and complex that whole industries must be erected to make sense of it (*cough* taxes)? Is broken the preferred state for the makers of some products and systems we interact with every day? And does the ecosystem have the power to perpetuate the failure, supplanting the creator’s will to rectify the problems?

Surely, you’ve heard arguments of similar logical structure applied to government, to law enforcement, to lawyers, to the profession of educators, to book publishers, and to practically innumerable other facets of our shared lives. Each year, hundreds of high school and university departments order the nth edition of Larry Hackajob’s monotonously-uninspiring text for <some class>, not because it’s an improvement, but due to a self-propagated system of kickbacks and peer pressure designed not only to justify this subsequent edition, but to penalize the frugality of just using last year’s edition. At least Western, and most industrialized, societies require work to justify the creation of jobs to buoy the societies themselves. Consider pieces of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included allocations of the federal budget explicitly for the creation of jobs, not because there was a pressing need for any of them, as much as to start the nation’s long economic repair. We might usually consider work to include an intrinsic necessity, but, while an indefatigably noble cause, and more, ethically necessary, these programs were artifacts. The theme echoes through time.

Unity

Drawing them together, I can’t help but conclude that all our efforts, all our endeavors, are not dissimilar from those Depression-era policies nor from the willful messes of agents of chaos. If, as Hg posits, meaning is our product and not the other way ’round, then we build our own temples to chaos and fabricate our need to aspire and achieve, no matter the ambition or arena. Assuming this, there’s absolutely no wonder so many of us are lost, listless, and sometimes paralyzed by the prospect of choosing a course.

Once, quite without meaning to, I advised someone to embrace just such a notion. When asked how to decide the rightness of an act or decision, I said something like, “Well, I don’t know, it’s hard to say; but maybe we just have to decide what we would want to be right, and stay as close to that as we can.”

I care about the answer non-academically, in a real, I have an assignment and it is to live and I don’t want to fail kind of way. As I told Hg, though, in a comment:

Truth be told, I’m a little lost on this question. There’s no greater sensibility to leaving the world than staying, so at the very least, an inclination to survive keeps me going. But if the most we can hope for is to revel in the possibilities of our creative efforts (in your quite useful, broad notion), that’s kind of just a dressed-up hedonism…or no?

Möbius

There’s no manual I’m aware of, except the one we’re writing and editing. Since any sense of meaning is necessarily a social one, I’m curious how others find their materials and what grammar they use to construct sense and order (unabashedly subjective, those) in life. So share.

I’m afraid to write. I’m afraid to sketch. I’m afraid to math. Sometimes, I’m afraid to put on a shirt.

This isn’t a story about neurosis. This isn’t about *phobia. This is a story about how it’s wrong to want to be right. That I’m concerned about cliché is only stronger evidence.

I sweat a little in the intimidating glare of a blank canvas of any material, e.g., canvas, paper, LCD, blackboard. Each new stroke, each new keypress, seems only to gather me closer to the most imminent and unavoidable failure. I would not have honestly written that in 1989, when I claimed I would write my own exhaustive dictionary of the universe. Somewhere in the interim, I came to join this fear as a daily companion. Think The Last Unicorn, who—upon learning of regret—slowly loses her magic. Except my case might be so common as to be archetypical.

I understand the practical need for a division of things into piles labeled “right” and “wrong,” especially if they don’t include moral things; that’s quite the nasty bog there, and I’ll (continue to) come back to it sometime soon. But think back to your grade-school days, to those waking hours when The Possible World was opened to you only by traversing The World of Correct Answers. While your teachers hopefully taught you of gerunds and multiplication tables and sea anemones and General Robert E. Lee, what you learned most of all was how to fail. Long after you’ve forgotten that 14 x 14 = 196, you remember how little you enjoyed school. You remember feeling that something wasn’t quite right, that you didn’t fit. You remember feeling that you were missing something, some special handbook, a leathery tome of gilt-edged pages with all the answers to both odd- and even-numbered problems, and an entire chapter dedicated to the best mnemonic rhymes.

Maybe you did quite well in school, actually; more’s the pity. That may only mean that you embraced the dichotomy, and that may only mean you’re going to fall harder when it fails to provide footing. The world is just as easily divided into “right” and “wrong” as a Moëbius strip is divided into “top” and “bottom”: it kind of works, until you look a little closer.

We were ending when we should have been beginning. Maybe it’s inevitable that our pedagogy mirrors Darwinian ruthlessness, given that that’s our behavioral role model; and professional teachers merely parrot the species’ generalized expectations, so it’s not at their feet that I lay this. Our great^n-grandparents and their ancestors laid the gravel, the cobblestones, and the pavement on which we tread, and laid it with the best of intentions. It’s still a road to hell; anecdotally, I feel that a world population of more than six billion ever-more-densely-distributed humans ensures that, though the roads are necessarily wider, we’re even more likely to stay on them than to walk in the grass with bare feet. Like the early universe, in which symmetries broke and things started clumping together and the fundamental forces split and spent the next 20 billion years arguing for custody.

This isn’t a story about elementary school, though, and it’s not about population control. It’s a story about my intimate friendship with Fear, and how it’s ruined my friendship with Creativity; Creativity’s pretty laid back, requiring but one thing of her closest pals: bravery. The bravery to feel stupid and keep coming back, to stop trying what works and try something else, to be wrong in the face of an easier rightness. We’re distant friends anymore, though I try to call when I can.

Thing is, Fear, quite the diligent acquaintance, got me smoking and now borrows all my cigarettes. It used to be about the music, man, but that’s over and we don’t even have any groupies. Or a band. Or a smoking habit. Or any substantive writing or sketchworks or mathematical intuitions from the past 15 years.

I called Creativity yesterday and left a message. I rambled for a while, nervously, a little too plaintively, but she always liked that about me anyway. Afterwards, I equivocated for twenty minutes on which of two grey T-shirts to wear.

Let me put you in your place.

God loves assholes. Seriously. Any god worth frothing about for gets a stiffy when they see people acting on their prerogatives. Any god worth painstakingly describing in illuminated text TiVOs premeditated murderers on the street, pacifists in jail, and that crazy man at the end of your street who wants to sell you a brand new hottub that’s still in the wrapper and worth all of $2,500 only he’s not asking that much he just needs to get rid of it to help Brian liquidate since he’s losing his house. (True story.)

Cognition Ignition

I see people as systems with two primary sets of components:

  1. earnest motive power
  2. instruction sets

If you’ve ever tried to write a computer program, then you’ll remember how horrible your first five attempts met with your intent. The computer executed your code as precisely as it was written; you just didn’t code worth a damn. So it is with people: your actions begin as an earnestness, a motivation to do something, whatever that is; and you follow a set of rules, an instruction set, applying the energy of that earnest motive power.

I can’t imagine a way that people truly act outside their earnest drive. You can’t fake motivation. However, by virtue of your lazy amassing of disorganized rules, you can

  1. render useless any hope of understanding your drive
  2. apply your motivation sloppily and with unforeseen effects
  3. dupe yourself into thinking you’re following the One True Instruction Set when such doesn’t exist
  4. abstract yourself from well-suited aspirations

To varying degrees, assholes evade these pitfalls. Now, there are the misguided assholes, who don’t realize it’s not really the way for them; you may even be one of them. Odds are, though, you’re not a real asshole; you take the shit you’re given, you say “Please” and “Thank you” even when you’re not sure you need bother. And you can’t remember the last time you really pissed someone off. Really, that’s a skillset you need to develop; it’s not until you’ve pissed someone off that they’re really invested anyway.

It’s Time

So, close your browser, stop reading CNN updates about protests against warm milk, get up, and go tell Ted to stop bragging about his gastrointestinal health. Tell him that no matter how regular he is, he’s still full of shit and couldn’t hack it in the real world outside his gym-and-latte set. There are millions of Teds, so you’re not really wasting a valuable commodity by enraging him to impotent silence.

I wax quixotically for giants.

I look down upon the clouds from on high, and wonder at how droplets have arranged themselves so much more resolutely than any social movement, any uprising, any construct of social elements seems ever to have. From here, I see into the eye of a massive storm, where white bleeds into a blue cavity, a colossal turbine.

I’ve seen, from atop a mountain, a storm pass slowly, deliberately over a valley below. I’ve seen storms dutifully cleanse a land scarred by industry. I’ve seen storms rip trees from the ground and casually discard them in the path of industry. I’ve seen storms compel the tide to crash ashore, pushing salty foam through 15 feet of porous rock, spouting from the top like from a craggy, volcanic whale.

Finally, I made the acquaintance of a storm, of its full breadth. I watched its miles-long sinew contract among a sunset’s lazy sky. The tiring sun cast light through a sheet of rain, a translucent glowing dressing screen for its modest disrobing.

I hadn’t seen a good storm in a long time. I imagine some mythic land where storms gather and rampage and mingle and merge, überstorms. These are our giants; I missed them, and I miss them again.

I read Atlas Shrugged over the course of about a year.

Yes, a year; maybe more. I wrote an essay in the in an effort to earn/win cash for school. Alas, my piece was dumped with the rest of the slush pile, not quite cutting the muster. In the two years since, I’ve encountered almost unanimously antipathy for Rand’s novel, of which more later. Here, though, the essay, mostly untouched.

Continue reading “I read Atlas Shrugged over the course of about a year.”