Tag Archives: Philosophy of Mind

Compartmentalization

Submarines and large ships are built to exploit compartmentalization. If one section springs a leak, and all goes well, that section is totally isolated from the other compartments in order to protect the whole vessel from flooding and sinking.

Humans have a similar mental structure. Thus, an otherwise apparently sane person can believe or practice startling bizarre things. We see this in religion, politics and all other activities of the mind.  But fortunately your You-Boat (get it?) does not sink even though a part of you is flooded with bizarreness.

To me, this is not surprising because of my understanding of how the mind is actually composed of many-selfs (see here).  Compartmentalization is a fantastic protective mechanism.  In US politics, for instance, Federalism can serve a similar function — but I resist the temptation to wax political.

We all compartmentalize — all of us.  It is one of the ways our minds work. I see compartmentalizing all around me. In medicine, I get to know people very intimately. I am amazed daily how deeply neurotic and dysfunctional some of our compartments can be and yet most of us can still hold jobs, drive cars and have relationships.

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Life is a Game

I actually like the expression “Life is a Game”.  However, many folks find this expression objectionable or even repugnant.  However, I find that most of their aversions  are simply due to one or more of these reasons:

  1. The Nature of Life: The person usually does not understand their own life. (ouch, sorry)
  2. The Wonder of Games: The person vastly underestimates the beauty, complexity, depth and awesome potential of games.
  3. The Spirit of Play: The person does not have enough “play” in their life. (ouch, sorry)

I will briefly elaborate these points below so that perhaps if you weren’t comfortable with thinking of life as a game before reading this post, you will after:

The Nature of Life

Games can be rich, unpredictable, complex and inspiring — much like the fun aspects of life.  They also can be horrible, of course — especially when you are loosing.  Here are two perspectives needed to see games-life metaphor:

Kitani Minoru vs Go Seigen

  • An Algorithmic Perspective:
    Simple algorithms can be deterministic but still unpredictable [see: cellular automatons]. These algorithms have been shown to create incredibly complex beautiful, inspiring patterns similar to those that evolve in the biological world, the quantum world and the cosmos.
    This determinism in games is the felt “fate” aspect of life — the understanding that much more is out of our control then we can even imagine.  Though we often feel in control, there are mechanisms that are predictive — often simpler mechanisms than we can imagine.
  • A Probability Perspective:
    If we understand all the contingencies of our immensely inter-connected world, the “luck” in life (as in a game) becomes apparent.  The world is not controlled by a great virtue-rewarding karma-machine, nor by our ancestors nor by any spirits or gods.

The Wonder of Games

When I say, “life is a game” most folks only imagine a few simple simple games like “Crazy Eights”, “Tic-Tac-Toe” , “Shoots and Ladders” and such.  But if a person has played several sophisticated games with mixtures of skill and strategy (and yes, luck), they may understand the analogy of Life-is-a-Game a little more easily.  And if someone has played the game of WeiQi for any length of time, they would certainly emphatically agree with the analogy. 🙂

Some see the expression “Life is a Game” as debasing life because life is not simple.  But sophisticated games help escape this complaint.

When playing WeiQi, one can see simple rules unfolding in unexpected beauty.  One can see complexity constrained with discipline and reflectiveness.  One can see luck where one expects skill.  One can feel wonder and awe.

The Spirit of Play: Joy and Horror

To a large extent, this is a temperament issue.  Humor, exploration, excitement and such are components of what helps someone enjoy play.  Animals do it too.  But not everyone feels this as deeply as others.  For those people,  discussion on this issue will make no sense.  It is funny how temperaments form our philosophies. For example some people, saying “Life is a Game” can be used negatively:  as summary of their depression, exacerbation, felt-meaninglessness and such — and indeed, a lost game captures this too.  For games can also be as horrifying as life.

Question for Readers:  What do you feel about the expression “Life is a Game“?  Have I altered your opinion?

triangle_end_tiny

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Images of SELF

How do you see your Self ? Depending on your perceptive and cognitive tendencies, your world may be informed variously by one of these narratives (for the auditory brain) and/or images (for the visual brain).  Some folks even have kinesthetic models.  Because I am primarily visual, below I have sketched a few images which I think are the main common understandings of Self.  I think that understanding our model of Self can be very helpful in discussing religion. [Note: For you supernatural folks, an upcoming post will include mind-models that include the Divine.]

One Self

Probably the most common image of Self.  The Homunculus — a little you inside of you.  A vision of a continuous, fairly consistent Self.  The person sees themselves as ONE person, living inside their own head. The see themselves as owning beliefs and ideas.

Brain Self

Brain Self

This image of Self emphasizes materialism and offers no frills.  You are your brain.  There are many complex implications for this model, but this is the image.  But like the ONE Self image, this model also has the feel of a singular Self.  This has the feeling of ONE brain — not a divided one.  It still sees Self as unitary.

Modular Selves

The mind has a multitude of impersonal, unconscious modules.  Some are complex, some are simple.  They each have different functions.  Their complex interactions creates consciousness and the illusion of self.  This is a version of the computational theory of mind.    Some hold this model while still feeling like they have ONE Self inside — illustrated by the one computer which has created an image of self similar to the ONE Self model.

Many Selves
Many Selves

My “Many Selves” model is based on the Modular Selves model but where each of the figures represents a temporary fluxing alignment of the modules which are triggered by the environment and habits of attention.  These Selves are in people shape to illustrate that they are connected to emotions, sensations and physical habits.  That is, they are not mere calculators independent of a body — they have a feel to them.

In this model, there is no singular consistent unchanging Self.  The multiple players sometimes work independently, sometimes together. Sub-groups of these Selves separate off to form different behavior patterns.  This notion of Many Selves is so contrary to the notion of ONE Self that it might as well be saying that there is NO (ONE) Self.

Question to readers: Which image is closest to the one you use?  If your model is different from those listed, how would you draw it?  Please remember, for communication purposes, try to keep the image relatively simple with a brief explanation.

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The Upside Down Religious World

Today I tried to read a fascinating article by Max Tegmark (MIT physicist) called “The Mathematical Universe (HT: Shane).  Below I reproduced one of Tegmark’s diagrams of how “theories can be crudely organized into a family tree where each might, at least in principle, be derived from more fundamental ones above it.”  T.O.E. (by the way) stands for “Theory of Everything”.

Tegmark’s sketch made me think of “religion” where the flow is the opposite direction.  I quickly threw together the diagram below to illustrate the comparison that came to mind for me.  In the religious mind, the basic units of our reality are our real experiences, and then humans create layers above it to support their world.  The religious person’s world is not derived from the top down, though they would strongly disagree.

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The Ex-Lover Illusion

Blazing HeartOur brains have receptor sites for morphine, nicotine, caffeine and marijuana.  That is because these substances perform functions which our brains do naturally.  Marijuana, for instance, helps us forget – and it appears that those receptor sites serve in our memory functions.

A good brain knows how to forget.  A healthy, happy brain forgets pain and suffering much more quickly and thoroughly than it forgets happy memories.  The only downside I can imagine for this blessing is when it happens to memories of ex-lovers.  For when we get into a fight with our present mate, our minds can go back and remember only the good things in the last relationship.  Not only that, but if your former relationship was a decade or more ago, you probably also  remember this over-idealized ex-lover as much younger and better looking than they would be today.  So, us optimistic, happy-minded folks need to be cautious of these cognitive illusions in times of relationship strife.  For the ex-lovers of our imaginations are probably not as beautiful nor as perfect as your mind is trying to trick you into believing.  Ah the pitfalls of human reasoning!

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The Will to say “No”

Philosophers debate about “Free Will” — some say we have it, some say we don’t.  Of course we intuitively feel we have Free Will, but among the most fascinating altered states I have experienced have been several clear visceral insights into how small (if not non-existent) my Free Will actually is.

For some, the thought of “no Free Will” may feel emotionally threatening.  For you folks, I will suggest a compromise — a weak version of Free Will: The Will to say “No”.

Blender MindPerhaps the only Will we have is the Will to say “no” to options our brain offers us.  Our brains are like blenders: they take information around us, in our memories and our wonderings and spin them around, and up pops possibilities — lots of them. In the midst of these splattering possibilities,  “No” give us the ability to focus, to concentrate, to value.

I am sure my thoughts on this are not my own.  I think I may have read it somewhere in the past. But this is a position I have held as a metaphor in my mind for many years.  So if any of my philosopher readers know the origin of this perspective, please do comment.

As an example of the “No” phenomena, recently I have been training for a sprint triathlon and often my mind tells me to stop running and I have to say “no”.  Or when meditating, the mind will suggest I get up or that I daydream.  Again, I have to say “no”.   In both instances, instead of giving in to options drawing me away from my activity, I gently draw the mind away from the distracting option (say “no”) and continue my practice.

So while it seems that our lives are often automatic, pre-determined unfoldings due to:

  • The genetic code we inherit by no choice or our own
  • The random influence of natural events
  • The random influence of people we happen to meet and opportunities we happen to encounter

yet our ability to choose by saying “no” and thus choosing the best our minds offer us, we can influence many of these to some degree and slowly form a different self.

Some philosophers think we are not born with a soul but that we create one (I first read this in Gurdjief’s writings).  And though I am a no-soul kind of guy, I have to admit that if there were a soul, I imagine it must be largely formed by our “no”s.  Going through life by the luck of your genes or favorable opportunities and by obeying the promptings of your society may turn out very fortuitous for you — but you risk never developing a soul if you don’t learn to say “no”.

So rejoice in your ability to avoid distractions, it may be the only thing that makes you really YOU.

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Note: in the Germanic sense, I have intentionally (willfully) capitalized “Will” to distinguish the noun form from the verb form.

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Transcendence in Mystical Atheists

How can atheists have “transcendent experiences”?  What would that mean?
Tom Rees at Epiphenom just posted on a recent experiment locating the parts of the brain responsible for transcendence.  The definition Tom gives for “transcendence” was:

the belief [sensation] that you are connected in ineffable ways to the world around you, that you are not limited by your body but can go beyond it in mysterious ways.”

You will notice that I just corrected his definition.  That correction is not just nitpicking, but critical to understanding atheists with transcendent experiences.  Key to that understanding is that many “beliefs” are created after a “sensation” and that for any given sensation, any number of beliefs can be attached.

I recently offered a tool call “Atheists, declare thyself” where atheists or agnostics could describe aspects of their beliefs, experiences and expressions of atheism.  My hope is that the tool offers a method to enhance both dialogue and self-exploration.  This post is an attempt to further these dialogues by exploring the “Mystical Perceptions” category on the table.   The mystical category may seem odd to many atheists.  But I, for one, have had many “mystical perceptions” over the years and yet consider myself an atheist.  Yet as most of the Atheists that have filled out this table to date, I see that most describe themselves as “non-Mystical”.  Are non-mystical atheists the common variety. Perhaps those with mystical perceptions seldom become outright atheists.

I personally feel that most theists don’t have mystical experiences in general either.  Indeed, mystical experiences feed our normal sense of religion.  But a theist and an atheist will walk away from such experiences with different explanations.

Mystics are traditionally despised, excommunicated or at best sequestered by most orthodox monotheisms.  I sense a trace of the same tendency in the atheist ‘community’.   Mysticism is threatening because it reeks of individual interpretation, direct experiences and easily escapes the standardization demanded by orthodoxy.  I feel  A-mystical A-theists are too quick to judge the many altered states of awareness that they themselves may never have experienced — they label those who experience them variously as insane, confused, pathological, crazy, illogical and/or irrational.   These judgmental atheists, limited by their experiences, make false judgments of the world, others and the nature of meaning.   While it is fair game to criticize the beliefs about a perception, to go further and view the experience itself as pathological is, I feel, a mistake.  And indeed, in Rees’ article, there seems a hint of the judgement that mystical perceptions are pathological and yet Tom acknowledges that many Buddhist practitioners have intentionally trained to have such perceptions.   Such a judgment, in my eyes, is similar to a person who has never had good beer, good sex or heard good sitar,  cynically debating anyone who valued beer, sex or Indian Classical music.  Is such cynicism justified?

So, how many atheists have mystical inclinations?  Well, Christopher Hitchens has been the talk of town since he was interviewed with a Unitarian Universalist minister by Vanity Fair.  Eric Reitan, a liberal Christian, does a good piece on it in Religion Dispatches called, “Christopher Hitchens, Religious in Spite of Himself?”  Reitan puts forward this question because Hitchens uses Rudolf Otto‘s term numinous to describe “a feeling of awe or wonder” and states that “everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”  Has Hitchens had mystical experiences?  Should something as simple as “awe” or “wonder” be considered “mystical”.  I will talk about these in another post.  But for now, this points at the complexity of talking about such subjective experiences.  But here is my point:  You can’t easily dismiss the experiences of others just because you have not had them.  The operative word here is “easily” and also note that I am not saying you can’t debate their interpretations of these experiences.

Let’s look at another New Age Atheist — Richard Dawkins.  Could someone help me find a YouTube post I saw months ago where someone claimed to have developed a magnetic induction device to trigger altered mental states?  Dawkins apparently tried the device and felt nothing while other of his atheist colleagues tried and did have altered states.  Was this pure placebo effect for those that felt something or are some of us built (or trained) to perceive such states more easily than others?   It does not really matter.  Perhaps Dawkins really is less inclined toward mystical experiences.   Or, are these New Atheists so bent on characterizing all religions as fundamentalist that they are a bit short sighted of others who share many of their perceptions?

Luke, at Common Sense Atheism, describes an enthusiastic attitude toward a naturalistic view of the universe which he calls Enchanted Atheism.  This optimist enchantment points to yet another set of emotions, which I feel are different than the mystical sensations explored by the article mentioned at the beginning of this post and thus, in my table, I listed mysticism and enchantment in different categories.

In conclusion, it is important to understand that we should not allow our limited range of experiences and emotions to narrow our ability to understand others — atheists or theists.

Questions for readers:

  • If you are a Atheist/agnostic, how do you feel about this issue?
  • If you are a Theist, how do you incorporate these science findings into your world?

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Related Triangulation Posts:

  • My Worldview: the first two lists are of my mystical and supernatural experiences (not beliefs).
  • Beliefs, what are they?:  my attempt to understand the nature of beliefs

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