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materialist spirituality, part 2

In the first part, I mostly focused on the things I don't like about religion and spirituality. This was not my intention, and I see it as unfortunate that I ended up breaking things up in this way. But now I've tried to clear my head and forget about all of the ways in which I feel science is continuously attacked and misunderstood by religious folk.

For the past 20 years, I've believed that the conflict between science and religion is one of right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. Where religion is the most evil force that has ever existed on the planet, has no redeeming qualities, and we must stop at nothing to destroy it, lest it infect and corrupt the minds of even more generations. This has been a big part of my life goals and a major part of my self identity, and the thing I've cared most passionately about changing in society in the long term. Recently, however, I've had a lot of new life experiences and have started to take on a different--much more tolerant view. My evolution towards this new view of religion started perhaps a year ago or so, and has grown until now I'm not only willing to admit there are positive aspects of spirituality, but somewhat actively interested in trying it myself and bridging some of the gaps between science and religion (although perhaps not in the same ways the people at the Templeton Institute are envisioning.)

One of the first things that started me thinking about this was a comment K made to me, about the difference between truth and happiness. He told me that I care far too much about being right, and not enough about being happy. At the time, I found it disturbing that anyone would care more about being happy than being right. However, I've realized since that he has a pretty good point. There are many purposes of language, and I think for most people, happiness and truth are intertwined a lot more, and language is designed to sort of maximize some combination of them. I think the term "enlightenment" is one that particularly tends to blur the lines between truth and happiness, synthesizing them into a single idea instead of seeing them as separate. I think that one of the most unique things about me, as a person, is that I have separate parts of my mind that tend not to let these two sectors become intertwined. The main effect of this is that it allows me to be more objective than most people, to not allow what I want to be true to interfere with what I believe to be true. Consequently, I end up having beliefs which are a lot more justified than most people, and have a much higher probability of being right. However, it also has some negative effects. It makes it more difficult to communicate with people, and it makes me seem like less of a coherent, whole, syncretic person. It also may negatively affect my psychological state of happiness, which I'll get to in a minute. While I'm still completely uninterested in religion as a means to seeking truth (science and academically-driven philosophy are the only things which can do an honest job of that), from talking with people and expanding my social horizons, I'm starting to come to believe that religion may play a critical role in human happiness. And to allow the truth-evaluating side of my brain to dominate my attitudes towards religion is, I think, a mistake. It leaves out the potential to enjoy religion, which in many ways could be fun and fulfilling.

I've been thinking about the term "ignorance is bliss" a lot lately. One of the things that intrigues me about some of the spiritual seekers I've met is that they have this incredible look in their eyes. I don't know how else to describe it except bliss. Even though I feel completely happy and satisfied with my own life, when I see such a look it makes me envious. Why can't I feel that way?! In the past, I've always rejected the idea that "ignorance is bliss", because I've always maintained the opinion that truth is first and foremost the most important, and if you are honest in your investigation of the truth, you will always be happier in the long run. I've taken great care to make sure that I'm honest in all of my investigations, and give every idea a fair trial before I accept or reject it. This has worked well for me in life, and I feel like I have been very happy. But now I see the potential for an even greater level of happiness. I think my simple argument against "ignorance is bliss" was flawed because it was based on a naive, simplified view of the way the human mind works. I assumed that we are all rational (Bayesian) agents who have one set of beliefs weighted by the probability of them being true, and that these beliefs will always be more correct and the behavior of the agent will be more optimal with any new added piece of information than without it. In game theory, this is called a "superior strategy" because with the right assumptions you can prove that it will dominate the inferior strategy (not having said piece of information) in all situations. What I didn't take into account is that happiness doesn't work the same way as truth. There are a lot more layers of the mind, both with regards to truth and happiness than this simplified setup would imply. Even if my beliefs are optimal from a Bayesian game-theoretic perspective, they are not optimized to induce the greatest level of subjective happiness at any given moment.

Another thing I've thought about a lot is the idea of "make believe". I've always liked the idea of make believe, and I see it as an important creative outlet. I've always enjoyed fantasy novels more than sci-fi (despite what you might assume from the rest of my interests, or from my friends' tastes in books) because I feel like they stimulate my imagination more, and are much more enjoyable to read. I think far too many children give up the idea of make-believe before they are adults. They just stop doing it, for some reason. I used the word "ignorance" in the last paragraph to describe the key to attaining bliss. However, that word often has a negative connotation attached to it, so perhaps it would be better if I used the word "innocence". I've met people lately that I find myself attracted to, rather than repelled by, because I find a sort of childlike innocence assocated with them. This has surprised me greatly, because some of the things they believe I would have traditionally thought would be repugnant to me (for instance, a belief in God). There are a few places where make-believe survives into adulthood. One place I found while I was in college where I was allowed to engage in make-believe freely was LTT, an improv comedy troupe who liked to get together on the weekends and play games with each other, acting out make believe scenes spontaneously and creatively. This is wonderful fun, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. There are few things that are more fun that you can do with a group of people! Another place where make-believe survives is sexual fantasy, although many adults are far too unimaginative when it comes to this realm as well. (Incidentally, I think sex counts as one of those "few things"!) While this type of fantasy often survives throughout the teenage years and beyond, which is a lot longer than most types of make-believe, I think it still dies out for most adults by the time they're in their late twenties or thirties. The last place I can think of where make-believe survives is religion. However, unlike all of the other forms of make-believe, I've always seen this type of make-believe as extremely dangerous because the people engaging in it are tempted to get so far into their fantasy worlds that they start denying they are even engaging in make-believe! This is what's known as "biblical literalism" in Christianity (but has equivalents in all religions), and even after my newly found appreciation for some of the aspects of religion, I should mention that I have zero respect for this approach to religion. Biblical literalism is what happens when a fun game of make believe turns into pathological self-delusion. That said, I do think there is a gray area with respect to how explicitly you have to remain aware of the make-believe aspect of religion in order to avoid slipping out of the world of metaphor into the world of delusion. And that leads nicely into my next section...

8 years ago, ikioi and I came up with a theory of cognition we call "N-minds". I think the name and most of the original statement of the idea was due to ikioi, but since then I've expanded it a lot on my own and tied it in with a lot more, especially Daniel Dennett's theory of "Multiple Drafts" which is very similar (if not identical) in many respects. I'm uncertain at this point whether the theory as I understand it now has much to do with the original theory we talked about. But nevertheless, I continue to use the same word and hope I won't get sued for trademark infringement :) The basic idea of N-minds is that there are lots of layers of conscious experience, not just a single layer. As sensory data comes into your mind, it is processed first by the lowest numbered mind (let's call it Mind0) which is closest to direct perceptions and raw experience. After going through some filters, it then gets processed by a slightly higher numbered mind. After that it goes into deeper levels of processing, and passes to an even higher numbered mind. So on and so forth all the way up until it reaches the highest numbered mind (MindN). Your higher numbered minds are generally more aware of your lower-numbered minds, but your lower-numbered minds are less aware (although not completely unaware I don't think, as everything is interconnected to some extent) of your high-numbered minds. The highest numbered mind is the one that witnesses everything and processes things at the deepest level. I think I tend to spend most of my conscious experience up in my highest numbered mind, evaluating and observing things at the most abstract level, with the most amount of processing and filtering happening before it even gets into the conscious portion of my mind. Whereas things like meditation are often designed to get one into a state of direct contact with reality, settling down into the lowest numbered mind. I've noticed throughout the past 8 years that your different numbered minds often have different goals and desires, different things that need to be satisfied in order to be happy. Sometimes this can be cast in terms of long-term versus short-term goals (immediate gratification versus lifelong satisfaction) but sometimes it's even more complicated. This leads back to the main problem with the simple "Bayesian agent" model of the mind, which presumes there is only one level of goal direction, rather than a whole complex system of competing levels with different agendas and psychological needs.

I feel like all of the goals and desires of my highest-numbered mind are getting satisfied. I've led an honest life, and come to the most correct conclusions about reality that just about anyone could have come to, my career is on track, my love-life and experience in the social and sexual realms have been rapidly advancing. I really can't complain. But on the other hand, from seeing the type of fulfillment that some people get out of spirituality, I'm interested in exploring the possiblity that some of my lower-numbered minds could be more optimally satisfied. In addition to the rest of the things I've said I've been "thinking about lately" another big one I should add to the list is faith. K and I talked about faith some during the same conversation as the happiness/truth conversation. I see a kind of happiness that K gets from his faith. I see the same kind of happiness in a lot of people of faith. Especially in the social world, there is a huge advantage to being able to act without questioning or self-doubt. It's sexy and charismatic, and I often find myself (particularly my lower-numbered minds) attracted to and inspired by it as much as anyone else. My higher-numbered minds have a huge problem with faith, since it leads to incorrect beliefs about reality, but I'm wondering if I can acheive the sort of bliss that comes from acting without self-doubt, by temporarily shutting off my higher numbered minds. Perhaps meditation can allow me to enter such a state. One of the things K told me the most was that I needed to stop doubting myself, stop "second guessing" myself. On the one hand, I think that this type of second-guessing has been what makes my approach to truth-seeking work so well. There are no beliefs I have that I haven't spent massive amounts of time questioning and exploring alternatives, trying to find any little tiny hole that might be in any of them. I doubt there is anyone I've met who spends as much time doing this as me. And in the circumstances where I have found beliefs that have holes in them, I've had no shame in switching over eagerly to new, improved beliefs. The net consequence of this is that I've ended up with a system of beliefs that is more robust and more accurate than nearly anyone else's in the world (and yes, I know that sounds arrogant, but I think it's true as long as you leave out things that I admittedly have very little opinion or thoughts on such as politics, or the social world in general.) However, in doing this, I've sacrificed the feeling of bliss that comes from acting without hesitation, looking at people directly, and pronouncing things with a certainty that transcends reason. I feel like I have a lot of knowledge to share, but most people have an innate unwillingness to believe others unless they exhibit the sort of charisma that comes from those who think, speak, and act on faith. So perhaps one of the most important reasons I'm interested in learning religious/spiritual techniques is that I think it may help me to lead. I've always wanted to be a leader, but have never had the charisma. This may help me to share and spread some of my robust knowledge about the world, which I've gained through so much personal sacrifice. While developing my beliefs about the physical world has worked better in isolation, I'm now interested in learning more about the far more complicated social/psychological world, and connecting with people and sharing my experiences with them, which is something I think I cannot do effectively without understanding spirituality.

There is one more topic tied in to this that I'd like to talk about. And that's the issue of "useful fictions". Very much tied into the reason why my journal is named spoonless. However, I think I'm going to save that for part 3 as it may get long.

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Sep. 13th, 2007 12:06 am (UTC)
Another interesting read from an interesting perspective!

First I'd like to call attention to what Plato said about happiness - that whole "Nosce te ipsum" schtick.

Many would say that happiness comes as a byproduct of a life well-lived. At least, some philosophers would say that.

If you think you have lived your life well, made your decisions with justice and magnanimity, have come to know your true self (as contrasted with the ego), then you can probably expect to generally enjoy happiness.

Mixing religion and spirituality seems a risky endeavor. Generalizing wildly about the relevance of these systems - when such fantastic diversity in liturgy, application and interpretation exist - seems inappropriate. These terminology issues can prove difficult.

* I think I tend to spend most of my conscious experience up in my highest numbered mind, evaluating and observing things at the most abstract level, with the most amount of processing and filtering happening before it even gets into the conscious portion of my mind.

Such hubris! You do realize this concept has been covered before... ever heard of the "Infinite Heads Paradox"? Why you should think your ego the watcher, I can't comprehend. When you shut off the ego and still watch, which layer will you identify with?

As well, you'll find another similar coverage of the topic within the "8 Circuit Model of Consciousness" (or even the 12 Circuit Model). Your realization of your placement on the ladder may be a bit skewed. If, as you say, "[I] give things an honest shot", you might start with a realization that this might be the case. The big picture you've worked so hard drafting stands a monument to effort and potential. But don't mistake the map for the territory.


* I'm interested in exploring the possiblity that some of my lower-numbered minds could be more optimally satisfied.

In the various circuit models, that'd be considered a higher-circuit realization. They'd suggest your higher circuits, well beyond the "objective observer" you presently identify with, occasionally kick in to fire up the process.


* I see a kind of happiness that K gets from his faith.

Spirituality does not require faith.

* Especially in the social world, there is a huge advantage to being able to act without questioning or self-doubt.

I generally think this one of the more unfortunate effects of religious identification. After a point, self-falls away because the concept of the self undergoes catharsis.

I'm fairly confident you could much sooner benefit from starting to second guess yourself than stopping. Belief and certainty often prevent progress.

Namaste.
spoonless
Sep. 13th, 2007 03:04 am (UTC)

If you think you have lived your life well, made your decisions with justice and magnanimity, have come to know your true self (as contrasted with the ego), then you can probably expect to generally enjoy happiness.

Very well put. One of the best descriptions of happiness I've seen.

Such hubris! You do realize this concept has been covered before

Is the "hubris" part directed at my claiming to have come up with a "theory of cognition"? I never claimed it was a new theory, just that it was a theory! (or does hubris refer to something else?)

When you shut off the ego and still watch, which layer will you identify with?

I've had that happen before (once or twice) and it did leave me puzzled. I look forward to getting back there again some day. It's what makes me say that there are neural pathways that go in both directions, even though I usually experience the center of my consciousness all the way in the higher-numbered direction.

Your realization of your placement on the ladder may be a bit skewed. If, as you say, "[I] give things an honest shot", you might start with a realization that this might be the case.

I'm not sure what you're saying here. The 8-circuit and infinite-heads thing you mention sounds interesting, though.

* I see a kind of happiness that K gets from his faith.

Spirituality does not require faith.

Right, I realize that. But in this case, K and I were discussing faith. Which he sees me to be lacking in (and not so much even in a religious context, but in general... for instance, he thinks I could have more faith/trust in others).

I'm fairly confident you could much sooner benefit from starting to second guess yourself than stopping.

I think you're somewhat biased having only heard my opinions on things that you happen to disagree with. In general, I have very few beliefs and keep them much weaker than most people. It's only the areas that I happen to have solid knowledge in that I don't give as much slack. Also, people who meet me in person tend to say the opposite, whereas many people who meet me online would probably agree with you.
geheimnisnacht
Sep. 13th, 2007 05:56 am (UTC)
people who meet me in person tend to say the opposite

Definitely. I would say you're very self-conscious about letting yourself go spontaneously and confidently. A telling example was at Burning Man: you wanted to go run behind the water truck, and you got close, looked around, jumped in a little, looked around again, paused, got a little more wet, then ran back. Others watching you clearly had an impact. Fortunately, I think this trait changes relatively easily, it's the first steps that are the hardest (feedback loop).
shaktool
Sep. 13th, 2007 06:22 am (UTC)
There is a knack to feeling confident without feeling sure. Something like, "I don't really know what I'm doing, but I bet it'll be fun." Being sure of yourself will lead to mistakes, but being confident only leads to adventures. I don't have any faith in anything material or anything spiritual, but I have faith that when I die, I will feel good about having tried everything that I tried, even whatever it is that, incidentally, lead to my death.

So, be confident about everything and sure about nothing.
spoonless
Sep. 13th, 2007 06:54 am (UTC)
Yes! Excellent point. So far I am very impressed with the quality of feedback I am getting to this post.
geheimnisnacht
Sep. 13th, 2007 08:12 pm (UTC)
Well, how about just "be confident about everything". Sometimes we can actually be sure quite easily, and that feels even better. :)
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Sep. 13th, 2007 10:06 pm (UTC)
This may sound like a rather personal question, but if you could provide me with the following information, I could use your data in an on-going experiment.

Could you tell me your exact time of birth + exact location of birth (city, state, country)?

With this information I will make a natal chart. With the chart I can compare relationships to my own and other charts I have previously attempted to decipher. This will help me better verify - or invalidate - certain aspects of tropical, sidereal or modern astrology. I've found certain aspects of the study helpful, but others terribly generalized. I'm accumulating natal charts from people with strong character traits in the hope of seeing a larger variety of dominant characteristics, or seeing a lack of valid correspondences.

Obviously this wouldn't help you at all, but I'm curious, so I thought I'd ask. :)

Namaste.
spoonless
Sep. 14th, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)
As I'm sure you've picked up by now, I put no stock in such things, but for the sake of entertainment... I was born 11/19/1976, in Plainfield, New Jersey. Year of the Dragon, month of the Scorpio, both of which--by coincidence--happen to be what I would have chosen anyway. Scorpio also happens to be what I get if I take the "reverse astrology quiz" that was floating around the net for a while, where you put in a lot of personality information and it tries to guess your sign. I consider this a pretty neat coincidence, although nothing more.
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Sep. 14th, 2007 04:53 am (UTC)
Thanks! I'm not sure whether I "put stock in such things" or not. I need the data first!

I would add that your sun sign only forms one piece of the natal chart. For many people, the relationship between the planets (conjunctions, sextile, etc) or especially the moon and ascending signs have more impact on our lives.

But, as Crowley said, "The stars do not compel, they impel."

I'll be looking for specific things - planets in specific houses and etc - but it may take me a while to get through them. I'll let you know if I find anything interesting - especially if it includes *nothing* interesting!

Namaste.
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Oct. 5th, 2007 10:03 pm (UTC)
Sorry for the delay in getting to this, but I just noticed that you didn't provide the time of birth. Your birth certificate should tell you the exact time of birth, which makes a pretty big difference.

Namaste.
spoonless
Oct. 5th, 2007 10:12 pm (UTC)
I think it was around 4pm... does it need to be exact exact? I think my parents have my birth certificate.
ankh_f_n_khonsu
Oct. 5th, 2007 10:34 pm (UTC)
Ideally, yeah. Down to the minute.

With the information that I have now, I can see your sun sign (scorpio), moon sign (scorpio) and ascendant (aquarius). With the exact time of birth I could measure the relationships between and the houses for your planets; otherwise I'm limited to those three.

Traditional observance of these skills required very exacting data, which further illustrates the disparity between modern fortunetelling horoscopes and classic astrology. Similar to you, I'm somewhat skeptical about the accuracy of astrology, but I have found some very interesting correspondences that leave me open to considering it before discounting it.

Again, I apologize for the hassle.

Namaste.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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