06 June 2010

DUToE #1

Atheism and theory of mind, or sex.

The first part is rather amusing in the theory of mind implications, rather less for the atheism angle and more for the explanation of why it gets so hard to understand other people at times. Let's say I know another person. That other person has likes and dislikes, desires to attain and sufferings to avoid, just as I do. They experience things in a unique way, express themselves differently, and generally interact with life and of course with me in a very different way than I do. I get all that.

What's difficult is to then take that information and translate it such that, let's say I'm to get them a gift, a signal of routine thanks and appreciation all the way up to expressing any romantic affections. That's practically impossible for me either way. I could pick something from a list just fine, and maybe by observing the stuff they like, I could catalog that mentally. But that doesn't go from the catalog stage to the gift stage because if it's stuff, I assume that they can get stuff they like whenever they want. And I can't tell what stuff they don't have that they would like (without say, a list, and removing for a second the problem that people don't actually like stuff as much as experiences and whether or not they are aware of this dilemma) I assume that's sometimes incredibly frustrating for other people, just as it is for me.

That's kind of a theory of mind problem because my mind looks at stuff and says "if I want that, i will figure out a way to get it myself" and doesn't think "it would be nice if some other person got that for me". That makes it hard to see how another person would value receiving a product purchased by me for them as a gift. (note: shopping I view as an experiential good consuming time and not necessarily money. Therefore, when someone else buys something that I would put no effort into selecting for myself, say clothing, that's an experiential good that I've transferred on the assumption that they enjoyed shopping and in particular, enjoyed shopping for me on the premise that I hate doing it myself. If they don't, they should say so. Or I should just find ways to pay people to do it for me at some point. I very often already hand off the money to buy things like this already).

My mind doesn't value stuff in the same way either. Things are usually functional, practical things. Clothing isn't picked out necessarily for its fashionable features or because it is popular. It's picked out because it fits and only then maybe that it doesn't seem hideous and primarily because it's more or less illegal, not to mention distracting, to go around town in the nude. Those are mostly practical considerations. I get no notice of enjoyment out of one article of clothing over another. That more or less applies to the clothing of others as well (which is again frustrating since it's almost impossible for me to tell how much effort people have put into their appearances, much less take the notice and translate it into an appropriate compliment). It's difficult for me to consume clothing then and to project onto someone else how they might enjoy it because I have no frame of reference.

That's more or less the problem I run into when people ask me about religion and prayer and faith. I have no frame of reference to say that their experiences are great, terrible, useful, or useless. I know they're mostly useless or meaningless to me and that they seem important to them and that usually means I put up with their faith or religion as long as they don't seem too bugged that I'm ignoring it personally. People ask about death. Death doesn't bother me in the same ways, and I don't bother with afterlife claims or concerns. Death is death, and a finito subject. People ask about suffering or struggle. Struggles I see as often coming from internal chains of events that are self-imposed or external chains of events that you couldn't react to or didn't react well to. I don't see some master plan or conspiracy behind it, but just random sequences of things that added up wrong for them (and that they do it themselves sometimes shouldn't be surprising, most people are terrible at math). People ask about faith and express some interest that I should have some. I don't have any; I'm a cynic and a skeptic. That means I don't understand faith at all because it's an injection of meaning onto things that ought not have any, looking for patterns and order where there isn't (cloud faces. Dawkins has a great bit where he replicates a "holy" symbol on a church by walking around to the back of the church and seeing the same symbol created by the landscaping and water flows. Yet there are thousands of people seeking to be healed by this symbol of serious and dread diseases out front all the same). People ask about prayer; I don't get anything out of talking to myself, so I don't understand why I should. And when people ask about God, I get the distinct feeling they don't know what the subject is themselves, much less what they expect me to think the subject is. Given that I see no features being described and a lot of spooky language or vague tautological explanations that don't make any sense when you don't accept the tautological premises that underlie them.

That leaves experiences that I can relate to people on. Now I admit to being a tremendous pain in the ass about experiences as the things I'd request as gifts. That's in large measure why I don't make a fuss now about holidays or birthdays on the basis that I don't want people to make a fuss either because it has historically worked out poorly for them to observe my reactions. The trouble for me is that I can probably safely assume other people like experiences. But I don't know what experiences they want anymore than it's easy to tell what experiences I'd want.

Which leads to that second point up there. I think, personally, it's safe to assume that most conversations end up at sex when they can be followed long enough along the various threads they cling to (note: this is not my personal experience that all of my conversations do end up that way, it's just where I think people's minds will go, have gone, based on observing things like the internet taking otherwise innocuous and elaborate chains of reason and going sexual in some fashion). Or food I guess, but food is usually just an energy source for sex. This is, I assume, somewhat biological wiring and that most of the rest of human behavior is merely signaling competitions for sexual purposes (reproduction). What's interesting is that the importance of sex is also based, for humans at least, on the fact that it's fun. It has powerful neurochemical effects on the body. Powerful enough that it's basically a mystical element in human behavior or thought, especially in the post-sexual mode. What's really interesting is how the human brain has more or less copied that feeling of "transcendence" from an orgasm basically and used it for something like practicing yoga or meditating or praying. I could assume that means that the same sort of internal processes are happening, but presumably in a less, messy fashion? I'm not sure that this is quite what we're doing. It seems like, from the outside, praying or meditating is about organising your thoughts and relaxing by passing them off to something else for a while. I'm not sure what evolutionary purpose that serves. Which makes the spandrel idea appealing. In other words, we're not really doing anything, but we figured out a way to mess with our heads enough to copy something else we do do for a very good reason, and then justified it by investing tremendous energy and time into the idea that it was a mystical or supernatural experience of its own right. We have advanced to the point where most/many people don't look at wind and think that's a god or a demon. At least when it doesn't destroy their house or kill people or flood entire cities. But many people still look for supernatural effects where there is only nature and this leads to a lot of very strange looking assumptions about the nature of human beings (which is generally less honorable than we are led to believe by these feelings seeking meaning), the nature of nature (which is generally less hospitable than.....), and the nature of the universe as a whole (which is generally both more and less random than..., in that it's pretty well organised when the rules are understood, but the idea that humans have any purpose other than to try to survive is pretty meaningless. One big asteroid could fuck up our day just fine thank you.)

Now I agree with some points there that the subjective experiences of people are very hard, if not impossible, to disprove. If people think and believe they are speaking to god, well then I guess they think they are. It's not possible to prove to them that they are not. One of the more amusing elements of religion to me is that people take these personal experiences and translate them. Even some atheists are no less immune to this tendency by not having a central religion or theme by presuming that their rational minds have discerned the true nature of things and that everyone else is indeed imagining things. I think it likely that they are, just as we might think it ludicrous when someone imagines he is Napoleon reincarnated or doing "God's Will" when killing other people. It's fairly easy to look at the behavior of such people and see that they've inserted and substituted their own very subjective values and meanings for things that are, at least superficially, intended to serve more universal purposes (such as ethics), but it's not easy to then point this flaw out to them and let them work their way through it.

I settle on a strategy of, wherever possible, not imposing a clear set of values on other people and letting them figure out their own maximized pleasures-pain equilibrium on the basis that
1) I've no idea what priorities that they have as internal maxims
2) I don't like/dislike the same things they do anyway and that'd probably be really boring if I did
3) I've no idea what the hell they're talking about anyway
4) We're still pretty interconnected enough that it should balance out if people are silly.

That does mean that you have to impose the value that other people should have rights to decide these things themselves as much as possible rather than being forced to abide, and that the "force" of social inclusion and the adaptation of fitting in with the crowds somewhere is still not a force that requires us to go along with it. At least as long as we don't start violating (and/or eliminating) other people in order to stand out. The real inconsistency and frustration arises when people express clear desires for one thing, even a desire for a corner solution for it, and then go off and do things that are totally unrelated, inappropriate, or otherwise don't work within their stated goals. If somebody had told me they like chocolate cake and they're really allergic to chocolate, that would tend not to work out very well either.
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