I know the difference between model and reality. I don't care whether you call God Yahweh or Allah or whether you tell me the circumference of a circle is 2*pi*radius or tau*radius. The language changes, but the concepts are the same.
My father once told me of the time he was in school and the teacher brought in a black box. It had all sorts of levers and wheels and things sticking out of it. Pushing or pulling on one thing would cause a reaction somewhere else. The assignment was to figure out what the internal mechanism of the box looked like. Every student came up with a different answer. Every answer worked. My father understood that theories are useful as long as they describe our results and help us make decisions, but that no one can ever really know the truth for sure. They never found out what was in the box.
I think in the same way. Reality is ultimately unknowable and so our models must be tentative. I am always learning. I love hearing new ideas that challenge my old thinking, but I don’t immediately throw out my old ideas for new ones that can just as easily be challenged by still newer ones. I don’t need to have it all figured out to believe in something. The physicists who first discovered that atoms are made of positive nuclei with detachable electrons didn’t know anything about antimatter or the wave nature of electrons. They still to this day don’t know whether they are better thought of as point particles or as loops of vibrating string. This does not stop them from believing electrons exist.
Our ideas about cosmology have also changed a lot in the past five hundred years. Our ideas about how large the stars are, how far apart they are, how fast they move, whether they move at all, what they are made of, and the nature of the invisible stuff in between them have all changed – sometimes more than once. This does not stop people from believing that stars exist.
In the same way, I don’t have to understand just how God operates to know that “something” is there. I expect to be surprised as I learn new things about the universe. Is God really a trinity? Is he really a male? Is he really omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent? How does he experience time? Does Hell really exist? Do angels really exist? How exactly does a painful world and a loving, omnipotent God coexist? I am open to all possibilities.
For now, having a benevolent intelligence guiding my life is as good a model as any, ready to be refined as new data pours in. Evidence of disasters in the world is no more problematic for my theory than the “vacuum catastrophe” is for quantum mechanics, or the “ultraviolet catastrophe” was for classical mechanics – they still teach the laws of Newton and Maxwell in school because they are precise enough for most applications and using quantum mechanics for everything is unwieldly. That I sometimes act and speak as if I am on my own without any divine help should be no more surprising than it is that scientists switch back and forth between the contradictory models of quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, and general relativity based on the phenomenon under study.
Which models give you hope?
One thing I have observed in life is that the very same stimulus can yield opposite responses in different people. Psychology is frustratingly unpredictable, yet most people act as if they believe everyone thinks just as they do.
Does care for our fellow citizens make us statists or libertarians? Protecting our countrymen from criminals and unfair business practices requires a strong government, but protecting our countrymen from government corruption and injustice requires that government be weak. Those on both sides of this issue speak as though those on the other side obviously only care about themselves, treating it as a given. They never give the issues any deeper thought. I have even seen professors of psychology and political science – who should know better – do the same.
Does greed make us capitalists or communists? On the one hand, capitalists seem to be motivated by the desire to acquire resources. They love to earn money. On the other hand, communists also seem to be motivated by the desire to acquire resources. The poor want the wealth of the rich redistributed to them and the politicians want the power to manage the whole system of redistribution.
Does valuing liberty make us pro-choice or pro-life? Obviously, liberty includes the freedom to choose, and the freedom to get abortions, but a dead person can make no choices, and so liberty must also include life and the freedom to not be aborted. A libertarian can support either side and still call themselves libertarian, no matter what other libertarians might say.
Does valuing being true to one’s self make us pro-transsexual or anti-transsexual? It’s a sad thing when someone hates another. It’s even sadder when one hates themselves. Being who you were born to be means accepting reality and embracing the body you have, not the one you wish you had. However, being who you were born to be can also mean accepting the reality that the body you have doesn’t fit the “real” you.
Is Darwinism or The Bible more racist? On one hand, the Bible teaches us that all mankind descends from just two people, Adam and Eve. We are all brethren. On the other hand, racists have used Noah’s curse on his son Ham as an excuse to discriminate against Ham’s supposed descendants. On one hand, Darwinism goes even further than the Bible, teaching us that not only all humans, but all life including plants and bacteria, are descended from a single ancestor. On the other hand, racists have used Darwin’s ideas to support the claim that some people are more evolved than others and that some people are basically just animals. Both sides claim the ideas of the other are too dangerous to be taught to our children. Evolutionists claim that Christianity breeds racial conflict, while Christians claim the same about evolutionary theories. Evolutionists also claim that those not taught evolution as children will never develop the science skills necessary to be good engineers, which is silly. Christians also claim that those taught evolution as children will all become atheists, which is equally silly. It’s all so very silly.
Does belief in an afterlife make you a better person or a worse person? Thinking that this is all there is and knowing that there will be no permanent consequences for bad behavior can cause one to live to enjoy the moment by giving in to selfishness or even sadism, while believing in a reward-punishment program after death can incentivize one to behave morally. On the other hand, thinking that this is all there is and knowing that riches will fade can cause one to give up on selfish accumulation and instead seek to serve others during the little time they have left, while believing in a reward-punishment program allows one to be manipulated by false religious teachers to engage in immorality such as terrorism.
Are Calvinists or Arminians more likely to evangelize? Believing that God always gets his way with or without anyone’s help, saving whom he pleases and damning the rest, has given some Calvinists an excuse not to waste their time trying to win people whose fate one way or the other is already certain. At the same time, believing that each individual ultimately ends up where they want to be by their own choices has given some Arminians an excuse not to waste their time trying to win people who have already made up their minds.
Does being surrounded by temptation make us weaker or stronger? There have been studies done suggesting that the subconscious associates food cravings with scarcity. Keeping your house well-stocked with candy and other supplies sends the subconscious the signal that there is no need to accumulate anything more, and the cravings go away. On the other hand, whenever I know there is candy in the house I cannot think of anything else until it consumed. When I have to travel all the way to the store for candy, my laziness wins out. Some people have suggested that willpower is like a muscle that must be exercised in order to strengthen it. This is why many people give up something for lent. However, studies have shown that whenever people feel as if they have been deprived (either by themselves or others), they will subconsciously grant themselves some liberty to make up for it. Those who give to charity are ruder. Those who skipped dessert yesterday will eat twice as much today.
Does going through a period of scarcity make one more generous or more stingy? On the one hand, those who have experienced poverty might be extra careful never to experience it again by never giving anything away, while the rich have such abundance they don’t mind giving much of it away. On the other hand, those who have experienced poverty know firsthand how it feels and might better empathize with others going through the same thing, while the rich don’t have a clue and might never think of anyone but themselves.
It’s all in the application.
One thing that I have observed in life is that most people see distinctions I do not. They are always dividing us into different groups based on personality traits or modes of thought, but I have a hard time understanding the classification.
Reason and Emotion
One of the most common false dichotomies I hear is that some of us are rational while others are emotional. I am told that reason and emotion are enemies and that it is impossible to use both simultaneously. I have always seen them as complimentary. If I do not know, how can I care? And if I do not care, what difference does it make that I know? In order to escape a burning building, one must both use reason to understand that they are in danger and use emotion to choose to make use of that understanding one way or another. One without reason is as likely to run in place as run out the door, while one without emotions is also as likely to run in place as run out the door.
People are too quick to make assumptions. They assume that the emotional response is to run into a burning building to retrieve objects of value while the rational response is to remain outdoors until the danger passes. Why can’t it be that the emotional response is to flee the flames in fear while the rational response is to carefully analyze the risk and determine it still minimal enough to run back in to rescue the baby? Which individual is risk-averse? The one who does not want to risk burns and suffocation or the one who does not want to risk losing irreplaceable things that are likely salvageable? In every action, there are emotional tradeoffs based on the perceived outcomes – perceptions arrived at through reason.
Left and Right
I am told that the right side of the brain is creative while the left side of the brain is logical. Right-thinkers make great artists but are easily fooled by propaganda while left-thinkers can balance a budget but are unable to invent creative solutions to new issues. I have always seen logic and creativity as complimentary. Creativity feeds on logic. Understanding how things work is a necessary base for extrapolating how they can work differently.
I am told that left-thinkers are better at critical thinking and right-thinkers are better at seeing “the whole picture” at once, but how can one engage in critical thought without seeing the whole picture? A left-thinker might be able to follow a chain of logic left behind by a right-thinker, but they would not be able to create one themselves. I have observed that some people get hung up on symbols while losing track of the underlying reality the symbols represent. This causes them to make comical and sometimes dangerous mistakes. Since it is supposedly left-thinkers that get lost in details, are good with symbols (both language and math), and are sequential in their thinking, it follows that left-thinkers are bad at critical thinking – yet this is the opposite of what I am told.
East and West
In eastern thought things are defined in relationship to other things whereas in western thought things are defined in isolation. Thus, an easterner might define a bird as that which eats seeds and is eaten by cats while a westerner might define a bird as an object with feathers and wings. I have problems with this dichotomy too.
Reductionism is supposedly a western idea. In reductionism, feathers can be described as having vanes and barbs and wings can be described as having bones and skin. Even if the bird is broken all the way down into its constituent subatomic particles, the motion of those particles is meaningless except in relation to other particles. Since mass is nothing but resistance to a change in motion, mass too is meaningless except in relation to other particles. The same goes for spin and charge. Ultimately, all thought is eastern thought.
At the same time, easterners would never be able to understand or communicate about the immensely complex world without imposing some sort of simplifying taxonomy onto it. I assume they have finite minds like everyone else. This requires breaking things down so they will fit in memory. Ultimately, all thought is western thought.
Faces and Vases
I wonder if the propensity of humans to see things as “either-or” has a neurological basis. I am told that in viewing pictures like the one here, people always see either a vase or two faces but never both at the same time. This has been cited as proof of a central consciousness distinct from all the sensory data our brains continually filter through that our subconscious is “aware” of but “we” are not. Oddly, I have never had a problem seeing both faces and vase at the same time. Am I an alien?
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.