Sunday, July 31, 2016

Blessings: The Beginning

I've been in search of ways to bless certain people in my life who are going through a dark time. We have looked before at how God meets us in hardship and blesses us, for instance when we are hungry or thirsty, isolated or sick or in prison, and how we follow in God's footsteps there. But if we are far away, if the main tool we have is words, how do we bless people?

Looking at some things God has done, starting in Genesis: 

"I will bless you, and make your name great." (Genesis 12:2):
I can show honor and respect to a person who has lost much of what he once had. I can recognize his dignity. I can make sure that his former acts of kindness and compassion aren't forgotten, and that his new ones are not overlooked.
And God blessed the seventh day, and made it holy: because in it he rested from all his work which God created and made. (Genesis 2:3)
Thankfulness is a blessing in itself. Without thankfulness, we have not enjoyed what we have achieved. Even if we have succeeded, it does not satisfy us until we are thankful for it. And if we work, how can we tell when we are done, except when we are satisfied? The one who is not thankful can never rest, can never enjoy, can never take satisfaction in what he has or is or does. 

The poor man who has enough
has more than the rich man who is not satisfied.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Verbal Abuse in Public Discourse

Verbal abuse (definition): harsh and insulting language directed at a person
(Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Emotional abuse (definition): the denial of a person's feelings, abilities, value, worth, or relevance.
(Adapted from medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary)

Much of American public 'discussion' is more accurately characterized as public verbal abuse and emotional abuse. It's difficult to think of a political campaign -- or so-called news reporting -- that isn't saturated with unhealthy amounts of abuse. (And everybody notices the other side more than their own, because the barbs thrown by the other side are received as hurtful, but the barbs thrown by the partisan's own side are savored as satisfying.) It's so widespread that even popular children's authors may routinely dehumanize the "bad" characters, and people with respected positions within Christianity may try to bring people to their view of the Old Testament, or Second Temple Judaism, or the New Perspective on Paul, by throwing the "anti-Semitic" smear -- an unsubtle comparison to Nazi genocidal maniacs committing crimes against humanity. (With a passing wave at the boy who cried 'wolf', let's save the "anti-Semitic" label for people who actually didn't have a problem with the Holocaust.)

There has been much said during the current campaign season about cultural decay and/or cultural progress (describing the same events from opposing perspectives). I wish the Christians, at least, could agree: we at least can refrain from verbal abuse and emotional abuse. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Blessed are those who mourn

In the Jewish lectionary, many of the beautiful prophecies of Isaiah are read in the weeks of later summer and early autumn. There is some question about how long ago the readings were fixed to their dates and places in the lectionary, and about variations in exactly what was read that long ago. But there is a possibility that Jesus' sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth took place in late summer or early autumn, the week when either the Torah portion Ki Tavo or Nitzavim was read. In current Jewish lectionaries, those weeks both contain readings from Isaiah that are neighboring to what Jesus read in his sermon, either immediately before or close after the passage that he read.

So it's possible that Jesus chose that time to read in the synagogue, when he read these words of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Isaiah 61:1-2, see also Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus read that in his sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount seems nearly a continuation of that, on another day in another place. Not only does the Sermon on the Mount continue the theme of proclaiming good news, but its beginning has a reference to the same verse of Isaiah on which he stopped reading in the synagogue:
to comfort all who mourn (Isaiah 61:2)
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." (Matthew 5:4)
The question of timing intrigues me, since Jesus in the New Testament was a regular at the synagogues, and his life and teachings were in tune with the Jewish festival calendar and the regular cycle of readings. I'll briefly consider what else was the theme of the Jewish lectionary on those two Sabbaths:
  • The Ki Tavo Torah portion focuses on the blessings for keeping faith with God, or the curses for failing to keep faith with God. It also discusses whether the people have eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand, which are themes that Jesus takes up again in his own teachings.
  • The Nitzavim reading from Isaiah is said to be the seventh and final in a series of readings of consolation or comfort, all taken from Isaiah, in the weeks preceding the Feast of Trumpets and then the Day of Atonement. The focus is on God's redemption, and on how God shares in suffering.

Jesus' teachings seem to be woven together with the weekly readings to make his point. And so here I will continue with what Isaiah said about blessing for those who mourn:
... to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion -- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. ... Instead of their shame, my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace, they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in the land, and everlasting joy will be theirs. ... In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed. (Isaiah 61, various)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

What is the most destructive force on the human mind?

I have been watching some people near-and-dear to me self-destruct lately. It is a terrible thing to see loved ones self-destructing, or trying to destroy each other. And it is hard to get untangled from a group that has turned on itself. I'm trying to get my head wrapped around all the drama here. In the mind of each of the people self-destructing or trying to destroy someone else, one of the others in that group is the villain. There is no doubt that each of them has played the villain in the others' lives -- sometimes really savoring the role, too.

But -- including all of humanity here -- what turns us into villains? The current contenders in the local drama are: 
  • Addiction
  • Hatred
  • Vengefulness
  • Self-righteousness
  • Pride
  • Greed
It's hard to pick the single most destructive thing. Is self-righteousness the enabler for vengefulness and hatred? And one thing that troubles me: the people who are acting in spite are completely sure that they are in the right. And then there is hatred, the foundation for so many evil acts. Is "vengefulness" -- the desire to hurt someone else -- really anything but another name for hatred? But "vengefulness" makes a claim to being right. It uses the victim card to claim unlimited reparations or retaliation. Does it take self-righteousness to give moral top-cover to cruelty?

We're all of us prone to justify our own mistakes. We want to be good and right, and that tendency can be corrupted. We've all known that temptation to justify a mistake rather than admit it. And if we have someone waiting to pounce on a mistake, we are less likely we are to admit it because the price tag is so high.

It's so easy for someone to appoint themselves the Accuser for someone else who has wronged them. In the Bible, the Accuser is a title for Satan. Do we willingly take up that role?

I see so many things that I consider to be poisons. The antidotes are love, humility, and forgiveness. But is it possible to reach someone who is caught up in a spiral of escalating vindictiveness? Can they even see that, in their determination to top the other person, they are poisoning themselves? I've said it before and will likely say it again: We cannot dehumanize other people without dehumanizing ourselves.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Physics, Biology, and the Mind

This continues a conversation with Stan about whether the human mind works by natural means (where I have the "pro" side, and he has the "con" side). 

Some premises

I'd like to start with something that seems to be an axiom in your understanding of the mind, starting with your comment:
... it exists outside and beyond the four known physical forces (note 3), which would make it non-physical, non-material ... (Stan)
Your premise here seems to be that, if a thing is not caused by the four forces of physics (gravity, electromagnetism, weak subatomic, and strong subatomic) then it is non-physical, and non-material. I'd strongly disagree: biology is not accounted for here. Much of life in general works outside the four forces of physics. If a flea hops, there's nothing in the four forces that made it hop, so there's something more going on than the four forces -- but there may not be anything more going on than instinct.  (Another working definition: let 'instinct' be the motives and reactions that are hardwired into a living thing.) If we want to explain something as simple as a worm wriggling, we need something more than the four forces of physics, but we're not looking at something non-physical or non-material either.  So I don't think that "outside the four forces of physics" means that we are working in a realm that is "non-physical, non-material" by any stretch; it may instead be covered by biology.

I'd also like to start with something that is basic to my own understanding of reason as it is generally used:
'Reason' tells us the reasons why the thing we want is right. 
In general, I think people often attach themselves to a conclusion (or a goal, or a side) first, and then set the mind to work to justify what was already desired. Some people want truth; some people want dominance, acceptance, prestige, luxury, or a really nice dinner. When people make a decision, even the "rational exercise" of making a pros-and-cons list usually has the "pros" list cataloging "how does it benefit me personally", and the "cons" list considering "how does it harm me personally." Consider how many rational decisions are, in effect, rational self-interest. (Take an example when certain atheists argue that Christianity grew and thrived because it has positive adaptive characteristics that helped people survive better. As soon as you answer, "So, you're saying that Christianity grew because it is a positive and helpful force?" some types of atheists will change tack with dizzying speed, if all they were looking for was a stick with which to beat Christianity.)

Marking territory and the desire to conquer Europe

You mentioned the desire to conquer Europe as an example of an irrational thing that humans do.
shows the necessity of the software's ability to generate irrational adherence to fallacious pursuits, ideologies, and subjective opinion over fact, because that is part of the human mind, too.
In some cases (e.g. the desire to conquer Europe), irrationality seems to track to our more animal natures. Computers, without an animal nature, would "lack" that irrationality. (Is the lack really on their side, here?) I would never expect computers to duplicate an animal need for dominance or territory. Neither do I see our animal need for dominance or territory as some sort of proof that we are 'more than physical' in our minds; I'd say it's proof that we are less than rational. Dominance and claiming territory are expressions of animal instincts.

So I don't see validity to claims along the lines of "computers don't need to feed/fight/flee/mate, so that proves humans are more than physical" ... On the contrary, I'd think it shows that humans are so physical that our instincts hijack our better judgment, and it can interfere with our minds' trustworthiness. There's definitely something more going on than the forces of physics, but it seems to be something animal / biological.

The scope of the proof

You were saying:
if the human mind is to be shown reducible to software, thereby demonstrating that the human mind is likely to be merely physical in nature, then the software must demonstrate the ability to produce all (sum total) of the processes which are available to the human mind ... (Stan)
I'd disagree because of the animal / biological features of our mind. That is to say: The human mind also includes things I'd attribute to biology (e.g. animal instinct). So I'd say that a software system as analogy for the mind would need to account only for those items not accounted for by biology. One or both of us have mentioned biological things like feeding, fighting, fleeing, mating, relationships, motives / desires, and instincts. Those whole arenas of the human mind are the province of living things, as far as I can see. Anything we'd attribute to hormones and adrenaline are biological and physical, yet outside the scope of what a computer would or could do.

My main area of interest is rational thought, which is the original topic on which I'd posted, where our conversation started. I'm also interested in some follow-up on topics you mentioned that intrigue me (e.g. the all-too-common misapplication of Bayes Theorem, or the nature of creativity).

However, if your view is that a software program would need to duplicate even biological instincts, because you believe the scope of the proof would need to include biology because biology is not covered by the laws of physics, then we'd have a fairly insurmountable difference of opinion on the scope of the proof for this topic. Though we might have finally found one thing on which we agree: I doubt that software would manage to duplicate the effects of our animal instincts.

Monday, July 04, 2016

The determinism of logic, and the desire for understanding

This continues a discussion with Stan on how minds work, and to what extent the mind works by natural processes. It picks up with Stan's most recent post and moves on from there.

What if two people were arguing, and had something to prove? Let's say they wanted to do it logically. Sooner or later, they're likely to use a syllogism. Maybe someone would begin like this:
1. "All humans are mammals"
2. "All mammals are vertebrates"
Therefore ...?
I'll come back to that in a moment. First, to clear up a few things that you (Stan) had mentioned:

1. On digestion: you'll notice on a close reading of my prior post that I'm not saying that the stomach is uninvolved in digestion. Though if someone were to ask, "At what point did such-a-nutrient from your lunch become available (etc) ... and what was the corresponding stomach change?", we might have a difficult time pinpointing a stomach change, even though there is no doubt in either of our minds that it's a natural process. The point of this analogy is that, even when we're in agreement that there's a physical system doing 100% of the work, it's still not a simple thing to look at the enduring organs and pinpoint the physical change that corresponds to a particular event, especially when there are layers of processing (such as enzymes). So that if someone asks me, "Show me the physical change in the brain that corresponds to you wanting a peach with lunch" I don't know how much success we'd have there, but that obstacle does not make me think that there's something beyond-the-natural about wanting a peach. We'll come to more interesting examples than peaches shortly.

2. I want to clarify that humans are not analogs of computers, and I'm not saying that we can replicate humans using computers. I expect we can replicate rational thought using computers. Rational thought is one of the easier things to produce deterministically such as in a computer (with the usual acknowledgments that of course we designed the computers in such a way as to make that happen.) To be clear, here, "rational thought" is distinct from irrational thought, creativity, motivation, emotional bonding, and various other kinds of human behavior.

By the point that you (Stan) are contending that we are not automatons, that we do not have automatic responses to all inputs: on that we agree.

It appears to me that the analogs presented are too small, too limited in scope to reflect the actual range of the exquisite capabilities of human minds and intellect

I'd agree about the scope of what I'm saying. I know I've fielded questions on everything from lonely computers to AI bonding, but for my own first argument I'd set out with a more focused scope: "rational thought". I see "rational thought" as things where we can break down our understanding to the level of syllogisms. If you look at the history of humans trying to decide when a thing is proven, syllogisms are forerunners of computer programs. More on that shortly; I wanted to respond to more of your points.

Where we might part company again in some ways (but not others) is where you say,
There is nothing known to physically exist which has the range of capability of the human mind, and which would serve as an adequate analog; the mind is superior to all other systems because it is unfettered by dependence on physics and cause and effect.
You seem to take our range of capability, the fact that we're not automatons (to that point I'd agree), to mean that there's something immaterial going on there, something more than the brain function of the mind. Which brings us to your cat, showing curiosity ...
Because it was an act of intellectual curiosity, his actions were clearly outside the domain of deterministic cause and effect acting on initial conditions.
Are you sure? It seems likely that "intellectual curiosity" is hardwired into brains of a certain complexity. Let's say somewhere above the "flatworm" level but below the "house cat" level, curiosity becomes a fairly standard trait. At some point, animals reach a level of advancement where there's some benefit if it understands more of its world. I'm not convinced that we're outside the domain of deterministic cause and effect at this point ... which I'll explain more as we get deeper into your responses and mine in return.

You also used hardware/software as an analogy for dualism. But software works deterministically. If you're ok with the mind being a deterministic system ... I think it's more likely that I've misunderstood you somewhere, or that I'm reading too much into the choice of analogy, & you were using a convenient one that we'd already discussed.

So (hoping I've cleared up any miscommunication to this point, and with those questions in mind) let me move us onto new ground somewhat:

What if two people were arguing, and had something to prove? Let's say they wanted to do it logically. Sooner or later, they're likely to use a syllogism. Maybe someone would begin like this:
1. "All humans are mammals"
2. "All mammals are vertebrates"
Therefore ...?
Rational thought -- the type that can be broken down into words and expressed in syllogisms -- is a special category in this way: it is defined by the fact that everyone can and should get the same results, given the same input. "Rational thought" is fairly deterministic in its own way (not the physical way). 

If we work through that yawn-inducing syllogism as an example, then anyone who is following the syllogism will come up with the same conclusion from there. "Rational thought" is a specialized area of thought where we do try to show that a certain train of thought must have a fixed outcome. Given certain inputs, we must get a certain result. You even rely on the determinism of logic, and appeal to the determinism of logic, when you say things like:

Therefore Scientism cannot be the case, and it must be false. (emphasis added)
Your appeal is to the determinism of logical argument: Therefore (based on the given input) the outcome must be determined. It's why rational thought is fairly compatible with deterministic systems like computers.

Our claim to rationality, to having other people recognize the validity of our own logic, is based on the "rules of logic" being deterministic after all (after their own rules ... again, more shortly). When it comes to rational thought, if a certain outcome or conclusion weren't inevitable based on the input, would there be any basis for rational proof?

So I'd submit that the act of having a rational discussion -- of presenting evidence and arguments, and expecting them to be taken conclusively --is an acknowledgment that rational thought is in fact supposed to have a predetermined outcome. I'll go one more step: it's not a problem for logic or for rationality that the outcome is predetermined; in fact that inevitability is its main claim to validity.

There's a danger that the words related to determinism can be misunderstood when applied in the two different scenarios. I'd like to draw attention to the fact that, in rational thought (as opposed to, say, laws of motion) the cause of the pre-determination has changed from external physical forces (such as gravity)
to principles of logic. If the outcome of a proof were determined based on processes which operate in ways that are indifferent to the rationality of the outcome (such as gravity), the determinism would be a problem. But here the deterministic nature of the process is logical determinism, not physical determinism. It doesn't actually compromise the rationality of the outcome; in fact the deterministic nature is at that point the guarantee of rationality. In a well-constructed argument with all the facts in hand, there is only one possible conclusion; that is the whole basis of the claim for others to accept a line of logic.

You speak of human minds in a way that assumes (to use your words) "violations of the laws of physics".
I doubt that human minds violate the laws of physics any more than computers violate the laws of physics when the electricity in them jumps through hoops (figuratively speaking) to perform calculations that it wouldn't do except that it's executing instructions to perform some calculation or other function.

You continue:
Both digestion and computers are limited to the predetermined responses of which they are capable ... In order to make the case, it seems that a reason (or reasoning) must be found for the existence of non-determinism in the mind, when the entire physical universe other than the mind is deterministic and obeys laws which have been discovered by physicists, and which are necessary and sufficient for the entire universe, save minds.
Let's start with a few basic assumptions, even if only for the sake of argument. If we suppose that our minds have:
  1. The desire to understand the world
  2. The concept of good / better
  3. The desire to exercise our own agency
Then (to my thinking) that covers the areas of the human condition that we've discussed.

We haven't really gone in-depth on the topic of desire and its place in the question "Is this determinism?" Desires are particular to living things and so are a distinct feature of the living. They are a force of a certain kind, though not in the same sense as when we discuss physics or electromagnetism. I suppose I should mention my working definition of "desire": it is a motive (something that causes action) that may be felt as a need, and attaches to one or a series of goals/objects to satisfy it. That much said: Desire can have a very physical basis.

And that is a good point to pause because here's a question that would affect the course of our conversation: Do you see "desire" as a deterministic thing? Where do you see it fitting into the picture that you outlined before:
when the entire physical universe other than the mind is deterministic and obeys laws which have been discovered by physicists, and which are necessary and sufficient for the entire universe, save minds.
In your thinking, does the mind include desire as one of the inexplicable non-deterministic things?