Archive for May, 2012

Skepticism? Skepticism!

For a long time I’ve been puzzled by skepticism. Skepticism is the perfectly rational idea that you should only believe something if it so captures you with its undeniable truth that you have no choice.

The problem is that it seems like a lot of religion breaks down under skepticism. But maybe a lot of religion is actually something I want to believe. So maybe I should be a little merciful with my doubting?

As of tonight’s experience, this no longer worries me. Skepticism is the correct position, and insofar as it really is certain, religion can defeat skepticism.

A true mystical experience cannot be doubted. The skeptic need only be willing to test the hypothesis that “if you use this mental technique, then you will be struck down by a Thing so fantastically brilliant and real that there will be no atom left in your body capable of denying it; and then you will be a believer.”

If the skeptic is a talented mystic, then after they do the experiment, they will be a believer: without having had to sacrifice an iota of their skepticism.

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Concentration Meditation

I failed to understand concentration meditation when I first did it. Aleister Crowley, in his instructions for concentration meditation, suggested that it would be sufficient to do it for only 30 seconds or five minutes at first. He failed to specify that “at first” could very well mean, “for the next seventy years.” Nor would that make you a bad meditator.

Consider that understanding a new mathematical concept usually requires nothing more than a split second of intense concentration. But getting in the position to have that split second of concentration is really hard. Holding your mind in the right position for even that long is a hell of a task.

It takes most people years to learn algebra. But how many conceptual leaps are really required to master that task? Probably five minutes’ worth of genuine conceptual thought would be enough. But I don’t think it speaks badly of our children that it takes them years to pull that off.

So let’s consider concentration meditation within that general frame. Genuine concentration is something that a genius might do for a split second, half a dozen times a day. So in concentration meditation, the goal is to achieve just one of those split seconds. It’s clear that for this goal, the amount of time spent meditating is absolutely immaterial.

Trying to maintain continuous concentration for thirty minutes is absolute insanity. You’re not gonna do it; you’ll just redefine “concentration” so that now it’s something you can do for thirty minutes. If your goal is concentration meditation, I’d say it’s better to have sessions around five minutes. Don’t even bother timing them.

Be satisfied if you achieve one split second of concentration. And once you have that moment of satori, if you just remain open to its echoes, then it will transform your experience in all kinds of wonderful ways, so that its value goes far beyond that of a mere momentary experience. (A mathematical discovery does not cease to have value once the moment of discovery is over; and the same is true of satori.)

(Note that all of this applies specifically to concentration meditation. Relaxation meditation is an entirely different game; you can reasonably do that for as long as eight hours.)

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“Why Are We Learning This?”

Given that there’s no philosophical rationale for compulsory education, what do I tell my students when they ask the standard question, “why do we have to learn this?”

Well students, there’s two sides to this issue. Side one. I believe in the value of knowing. I think that there is little better you could be doing with your time than bettering your ability to reason, understand, and pursue truth.

Why care about math? Well Jesus, math is one of the most exciting things in the universe! It has both saved and nearly destroyed the world on various occasions. It has an undying beauty and fascination that is only equaled by nature, great works of art, and human love. It’s literally everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. You cannot name anything at all that does not have an exquisite mathematical structure.

Math is the pure, undying truth that suffuses every cell of your body, keeps every cloud hanging in the sky, and makes the stars turn across the heavens at night. Maybe that doesn’t interest you. Fine; I can’t tell you what to be interested in. But I am your teacher, and it’s my job to give you challenges from time to time. So here’s a challenge: dare to know. You will not be graded on this one.

That’s one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is this. You were forced to be here, and I don’t believe that you should have been. If I had my way, you would only be listening to me because you decided that you wanted to hear what I had to say, and for no other reason.

I don’t have my way. The system has decided that you are required to learn math. It sucks. I know, I did it for sixteen years. There’s no good reason it is that way. There’s no logical rationale. You can’t change it. I can’t change it. Here we are, let’s try to make it fun.

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Saving the World

(Alexander is speaking now.)

Value is not quite what we think it is. Success, in the worldly sense, is not necessarily success. It is a truism that rich and famous people often aren’t happy. And often they don’t, in the true sense, make much of an impact.

What is less obvious, what is much harder to see, is that outrageous success in the true sense is available to us if we just look inward with the eyes of faith. It is difficult to believe that we could save lives, start epochs, teach the gospel to the masses, and turn over the wheels of existence just by sitting alone in a room and meditating. It is difficult to believe that we are impacting anything other than ourselves when we meditate. But it is the situation, and in this implausible-sounding proposition lies a great secret.

It is easy to see that, outwardly speaking, we cannot save the world. There is no chain of causality that I can initiate in this material reality that will close the poverty gap, feed the starving, cure cancer, or solve any of a hundred thousand other urgent global problems. Yet I feel in my heart that the world needs saving.

In my implausible proposition lies a very simple and satisfactory plan for saving the world. Meditate. It has an impact that you cannot see.

The entire matrix of value in which we live and move is a grand myth. The successes, the failures, the people who made an impact, the people who did not make an impact — it’s all a lie. Underneath the ripples of value that dance on the surface of the waters, there is a tremendous roar of value, greater than anything any mortal can appreciate, and this grand dynamo of value is measured by a measure unrelated to the various worldly measures of success. The true success may well be a worldly failure, and the worldly success a true failure. The mystic may never, in this life, see the impact that he had on others. But it was precisely his willingness to believe in himself and in God, without having seen the proof, that allowed him to wield such terrible power.

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Compulsory Education

I’m trying to stake out my philosophical views on teaching. I’m going to be a math teacher a year from now, and I think that it’s often helpful, before you do something, to think a bit about why you’re doing it and how you intend to do it.

I’m going to take a two-pronged approach here. First I want to ask, what would teaching look like in an ideal world? What is the perfect vision of teaching that is going to be my guiding light, my unattainable fantasy? Then I want to ask, how can we eke out at least a tiny bit of overlap between the ideal, and what we can achieve in the world we’ve actually got?

I think the most fundamental dilemma about public education is the fact that the students don’t want to be there. This is really the first issue that we have to address if we want to think about the philosophy of public education.

What sucks about going to school? What sucks is that you have to get up too early in the morning to go to a place you don’t want to be in order to do things you don’t want to do, with a bunch of people you don’t necessarily like. And the fundamental thing creating the situation is that nobody made the decision to go to school; the decision was made for them.

OK, so how about this: how about we don’t force people to go to school? To a lot of people this is a very obvious point. I’ve had a lot of philosophical discussions about teaching lately, and what I hear again and again is that people shouldn’t be forced to learn.

Let’s put on our fantasy goggles for a moment. People shouldn’t be forced to learn? Correct. And by the way, there’s a bunch of other shit people are forced to do, that they probably shouldn’t.

How many people’s jobs are actually necessary? How much of the work we do has no compelling reason to be done? If I had to guess, we could maintain a reasonable standard of living, as a society, with everybody working on the order of two hours a day. I think the problem is the capitalist premise that if you want to eat tonight, you have to work eight hours today. That used to be a policy necessitated by the brute facts of reality. Now, thanks to technology, those constraints are gone. We can support a society with much less work.

So we have people working eight hours a day to make a living. A large proportion of that work is unnecessary. And we don’t have enough work to go around! There’s a job shortage! Isn’t the problem our capitalist system that’s set up so you need to work eight hours to make a living? Why not make it two? If things were exactly the same physically on Earth, but very different socially, we could have a society full of people not doing very much stuff they didn’t want to do.

So, in our ideal world, yes: people wouldn’t be required to learn, as a special case of people not being required to do much of anything. Maybe we could have a little compulsory education. Should people be forced to learn to read and write? I could buy that. But we sure wouldn’t need twelve mandatory years of six hours a day of school.

Why no compulsory education? Fundamentally it goes back to the ethical principle that people shouldn’t be forced to do things they don’t want to do. This idea, the idea that humans are free, is pretty much the F=ma of ethics in my opinion. Compulsory education is an abridgement of human freedom. Let the birds out of their cages, they need to fly today.

A more practical argument is this. When people are forced to learn, the quantity and quality of the resulting learning is generally low.

OK, so compulsory education is bad. Now, fantasy goggles off. Dropping compulsory education from our current system, and leaving everything else the same, wouldn’t really work.

I think it’s actually true that our education system “prepares” people for what happens to them after they get out of it. Pretty much everything that sucks about school is also something that sucks about work. People need to learn to show up every day at the right place and the right time, and do exactly what they are told all day long, no matter how stupid and meaningless it is, and not completely break down emotionally from this experience. I don’t think people would be prepared to do this at work, if they didn’t have practice at school. They wouldn’t know how to do it.

I think the education system also serves various other purposes in relation to the rest of the system. I think a big one is as a way of identifying good people to hire for jobs. Besides measuring intelligence, the education system measures the ability to show up on time every day and obediently do meaningless and difficult work, which is a big part of what qualifies people as good workers.

To change the education system, we would also have to change everything else. While no compulsory education is the ideal, I don’t think it would work in the world we’ve actually got.

Now another dose of reality: I personally can’t end compulsory education. We have it, and we will keep having it for the foreseeable future. So the question becomes, how can we do a good job of teaching within the system that we have?

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Meditation: Two Schools of Thought

For the past few years, I have been struggling with myself about the nature of meditation. There has been a long-lasting debate in my head between two schools of thought about meditation.

One of these schools holds that meditation is an activity of disciplined concentration. When I meditate, I am to clear my mind of all thoughts and throw all of my being into total devotion to God. It is a very intensive, effortful activity.

The other school holds that meditation is an activity of relaxation. When I meditate, I am to just let go and do whatever feels good. Taken to its logical conclusion, this means literally sitting still for thirty minutes and letting my mind wander. If we take it even further, we can even drop the “sitting still for thirty minutes” part. Then I just go about my day and say that it’s all meditation. For this school, meditation is a very relaxed, undemanding activity.

As I said, these two schools of thought have been at war in my head for years. At first the concentration school was very dominant, and I subjected myself to horrifying disciplines. The man who did this broke down when he realized that he had given himself a knee injury from forcing himself to sit in half-lotus day after day, and that he would need surgery if he kept meditating in that posture.

I think that event marked me burning out on the concentration school’s style of meditation. After that I turned more and more to the relaxation method. My meditation became very laid back. In the same period, I actually became quite a lot more enlightened. So clearly there was nothing wrong with my methods — though correlation is not causation.

For a while I was doing my relaxation-meditation around three hours a day. It was a lot more consistent, both in methods and results, than I had generally been with my more disciplined mysticism. But I started to think, “really, what’s the point to sitting here; can’t I get the very same effect even if I happen to be doing something?” It was true; walking or riding the bus, I was no less enlightened than while meditating.

So I stopped meditating, and declared that my whole life was meditation. The enlightenment still did not subside. I took this as proof that there was still nothing wrong with my methods.

Around this same period, I got very into math. A word of explanation. People think that “math” consists of those tedious calculus problems they made us solve in high school. But there is another breed of math: deeper, more powerful, more beautiful. So unreadable, so occult almost nobody can understand it, so awesome nobody can begin to fathom the depths of its awesomeness. This is what mathematicians call by the name mathematics. Math was my LSD, math was my amphetamine, math was my ecstasy.

So I was living in my Zen math heaven where everything was meditation, which sometimes wasn’t heaven at all, but rather was mindlessly browsing the Internet or agonizing over some social issue. Then I started working a job, shelving books at a university library. This was my first menial-labor type job. For hours I put books in correct numerical order. You all know the truth about this kind of job: the quiet suffering that goes on every day.

I noticed that my tedious, meaningless job was making me very enlightened. The reason, I assumed, was the discipline imposed by being forced to think of nothing but putting books in numerical order. This had big implications for my theories about meditation.

At this point my thinking was entirely dominated by the relaxation school of meditation, holding that meditation is an effortless process with no discipline, and it now took the extreme form that I should just go about my day and say that it’s all meditation. The only reason I could call that meditation being that, periodically, I really was experiencing enlightenment.

But now I had experimental evidence that discipline mattered for enlightenment. This bolstered the case for the long-forgotten concentration school of thought.

I attended a group meditation session, and a math analogy started a new chapter in my thinking about meditation. (Lest you doubt something so puny as a math analogy could do such a thing, consider that all of science consists of math analogies. “A falling apple is like this graph,” etc. A few decades ago, we nearly blew up the world using math analogies.)

My math analogy was this. Aren’t math and meditation alike? When I do math, I concentrate intently and totally on some abstract mental thing, in hopes of catching an ecstatic glimpse of pure truth. Replace “math” with “concentration meditation,” and we have another true statement. On reflection, this is hardly an analogy: when I meditate intensely, and when I do math, those are almost the same thing. Only in one case I am focusing on God, and in the other case on abelian groups or something.

So now I had not only a motivation for resuming disciplined meditation, but also an explanation of how to do it. One of the issues I had with disciplined meditation was that I could never find a meditation technique that I could believe in. Now I had one: meditate like you do math. I both knew how to do that, and could actually buy it as a plausible hypothesis. So I did it, and boom.

Meditation started to feel formidable to me again. It started to seem like a great art that one could plumb for one’s lifetime without scratching the surface. It started to seem like the sort of thing that only a small fraction of people in the world were qualified to do. All of this fell out of the math analogy, of course, and my experiences validated it. I had made meditation entirely too everyday, too unpretentious, with my relaxation approach. Now “meditation” was once again a word that made the animals scatter when it hit the ground: a word that could inspire awe and fear.

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Faith! Faith?

I am absolutely bewildered by the word “faith.”

When I hear the word “faith,” I think of that inexplicable gusto that the mystics have, that tireless devotion and unswerving ‘inner certainty’ that lets them turn the Earth without guns or tanks, but only pure love and pure will.

But when I hear the word “faith,” I think of the act of believing in something without proof — i.e., something that you should never do.

Let me try to make you sympathetic to this idea. In science we go to outrageous lengths to make sure that we are right. We use these tedious, miserable things called “mathematics” and “formal reasoning” to try to rule out all possibility of error. We spend a lot of time caring about tiny, trivial things, just to avoid being wrong.

And you know what? Half the time, we’re still wrong. Turns out it’s really, really hard to be reliably correct, correct without error, not merely thinking that you’re correct but actually, truly correct.

No matter how intuitively appealing your idea is, sometimes you do the math and find out it’s wrong. Not just partially wrong, not just reduced to a matter of opinion — but flat out wrong. And sometimes you even do the math, and it all checks out and looks perfect, but then you find that you flipped a negative sign in one single, miserable equation and it makes the whole thing wrong. And if you’re a good scientist, you see that flipped negative sign and you throw out your beautiful idea and don’t look back.

You don’t struggle to salvage it, you don’t cling to it, and you sure as hell don’t start doing fuzzy epistemology like “oh you know, some things are a matter of opinion; let’s just agree to disagree; reason has its limits after all; you scientists think you know everything, but there’s a lot of mystery in the universe.” No. You just throw the idea in the garbage bin. Because hey, it might be beautiful, but it’s not true.

So: faith? Believing in something without proof? Without any proof at all? Hell to the no, not if you want to be right. If one flipped negative sign can destroy a brilliant scientist’s beautiful, meticulously constructed theory in its entirety, what the hell makes you think you can believe something without proof?

Now Euthypro in the audience pipes up. “OK, I get it, we’re wrong a lot, and so if we want to be sure we’re right we need proof. But surely you can’t do this all the time? You yourself pointed out that life is too complicated to scientifically study every aspect of it before we do anything. That’s not feasible. Our informally drawn conclusions are the best we’ve got; and sometimes, most of the time even, we’ve just got to go with them for the decisions we make.”

Yes, I agree. I have opinions. I have beliefs that I haven’t proven. But there are different degrees of belief. There’s the “I’ll still say the same thing if you ask me tomorrow” degree of belief. There’s the “I’ll make logical deductions from it” degree of belief. And then there’s the “I’ll tell the whole damn world and mercilessly shoot down anybody who disagrees with me” degree of belief.

This final degree of belief, you may informatively note, is almost exclusively found in scientists, politicians, and the religious.

The scientists? They deserve it. They really are right. The politicians? The religious? It’s entirely less clear that they deserve it. Not because scientists are some special, privileged group. But because it’s entirely less clear that the politicians and the religious, regarding the claim that sets them so afire, really are right.

Now let’s take an informative example: creationism. There are people who teach this in public schools, for crying out loud. That is surely the final, ultimate level of dominance that any belief can obtain. And creationism, at least in its more naive forms, is false.

In general, religious people are entirely willing to get up on the pulpit and preach their beliefs, as truth, without proof, while absolutely oozing that pompous air of authority. As a lover of the truth, this bothers me. I’m all for religion. But I’m also all for, well, actually being right before you get up on that pulpit. And I’ve seen how hard it is to achieve that.

Now we return to why I am perplexed by the word “faith.” This word surely denotes the highest and purest religious attitude, the most desirable quality that a person could have. And yet it also denotes believing something without proof. Which is something that you should never do. What am I to think about this?

Now Euthyphro says, “OK, so just invent two words. One of them can mean the highest, purest religious attitude, and the other one can mean believing something without proof. No more conflict.”

But I feel like they have something to do with each other.

I don’t really have any answers here. I just want to point out that I am confused as hell about this word. I think we philosophers don’t do enough admitting when we’re confused.

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