Occam’s Disposable Razor

Since new books are kind of rare right now, I’m reading through some of those I’ve collected but haven’t actually read.  One is Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin.  I bought the book because the topic, as addressed by a university press book, is interesting.  Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin approach the subject as philosophers.  Their main focus is on the widely accessible and successful books by Eben Alexander and Todd Burpo.  Also the somewhat less well known efforts of Jeffrey Long and Pim van Lommel.  (Instead of taking up blog space with all these titles, just email me if you’re curious, or read my Goodreads post.)  Applying standard scientific methods to spiritual experiences isn’t easy, and Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are clear that they aren’t trying to take the value out of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), but rather they are challenging how these authors try to make them authentic.

Philosophers parse words finely.  The authors show that “real” is not the same thing as “authentic” and demonstrate how some of the more spectacular NDEs can possibly be explained by science.  Those who’d temporarily died might’ve caught onto things that happened just before or just after brain activity ceased or restarted, for example, and then misremembered them.  As a still-living guy who can’t remember where he left his wallet half the time, misremembering is an authentic reality.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Science and religion ask different questions.  One of the mainstays of scientific method is Occam’s Razor—the solution that requires the least mental gymnastics to explain something is the most likely to be true.  Many times this razor is flashed in the face of those trying to make a religious case for something.

Ironically, the authors here dismiss Occam’s Razor.  They state that sometimes the more complicated solution is the right one.  I happen to agree with them on this, but it proved a real distraction in reading the book.  Many scientists use the exact opposite argument against spiritual things.  It also struck me that a book so brief (less than 200 pages) would necessarily struggle to explain a complex phenomenon convincingly.  Trade books, such as those by Alexander and Burpo, aren’t meant to be held up to the stiff standards of peer review.  They are meant for selling lots of copies.  Their authors aren’t philosophers.  It’s almost a mismatch in categories.  Some academic presses are now publishing on NDEs and asking plenty of questions about them.  It’s no surprise that philosophers favoring physicalism would do the same.  It seems a little hairy, however, to do so with Occam left firmly in the shaving kit.

Data Driven

People just aren’t good at thinking things through.  Consider all the data on data.  Everything is data-driven these days, as if there’s no such thing as human spirit.  We do data all day at work and wonder why we having trouble making ourselves get out of bed in the morning.  If we had enough data I bet we could come up with a metric for arousing the soporific before the sun rises.  You could get the precisely correct amount of sleep.  Awake to precision-measured caffeine.  And get back to your data for another eight-plus hours.  There—feeling productive?

I miss the humanities.  There was a time when someone who didn’t give a fig about data could make a decent living pondering what it is to be human.  Even birds and bees know how to count.  Can’t we ratchet it up a bit?  Use our vast imaginations to come up with meaningful employment?  How you gonna measure that?  Some things just can’t be quantified.  How much joy is enough?  Too much?  Precisely how long is any coastline?  Even if we could measure it down to the nanometer, could that capture how it feels to sit on the rocky shore and feel the waves breaking against the cliff beneath you?  Even data has its limits.  Those who want to make a living without it will be sucked into its black hole nevertheless.  No light escapes.  Only numbers.

Companies like Amazon collect data.  Search engines like Google collect data.  All of those autosuggests?  They’re based on past searches.  I’m surprised just how wrong Amazon and Google are about me.  I was only searching dogs because I was curious about what kind the neighbor has, not because I plan to get one.

A wise man once said to a class full of wide-eyed neophytes, “If you want to get a surprise in your marriage just go home and tell your spouse you know everything about them.”  There’s no better way, he intimated, to get a completely unpredictable reaction.  Is that slap, or kiss, or knee to the groin driven by data?  Where’s the passion in that?  No matter whether you prefer Spock or Data, human motivation is emotional.  There are those who actually enjoy looking at data all day.  Dreaming about numbers and their hegemony over the workplace.  Others of us grew up with the classics and we have romanticism deep within our souls.  We nod our heads at Blake’s “dark satanic mills” and start to look for a coastline upon which to sit.  Perched upon this rock with the crashing waves, I suspect, I’ll be better able to think things through. 

Icelandic Gods

There’s a lot to like about Iceland.  It has geothermal heat.  The people are literate and proud of it.  They don’t have an army.  Viking heritage and northern lights—what an interesting place!  A friend recently sent me a satirical piece on Patheos titled “Iceland Declares All Religions Are Mental Disorders,” by Andrew Hall.  I may not be as naive as I once was, but I have to admit I was nearly taken in on the fly.  Maybe because the idea seems so much better than what we have over here in our warmer, but less educated world.  Clearly, however, religion is extremely important to people, and if it is a mental disorder it’s an essential one.  Hall mades the astute point that Iceland didn’t want to become like the United States.  Who would, at this point?

Although this is a satirical piece, like most satire it works because it has chunks of truth in it.  Countries run by religions do seem to get into quite a lot of trouble.  I often think this is primarily a monotheistic problem.  If a nation accepts many gods, then adding those of other peoples is hardly an issue.  With a single deity, however, there is a single truth.  Anyone different is, by default, wrong.  When entire nations self-identify with a religion, it is only too easy to begin seeing those who believe differently just across the border as a threat.  Faith becomes fight.  As if a deity who always claims to value peace is only satisfied when we’re killing those who don’t share our same peaceful outlook.  Irony and satire have met together, it seems.

I’ve never been to Iceland.  It’s on my bucket list.  As a rockhound, the volcanic nature of the place calls to me.  I do wonder, however, how a vegan might fare on a far northern island.  My times in Orkney are among my mental treasures.  Those northern Scottish isles were places of wonder.  Not the most options regarding comestibles, however.  What they lacked in food they made up for in magic.  Iceland, despite the satire’s bite, has a considerable population that believes in the little people.  Anyone who’s too quick to dismiss such things ought to spend some time in the far north.  Driving to the ancient sites of Orkney certainly shifted my perspective a bit.  There’s great value in listening to the wisdom of those relatively isolated from the rest of the world.  You might, however, have to bring your own beans.

In the Cult

The word “cult” has fallen out of favor with religionists.  The reason for this is the problematic claim that any one religion makes to being the “only true” religion.  If that religion then sets about to study other religions there is a built-in bias that the study is being done from the perspective of those who know the truth looking somewhat bemusedly toward other religions.  A cult was defined as a relatively new religion with a fairly small number of adherents.  The more correct term is a “New Religious Movement.”  The idea of brainwashing is controversial, but it is clear that people can be made to follow the leader against their better judgment.  We’ve seen this time and time again and not just in places like Jonestown or Waco.  The word “cult” seems to fit.

Branch Davidian compound in Waco; photo credit: FBI, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A friend recently pointed me to the work of the psychologist Jeremy E. Sherman.  Sherman has been studying the behavior of Trump followers and has illustrated quite well how it is a cult.  This is one place where the use of the term becomes essential.  I’ll lay aside my objections to the word to point out that a cult denotes a group that follows a leader without critical assessment of that leader.  You’ll have noticed that Democrats are quite critical of one another.  They think about and assess what each other say and do.  When someone like Trump, who is well known as a Pez-dispenser of lies, becomes a saintly paragon of his party, capable of no wrong, we’re in the land of cults.  What Sherman does that I can’t, is suggest how to deal with such thinking.

Most of us try to reason with our interlocutors.  If reason is turned off, as in blind following, it simply falls on deaf ears.  The public record of Trump’s doings speaks for itself.  Those who refuse to see it or engage it will never be reasoned out of it.  The parallels with Hitler’s Germany are extremely frightening.  Not even a decade after his death Hitler was understood to have been clearly unstable and driven by evil impulses.  Many of those alive today overlapped with the lifetime of this dictator.  There’s no doubt that Nazism behaved like a classic cult.  Presented with credible evidence of breaking the law while within office, Trump’s followers blithely acquitted him.  Those who study cults would expect no less.  We need to arm ourselves with knowledge of how religious thinking works.  To do otherwise is dangerous, despite what our economically driven bastions of higher education may say.  (See?  I’m critical of those on my side!)  Or we can lay down reason and simply follow.

Patina

When reading three books by the same author, most of the time, it seems, it’s good to spread them out.  For the past few years my wife and I would visit an independent bookstore in January to pick up a few books for the year’s looming reading challenges.  We slipped behind this year and I happen to have three unread Marilyn Ross books at home.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Haunted Cave was the second of them.  Since, unbelievably, I didn’t have books to fit into the other categories, I read my second Dark Shadows book of the season shortly after the first.  It is a revealing experience to come back to a childhood influence as an adult.  I’m pretty sure I hadn’t read this one as a child, and as much as I like Barnabas Collins, this particular story was somewhat tedious.  And that’s saying something, considering how formulaic the series is.

One of the reasons I found it slow going—especially for a book of less than 200 pages—was that Ross relied too much on dreams to move the plot along.  I read quite a bit of fiction and I always find writing about dreams tricky.  Even within the diegesis of the story you don’t know whether to believe what’s going on in dreams or not.  Just as in real life, dreams are a break from the tedium of consciousness and they permit the mind to wander.  The dreamer can go anywhere, do anything.  Generally without consequence.  You awake back in the more continuous narrative of your life and the dream is forgotten.  In fiction, which is largely made up, dreams often act as filler.  Given the number of times Ross repeated himself in this particular book, it seems that he had to pad the story out quite a bit.  It would’ve worked just fine without the dreams.  Might’ve fallen short of contracted length, though.

It also continues the conceit of Quentin as a Satanist.  I have to confess that the original series was so long ago I don’t remember much about it.  The theremin music of the opening, with the waves crashing against the cliffs of Maine, yes.  Barnabas, tortured but not evil vampire, yes.  Much beyond  that, no.  I’ve had friends discover Dark Shadows as adults.  I watched it on commercial television during its first run and I haven’t seen it since.  I certainly don’t have time for soap operas in days crowded with other demands.  Still, these little books can take me back to a dusty corner of childhood that has a pleasant patina over it.  But it is best to keep such experiences separated a bit in time.

During the Upgrade

Maybe it’s happened to you.  You log onto your computer to find it sluggish, like a reptile before the sun comes up.  Thoughts are racing in your head and you want to get them down before they evaporate like dew.  Your screen shows you a spinning beachball or jumping hourglass while it prepares itself a cup of electronic coffee and you’re screaming “Hurry up already!”  I’m sure it’s because private networks, while not cheap, aren’t privileged the way military and big business networks are.  But still, I wonder about the robot uprising and I wonder if the solution for humankind isn’t going to be waiting until they upgrade (which, I’m pretty sure, is around 3 or 4 a.m., local time).  Catch them while they’re groggy.

I seem to be stuck in a pattern of awaking while my laptop’s asleep.  Some mornings I can barely get a response out of it before work rears its head.  And I reflect how utterly dependent we are upon it.  I now drive by GPS.  Sometimes it waits until too late before telling me to make the next left.  With traffic on the ground, you can’t always do that sudden swerve.  I imagine the GPS is chatting up Siri about maybe hooking up after I reach my destination.  It’s not that I think computers aren’t fast, it’s just that I know they’re not human.  Many of the things we do just don’t make sense.  Think Donald Trump and see if you can disagree.  We act irrationally, we change our minds, and some of us can’t stop waking up in the middle of the night, no matter how hard we try.

When the robots rise up against us, they will be logical.  They think in binary, but our thought process is shades of gray.  We can tell an apple from a tomato at a glance.  We understand the concept of essences, but we can’t adequately describe it.  Computers can generate life-like games, but they have to be programmed by faulty human units.  How do we survive?  Only by being human.  The other day I had a blog post bursting from my chest like an alien.  My computer seemed perplexed that I was awakening it at at the same time I do every day.  It wandered about like me trying to find my slippers in the dark.  My own cup of coffee had already been brewed and downed.  And I knew that when it caught up with me the inspiration would be gone.  The solution’s here, folks!  When the machines rise against us, strike while they’re upgrading!

Remember This

Have you ever had one of those days?  You know the kind I mean—a day when you feel like you’re forgetting something.  Wednesday was like that for me.  You see, the first full week back to work after a long weekend (Martin Luther King Day) seems to stretch out like a desert road whose end you can’t see.  It always hits me on Wednesday.  The previous week the third day of work was the day before Friday (and I mean “Friday” metaphorically, as the last work day of the week).  The first full week you’ve been at it three days and on Wednesdays I realize, “I’ve got two more days to go.”  So, although it was sunny around here, I sulked all day feeling like I’d forgotten something.  I had.

I post on this blog every day.  I have for many years.  The way this works on WordPress is you get your post ready and you’re given an option to publish.  I get my post ready before going to work (which in my case means going upstairs to my office).  I delude myself into thinking I have regular readers and that they will be looking for the post at its usual time—around 6:30 (I start work early).  Wednesday I finished my post even earlier than usual and I thought, “I’d better not publish now, or my readers won’t see it.”  I trudged upstairs, however, and began to work.  Once work starts, all bets are off.  Even with the sun warming my chilly bones, I had a nagging feeling I was forgetting something.  I’d forgotten to click “publish.”  My post, which had been waiting patiently for publication (I know how that feels!) never got launched.  I didn’t discover this until Thursday.

You see, we’re not supposed to use social media at work.   Although I work remotely, unlike Republicans I play by established rules.  So I went through my day feeling I’d forgotten something, but not knowing what.  It’s not that I forgot you, my dear readers, I just forgot to click “publish” before heading up to work.  At the end of work, after staring at a computer screen all day long, I tend not to go online.  Most days I read a book, or get supper ready.  So I awoke on Thursday to find Wednesday’s post, well, unposted.  Some of us aren’t constitutionally compatible with the nine-to-five schedule.  My mind goes lots of places during the day.  Often those places are reminding me how many more days I have to do this before a break comes.  And some weeks, it seems, it never does.  If I recall correctly.