Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Beliefs about belief

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

Last night I went to a dinner party. One guest was talking about how different people believe different things and that’s just how it is and that’s fine. According to her, it’s all about diversity, and tolerance, and acceptance, and realizing that different people have every right to form their own opinions. 

That sounds unassailably correct until you think harder about it and realize that it’s not. I pointed to a tree outside the window and asked her if she thought it was OK for a person to believe that the tree was not actually there. Somewhat trapped, she asserted that yes, it would indeed be OK. After all, it could be me that was hallucinating the existence of the tree. Perhaps the person is living in a parallel universe where the tree does not in fact exist. Perhaps the tree is a hologram.

The problem with this line of thought is that beliefs have consequences. If I go out and pick an apple from the “non-existent” tree and bring it into the house and ask the person to take a bite, they will be hard-pressed to deny that they are biting into a real apple. If the “non-existent” tree is blown over by strong winds and crashes into the roof of the house, the damage will be very real no matter what the person believed about the existence of the tree. Or if I am standing on the roof of a building and believe that I can fly and decide to therefore jump off, I will die. If I believe that global warming is not caused by humans, and thus choose to take no action, the Marshall Islands will eventually disappear into the ocean.


The Meaning of Meaning (3)

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

Of course, Zen therapy does not pinpoint only existential angst by mitigating cravings for universal meaning. It also influences the pattern-making and pattern-matching we use day-to-day. Now, our pattern machinery basically works quite well, look how far it’s gotten us. But at the same time there are many ways in which it’s broken, or should I say problems in how we use it. The main issue is how we try to apply patterns when they don’t really fit, how we apply them with no flexibility, how we fail to tweak the patterns as we are applying them. Of course there has to be an essence of the pattern, which is the point of its existence, but at the same time we have to keep evolving the patterns, choose the right patterns to apply, adapt and refine them. Our built-in reward system for finding and matching patterns can lead us to use patterns which aren’t really relevant, or to try to stuff a pattern down some situation’s throat.

Dogen’s Zen therapy not only relieves our cravings for patterns, and leaves us comfortable even in pattern-less situations, but also acts as a kind of lubricant for our patterning systems. It gradually rewires our brains so we more easily find new patterns, modify existing patterns, and choose the right pattern.

But let’s go back and parse a bit more of what Dogen was saying. He refers to “enlightened ones”. This, obviously, in terms of the patterns we know and love about sainthood and rarified states of being, must mean someone who is at a completely different level in terms of grasping deep, intricate patterns about existence, right? No, it just means a person who through intensive therapy has ceased addictively looking for non-existent patterns. He refers to “ultimate awareness”. This, obviously, must mean some exalted state of being achievable only by some sainted person in an altogether different league from ourselves, right? No, it just means someone who has stopped spending his energy seeking unseekable patterns and who therefore is able to focus on the reality in front of him.

Deciding to Start Zen

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

The decision to start Zen could be treated more like a decision to start taking a painting class at the local adult education center. You could go to one class and not go back, or go for one quarter, or keep going for ten years, or keep going until you die. I guess I also disagree with the people who say this is a really big deal and is going to be real hard work and you have to really make a commitment or else the whole thing is a complete waste of time. Wrong! The thing about Zen is that, and this fits in with my theory that’s basically about rewiring your neurons, or neuroplasticity if you prefer fancy words, you do a little bit of it and experience a little effect or do more of it and experience more or do a whole lot and become an enlightened Zen master. It’s linearly scalable, in other words. If you started off by going to a dojo once a week and sitting with them, and maybe meditating 30 minutes per day, then after a month or two no, you would not have some kind of life-changing realization, but you would notice changes in the way you look at things which would be refreshing and helpful. A little bit of rewiring.

There is another thing about Zen which is sort of like the way that when you work out at the gym, your body changes in a way which helps you be more fit and healthy even when you don’t work out, you consume calories more efficiently, etc. As you keep doing Zen, by which I mean meditation, not reading books or listening to talks, you develop the ability over time to use every moment to enhance the way you view the world, not just when you’re meditating. Or to put it another way, you sort of learn to meditate as you’re going about your daily life, or conversely, you begin to see that your daily life is a kind of meditation, or perhaps that meditation is nothing more than a sort of concentrated form of daily life. As you get there, you might find yourself wanting to meditate more, and kick it up to two 30-minute sessions per day, as opposed to a thought process that says hey, I’m supposed to be doing this Zen thing, gotta work harder at it, I told myself I was really going to get into this, so I gotta buckle down.

How was the Book of Mormon translated?

Saturday, May 26th, 2007

A first-edition Book of Mormon recently sold for $105,000 at auction ( NYT ). What better time to revisit the question of how the Book of Mormon was said to have been translated, and whether the story makes sense in light of what we know 180 years later.

In Mormon 9:31-34, we find:

And now behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge in the characters, which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. And if our plates had been sufficiently large, we should have written in the Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in the Hebrew, behold, ye would have had none imperfection in our record.

Reformed Egyptian was apparently a form of hieroglyphics. Let’s assume that somehow this language was indeed learned, preserved, and passed down among the Nephites and their descendants. What’s interesting is the next assertion—that records were kept in hieroglyphics because it was more compact . It’s a natural assumption for a linguistic newbie like Joseph Smith to make: those Egyptians can write whole concepts in single characters! What better way to save on page space!

Information theory teaches us otherwise. The number of bits of information in a message is roughly equivalent whether expressed in English or Chinese. The space occupied by the encoding is also roughly the same. Modern-day translators between Japanese and English know that the “byte count” of a Japanese original and English translation are almost exactly the same (where a Sino-Japanese character is counted as two bytes, and does in fact occupy approximately twice as much space on the page as an English letter, counted as one byte).

The alleged space savings from ideographic or hieroglyphic writing systems are also fatally compromised by the need to use them phonetically to spell out names and words for which no character has been defined. For instance, there was certainly no hieroglyphic in “reformed Egyptian” for “Nephi”, so we can assume it was written using at least two full hieroglyphic characters for their phonetic value—with the same holding for the vast array of proper names found in the Book of Mormon.

In other words, the assertion that hieroglyphics save space, as made in the Book of Mormon, clearly identifies the writer as someone who had probably never encountered any foreign language whatsoever, much less one written in an ideographic system.

The second implication in the passage quoted above—that if there had been enough space to write in Hebrew then the record would have contained no imperfections—is also puzzling. Is the point that reformed Egyptian is inherently less precise or more vulnerable to error, something modern linguistics would refute? Or that the writers and abridgers of the BOM didn’t know reformed Egyptian as well as they knew Hebrew, which also seems unlikely, if this language had been how records were kept across generations? Most likely, what we have here is another incorrect assumption by someone who knew nothing about languages or writing systems: that hieroglyphic systems by their very nature must be less precise and prone to error than “real” writing systems which use letters and words.

Let’s now turn to the actual process of translation. David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses, decribed it as follows:

Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English.

The fundamental misunderstanding of how hieroglyphic languages work is once again apparent. Assuming the semantic value of a hieroglyphic is approximately the same as that of a Chinese character, the sequence of “interpretations” of the individual characters might be something like the following for the first sentence in the Book of Mormon which starts “I, Nephi:”

I Nephi good parents born from, reason father knowledge received somewhat, also many day path along suffering seeing…

Joseph Smith could not possibly have gotten from this to fluent English, at least not without an intricate knowledge of Egyptian grammar. On the other hand, if God had actually presented him with fully-formed English sentences to be read off directly from within the hat like a teleprompter, there is no way this could be consistent with the description of one character being presented at a time.

Joseph Smith’s mistaken notion of hieroglyphics now becomes somewhat clearer. He apparently assumed that each character encapsulated not a single sememe or concept, but an entire phrase, such as “having been born of goodly parent”. Even if that were possible, the order of the phrases in the original would still not have been the same as in English, requiring a re-ordering process unaccounted for in the description above.

Martin Harris, another of the three witnesses, is reported to have described a much different translation process, as quoted by George Reynolds from a letter written to the Deseret News by Edward Stevenson, in “Myth of the Manuscript Found”, Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883 edition, page 91:

Martin explained the translation as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, “Written,” and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.’

Whether it was characters appearing one-by-one in the hat with the English “interpretation” below, or fully-formed sentences, one is puzzled by what the role of the actual plates was in this whole process—were they sitting on a table in the corner of the room? Were they ever actually consulted? If God could place the characters or sentences in the hat, like some early 19th century PowerPoint presentation, why was it even necessary to give Joseph the physical plates and then whisk them away later? For that matter, why was it even necessary to go through the laborious character-by-character process followed by transcription, when God could have simply written out the translation in longhand Himself on a pad of paper, or even just delivered the completed English manuscript?

There are yet other accounts of exactly how the hat and stone worked. Orson Hyde, an early apostle, claimed that:

These two stones, called Urim and Thummim, in diameter the size of an English crown (coin) only a little thicker, were placed where all light was excluded. The persons using these offered their prayers to the Lord, and the answer became visible, written in letters of light on the Urim and Thummim, but disappeared again soon after.

This gets trickier and trickier. The amount of text that could be written on a coin 50mm (.2”) in diameter, even in the smallest type, would be between one and two words, sort of like a Magic Eight Ball. Joseph Smith would have to have read these words off the coin quickly before they disappeared. Did the Urim and Thummim have a “Back” button in case he missed one?

Joseph Fielding Smith, later the sixth president of the church, was recorded by Oliver B. Huntington in his journal as having confirmed at a 1881 stake conference that the entire translation was letter-perfect:

Joseph did not render the writing on the gold plates into the English language in his own style of language as many people believe, but every word and every letter was given to him by the gift and power of God. So it is the work of God and not of Joseph Smith, and it was done in this way…The Lord caused each word spelled as it is in the book to appear on the stones in short sentences or words, and when Joseph had uttered the sentence or word before him and the scribe had written it properly, that sentence would disappear and another appear. And if there was a word wrongly written or even a letter incorrect the writing on the stones would remain there. Then Joseph would require the scribe to spell the reading of the last spoken and thus find the mistake and when corrected the sentence would disappear as usual.

We again see the confusion between characters, words, short sentences, and long sentences. If they were “short sentences”, how did these combine into the longer sentences in the actual translated work? If they were sentences, even short ones, how could they have fit on stones the size of the Urim and Thummin?

The position of the church, or of its leaders, underwent a 180 degree change when it became apparent that the BOM contained many simple spelling and grammatical errors of exactly the sort that an uneducated man such as Joseph Smith might have made. BH Roberts, the Mormon historian, stated:

It is impossible that the alleged translation, whether by divine or human media, could be a word-for-word bringing over from the Nephite language into the English…If the Book of Mormon is a real translation instead of a word-for-word bringing over from one language into another, and it is insisted that the divine instrument, Urim and Thummim, did all, and the prophet nothing—at least nothing more than to read off the translation made by Urim and Thummim—then the divine instrument is responsible for such errors in grammar and diction as did occur. But this is to assign responsibility for errors in language to a divine instrumentality, which amounts to assigning such error to God. But that is unthinkable, not to say blasphemous…that old theory cannot be successfully maintained; that is, the Urim and Thummim did the translating, the Prophet, nothing beyond repeating what he saw reflected in that instrument; that God directly or indirectly is responsible for the verbal and grammatical errors of translation. To advance such a theory before intelligent and educated people is to unnecessarily invite ridicule, and make of those who advocate it candidates for contempt …

It certainly does. But that is precisely the theory put forth by the earlier church fathers, which Roberts lamely blames on the fact that “our fathers and our people in the past and now were and are uncritical.” But this is not a matter of being uncritical or not. Those “theories” were explicit statements of how the translation process worked by people who were there at the time, and later prophet seers and revelators.

The conclusion is inescapable: the entire description of how the Book of Mormon was translated reveals nothing more or less than the utter linguistic ignorance of those giving the descriptions, and the linguistic gullibility of those believing them.

Sam Harris on meditation

Saturday, May 12th, 2007

Amidst the ongoing shrieking of atheist banshees, it’s a relief to see Sam Harris address the question of the human search for happiness in a recent lecture:

…such a person may begin to practice various disciplines of attention—often called “meditation” or “contemplation”—as a means of examining his moment to moment experience closely enough to see if a deeper basis of well-being is there to be found.


Mother Teresa's Dark Night

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

Time magazine has published a cover story entitled The Secret Life of Mother Teresa, revealing that according to her own letters she spent the vast majority of the years between establishing her hospice in Calcutta and her death in a state of deep spiritual desolation. In 1979 she wrote:

…the silence and emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see—listen and do not hear—the tongue moves but does not speak…I want you to pray for me—that I let Him have free hand.


The end of history

Friday, January 6th, 2006

Zen master Gudo Nishijima (pictured) believes in a world government run by the US military (post).

I can’t tell you how often I’m tempted to write about politics in this blog. I always try to resist that temptation—after all, there are people with much more insightful things to say on such topics than I. With his recent post, however, Nishijima-sensei has given me an opening I could drive a truck through.

Musing on where we find ourselves in the cosmological sense—sitting here on the third planet from the sun—Nishijima hits on the topic of the Cold War, and its remarkable, peaceful conclusion. But his thinking then takes an unexpected leap:

…what I feel so grateful for, is the fact that the USA and USSR reconciled with each other without fighting World War 3 in 1991. Before the reconciliation I could never have expected such a so happy reconciliation of the two countries at all. At that time I thought that, if World War 3 had occured, major parts of the surface of the Earth could have been destroyed easily…therefore it was such a thankful fact that because of the enormous efforts of the USA and USSR World War 3 has been avoided. We could become very joyful in such happy conditions wholeheartedly, we can enjoy so enormously that we, human beings, were not so stupid as to destroy ourselves with the atom bombs which we, human beings, had produced after so long and so eormous efforts.

Gosh. It’s true that we would have had a hard time enjoying ourselves, wholeheartedly or otherwise, if we had been vaporized in a mushroom cloud, but the mere fact of that not having happened does not, alas, suffice to give me “enormous joy”.

I have a rather peculiar idea on human history, that the world history of human beings seems to be similar to a sports tournament of some kind.

Not peculiar at all. Entire schools of thought and professional careers have been based on this idea.

And thinking about the real situation of the world, we can think that the Final Game of the World Tournament has ended without fighting, already. And I guess that the Winner of the Final Game might be USA.

This is a remarkable short-sighted and uninformed viewpoint, which just demonstrates that Zen masters probably shouldn’t be providing us with their political views.

First, there is no “final game”. I’m surprised that an advanced practitioner of Zen would speak in such apocalyptic terms. Dogen himself said in Bendowa that those talking about the “final” period were wrong. The US simply happens to have emerged as the strongest nation at this particular point in time, due to the convergence of a number of historical and economic factors.

But the US has not just won, says Nishijima; it will transmogrify into a world government!

Therefore in such a situation, USA has the possibility to change her Army into the Police of the World, and All Countries in the World will have the possibility to change their Armies into Branch Offices of the World Police. In other words I think that we, Human Beings, are able to begin to have the possibility of establishing the Government of the Whole World.

OK, but only if Donald Rumsfeld can be World Emperor too.

Seriously, America has no idea how to deploy its strength for good in the world. We’ve seen what happens when it tries to be the global policeman. Luckily, other countries won’t even consider changing their armies into “branch offices” of the US military. Long before that happens, the US military itself will implode, as it is already starting to; the US will be unable to continue to support it; and your “global winner” will finally begin to reap the fruits of years of incompetent management (especially during the last five years), neglect, and carelessness as it spirals down the drain economically, ethically, and spiritually.

[Note: Quotes from Nishijima’s blog have been edited for grammar and spelling without changing their meaning.]

Computational neuroscience–frontal lobe model

Saturday, May 21st, 2005

Researchers have built a computer model which replicates our human ability to learn rules and use them to control ourselves—which scientists call “cognitive control”. Cognitive control is how we mold and channel our thoughts and actions to reach some goal. The prefrontal cortext (PFC) is a key player in cognitive control.

The computer model, described here, accurately mimics the behavior of normal people on typical tasks such as card sorting. It reproduces the process by which we learn new cognitive control rules, down to the level of biological properties specific to PFC neurons. The model shows why learning self-control takes so long—often into the teens, or even longer in some cases.

But then the scientists gave their model the equivalent of a frontal lobotomy—and found that the model failed to learn and apply rules in exactly the same way similarly damaged humans did. This is a big improvement on lobotomy techology: just use your mouse to uncheck the “frontal lobe” checkbox, instead of going in with an ice pick!

The paper was published at at PNAS; here is the abstract, from which I excerpt:

We show how the development of task-specific PFC representations can occur when a set of PFC-specific neural mechanisms interact with breadth of experience to self organize abstract rule-like PFC representations that support flexible generalization in novel tasks.

Neurotheology desperately needs a similar computer model, one which replicates the religious pathways in the brain. This is the subject of the field called “computational neurotheology”, which I referred to in earlier posts. (Of course, a model cannot prove that a particular mechanism is the one actually at work, but it can establish plausibility, show that existing conceptual models are underspecified, and provide insights for further research.)

Running such a model, the computer will, for the first time, literally experience God.

Adaptive value of near-death experiences

Wednesday, May 18th, 2005

Students of neurotheology study near-death experiences because NDE’s (a word coined by Raymond Moody) are a kind of religious experience—not in the sense that they constitute any kind of “proof” of an “afterlife”, but in the way that they may share neurophysiological and neuropsychological aspects with religious experience. Notably, they also give rise to similar effects in the experiencer: becoming less materialistic, more compassionate, and less fearful of death.

In addition to saying that NDE’s are a type of religious experience, we could also say that religious experiences are a type of NDE.

Why do humans have NDE’s? Newberg & d’Aquili put forward the surprising hypothesis that NDEs are evolutionarily adaptive, increasing survivability through such mechanisms as letting the dying organism think more lucidly and flexibly in order to save itself from death, or to pass away more calmly in the interests of avoiding societal stress. They also make the intriguing assertion that animals may have low-level NDEs. This is something that should be possible to verify experimentally, at the cost of a few dead rats. Experimental designs, anyone?

NDE’s represent a potentially fruitful source of neurotheological insights, because we can study and measure them in ways not possible for other types of religious experience. For instance, children do not have NDE’s until around the age of ten—what aspect of neurodevelopment could account for that?

Many thoughtful people may have placed NDE’s in the same category as alien abductions or crop circles. That would be a mistake. NDE’s are neurotheological events eminently worthy of our attention.

Neurotheologians as sports commentators

Friday, May 13th, 2005

Are you studying to be a neurotheologian, but worried about your future career prospects? Now you may be able to find high-paid work as a commentator on sports figures’ religious experiences!

Baseball fans will not soon forget the miraculous come-from-behind victory by the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 World Series. It was the first world championship for the Sox in 86 years.

In Game 6, Curt Schilling took the mound for the Sox, defying predictions that the torn tendon sheath in his ankle would prevent him from pitching. Instead, the doctors basically stapled his tendon down so it wouldn’t flap around and Schilling went out to pitch, bleeding visibly around the ankle. His famous “bloody sock” was later donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Before the game, we are told, Schilling, devastated by his loss in Game 2, “surrendered to the Lord”, although he is not normally a very religious person. Then, in the fifth inning, a runner on second, Schilling had a major religious epiphany. “Something” (“somebody”?) “told” him not to make the pick-off throw he had been planning and instead pitch to the batter, who promptly lined into a double play, ending the Yankees’ threat.

“I just laughed,” Schilling says. “I couldn’t deny Him now.” After the game, he told the other players, “It wasn’t me. It was all God.”

To explain what was going here, the editors of Best Life, a men’s magazine, turned in their June, 2005 issue to Andrew Newberg . How did they find him? Well, successful neurotheologians all have agents these days.

Newberg started them off with a sort of Neurotheology for Dummies-level overview:

The images [of people meditating] revealed distinct changes in the temporal lobes, suggesting a neurological basis for these types of occurrences. But that doesn’t mean people’s interpretations are wrong. “We can see what the brain was doing.” Newbert says, “but we can’t see if God was there.”

I see. Newberg proceeds to explain his basic theory of religious experience:

When these spiritual events occur, the frontal lobes block incoming sensory information from reaching the parietal lobes, where the information would be processed. The results is a loss of the sense of self and a feeling of deep connectedness to nature or to God, explains Newberg.

Fine, but how is this related to Schilling?

This kind of episode can occur spontaneously in a stressful situation like Curt Schilling’s, when the autonomic nervous system is kicked into high gear. The heightened arousal (caused by stress), combined with a lack of sensory information to the parietal lobes, leads to a sense of peacefulness, of connectedness to something greater than the self—exactly what Schilling describes.

An often-overlooked benefit of being stressed out all the time: all those bonus spiritual experiences.

“Schilling’s not a Buddhist or Hindu, so he’s not going to have a Buddhist interpretation of that experience,” says Newberg. “He’s Christian, so his interpretation is that God was with him.”

But there was a key element missing from Newberg’s explanations. Seeing God out there on the ballfield is well and good, but how did those deprived parietal lobes contribute to Curt being able to make the right pitch to get the guy out? Come on, Andy, give us a little more body/mind here.

Another great career opportunity for neurotheologians, especially here in Hollywood, is as consultant to the entertainment industry. When neurotheology enters the mainstream in a big way, we’ll find neurotheological elements all over the movies and TV. Then there’s also this neurotheology Nintendo game I have designed, where you try to keep all your brain chemicals in balance for that really big religious explosion…gonna be a big hit.