Archive for April, 2012

How Faith Impacts My Politics

Posted: April 24, 2012 in Philosophy

This is the every-four-year political process of selecting the next president of the United States.  This year, it seems more partisan than usual.  After a grueling primary contest among Republican candidates, we now enter the season of high politics.  One of the interesting things to me is the impact of religious belief on both ends of the spectrum, liberal and conservative.  It has led me to reflect on how my faith impacts or colors my particular views.

First, let me identify the biases I am aware of.  I attend a protestant Christian church regularly.  I have belonged to several different protestant denominations in the course of my life. Christian (Disciples of Christ), Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, and Methodist.  I have worked closely on civic projects with Catholics, Jews, and Muslims.  I grew up close friends with two other kids, one Jewish, the other active in an Independent Southern Baptist church.  I have worked closely with professional staff I supervised that are from India, Vietnam, China, Egypt, as well as  Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans and European Americans.  Among my work associates were gay men and lesbian women.  I have also worked with wealthy as well as the poor.  With the poor, I have worked through service agencies as well as personally as a Social Security Payee, helping a person who needed assistance managing their money.  I spent the first eleven years of my working career as a high school mathematics teacher of mostly advantaged young people and the rest of my working career as a manager in computer related activities.

This exposure to the diversity of cultures, beliefs, practices, sexual orientations, wealth and poverty form an experience based model I have of the various world views.  While I may not feel compelled to act based on reference to scriptural commandments, I never the less find value in the stories, good and bad, that reflect on the nature of what it means to be human,  including how as humans we can be corrupted by greed, and lust.  We can also be corrupted  by a belief in the scriptures of one’s faith even in the face of other scriptures that are also supposed to be “God’s word”.  This indeed creates complexity.  Even in those who claim to be Christian, who claim to read from close approximations of the same scripture, we come away from that experience, with the helpful guidance of “professionals”, with different interpretations.

So, although I am not a literalist with regard to any scripture, I never the less see scripture as reflections of humans who struggle with understanding moral values.  It is just that I don’t think that process is over.  I believe we are still in the process of discovering what it means to be human.  Slavery is one example, once acceptable, but now almost universally condemned.  Today we see a changing understanding of sexual orientation and the conflict this change in understanding creates tension in relationship between the new and the old.

All scriptures that I am aware of call on human beings to be compassionate, to care for the poor, for the widows and orphans.   This forms the basis or my political leanings as well.   I come from a belief that it is in personal relationships, and in community that we thrive.  I look at society and see that it is all interwoven.  There may have been a time when a person or family could live in isolation from all other humans and be completely self sufficient, depending on no one. The Western American frontier comes to mind, but even those at the remote edge of modern civilization were dependent on others for survival.  I think it is an illusion that one can be independent of others, especially today.  I see us living in a highly interdependent society where no one can rightfully claim to be “self made”.  There are factors such as dumb luck, fortunate timing, family support, inherited financial resources or genetics  that give advantage to some.  I bristle when I hear someone claim their success was all their doing and that the lack of success of others was simply the result of their poor decisions.

This is not to say that some people aren’t naturally talented, mentally advantaged, lucky in their birth and support as children growing up.  I believe that when life deals you advantage that responsibility comes with it.  I don’t believe in social Darwinism, that those who are disadvantaged just need to accept their place in a social structure in which they are destined to be a part of a lower class.  I believe that society depends on there being systems that encourage us all to seek an equitable society, not one in which some experience great advantage while others languish without those advantages.

This grounds me in a judgement about extreme wealth, whether it be of corporations or people/families.  That judgement tells me that extreme wealth can breed corrupting influence on society as a whole.  For that reason, I support initiatives that result in greater equity in the distribution of wealth, in policies that make it difficult for greed to gain advantage.  I look for influences that encourage the responsibility of those with advantage toward those who are disadvantaged.  I object to systems that by their nature restrict the masses from being able to live without the health robbing stresses caused by lack of adequate food, housing, education, leisure, hope and fair opportunities for personal improvement.

When I look at today’s political parties, I see them both corrupted by the influence of unreasonable financial demands of our current electoral process.  I recoil at the idea that a corporation, potentially immortal, having the same advantage of a living person but without the consequences.  I object to the trend of our capitalistic system to create wealth on the back of people’s personal suffering and debt, whether it be in housing, credit cards, or student loans.  The concept of “too big to fail” is repulsive.  No organization should be so large powerful and wealthy that they are risk free because our government will bail them out if they screw up.  And as a people, we are negligent when we are willing to bail out our corporations, but not many innocent people who were not as directly responsible for the collapse of our financial systems.

I see our problems through the lens of equity.  We have lost our way.  We have allowed money and greed by us (even me) all to attack the foundations of a healthy community, to make a society where wealth makes right.  It is probably obvious that I am liberal in my views, but I also have serious doubts the political process makes decisions on that basis, more on the basis of who has the money to keep them in office.  I don’t think it makes any difference who the next president will be.  Who ever it is, they will most likely be beholding to wealthy supporters.  I think it will take an American Spring kind of uprising before anything gets back into better balance and we live in a more civil and equitable society.  I just hope it can be a non-violent kind of uprising.  That takes hard work.  I hope we are up to it.

What Does God Want?

In the Christian tradition in which I was raised, there is frequent reference to God’s will. What does God want for the human race? Throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptural cannon, we read of prophets who proclaimed God’s dissatisfaction with ‘His’ people who strayed from his covenant, his will for them. Today, we approach what the world should be by reference to God’s commandments and his revealed will. Unfortunately, we speak to a world what does not share our view of God, much less place value in “God’s Will” for us.

It is instructive to consider what Gods Will is in areas that this question is not usually asked. For example, what is God’s Will with regard to the population of the world? Is God happy at our world population approaching 9 billion? Is God sad that we have allowed uncontrolled growth of human kind? Or, is God pleased to see so many people made in his image? Is the more the merrier in this regard? If 9 billion is good, is 50 billion better? Maybe God is not pleased to see human kind expand to the point that many suffer from lack of basic needs?

What is God’s Will with regard to space exploration? Does God want the human race to be limited to the earth or would God prefer we travel to the far reaches of the universe, mastering other planets, mining the asteroids, plundering other living species so that God’s people can expand and master the whole of the reachable universe? Is this God’s solution to a growing population, an accepted need for continual growth? Or, since God accepts the death of individual humans, is God equally OK with the death of the human race, seeing it as just a natural outcome of birth, and life, something we see in all of God’s nature?

What is God’s will with regard to eggs? Is it acceptable to God that as humans we eat the eggs of other species, preventing them from being fertilized, preventing them from becoming new life? Is it God’s Will that all eggs created by nature be fertilized and give rise to a new birth, human or non-human alike? Does God prefer that all human families birth as many children as a woman has eggs or a man has sperm? Does God judge celibacy as fundamentally sinful, denying the opportunity for a human being with a soul from existing? Does God see this as equivalent to murder?

What is God’s Will with regard to medical technology? Was God more pleased when we allowed natural death to occur or is God more pleased to see us extend life as far as possible using enormous resources to extend life a few days, months or years, even when that life lacks quality and even if it results in great poverty for others and at great cost to society as a whole? What does God think about mammograms, CT machines, MRI machines, acupuncture, miracle medicines that make some people rich and others poor?

The point of these questions for me is this. To base our decisions on what we perceive to be God’s Will does not solve the fundamental problems we collectively share in the world today. In the past, when there was so much of nature that remained a mystery, it was useful to have a concept of God’s Will to guide us. Yet, fundamentally, what historically was called God’s Will was in fact a collection of understandings of what it meant to live in relationship with other people, what served the common good, how to live out a life with harmony, love, wholesome pleasure. And, I suggest this is precisely how we should be approaching the problems and issues of the day. It seems archaic to base the “should be’s” on the external reference to a God which is becoming more and more distant to more and more of the people alive today.

The best reasons for what is right and what is wrong is how it impacts the common good, maintains or builds equity and fairness, avoids unnecessary suffering, relies on what can best be demonstrated to be true. If there is a God, it is surely God’s desire for a sustainable future, one beyond our own limited existence, a sacrificial living for the good of all and of those not yet alive. And this is complex enough that we don’t need to draw on our inadequate understanding of the “God’s Will.”

Cecil Denney

Many people are unaware of the impact of credit card fees on merchants and therefore on us.  When ever you use a credit card, the merchant gets paid, but is also charged a fee for accepting your credit card.  It is not even a fixed fee.  It can vary depending on the size of the perks your card offers you like miles or money back.  The credit card companies promote these benefits, but they don’t have to pay for them;  the merchant does and you do.  Cards are so popular that a merchant has no reasonable alternative.  The rules they must agree to include not offering you a discount for paying with cash.  If they break that rule, their privilege of using credit cards can be withdrawn.  When I learned about some of the details, I was angry.  What could I do?  I had an idea which I currently practice.  If we all followed this practice, we could give some advantage to the small merchants in our community, one of the few they may have competing with multi-national corporations.

It is simple.  When I am ready to pay a merchant, I ask whether or not the merchant is local or part of a national chain.  If they are local, I pay with cash.  If they are part of a national chain, I use my credit card.  I also tell the cashier what I am doing, and I have always been thanked.  On some occasions, I am able to discuss credit card excesses and am usually amazed to learn the local merchant is paying thousands of dollars a month in credit card fees.  In one case, I learned that a local merchant was now being charged to make deposits in her bank which she had to do on a daily basis.

It is a bit of a nuisance to have cash on hand all the time, but it does give me a better feeling for what I am paying for things.  The credit card is just too easy.  But, taking action, however small, like paying cash to local merchants not only gives me satisfaction, but helps the merchant too.  As I have shared this practice with others, I have had feedback that a number of other people too have adopted this practice.  What would happen if we all did?

Cecil Denney

The Ultimate Machine

The Brain as a Machine Created by Evolution

By Cecil Denney

This essay necessarily deals with a complex topic. If, as is proposed, man is little more than a biological machine, then how does one explain the ability to enter into an analysis of this perplexing situation? First of all, it has to be acknowledged that use of the term “machine” may evoke too rigid a mental image to be the best description of the concept being explored. There is no perfect example to serve as a perfect analogy. Machine seems to imply automaton like behavior, but if an automaton, then the human experience is far from the image drawn.

To begin with, the brain, the neural network that produces the feeling of consciousness, of self direction, of free will, is a most exquisite mechanism. Operated by chemical and electrical activity; organized into a variety of members dedicated to specific functional activities, it is extraordinary. Yet, it is ordinary in so much as it is carefully replicated in design in millions of operational systems in the world. Even though the design is replicated, the result of this design occurs in such variety of networks that no two are likely to exist that are physically equivalent. One brain which contemplates the complexity of the construct of brains is yet incapable of fully communicating to another brain the exact physical experience of a given thought.

One has to marvel at how inputs and outputs of the brain permit the rest of the brain’s support systems, the body, to function. One has to marvel at the symbiotic relationship between brain, body, and the millions of co-hosts of bacteria that make up the human experience. We are, individually, communities of such complexity of interrelated co-dependencies, that it is unlikely human brains will ever fully grasp the full spectrum of the communities. Although each community-individual is similar to other community-individuals, yet no two are likely alike.

The brain receives “signals” from its host support system, the body. Five inputs are commonly understood, eyes, ears, taste, smell, and touch. But, it also receives signals from its own internal operation. There is also noise in the inputs, both external inputs and internal ones. The brain is per-conditioned to organize inputs and will not necessarily distinguish between clean and noisy inputs. If the noise is too great, one experiences hallucinations; visual, auditory, taste, smell or touch phantom signals as a result of trying to interpret and integrate the noise into its highly organized structure. Dreams reflect this effort to integrate random firings of brain signals during sleep.

The most complex experience of the brain’s function is the experience of consciousness. The machine, the complex neural network, experiences a feedback mechanism in which the feedback becomes integrated as new sensory information creating a looping structure. It integrates the feedback along with current sensory information to create the illusion of consciousness. This system, however, contains a number of flaws due to the basic physical structure and limitations of the “machine” itself. This allows us to experience and be “aware” of visual illusions. It also contains limitations on how the looping attends to various sensory inputs, focusing on some and totally ignoring others. This is the bread and butter of a magicians trade, taking advantage of the brain’s inability to maintain attention to multiple points of focus simultaneously. The hypnotist can in effect place the brain in such a tight feedback loop that it is attentive only to actions suggested by the hypnotist.

The brain is a “meaning” machine. In its symbiotic relationship with its host, it is driven to insure continuation of mutual support, survival. To do this, it must assign values to external events that can support or hinder survival. This is a process of attaching “meaning” to experiences, ones that support survival and those which threaten survival and those which seem to have no value one way or the other. Every brain must develop its own “meaning bank”. We are not taught, but we do learn. From a very early age, we seek the “why’s” of existence. We are intrigued, as infants, by novelty and learn through all senses. The brain attempts to organize all experiences and sensations. It is assigning meaning to its inputs, Our brains are DNA wired to do this. It is highly practically oriented, ignoring some and incorporating other experiences. This practical orientation we call “meaning.”

Here we have a biological system with the capacity to process limited sensory input from its environment, make an approximate record of the experiences and then incorporate the recorded experiences as if they were additional sensory input sources building even more complex records. The system as a whole over time builds a model of experiences and memories in a process we call learning by experience. Furthermore, the building of the model also takes place in a feedback loop that the system experiences a state we call consciousness being little more than the amalgamation or current sensory input and internal feedback from “learned” experience, models of what is perceived as an external reality. With the ability to attach symbolic forms to certain models or memories, we can then manipulate the symbols to create new and novel combinations which in turn create new and novel models.

The ability to symbolize a mental model into what we call a word and then to utter that word as an external sensory input to a disconnected brain (another person), we can create an exchange of approximate model recall. The model recall process having been processed as a symbol requires the recall of a memory experience which in most cases does not exactly match between two brains having not shared the exact same sequence of external sensory events from the exact same physical location at the exact same time. Hence, the passing of symbols between two brains may share symbols, but not exactly the same “meaning” being derived from unique model experiences.

With sophistication, symbol passing can approximate closer and closer common understandings between two or more brains through a process of specialization of symbol meaning. This specialization is common in areas of science where precision of meaning is necessary to derive practical outcomes that can be shared among many distinct brains.

Even more curious is the meaning behind that which is symbolized by the term “logic.” In this domain, multiple brains agree on how symbols can be reliably manipulated so that novel outcomes can be produced through the manipulation of symbols alone and then accepted as new reliable input. So, the rules of logic can be adopted by the biological systems as a way to manipulate symbols that represent defined external realities in order to provide reliable conclusions, ones that can be replicated by multiple brains that have agreed to the rules of manipulation. The brains then draw conclusions about the probable truth of certain symbolically formulated combinations.

In all cases, there is a symbolic root, a root below which there is only a neural network that has formed in the brain and about which there is nothing to say except “look at that network.” Like a string of DNA which codes for a specific amino acid, we can point to it, but not necessarily explain why it happens. Or, if we do offer an explanation, we just invoke a new more descriptive root cause to which the question “why” can still be applied till eventually we just get to “because that is the way external reality seems to be.”

This raises the question “What is true?” or “What is the nature of Truth?” At some point, if it all yields to “that is just the way it is”, then we end up with what is commonly referred to as “belief.” That is, what is true is just what is true regardless of the brain’s interpretation. The question of interest is whether or not the brain can ascertain what is true. Is the extent of the brain’s reliance on what sensory information it can manage sufficient to reveal what is true? More likely, it will determine what is useful to survival, true or not. In this regard, then, the brain relies not only on sensory information but constructs of neural networks it contains to arrive at conclusions about reality. This is where belief enters the picture.

Belief is itself based on both conscious and unconscious models constructed in the learning process by the brain. It is composed of direct experience and other-brain induced experience, what we were told using the symbolic nature of language which we have asserted is imperfect in communicating equivalent meaning. Belief is unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable symbolic or emotional memory of or model of some idea (neural network). Belief is experienced as assumed truth. In some cases, that assumption can be tested against an external reality. In some cases it can not.

There is a bias toward belief firmly reinforced by experience whether that experience be direct sensory information or indirect via symbolic manipulation from symbolic sensory input, language, what we have been told is true. This bias helps the brain build models around these symbolically represented models which we might call concepts or ideas. The bias has to do with survival in that it requires less real physical energy consumption for the brain to work from internal models than to build such models in the first place. In the same sense, it conserves energy to maintain or hold onto a model versus questioning the model or even changing the model. Therefore, once a belief is settled into a model neural network, it has a bias for maintenance versus questioning or change.

This bias can be observed in all areas of human existence. Even scientists who have chosen to struggle with a methodology that allows for the introduction of revision and change based on experimental evidence have a tendency to resist changes to their world models. Some change only in the presence of overwhelming evidence that their closely held scientific beliefs are questionable. For the non scientist, in domains where beliefs are not built on proof or fully sensory input, beliefs can be more tightly held. Belief’s not based on the methodology that permits free questioning of beliefs can be created and maintained by symbolic input from other grains, influence by culture, influence by groups to which a brain feels an attachment. These beliefs can be held firmly over time only so long as affiliation with other brains remains in tact, but once that affiliation is broken, there is an opening for belief revision. However, there is a tendency for one brain having broken one affiliation, to seek a new affiliation that continues to reinforce the brain’s belief systems. Since virtually every affiliation, made up of unique brains with unique experiences is itself unique, when a brain changes affiliations, it is also likely to find some of its beliefs challenged and faced with reevaluation. That is to say, changes in the environment, whether it be through association with other brains or with external sensory reality, can force a dissonance that leads to changes in belief.

All brains suffer from a structural affect to create the illusion of consciousness and free will. More likely, the environment in which brains develop are so sensory rich and complex that an individual brain can not experience inputs as only illusions. As this essay is written, even the author writes it with the illusion of being creative, free thinking, conscious so as to be observing itself. It is virtually impossible to avoid the illusion because it flows from the structure of the brain itself.

Because we can observe our environment, and because we can construct changes to it, we have the illusion of individual creativeness. However, this illusion is nothing less than the artifact of the complexity of multi-brain interactions forcing changes in models held by the brain. This complex web of interaction naturally, because of defects in reasoning and defects in interpreting sensory input, arrive at incorrect but creative conclusions to the input, both external and internal. Feedback loops similar to those contained in the structure of the brain itself exist in multi-brain environments. They create the concept of the whole being greater than the parts individually which is true because of the creative aspect of inter-brain interactions in large complex exchanges of symbolic sensory sharing. This sharing creates a kind of change that appears to be intentional, intelligent, non-automaton, creativeness. Unfortunately, it is a simple artifact of the interaction of a bunch of neural-network machines.

What about the illusion of “wants”? That is, the brain-body symbiosis is motivated or is activated to physical motion or symbolic written or spoken actions to declarations of future expectations by the experience called “stress.” The stress can be physical or mental, but it has the effect of causing action until the stress is removed, either by stress relieving neural-network action or by physically experiencing a counteracting action that reduces or removes the cause of the stress. This illusion of wanting something then is nothing more than environmental changes or neural-network activity consistent with the overall brain neural-network.

So what of love, hope, beauty, goodness, wonder-of-nature? What of honesty, integrity, faithfulness, loyalty? What of all these abstract concepts? Given that the brain is a electrical-chemical soupy neural-network these abstractions are structured networks of electrical and chemical reactions stimulated from internal and external sensory experiences. There is little more to say. They are real in the sense of experience while simultaneously being simply illusions, artifacts of the overall structure of the brain.

One might conclude from this exposition that the author is cynical, depressed, discouraged, or simply paralyzed into a discouraging fetal position, ready to exit this sense of reality. On the contrary, it is a hopeful understanding of sentient life in that it can be improved upon. It seems possible that artificial, that is to say not occurring today in nature, forms might be generated by this illusion of consciousness and creativeness to themselves experience consciousness and creativeness. Today, we refer to them as robots. It seems likely these will evolve to represent the next stage in the evolutionary process. Although today we perceive of robots as becoming the servants of human kind, they will most likely become superior. One day, there may no longer be a need for human forms and these evolving entities with consciousness and creativeness will perceive themselves as having evolved from nature, being created by nature, their predecessors, humans. Who knows? Certainly, it is not within the capacity of the current human system to know how or when this transformation will occur, but it will not take more than 10,000 years, a mere blip in the history of earth.