Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Second Nature

Now, Tell Me What You See Here
We are pattern-seeking animals -- we have to be.  It's what keeps us alive as a species.  Avoiding danger and finding food are our rewards for successful detecting patterns.  Take Pavlov's dogs for instance.  Once they could recognize the bell had a direct correlation to food, they salivated upon hearing the bell.  They, like many sentient beings would, had a reasonable expectation that BELL = FOOD.

We're so good at detecting patterns that we can find one even where none exists.  The more certain among us are called superstitious.  Studies have shown that people tend to be more superstitious when they are in situations where they lack control.  We do what we can to influence the outcome, however trivial it may seem.  The greater the perceived lack of control, the more superstitious people tend to become.  Humans aren't the only animals to experience this, either.  Take for example Skinner's pigeons.  B. F. Skinner ran an experiment in which he placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to them at random intervals.  The birds, however, began to exhibit signs of superstitious behavior.  They appeared to think that they were somehow influencing when the treat would be delivered based on what they were doing right before the previous drop.  The pigeons were soon performing all sorts of "rituals", such as turning two times counter-clockwise, then bobbing their head back and forth and pecking the cage twice.  The birds behaved as if there were a causal relation between their behavior and the presentation of food, although no such a relation existed.  But the pigeons believed it.  I'm sure if they could talk, many would probably stand by their strong convictions even in the face of evidence.  Sounds familiar, huh?

Humans have evolved not only to perceive patterns even if there are none, but we've also evolved a sort of upgraded version of that pattern-seeking software that specializes in faces.  Again, this helps us survive.  If we can detect a face hidden in the bushes, as well as discern the faces of our family (our tribe), we stand a much better chance at survival.  Pareidolia is the phenomenon whereby we see patterns where there aren't any.  How many times have you saw a face in the wood grain of a door, wall, or desk, or seen faces in the clouds?  How many times has the likeness of Jesus or Mary appeared in toast or other places?

Oh, I See What You Did There
Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine, has coined the term "Patternicity", the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.  When doing so, two types of errors can result.  Type I errors are false positives, believing a pattern exists when it doesn't. Type II errors are false negatives, not believing a pattern isn't real when it actually is.

We want to believe, it's evolutionarily our default position.  Consider and early hominid hearing a rustle in the grass...is the hominid skeptical and thinks it's just the wind, or are they cautious and believes its a dangerous predator?  We listen when we're told by our parents or elders that, for example, don't swim in the lake because there are snakes.  We automatically listen to and believe what we're told -- we can't afford not to with a risk as high as death.

Shermer has discovered that you'll find meaningful patterns in things when the cost of making a Type II error is less than the cost of making a Type I error.  It's easier to not believe in Bigfoot (especially if you live in the city) than to not believe in Hell, because the perceived cost or personal danger is much higher.  We evolved down a path in which the more cautious survived.  In the earlier example, if the rustle in the grass was indeed only the wind, then the cost to assume it was a dangerous predator is low -- you just move away and be more observant.

It's the Everywhere
We tend to attribute agency in scenarios like this as a result.  The major difference in assuming an unknown sound in the bushes is another animal as apposed to thinking it's harmless wind is that the latter is inanimate, the predator is an intentional agent.  This is why we attribute agency to many unknown things, and why our lives are filled with ghosts, gods, angels, demons, aliens, and even malevolent government conspirators.  Things that confuse us or baffle us by their complexity often get ascribed to an agent.  And it's easy for such a thought to arise -- "She can run faster than me, and he can run faster than her...there must be someone out there that can run faster than all."  Powerful beings beget powerful ideas, and before long you have a being of ultimate speed, might, and power.  And if it's that powerful, then it must be responsible for this currently unexplained phenomenon.

These reasons make it difficult to use skepticism and science, because they're against our nature.  Studies have shown that children start to apply purpose-based meanings to things at about the time they begin to recognize man-made tools that really do serve a purpose, such as cell phones.  But science has proven itself to be the best tool we can use to determine reality.  If we can understand ourselves, if we can recognize the places where we are more prone to these kinds of errors in thinking, then we can start changing for the better.  After all, if we can find patterns so well, finding the patterns in our error-making habits should be...second nature.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Day In The Life: The Long Goodbye

A Great Loss
These past couple of weeks have borne many emotions for me, many of which I still find myself trying to deal with.  I have recently shared in the suffering of a great loss for my family.  While the passing of a loved one is never an easy thing to abide, the surviving family members can often make matters worse simply by attempting to console one another.

My stepfather's mother finally succumbed to cancer last week.  Having exhausted all medical options, she was sent home to await the inevitability we all knew would come soon.  It was both a comfort and a curse, for while the family knew that her time was short, it was good for her to be in her own home surrounded by her loved ones.  We each had the opportunity to say our final goodbyes in those last days, and this too was comforting.  It was also the hardest thing I've ever had to experience.  Nothing can compare to the heartache of leaving the room of a cognizant person whom you (and they) know you'll never see again.

MASSively Unnecessary
Yet most (I dare say all, save my wife and I) think that we will indeed see Grandmother again.  She belonged to a catholic church for the last 40 years of her life, an obvious venue for her funeral.  The large church was complete with the trappings of the catholic faith: the holy water, candles, lavish alter under a huge statue of Jesus nailed to the cross and solemnly looking skyward.  The three priests wore their adorned coats and were catered to by alter girls while they performed their sorcery and chanted their rituals.  All of this I held in silent contempt for the respect of my family and their loss.

On that day, I didn't abhor these religious people for their belonging to a group of respected pedophiles, nor for their tedious adherence to strict, formal worshiping practices, nor for their ignorance .  On that day, I detested them for their complete disregard of the loss this family had suffered.  If you've never been to a catholic funeral, here's what to expect: a few amazingly beautiful and sad songs, several readings of scripture, each followed by a collective "Thanks be to God" from a seemingly entranced congregation of sheep.  Then the priests will perform a long ritual whereby they take turns putting this ingredient into that chalice, kneeling, saying magic words and gesturing like a Vegas performer until finally they transform a cracker into flesh and then eat it.  Once you realize how sick that sounds, you'll understand the discomfort of someone like me watching all this play out.  Then the congregation may come up and partake in this cannibalistic practice -- that is, those who've had the proper training.  Apparently, if one were to engage in any of these sacraments without the said training, one's head may just catch fire (or some equally frightful thing).  Afterward comes more chanting and praying, until finally the casket is brought up and is blessed with smoke in a fashion similar to what a jungle shaman might employ.

In all of this, you're lucky if you get five minutes worth of mentioning the deceased and what their life meant.  I will say that what the Monsignor said about Grandmother was apropos and brought tears to my eyes.  But this brief mention was overshadowed by the rites and practices of making sure you bow this way and say these exact words and do this and that to make sure YOU get into heaven and don't piss God off, that it might as well not have even been considered a funeral at all.

Of course, the reason for all this hullabaloo was, as I said earlier, was because they believe this is not the end for Grandmother, and that she either is in Paradise, was going to be there as soon as we put her in the ground, or would return on the "Last Day" (I don't think they ever decided which one it was; or like the Trinity, it was all at the same time).  I suppose that if you thought this way, then all this would be better than simply sitting around telling stories and remembering the life of selfless, kind, caring woman -- a woman who put others before herself so much that the day before she died she used the last of her strength to fill out birthday cards to friends and family up to the end of the year.  That kind of selflessness wells me up even now.  The faithful cannot claim that this is due to her catholic beliefs, for this is just the kind of person she was.  More mention of that would have been nice, instead of awkwardly sitting through a Eucharistic liturgy.

Once the procession was moved to the cemetery, there was another short ceremony where the priest of the church related a story whose moral summed up Grandmother's life, and I suppose the idea of it was apt.  After this, the priest went on to "ask God to bless the place of her burial", but I had had enough.  Me and several others went to the cemetery's family center for food and conditioned air while the rest of the throng went to watch the matriarch of the family be placed in the ground.

That Grim Specter
Throughout each of these religious ceremonies, we were asked by the priests to "comfort each other through words of faith" -- translation: "lie to each other and fill the heads of the mournful with wishful tales".  The priest also used the very familiar technique of letting the faithless know that we have no hope and that our lives are worthless without Jesus Christ.

I'm not about to launch into that triad (I'm sure you can find out what I think on the matter somewhere on here, and if not, email me).  I'll just close by reiterating the point I made earlier.  To those of us who cherish life for the special thing it is, filling the last occasion in a person's life with droning prayers and mindless rituals misses the point of the exercise entirely.

And this ties in with the second point I made regarding doing more harm by attempting to heal with religion.  It's a helpless and lonely feeling to realize that what people in this situation do to try to cope with death only makes things worse.  The fact that they can't deal with death or finality is draped across their tear-shined cheeks and soak the words they use.  These kind of situations ultimately end in self-reflection for many people in which they search their own hearts for meaning and confront the realization of their own future demise.  None of this is helped by religion.  It's not an easy thing to do by any means, but telling someone they'll see their loved one again and that they suffered and died because of some grand plan is the least comforting thing you can do.  It should be obvious that the best course of action is to look it in the face and try to understand it, not shut your eyes and ears and think of your happy place.

When I die I don't want anything remotely compared to the farce of a memorial I was present at.  Come, pray if you want (there will be no formal group-led prayers), eat crackers and proclaim they're someone's flesh, do whatever religious exercise you feel you need to -- but do them on your own time.  I simply want a small ceremony in which I am remembered.  Perhaps some writings of my could be shared, along with tales of past deeds and memories from those who wish to share.  After all, that's what it should be about, and that's the only way I'll "live on"...through the memory of those I touch.

As for Grandmother, while she held many beliefs that are at odds with my own, she certainly touched my life, and I am thankful to have known such a thoughtful, kind, loving person.  She will be missed.