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Posts Tagged ‘superstition’

Dr. Joseph E. Lowery’s Benediction Transcript @ President Obama’s Inauguration

Can there be any question of the power of words?

Can there be any mystery why the sophisticated symbolism of words binds people to…

  • Others
  • Ideals
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Dogma
  • Superstition
  • Loss
  • Hope?

This learned set of symbols… these words… in whatever language they form… are powerful. Words have a value that connects people reading and hearing them as well as separates those not understanding those words.

Based on past histories and current contexts words rouse unforgettable warmth or irreconcilable anger which, in term, become learned by those experiencing them and watching others experience them. It is a reciprocal relationship; words represent traditions and traditions represent words (as we witnessed with the second swearing in of President Obama). When repeated over and over words morph oh so slowly while becoming ingrained in the fabric of civilization. Traditions, including those of religion, bigotry, superstition, inaugurations and funerals are indelible links between people all represented by words.

Sam Harris in “The End of Faith,” has many logical points concerning traditions, superstition and cultures as do so many others including this author. However, at one time or another we all miss another point that gets lost in emotional [ratio strain] self-righteousness; being right is a relative target and is not what everyone values. One thing for sure is that we all value some words organized in some order representing some experiences.

The changes Sam Harris and others search for will come only through a process of selection by consequences. The things that will replace bigotry and fear and traditions of hate must be learned just as the superstitions and belief systems they were based on were learned. If that is the case, and it most assuredly is, Sam and some of the others will not be here to celebrate a new form of enlightenment where understanding the elemental basis of how behavior works is a primary requirement of primary school graduation.

While we work for all those words describing the elements of understanding behavior in our culture we can appreciate Dr. Lowery’s words for what they represent: a plea to figure out what the heck is going on out there.

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‘Thinking’ as a class of potential behavior is hard to study and thus, makes it ripe for speculation and interpretations beyond the data. As things are today, thinking is made more significant because it is presumed that humans are the only ones that do it making is a signature feature on what is human and what isn’t. “Mind”, “consciousness”, thought and all sorts of covert related properties are offered as evidence that humans are different and somehow more substantive than other animals. The past and existing organizations of what is going on inside the ‘vault’ [read: brain, head, mind, neural node, CNS] have been dismal. Answers are as elusive as they were 2000 years ago and are made more mysterious for some by being out of reach.

We have made no progress in regards to our understanding of what goes on there and how those things relate to subjective or empirical states of man or our institutions, including governance and law. They have suffered most while we hack away at deciphering the muddled mess of metaphysics and logically indefensible postulates that are put forth to explain how man behaves and why.

the verbal community has not yet been able to connect with what is going on that the community cannot experience. Any reinforcements that are delivered are not contingent on specific behavior because they can’t be seen in time or space. This comes to create a response class that looks like behavior that is reinforced on a VI schedule independent of a specific response on the part of the target organism. Yes; the prime requisite for development of superstitious behavior is non-contingent VI delivery of a reinforcer.

thinking may occasion in a person a fixed gaze, unblinking or reduced eye blinks, change in gate, or time insensitivity to many external stimuli, changes in galvanic responses and lowered heart and breathing rates. However, these are not thinking per se but may be part of what is inferred to be happening when one is doing any covert behaviors including thinking. All are part of other behaviors as well as behaviors with parameters of their own.

In describing thinking there is a lack of external conformation possible that any observer or the free-floating reinforcements can access. Thus, there is no connection between a specific covert behavior and a potential reinforcer. Thus, there is no way to show an increase in the future probability of occurrence of a target covert behavior occurring when the potential reinforcer was delivered.

Our covert behavior [including thinking] has several problems as a behavior class.

  1. it is not sensed and can’t be verified or falsified
  2. it does not have standard units of measurement
  3. results will depend on the way it is measured
  4. it is experiences through filters that transducer it to something else based on history and context
    1. vocabulary
    2. environment context
    3. culture
    4. in articulation of aspect (what parts are of interest – dreams, impulses, value, etc.)
    5. unknown empirical properties

Ultimately, the products of processes generated from within the ‘vault’ of the listener are routed and locked there. Everyone will continue to investigate how and what is going on there with whatever methods that can be mustered. Today the neurosciences are taking their shot at deciphering the relationships between what is going on inside our head and what we experience. To that end they are using 19th century models of man and behavior mixed with decrepit autonomous man inklings and sophisticated 21st century technology and chemistry. For some there is value in how they postulate the working of man and his mind. Those values are the same as postulated 2000 years ago and haven’t benefited our species as much as science methods have benefited biology, chemistry and anthropology. The value to science will depend more on changes in approach to man than the power of the magnet used in a portable fMRI.

Any set of the things related to what happens when someone is thinking is all just that, related to thinking for that person and not thinking itself. All the covert events can be related to things associated with other behaviors done when a person is not thinking as well as when some are thinking. The set of responses become associated as events related to a state that may be referred to as ‘thinking’ for that person who, when asked, “What are you doing?” or “Why don’t you answer me?” may report, “I was thinking…” and otherwise communicate something the other person will probably relate to as a set of private covert actions (events) that can be arbitrarily called ‘thinking.’

Of course it is very true that if thinking were an operant the people in the examples above would not have to ask, “What are you doing?” or “Why don’t you answer me?” If thinking were doing something overt, the observer could learn from observing or measuring behavior and would know the answers to those questions after learning to discriminate what was/is thinking and what is something other than thinking.

Psychotherapists, bosses, clergy, spouses, friends, parents etc., all have a version of why we do what we do. They have a story about what relationships exist between us and the world around us; the environment. There is a good chance that, after some time experiencing a person, that each could be right. Of course their story is riddled with inaccuracies as well seeing how they only see what they were trained to see. Seems impossible but consider that each of us has a VERY broad and complex behavior repertoire. Our complex behavior allows us to behave differently and distinctly in the different environments and contexts of different people. Sometimes the people we are, how we behave, overlaps. Sometimes they don’t.

SUMMARY

Great thinkers as well as the delusional philosophers, pontiffs, despots and princes and even the man and woman on the street have been reinforced for reporting their internal covert musings in subjective and fantasy terms focusing on the exhaust of the human thinking process – emotions and feelings. These 3 thousand years of focus has outdistanced the empirical study of thinking by overlooking histories of the individuals and the use of the least productive research methods NOT found in 17th century science! In the not-so-grand scale of things, it is more interesting for the lay person and the scientist alike to be enamored by the fantasy than by the environmental contingencies. We pay for that interest every day we live on this earth.

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Things are complicated out there. You may or may not be aware that your nervous system filters out the massive amount of data that your senses are exposed to. As a matter of conservation of energy (real and metaphorical) you are attending to very little of your environment based on your history and the current value you have for some segment of it.

Let me frame this for your consideration…

Due to our complexity as humans, when things are not there, we sometimes see things. (No, it is not the 60’s.) What’s more, when things are there in front of us and available for our experience, we don’t see them.

Two Experiments to consider…

1. In a recent paper in Science, Whitson and Galinsky (2008) found when individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively they will gain it perceptually through illusory pattern perception meaning they will identify “stuff” among a stimuli in their environment that don’t really exist. They are not hallucinating in the usual sense of the word. They are generating information to provide continuity linking what they can just as is sensory data is generated in sensory deprivation experiments.

Whitson, et.al, empirically found that people generate pattern perceptions to make sense of the events in their environment when they experience lack of control of the environmental events they are experiencing.

Now, consider what that means…

  • It means we don’t see the flaws in people we are connected to or that we see the flaws where none exist
  • it means that we see a conspiracy from a new boss when we don’t yet exist to the new boss
  • it means we identify objects in random noise images where there are none
  • it means we see mechanistic cause and effect relationships where no links exist
  • it means we see correlations in economic markets in companies we like
  • it means we don’t see how our behavior is like the behavior of someone we don’t like
  • it means we can’t tell why people like us or dislike us when they do
  • it means that we can’t see the flaws in our children as they lie dead with a needle in their arm
  • it means that we can be more than one kind of person every day of our lives
  • it means that people not like us are suspicious and people like us are allies

Staggering, isn’t it!

Examples of superstitious behavior in the modern world are countless – sports super heroes involved in astrology, learned rituals so complex that someone once referred to a baseball player as “his own seventh inning stretch” due to the time he took to address each pitch. Religion, prayer, sacrificial rituals, appeasements, holidays, traditions, incantations, etc. all come from making relationships where none exist.   Gasuntheit!

When you are uncertain about your environment and don’t perceive you have control, know what is going on, etc., it is disconcerting. In terms of how we learn, not perceiving you have control is an aversive stimulus equal to shock, rejection, pain, or other punishers. Faced with uncertainty, lack of control, people look for patterns [ah, the value of search] in their environments to re-establish control. When it is not there empirically, we try to establish it perceptually with vision playing the lead role.

With the dearth of information and conflicting data sets it is a constant challenge to understand what is related and what isn’t. In an election year the conspiracies exist for those that most not understanding why their candidate is losing since they see the relationships between them and the agenda as a citizen. The media, the polls, the moderators, the economy, the Jews, the youth, the women…etc. are all plotting to undo the trailing candidate.

2. The following video  is based on research by Simons and Chabris from Indiana University. It is very interesting for several reasons, all of which you’ll see if you FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS OF THE PRESENTER EXACTLY.

After you see it spend some time thinking how that affects what your life is like, how research is done and how the world works. After all that, come back write or respond with what you think the implications are of the research.

~~~~~~~

The lesson here isn’t simple. If we were to want a society free from magical thoughts, then we need expand the tolerance for people to live in ambiguity in some areas, educate people on how feelings and emotions are the exhaust of perceived contingencies and how the environment comes to control behavior via consequences.



J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845

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I was recently told, “War time was not the time to question the existence of God”

Just like the America’s intelligencia tolerated slavery and bigotry in our history, I sometimes get the inkling that we tolerate the hate and superstitions of organized and unorganized religion and its blurring influences because there is never a good time to take on ignorance, mysticism and bigotry.

When the economy is going good, I hear “Thank God” exclaimed on the market floor.

For some, there is never a good time to question the existence of God.

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Boy, has that a lot of meanings….

But consider this version of ‘cosmos’…

 

According to Lawrence Krauss of NEWScientist magazine, David Brook wrote in The New York Times in May that

 

“…while we moderns see space as a black, cold, mostly empty vastness, with planets and stars propelled by gravitational and other forces, Europeans in the Middle Ages saw a more intimate and magical place. The heavens, to them, were a ceiling of moving spheres, rippling with signs and symbols, and moved by the love of God… The modern view disenchants the universe and tends to make it ‘all fact and no meaning’.” 

 

YIKES!  This is a world-view a 5 year-old would not embrace.

 

Brooks’s article reflects a popular view of science and technology shared the world over.  For too many and for too long, the complexity and majesty of the inner workings of the universe, a cell phone  or a blender – robs some of the ghostliness and the mercurial wonder fulfilled by myth, superstition and religion.  

Only the hopelessly lost and the cynical would suggest that medieval banter, hallucinations, and fantasy are of greater value to man today and our future than the actual workings of the universe.

This romanticized fantasy and yearning for the “good ‘ol days” is more frequent and pervasive in times of great change and upheaval when all the absolutes are evaporating in a short course of accelerated science. 

On the opposite end, the spiritual and mythical universe is anchored among our fundamentalist religious myths, along with virgin births, booga-booga incantations and other intellectually lazy creations of simple minds where answers must be keep equally simple rather than accurate or non-existent.  Brooks’s column referenced Barack Obama’s much-maligned statement that – some people turn to religion and guns for refuge from the inequities that abound.   From the response, Obama must have struck a note that many people would rather not hear.

Science is not necessarily a comfortable place to hang out.  It certainly is not for everyone.  For those that do hang out in the library, lab, or field explorations, it is laughable to have naysayers poo-poo science while they are clogging their brain arteries with cholesterol, The Simpson’s and Brittany Spears.  When it comes to an emergency cure for clogged arteries, some neurosurgeon with 25 years of science philosophy, practice, and imagination will be paged to save his life.  There is no current cure for The Simpson’s and Brittany Spears brain clogged arteries.

A lot has happened since the discovery of the new world.  Sailors from those ancient times mentioned above learned that the constellations in the sky were a ‘tool’ to navigate and an aid to their survival.  Many could only wonder if the same star constellations existed in the other hemispheres around the globe.  The light from the stars of other galaxies takes billions of years to reach us.  Those sailors saw light that is ceased to glow since then.  It seems that surely expands the imagination more than incense, fables and war-lording that’s provoked by religions feuding over who are the ‘delivered’ people.

The skies are not inhabited by mythical beasts, nymphs or fairies.  But, yes, their may be life out there or a version of it that some of us can agree on. 

Worldwide superstition is based on fear and lack of understanding of the relationships between entities in the universe.   Until we learn to separate mythical thinking from a knowledge base developed empirically, we’ll continue to invent alternative realities to justify whatever is the current superstition.  Thus, for now it is important that we get an accelerated perspective on what is imaginary and what is real.

Why does it matter if people cling to myths for solace from the confusion?  

It matters because real-world problems such as hate, hunger, disease, genocide, and climate change can only be solved by real-world thinking. That will require that people get uncomfortable.  Our “raison d’être” is survival. Nature doesn’t exist to serve humanity. It is ruthless.  It knows nothing about accounting or retirement or children in religious sects.  While it is hard today to abandon silliness, it will become even harder when consequences of superstition are racking every thing on earth – especially when our own survival is at stake. 

Recounting myths and calling it ‘tradition’ does the world a disservice.  Myths put humans at the center of everything.  That is a big error.  Be suspicious of those that promote human based logic. By acquiescing to some ‘harmless’ superstitious practices the weary and confused are distracted from selections about the future that even doom their wishful thinking that is the staple of supernatural thought.  

None of this is easy so lets get started right away.

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Genetic drift is one of the infrequently mentioned mechanisms of evolution along with our all-time favorite, natural selection, and the remaining two: mutation and migration.

 

Genetic drift is a form of selection by consequences.  In genetic drift it is a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/IIIDGeneticdrift.shtml  

Unlike natural selection, which operates primarily on the genotype over relatively long time periods, selection by consequences operates on the organism’s phenotype or behavior which is a combination of genetic and environmental factors of the organism that can change over relatively short time periods. 

 

 Genetic drift results in having reduced elements of variability in the population from which natural selection can work.  Some of the variants of the species that were zapped including mutations are no longer available for selection.

 

 Thus, just by chance, a part of the population was wiped out and the surviving organisms would be left to propagate and leave behind more genetic descendents than those that were killed. (dah!) The organisms in subsequent generations would thus be the “lucky” because they didn’t get zapped. 

 

 

Thus, the next generation organisms are not necessarily a better fit or a product of the survival of the fittest [in the biological sense].  The organisms represent the survival of the luckiest and in so doing, represent genetic drift in that they are there because they avoided the vagaries of chance. 

 

 Genetic drift affects the genetic makeup of the population but, unlike natural selection, these effects are via a random probability set of processes or events. Some gene attributes end due to things outside forces and independent of their behavior.  They are in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

 

 Such is the case with Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, the former Burma.

 

As if being stepped on in the form of a cyclone, the reclusive and isolated communities of Myanmar have been squished.  With 28,000 known dead and no water, food, or shelter, disease could take up to 1,500,000 people (3% of the population) in the coming months.  They have died for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 

 

 Besides the huge losses, the callous and unconscionable refusal to deliver aid to its citizens will make the next decade hostile for life in Myanmar.  As a culture ethnically made up Tibetans and Chinese, they are one of the most superstitious cultures on earth.  This doesn’t bode well for changing their situation or for life.  Furthermore, small cultural groups disproportionally make up the ultra militaristic government and social and economic wealth of the country.

 

 

In a sense, are we seeing the effects of a genetic drift on an entire population take place?  The isolation by both tribes within Myanmar and the entire population as a whole has kept the genetic pool more free of global interaction from outsiders. The harsh military dictatorship and close control of visas has accentuated the effect of keeping the Myanmar people without much genetic variation over the last 40 years.   

 

 

·         Do you see a parallel here to genetic drift that results from wiping out a portion of a bird colony or a seals from their breeding grounds?  

·         What can we expect in this case?  Are some changes going to occur due to the loss of select tribes [in whole or in part] along the coast that never really intermarried or mingled with those in the deep forests?  

·         Is the superstition culturally at play today going to be accentuated or be challenged in an effort to survive?   

·         Is it likely that the soothsayers or the fortunetellers will be held accountable for not telling the faithful what was about to happen?

·         How is the surviving genetic pool – still isolated by military decree – going to change if they do change?

 

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Nargis was fate!

 

May 9, 2008

With a gaping look of angst similar to what played out during the Katrina catastrophe in this country, the heads of state around the world are trying to “help” Myanmar’s military ruler, Than Shwe, respond to Cyclone Nargis.

Problems abound. 

  • Over 100,000 people are dead; millions homeless and starving
  • Than Shwe is a military dictator that didn’t get complete control of the idyllic former Burma by trusting carpet baggers.
  • They have one of the more superstitious cultures on Earth
  • Cities are cut off from food, water, communication and shelter
  • As a country they compare well with Cuba as repressive and reclusive

President Bush said that “We’re prepared to move US Navy assets to help find those people who need help” but I am sure he meant the Seabees and not the military part of the Navy.  But, as usual, the 3rd item above may be the most critical for NOT being able to help than the others but, of course, there are always multiple causes for behavior, political or individual.

 

Everyone in Myanmar relies on soothsayers, fortunetellers and spiritualism to make their decisions at every level of the society.  It is all the rage.  So, not just the generals and the government bureaucrats don’t want the help, the people themselves have a conflict in that they need to eat today but they believe in fate as a way of life; Nargis was their fate!  That means they have to consult their spiritual leaders mentioned above.

 

There is a separate layer of logic or influence that controls the behavior of the leaders and the citizens that has a bigger influence than the life and death struggle they are waging right now.  It is almost like an organized ‘thing’ they do.  What this means in a bigger sense, those that want to help better be sensitive to the belief systems of the leaders or they won’t get anything done.  Sound familiar? 

 

The consequences of all this are bountiful for those trying to figure it out.  Bottom line for the people in Myanmar:

  • What I value may conflict with what you value
  • What I believe is of value to me more than what you believe
  • I value going to the advisor, soothsayer, fortuneteller to get direction
  • I am subject to my fate

We’re lucky – knock on wood – that we live in a democracy where we exercise free choice to go to church and exercise our free will by voting that prevents dictators from overstepping the bounds of our government – except in Michigan and Florida – and for having institutions that take care of us without strings attached and provide for us during times of need.  We should all go and pray that Myanmar’s kind autocratic bullying and superstition never takes root on American soil. 

 

Now if I just had enough money for gas I’d go light a candle in the darkness at my church.  I’ll have to walk even though it is raining.  Better not open my umbrella in the house.  It might catch that ladder over the doorway and scare Chester my black cat across my path.

 

After a Bloomberg.com article By En-Lai Yeoh

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