Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Rapture: Anatomy of a Thought Virus

Later today, so I hear, Jesus will return in the sky and all of those who are “saved” will be taken up into the sky and brought into paradise.  The jury is still out on whether or not they will be served white raisins while there.   
This particular idea (As we shall see at midnight) is obviously a Type Three idea…that is, a thought virus.  It is neither accurate, or adaptive.  I really hope no one took too much trouble to prepare for this event.  Although I commend the efforts of this entrepeneurial soul.
This particular thought virus is spread in two ways:

1.  I suppose their are many believers of the actual doctrine of the rapture.  Although I am not sure that I know any in person.   But this seems to have started with the biblical interpretations of a father and son team: Increase (yes that is a first name due for a comeback) and Cotton Mather.  These two puritans were involved to varying degrees in the Salem Witch Trials.  Whether they were drawing on earlier influence is not clear, but they came up with this interpretation of certain biblical scriptures (Kyle, 1998) in which the believers would be taken up and the nonbelievers left behind.
This idea is obviously appealing to some people.  It includes several characteristics of a good thought virus: It cannot be disproven (there is no date attached to the concept itself, so it can always happen tomorrow); it is consistent with other held beliefs—that is, if you already believe in Christian tenets, this idea plugs into them nicely; it includes a sense of social justice (Bad sinners!  Stay here and fight zombies while we go do the heavenly hustle!), and it would be cinematically spectacular to watch!  This idea has been also spread by books like the Left Behind series.
So when a Christian radio host named Harold Camping decided to take a second crack at predicting the rapture, he assigned the date of 5/21/11 for the heavenly fireworks.  Then the  idea started to spread on Christian Radio stations and websites.  The news picked the Thought Virus up and spread it to the rest of us.  

2. The second wave of this thought virus spread as a comedic routine.  For 3 days I have heard many people mocking the idea.  I myself posted things on face book like “Glad we will get the rapture over with”, and this morning’s “Crap I am still here.”   I really can’t help myself.  Its just too irresistible to poke fun at this.  I am not alone.   After pro-wrestler Machoman Randy Savage  passed yesterday, a friend posted to facebook, “RIP Macho Man. He was raptured a day early to pave the road to heaven with slim jims. OHHH YEEEEEEEAH”  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Attack of the Thought Viruses: Part 4 of the Democracy of Ideas

Each of us, at one time or another have been afflicted by a thought virus.  They started off simply enough, you were exposed to the thought virus, and it sounded interesting.  Maybe it came as a friendly comment, maybe it was something a co-worker passed along, maybe it was borne of a commercial, spawn of a website, or caught from a political add.  But it came from a source that seemed trustworthy enough at the time, and you gave this source the gift of your attention.  You lowered the deflector shield and let the message through.   You analyzed the idea under the scrutiny of your best BS-detection software, but this time, it just  wasn’t sensitive enough to detect this stealth threat.  And you took it into your mind, and then you passed it along.  You told someone else about it.  And like many a malaria-carrying mosquito before you, you became a vector of transmission.   Some time later, you realized that you had been taken for a fool. You examined the thought again and said, WOW HOW DID I EVER BELIEVE THAT?  And now your immune system is stronger for having had this experience.  You will not let something like that in again.  But its hard to really reverse all its effects.  And you already spread it.  And perhaps those that you spread it to have spread it further.  Its hard to get the cat back in the bag.  

 So we live with the consequences.  We haves shelves full of products that never lived up to their hype, and medicine cabinets full of placebos that bear high price tags and crafty disclaimers*.  Maybe you’ve spent more on gambling than you have ever meant to, maybe you voted for a candidate who actually did none of the things that you thought you were voting for.  Maybe by repeating gossip you contributed to tarnishing the reputation of someone you really care about.   Perhaps you repeated a joke that really wasn’t very funny.  Maybe you bought a product that you later recommended, mostly because it cost you a lot of money, and then only later could admit that well, it kind of sucked.  Or have you made statements that were racist, or sexists, when damn it, you are better than that?  Maybe you have talked up the virtues of a diet that was a total fail.  Maybe you’ve told a ghost story when deep down you know there just ain’t no such things as ghosts.   But most of these are fairly benign.  Thought viruses can kill.  In their most extreme forms thought viruses cause people to join destructive cults (and drink the cool-aid), get taken by con-artists for their life savings, or let their children die of treatable diseases while expecting a miracle cure.  

We cannot help occasionally being taken by thought viruses.  In our defense, they exist because they are so damn slippery and hard to detect.    It is entirely human to succumb to them now and then.  But they, like real viruses can be harmful.   And our personal wellbeing depends in no small part on our having the Cognitive Kung Fu to ward off the thought viruses.   But we are fortunate.  Over the last few hundred years…humanity has developed some really bad ass kung fu.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, that is they are generally speaking untrue in every way.  This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, prevent any disease, or really lets face it, do anything at all.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Four Kinds of Ideas: Part Three of the Democracy of Ideas

Truisms: Ideas of the First Kind 
Some ideas have a high correspondence to reality and they have a high attractiveness.   When a person is confronted by one of these ideas they are likely to snatch it up.  Its a handy, useful tool that requires very little effort to use.  These ideas are all over the place.  Some of them are so deeply established in our culture that it is odd to think of them as ideas at all.  We call these ideas ‘common sense’, or Truisms.  Some take the form of proverbs.  

Absurdly Simple Examples of Ideas of the first kind: 
1. Fire is hot and can burn you.  Note that believing this clearly can save you lots of pain, and as an idea it is easily learned, hopefully without having to be burned first.  
2. 10x10=100.  This is obviously true, and useful.  It is quite simple to learn.
3. April Showers bring May flowers.  Note that this one may not always be factual, but in many parts of North America, the flowers do bloom in May, and April can be a rainy month.  Therefore it has at least some correspondence to reality.  Also it has an emotional meaning: this small inconvenience will pay off later.   As for it being an attractive idea, it is quite simple, and its rhyming structure helps with memorization.     

Difficult Truths: Ideas of the Second Kind
Some ideas have a high correspondence to reality, but are difficult to learn, recall or understand.  As such, a person is less likely to absorb these ideas when confronted with them.  Another way to think about this type of idea is that there are only a small percentage of people who are prepared to absorb the idea when they are confronted by it.  These types of ideas are important however.  Our civilization has advanced only because some of these ideas have been promoted.  These types of ideas drive science, medicine and technology.  Without these types of ideas our ancestors would have never been able to advance beyond the most basic levels.  

An examples of Difficulty Truths:  Evolution by Natural Selection, Any concept in Physics (e.g., E=MC2 , Quantum Mechanics).  Natural Selection was particularly difficult for people to accept when it first was proposed (and among some subgroups it remains so).  But it is clearly an idea that corresponds to reality and is adaptive.  All of modern biology, and by extension much of modern medicine is dependent on this one idea.  

Thought Viruses: Ideas of the Third Kind 
Some ideas do not correspond well to reality, but due to other factors they are high in attractiveness.  When confronted with these ideas, individuals are likely to store them and pass them on.  These ideas are similar to a virus.  They provide no benefit for the host, but instead co-opt the hosts efforts into spreading them.  These ideas take many forms.  Some are simply lies, others are frauds, fictions, conspiracy theories, urban legends, propaganda, false advertising claims, or medical quackery.  

Examples: The belief that Vaccines cause autism.  This idea, when all the media hype settled down, turned out not to be true.  There never really was a controversy as there never was any scientific evidence for this claim.  Yet, it spread so virulently that many people assumed it had to be true.  Why?  Because Autism is a heartbreaking condition and it would be great if we could know its cause.  And if that cause was something simple and easy to understand, and something that parents have control over, well that would just be wonderful.  In retrospect it is easy to see why so many were convinced by empty hype.  But this idea is not true.  And holding this belief is certainly not adaptive, as recent measles outbreaks show.  

Psychotic Elements: Ideas of the Forth Kind
Some ideas do not correspond to reality at all, and they are not even attractive ideas.  When the average person comes in contact with these ideas they are not likely to absorb them, which is just as well because they are horribly distorted.  These ideas are present only in the context of psychosis, or other conditions where the ability of the brain to perform logical thinking has become impaired.  It seems a fully functioning brain offers us protection against ideas of the forth kind.  When impairment occurs, bizarre ideas can take hold. 

Examples: The government can watch you through your TV set.  Mind control messages from outer space can be blocked by wearing a tinfoil hat.  

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Attractiveness and Quality of Ideas: Part 2 of The Democracy of Ideas

Now, what is it that is traveling through the network?  Simply put, they are ideas.*   An idea is any piece of information.  I intend for this concept to be quite broad—an idea can range in complexity from a sentence to a multi-tome theory-of-everything.  Here is the main concept: Ideas are competing against each other in something very much like a Darwinian arena. And whether or not an idea thrives in our culture depends on two characteristics: Its Quality and its Attractiveness.    Based on these two characteristics, ideas can be divided into four types, a model that I will outline here.  

Quality: Ideas, are like metaphors.  Our ideas are not the same exact thing as a reality in the external world.  They are only an approximation of the external world.  And in this respect they can correspond to a greater or lesser degree to reality.  Those ideas that correspond to reality, when allowed to influence behavior, will promote survival and progress.  We can call this adaptation.   If your ideas about the world do not correspond very well to the way the world actually is, then they are not going to help you function in that world.   A low quality idea will actually harm your chances of survival and adaptation.  
Attractiveness: Some ideas for various reasons our easily absorbed (attended to, learned, remembered, passed on) and other are not.  A great deal of different factors goes into whether an idea has high or low Attraction.  For example, simple ideas are all in all, more attractive.  Ideas that are connected with other ideas you already possess (or your current beliefs) are more attractive.  Ideas that do not require specialized knowledge are more attractive.   On the other hand, complex ideas, that require pre-existing knowledge, that are not compatible of one’s current beliefs are less likely to be absorbed.  

If we simplify these characteristics into two categories each, we get a four quadrants: 
1. High Quality/Compelling Ideas
2. High Quality/Difficult Ideas
3. Low Quality/Compelling Ideas
4.  Low Quality/Difficult Ideas.

Next we shall flesh out these descriptions of ideas.  Following that we will discuss how to tell the difference between these types of ideas, and lastly, the writer’s opinion of what these types of ideas have to do with being a good citizen int he Democracy of Ideas, in which we live.  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Finding your place. Part one of the Democracy of Ideas

Right now (and at all other times except for the deep level of dreamless sleep) you are in a matrix (no, not that matrix).  You are in world composed entirely of ideas.  We are connected to millions of other people by thousands of channels of communication.  We are constantly exposed to a non-stop barrage of information while we are awake (And even when are asleep the ideas are still bouncing around in our heads).   Each of us is only a single point in this vast network.  We receive our inputs from other people: from our friends, classmates, co-workers, strangers, fellow-commuters, teachers, bosses, children, news anchors, and psychotic subway preachers.  Everyone.  We hear speech, we watch TV, we read, we check our smart phones, blogs and social networking sites.  We hear announcements over loud speakers, have circular adds thrown infuriatingly on our doorstep.  Banner totting planes fly over head.  Advertisement adorned busses pass uncomfortably close to us as we cross the street.   We stare blankly at the back of the cereal box.  We look for insight inside fortune cookies.  We scowl at graffiti.  
Ideas are everywhere.  They come storming at us like CGI orcs in Return of the KIng.  And most of the time they promptly are ushered into the meat grinder of our inattention.  The deflector shield of our ability to filter out noise destroys over 99% of them.   The comparatively few straggling survivors are plucked up from the carnage and carried deeper into our minds where they…are noticed.  They are thrown into the rinse-cycle of our attention span and jumbled around with whatever else happens to have caught our eye at the moment.  A fraction of this is actually processed and understood.  And a  fraction of that will actually be encoded into the collective of our knowledge.  And when that happens, those ideas become part of us.   And as a new member of our own internal legion, they are synthesized into something more.  They are combined with the other ideas that were there before, and spark new synergies.  

 And then its time to go on the offense.  We take our own ideas and send them forth.  Now its our text messages, whispers, blog posts, and art that goes storming off towards someone else's meat grinder.  
In this way, each of us occupies a unique post in the democracy of ideas.  No one can see the world exactly how you see it.  No one has your exact past.  No one can tint ideas with the brush your personal associations.  This is why each of us is able to be creative  and has our own story to tell.  

In today’s world there is more opportunity than at any other time in history to absorb ideas, and to put our ideas back int o the world.  What do you want to put out there today?

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Awe Circuit Breaker

Two people stand on a mountain top.  In the distance a chain of mountains fades into the horizon, clouds stretch their wispy fingers as if grasping for the distant sun.  Color is scattered across the world.  It is a sight that neither of the individuals have seen before.   Both recognize that this experience is rare, and enjoyable. 

Both experience a kind a question as they look at this site, although they may not ever put it into words.   Both wonder: How could this be?  A chill rises in them.  Here they are both on the threshold of Awe.  At this stage awe is only pending.  There is an opportunity for awe, an invitation.  But this is no guarantee.  One will feel it.  And the other will flip the safety switch, and awe cascade, and its accompanying fear will be terminated.  

The experience of each person would be different and unique.  I do not propose the following as a recipe for awe by any means.  But let us suppose that the thoughts of one person follow this train of association: 
 How on earth could there be such large mountains?  Where do they come from?  I recall now.  The plates of the earth are moving.  Imagine that, that such massive things as continents can move! And over time they collide and they buckle, and rise.  Amazing.  But what makes the plates move?  Isn’t it the forces of heat within the planet?  That is fascinating to think about as I look at these mountains.  But this is only the end of a very long process.  The universe is complex and fascinating.  I want to know more about it.  I want to understand this world that I live it.  I want to remember this feeling.  

The other person is not prepared for this little mental journey.  Instead they cancel the awe.  Maybe they think something like: 

Look at those mountains!  Wow.  I wonder what is for lunch.  

And just like that their mental journey is over.  There is no mystery left to ponder.  There is no cascade of wonder.  There is no life changing experience.   I really wonder what it would take to rid us of our awe circuit breaker.  To leave us more susceptible to the experience.  I think that much of our popular culture protects us from true awe.  It provides us with trite answers.  It hides the complexity and wonder of the world away behind ADHD-compatable soundbites, and fundamentalist-friendly conversation killers.     

I believe that at least a basic understanding of science is necessary to see the world as it really is.  And that it takes a bit of work to climb those steps.  But trust me.  The view is totally worth it.  

Monday, April 18, 2011

What is Awe?

Awe is an emotion, although it is not often listed as such.  Awe is perhaps the rarest of all sensations.  It is like a radiant jewel in a handful of dull stones.  Awe is difficult to describe…But not impossible.   Webster’s does a decent enough job:

“Awe (Ă´)-n. An overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc. Produced by that which is grand, sublime, or extremely powerful or the the like.”

When was the last time you felt Awe?  Whereas most other emotions show up for work nearly every day of the week, Awe makes only the occasional cameo in most lives.  
Awe is not part of the typical routine.  It shatters our experiential template.  It shakes us free of the sticky monotony and awakes something deep in side of us.  In some way, each time Awe touches us, we have been changed forever.  And while Awe is whacking us in the head, it feels more good than bad, more pleasant than painful.  But Awe is not joy.  Awe is not bliss.  Awe is not love.  Awe mixes something terrible with something euphoric and profound.  Its like dark chocolate…bitter and sweet.  
Why would such an emotion exist?  Why are we preprogramed to experience beauty mixed with dread?  (I will come back to this question another time.  For now I will just let it linger.)  
Sometimes people experience Awe at the site of a grand vista…perhaps mountains stretching into the distance.  A sky full of shimmering stars?  The expanse of the thrashing ocean…  
But awe is not limited to sights of the rare or grand.  In the proper context, a drop of blood on your finger, a single word, or a solitary ant crawling on a blade of grass can launch your mind into the awe cascade.  Awe is the result of a realization: Reality is Grand.  But if Reality is Grand, then we are small.  Hence the fear.  Awe is overwhelming and it threatens to swallow everything.  Faced with the expanse we feel shaken loose from our mooring.  Robbed of the grounding comforts of familiarity―the universe shows us how small and tiny we are.   But for some reason part of us hungers for it.  Awe is a grand prize awaiting those most bold of perspective.   It alone can leave you forever enthralled:  tears running down your cheeks.  Jaw slackened.  Mind reeling.  Heart pounding in terrible ecstasy.

That is awe.  

And here is my thoroughly un-testable hypothesis:  Awe is the proper emotional reaction to experiencing reality.  And if the way you live your life hasn’t brought you past  the threshold of awe lately, well than you are just doing it wrong.