Saturday, May 23, 2009

It's more complicated than that.

This is a response to the essay "Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World" (reproduced below) which I received as a Portside selected story.

The materialist fantacizing by Michael Shermer would merely be humurous if it weren't so sad. The dehumanizing aspects of the materialist frame of cognitive neuroscience are overlooked to our detriment. When looked at closely, both are true: the emperor has no clothes and Mr. Shermer has not explained "why" people believe in visible agents that control the world.

Patternicity is not as Shermer says just "the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise." First, that statement assumes a one-sided position that the "noise" of the universe--that is, the entire soup of energy, both the seen and unseen energy emitted from the sun and bouncing off the energy fields we call matter, the atmospheric waves washing into our ear canals, and the energy collisions of our own material field with other fields, i.e., all of that in which we swim-- is "meaningless." The materialist view is based on the posited assumption, the presumption, that "out there" the noise is meaningless and "in here" the patterns imagine meaning.

But that division of reality into "meaninful patterns" on the one hand and "meaningless noise" on the other is already far far down the trail of pattern recognition. When that conjunction is conceived as unbridgable across a materialist divide it is an example of what I call "schizopolarity": the division of reality into unreconcilible opposites. Here the opposites of "meaningful and meaningless" on the one hand and "pattern and noise" on the other hand become associated in a fixed pattern and that fixation of those two patterns in a relationship that associates the two poles, i.e., meaningfulness and patternicity on the one hand and meaninglessness and noise on the other, become materialized into a belief system of neuroscience every bit as "invisible" as any supernatural agent.

Second, patternicity is not just a "human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise" it is the tendency of the universe to form itself into patterns. Patternicity is absolutely fundamental to human conscoiusness. There is no feeling, sensation, perception, thought, memory, or consciousness without the patternicity of the universe: whether it is expressed in the patterns of the solar systtem, in the patterns of a watermelon sliced in half, or the patterns in our own imaginings of agenticity. The assertion that noise is meaningless and patterns are only "found" in human imagination is an assertion of faith. It is equally valid to assert that patterns emerge with the essence of noise and are not dependent on "human tendencies" at all.

It is actually the illusions of "agenticity" applied to patternicity that creates the hubris of the cognitive neuroscientist to assume that patternicity is only a human tendency and not a fundamental tendency of the universe. The very pattern inherent in the conception voiced by Shermer that "we make two types of errors:" a type I error and a type II error, is itself a type III error, that is, schizopolarity, the division of the world of our experience into irreconcilable dualities. It is this type III error that is the supporting framework upholding the litealization of "agenticity"--whether the "agent" is perceived in the projective transference of agenticity envisioned as an intelligent designer or negatively perceived in the crypto-agenticity in the cognitive neuroscientist's denial of intelligent design. Between the two extremes of imagining that there must be a God as an intelligent designer or, if not that, then, only a random meaningless universe, there is the reconciliation of the universe as an inteligent design without any need for a "designer" to exist behind the scenes.

When we can see the inherent intelligent design of the universe, without either the childish reliance on the parental imagination of the agenticity of a designer or the faux-mature nihilistic trappings of the denial of the inherent design itself, then we are closest to the patternicity of our own humanity.

Gregory Wonderwheel, M.A.

Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control the World

A Skeptic's take on souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens and other invisible powers that be

By Michael Shermer
From the June 2009 Scientific American Magazine

Souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspirators, and all manner of invisible agents with power and intention are believed to haunt our world and control our lives. Why?

The answer has two parts, starting with the concept of "patternicity," which I defined in my December 2008 column as the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. Consider the face on Mars, the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, satanic messages in rock music. Of course, some patterns are real. Finding predictive patterns in changing weather, fruiting trees, migrating prey animals and hungry predators was central to the survival of Paleolithic hominids.

The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.

But we do something other animals do not do. As large-brained hominids with a developed cortex and a theory of mind--the capacity to be aware of such mental states as desires and intentions in both ourselves and others--we infer agency behind the patterns we observe in a practice I call "agenticity": the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents. We believe that these intentional agents control the world, sometimes invisibly from the top down (as opposed to bottom-up causal randomness). Together patternicity and agenticity form the cognitive basis of shamanism, paganism, animism, polytheism, monotheism, and all modes of Old and New Age spiritualisms.

Agenticity carries us far beyond the spirit world. The Intelligent Designer is said to be an invisible agent who created life from the top down. Aliens are often portrayed as powerful beings coming down from on high to warn us of our impending self-destruction. Conspiracy theories predictably include hidden agents at work behind the scenes, puppet masters pulling political and economic strings as we dance to the tune of the Bilderbergers, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers or the Illuminati. Even the belief that government can impose top-down measures to rescue the economy is a form of agenticity, with President Barack Obama being touted as "the one" with almost messianic powers who will save us.

There is now substantial evidence from cognitive neuroscience that humans readily find patterns and impart agency to them, well documented in the new book SuperSense (HarperOne, 2009) by University of Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood. Examples: children believe that the sun can think and follows them around; because of such beliefs, they often add smiley faces on sketched suns. Adults typically refuse to wear a mass murderer's sweater, believing that "evil" is a supernatural force that imparts its negative agency to the wearer (and, alternatively, that donning Mr. Rogers's cardigan will make you a better person). A third of transplant patients believe that the donor's personality is transplanted with the organ. Genital-shaped foods (bananas, oysters) are often believed to enhance sexual potency. Subjects watching geometric shapes with eye spots interacting on a computer screen conclude that they represent agents with moral intentions.

"Many highly educated and intelligent individuals experience a powerful sense that there are patterns, forces, energies and entities operating in the world," Hood explains. "More important, such experiences are not substantiated by a body of reliable evidence, which is why they are supernatural and unscientific. The inclination or sense that they may be real is our supersense."

We are natural-born supernaturalists.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Happy International Conscientious Objectors Day!

May 15 is International Conscientious Objectors Day, so happy CO Day to one and all.

On this day, may we all remember the pain and suffering caused by war, and especially for us in the United States of American Brand of facism, may we remember those who are hurt, injured, and dying caused by American-made weapons.

May all beings be happy and well.