Friday, July 22, 2016

The Conscious Unconscious

The following material is Chapter 13 from the recently released book: Final Jeopardy: Religion and the Reality Problem
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Nearly twenty years ago (1997), the results of an experiment conducted by a group of scientists, led by Antonio Damasio, that took place at the University of Iowa were published in the journal, Science. The title of the article was: ‘Deciding Advantageously Before Knowing the Advantageous Strategy.’
The experiment involved four decks of cards. Two of the decks had cards that were blue in color, while the remaining two decks contained red colored cards.
Each of the individual cards from the colored decks had a value. More specifically, any given card indicated that one either had won some money or one had lost some money.
Participants in the experiment were asked to select cards from any of the four decks and turn them over one at a time. The subjects were tasked with developing a strategy concerning the decks of card that would permit a subject to maximize winnings.
Unknown to the subjects, there was a considerable difference in the values of the cards within the four decks. Cards in the red decks sometimes offered higher rewards than cards in the blue decks did, but some red cards also brought greater losses than some of the blue cards did.
The best strategy for maximizing winnings involved consistently choosing from the two blue decks. Despite small losses here and there, the blue cards provided a means to steadily increase the amount of winnings, while drawing cards from the red decks would, in time, lead to substantial losses.
The experimenters wanted to determine how long it would take for subjects to realize that selecting blue cards was the better long-term winning strategy. The experiment entailed some interesting results.
In the first phase of the experiment, the researchers discovered that after turning over approximately 50 cards from the four decks most subjects were able to develop a correct hunch concerning the nature of the best strategy to pursue. However, subjects were often inarticulate at that point about why selecting cards from the blue decks tended to be more advantageous than selecting cards from the red decks was. 
Subjects didn’t seem to arrive at a clear understanding of the experimental situation -- and, therefore, become able to articulate the nature of that understanding -- until quite a few cards beyond the initial 50 had been turned over. The transition point between hunch and clear understanding took place when approximately 80 cards had been selected and turned over.
The researchers then carried out a second group of trials. During this part of the study, subjects were hooked up to sensors that were capable of measuring changes in the activity of sweat glands that were located just beneath the surface in the palms of the subjects’ hands.
The aforementioned sweat glands responded to changes in temperature as well as to shifts in levels of stress experienced by an individual. The Iowa researchers wanted to see if those measurements revealed anything of interest concerning their card experiment.
The researchers discovered that subjects began to display a stress response in relation to the red cards after turning over approximately just ten cards. In the earlier phase of the study, subjects didn’t begin to develop a hunch concerning the idea that the best strategy involved choosing blue cards rather than red cards until they had turned over roughly 50 cards, but in this new phase of the experiment, the sweat glands of the subjects were providing data that indicated something within the subjects seemed to know five times more quickly (i.e., forty cards sooner than had been demonstrated during the previous phase of the experiment) that red cards were associated with greater risk than the blue cards were.
The increased activity of the sweat glands was accompanied by changes in the behavior of the subjects. In other words, beginning around the tenth card, the subjects subsequently became more inclined toward favoring a selection of cards from the blue decks while also becoming more hesitant with respect to selecting cards from the red decks.
According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink (as well as The Tipping Point), the foregoing Iowa experiment demonstrates that there are two kinds of processes that occur within the brains of human beings. One of those two systems of information processing involves consciously reflecting on what is learned and working out a logical analysis concerning any patterns that are perceived to be present in the data one has encountered, while the other system of information processing takes place in an unconscious manner.
The conscious method of information processing often seems to require the accumulation of considerable data before relevant conclusions can be generated, and, consequently, it is a relatively slow process. The unconscious method of information processing requires less information and, therefore, tends to occur much more quickly than does the conscious method of processing data.
For example, in the case of card experiment that took place at the University of Iowa, the first phase of that experiment determined that subjects began to develop a hunch concerning the risky nature of the red cards around the time that 50 cards had been turned over, but subjects did not have a fully articulated understanding concerning card selection strategy until some 80 cards had been turned over. According to Gladwell, the foregoing set of circumstances illustrates the conscious way of reasoning about what one is learning, and this takes time as well as exposure to a fair amount of information in order for a person to be able to successfully resolve the four deck, two-color, multiple-valued card problem.
However, the second phase of the Iowa card experiment (involving measurements of sweat gland activity) demonstrated that ‘something’ within the participating subjects – referred to as the unconscious -- was aware that red cards seemed to be more risky than blue cards were as far as maximizing one’s winnings was concerned. Moreover, this allegedly unconscious ‘something’ was able to understand – at least to a degree – more quickly and with less information than was the case for the allegedly conscious way of devising a strategy concerning the cards.
For the time being, let’s put aside the idea that Malcolm Gladwell believes that both of the foregoing methods for developing a strategy concerning the decks of cards are generated by the brain. After all, at the present time, neither Malcolm Gladwell nor anyone else is capable of showing how the brain accomplishes what he claims it does (and I acknowledge the possibility that this state of ignorance could change in the future), and, therefore, one can’t be sure at this point that the brain actually is responsible for generating the awareness, intelligence, reason, memory, and so on that are necessary for coming to an understanding about how to maximize one’s winnings in the four deck experiment.
Irrespective of what is making consciousness, intelligence, memory, reasoning, and insight possible, Gladwell’s manner of describing the significance of the University of Iowa card experiment is problematic in another way as well. More specifically, he is referring to a mode of processing information that is quicker than the so-called conscious way of arriving at a strategy and, in addition, he is referring to a method of processing information that appears to require less information in order for a correct conclusion to be drawn than is required by the ‘conscious’ modality of processing information, and, yet, Gladwell refers to the quicker method as being unconscious in nature.
While it might be true that the so-called conscious method of processing information is not aware of how the other, quicker method of processing information accomplishes what it does, the ignorance of normal, waking consciousness concerning those matters does not mean that the quicker and less data-dependent method of reaching conclusions gives expression to an unconscious process. That which permits a human being to detect a difference in the risk value associated with red and blue cards five times more quickly than one can achieve through a so-called conscious method -- and do so despite being exposed to far less information -- is not an unconscious process in any way except from the degree of ignorance that is present in normal, waking consciousness.
The quicker, less data-dependent method of processing information exhibits the presence of awareness with respect to the color and values of the card. If the so-called ‘unconscious’ were not aware of the colors and values of the cards, then, it could not arrive at any conclusions concerning which strategy to pursue in order to maximize one’s winnings.
Furthermore, the so-called unconscious modality of processing information appears to indicate that there are qualities of reasoning, insight, logic, memory, and understanding that are engaging the experimental task. After all, if the foregoing qualities were not present, then, the ‘unconscious’ would not be able to come up with a successful strategy as quickly as it does and substantially prior to what occurs in normal, waking consciousness.
Normal waking consciousness is, at best, only dimly aware of what is taking place in the “conscious unconscious.” For instance, when approximately 50 cards had been turned over by subjects during the first phase of the Iowa card experiment, the conscious mind had a sense or hunch that red cards were riskier than blue cards.
The foregoing hunch, sense, or intuition is the result of a seemingly lethargic and delayed process through which a subject becomes aware of the understanding or insight that had been generated 40 cards earlier by the “conscious unconscious.” No one knows why it takes so long for normal, waking consciousness to become aware of what transpired 40 cards earlier in the “conscious unconscious” mind, and no one knows – at least at the present time – how normal waking consciousness becomes aware of the results that have been generated through the “conscious unconscious”.
However, the fact of the matter is that we also don’t know what transpires in the Iowa card subjects between the 50 and 80-card mark. At around the 50-card mark, subjects have a hunch or sense concerning how to proceed with respect to the four decks of cards, and at around the 80-card mark, they are capable of articulating the strategy, but how the transition in understanding came about between the 50 and 80-card junctures is unknown.
Is Malcolm Gladwell correct when he claims that two modes of information processing are taking place in subjects who are participating in the Iowa card experiment? Or, could it be the case that there is only one mode of information processing taking place but that more and more of the results of the “conscious unconscious” mode of processing information are seeping into normal waking consciousness and, as a result, the conscious mind is developing – over time -- a better sense of what the “conscious unconscious” already knows and understands?
In other words, perhaps the “conscious unconscious” is merely providing normal, waking consciousness with an understanding concerning the four decks of two-color and multiple value cards, and this transfer of understanding takes time. If this is the case, it still leaves unexplained how normal, waking consciousness becomes aware of and understands what is transpiring in the “conscious unconscious”.
Irrespective of how this latter realization comes about, it does not necessarily involve a separate instance of information processing that is taking place in normal, waking consciousness. That is, normal, waking consciousness does not necessarily undergo a separate, additional instance of information processing in which it takes the results of the “conscious unconscious” as data and subjects that data to an array of analytical, logical, and reflective processes which produces an understanding that reflects or confirms what already had been generated through the “conscious unconscious” mode of information processing.
Furthermore, even if the foregoing possibility concerning an additional mode of information processing taking place in normal, waking consciousness were the case, nonetheless, that mode of information processing would still be taking place beyond the parameters of awareness with respect to normal waking consciousness. When reflection, critical analysis, or questioning of some kind occurs in a context of normal, waking consciousness, we never really witness the actual nature of the processes involving: Reflection, critical analysis, or questioning, but, instead, we only see the results of those processes as they bubble to the surface within normal, waking consciousness.
Consequently, even if two modes of information processing were taking place, nevertheless, at the present time, we really don’t know how either of those processes takes place. Whether things are occurring on a so-called unconscious level or on the level of normal, waking consciousness, we really don’t know how: Awareness, intelligence, memory, reasoning, reflection, analysis, insight, learning, or understanding work.
The only thing that seems to be exhibiting a degree of unconsciousness is normal waking consciousness with respect to what is transpiring in the ”conscious unconscious”. Normal waking consciousness is aware of its own contents, but it is unaware of how those contents come to have phenomenological status or how one comes to understand the significance, meaning, value, or potential of those contents.
In light of the foregoing considerations, the idea that the unconscious constitutes a realm that is lacking in awareness seems problematic. As the Iowa card experiment tends to demonstrate, the “conscious unconscious” is alive with awareness, intelligence, insight, understanding, reflection, and analysis, but normal, waking consciousness is unaware of all of this and, therefore, it is unconscious relative to what is transpiring in the “conscious unconscious”.
In a sense, what is taking place during, for example, the second phase of the University of Iowa card experiment resonates with certain aspects of what used to be known as multiple personality disorder and is now referred to as dissociative identity disorder. More specifically, often times the fractured personality that occupies normal waking consciousness tends to be unaware of other personalities that are present even though some of these other personalities appear to know about what is transpiring in the personality that is occupying normal waking consciousness.
Similarly, in the four-deck card experiment, the “conscious unconscious” appears to be aware of the same data to which normal, waking consciousness has access. Nonetheless, the “conscious unconscious” is capable of processing information in a way that generates insight into the significance and value of that data in a manner that does not appear to be present in normal waking consciousness … at least not until a hunch surfaces after 50 cards have been turned over, or not until the understanding present in normal waking consciousness becomes fairly clear at around the 80-card mark.
Assuming that the brain is responsible for the foregoing sorts of phenomena, many researchers refer to the part of our brain that is capable of arriving at decisions fairly quickly based on relatively limited information as giving expression to the “adaptive unconscious”. The ‘adaptive unconscious’ is differentiated from the Freudian unconscious by noting how the latter dimension of being is considered to be a bubbling cauldron of unacceptable desires and repressed memories, whereas the adaptive unconscious supposedly gives expression to a computer-like system of information processing that is capable of effectively engaging the exigencies of life.
Apparently, just as a modern commercial jet plane is able – as a result of on-board computers -- to continue to fly without the assistance of human beings when the aircraft is placed on auto-pilot, so too, the adaptive unconscious is described as being able to generate sophisticated, high-level modes of analysis and information processing that are quite independent of normal, waking consciousness. While it might be true that there are intelligent capacities associated with us that operate outside the awareness of normal, waking consciousness, nevertheless, as the previous discussion concerning the Iowa card experiment indicated, those capacities are not necessarily of an unconscious nature.
Antonio Damasio, the individual who led the research team at the University of Iowa involving the aforementioned four deck, two-color, multiple-value card experiment conducted the same kind of experiment using subjects who had damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex … an area of the brain that is considered to have something to do with decision-making in human beings. Apparently, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex has the capacity to differentially sort through incoming sensory data and identify issues that require attention and, in addition, help bring about a decision with respect to those issues.
Professor Damasio indicates that although the foregoing subjects are able, eventually, to arrive at an understanding concerning the risky nature of red-colored cards relative to blue cards, nonetheless, they are unable to make decisions that give expression to that understanding. Furthermore, unlike the “normal” subjects who participated in earlier versions of the experiment, subjects with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex did not develop any hunches concerning the red and blue cards when approximately 50 cards had been turned over, and, as well, the latter subjects did not exhibit any increased activity in their sweat glands after ten – or more – cards had been turned over.
The foregoing account doesn’t explain how subjects with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex come to understand that red cards are risky relative to blue cards. In other words, if – as is the case with so-called “normal” subjects – sweat gland activity does not increase when approximately ten cards have been turned over, or hunches do not arise after roughly 50 cards have been turned over, then what is the nature of the process through which understanding is acquired in subjects with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex?
Apparently, damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex interferes, in some fashion, with the process of notifying sweat glands that some information of significance is present. In addition, damage to that portion of the brain also seems to be interfering with the capacity to develop hunches about the degree of riskiness that is associated with red cards.
Yet, despite those problems, individuals with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex are still able to grasp that red cards are risky relative to blue cards. They are just unable to use that understanding to affect how they go about choosing cards.
Individuals with damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex share one thing in common with so-called “normal” subjects. No one really understands how understanding arises in either case.
Moreover, in each case, ‘something’ is aware of the situation and capable of gaining insight into the differential values of red and blue cards. Nonetheless, whatever that process of understanding or insight involves, it does not take place in a way that is visible to normal, waking consciousness.
That is, normal, waking consciousness is aware that it does happen but normal, waking consciousness does not know how it happens. Yet, that process exhibits elements of awareness and intelligence.
Nalini Ambady, a psychologist, conducted an experiment that observed subjects who were tasked with judging the effectiveness of a teacher based on viewing brief, soundless, videotape clips of teachers who were engaged in the activity of teaching. Initially, subjects were provided with three, ten-second, video clips of a teacher teaching, and, during several follow up experiments, Professor Ambady reduced the length of video exposure to five seconds, and, subsequently, to just two seconds per clip.
In all three of the foregoing instances – namely, using ten-second, five-second, and two-second video clips of a teacher teaching – the subjects in the experiment rated the effectiveness of teachers in a manner that closely resonated with the manner in which actual students of the teachers being evaluated rated their instructors. Apparently, decisions based on a quick analysis of very limited information were not all that different from the judgments reached by students who were exposed to a teacher over the course of a much longer period of time.
Leaving aside questions concerning methodological issues involving the meaning and measurement of effectiveness, as well as whether, or not, judgments concerning effectiveness (whether made quickly or more slowly) were even accurate, something seems to be missing in the foregoing study. More specifically, irrespective of whether judgments concerning a teacher’s effectiveness were made slowly (i.e., involving actual students) or quickly (i.e., involving subjects in experiments), we don’t really know how judgments concerning effectiveness were made.
When I taught psychology, students had the opportunity toward the end of each course I taught to evaluate my effectiveness … or lack thereof. Although the evaluation forms were fairly lengthy and consisted of both boxes to be filled in as well as spaces for extended commentary, one often had little, or no, idea how students arrived at their judgments concerning my degree of effectiveness as a teacher or to what (and why) they were responding in relation to me that shaped their judgments concerning my effectiveness, or lack thereof.
They liked this or that in conjunction with what I did in the classroom, or they disliked this or that in relation to the way in which I conducted things in the classroom. Nonetheless, one didn’t actually know why they liked the things they did or why they disliked the things they did.
A subject in an experiment sees a two-second, five-second, or ten-second clip of a soundless video that shows a teacher, teaching. My students fill out a fairly detailed evaluation form based on a semester’s worth of exposure to my style of teaching.
In each case, judgments are rooted in modes of analysis, reflection, feeling, and judgment to which normal, waking consciousness does not necessarily have access. The subjects in Professor Ambady’s study might not know how they reached the judgments they did, but they generate an observable result that gives expression to their sense of how effective a given teacher might be, and, similarly, the students in my classroom (and in the classrooms of the teachers who are being evaluated in the foregoing experiment) fill out evaluation forms but the nature of the processes that led to such a behavioral output are hidden … perhaps even to the one filling out the evaluation form.
‘Something’ is aware of a teacher’s actions – irrespective of whether those actions occur in the context of an experimental study or in a classroom. ‘Something’ is analyzing that behavior according to an array of values, expectations, needs, hopes, interests, pressures, questions, and difficulties, and ‘something’ is arriving at conclusions concerning the degree of effectiveness that are deemed to be present in the actions of a teacher as a function of the factors that were taken into consideration during the processes of analysis and evaluation.
Are those processes of analysis, evaluation, and judgment conducted in an unconscious manner? Or, are they done consciously – that is, with awareness -- but in a way that falls outside of normal, waking consciousness and, therefore, merely “appear” to be conducted in an unconscious fashion?
The term “adaptive unconscious” might be somewhat oxymoronic when describing such forms of information processing. In other words, the very quality of being adaptive would seem to imply the presence of an intelligence that, in some sense, is aware and capable, within certain parameters, of flexibly responding to incoming data and, consequently, such an adaptive capacity does not seem to be unconscious in character.
I have used the term “conscious unconscious” in an ironic and not oxymoronic sense in order to bring attention to the idea that what takes place outside of the parameters of waking consciousness is not necessarily unconscious in nature. The truth of the matter is that we – speaking from the perspective of waking consciousness -- don’t know what is going on beyond the horizons of waking consciousness or how the dimensions of our beings that fall outside of waking consciousness actually accomplish what they do … and, yet, ‘something’ appears to be quite aware of what is taking place and that awareness seems to be of an intelligent nature.
 Moreover, if, as previously indicated, the ‘adaptive unconscious’ is considered to be a computer-like system, then, how did the architecture and programming for that system come into being? To respond with the word “evolution” in conjunction with such questions is an empty gesture because, at the present time, the modern theory of evolution is not even remotely capable of explaining how the capacities for awareness, intelligence, memory, language, reason, insight, understanding, creativity, and so on came into being or how any of these capacities actually operate … as Sir Paul McCartney once indicated, ‘we’re in the middle of something that we really don’t understand’.
“Thin-slicing” is the term that has been coined to describe what the adaptive unconscious is supposedly doing when it makes rapid judgments or conducts quick evaluations of a given set of circumstances based on limited information. The subjects in the University of Iowa card experiment were engaged in the process of thin-slicing when their sweat glands began to react to the stress surrounding the riskiness associated with red cards, as were the subjects in the teacher effectiveness study conducted by Professor Ambady when they were able to reach judgments within ten, five, and two seconds concerning the potential effectiveness of a given teacher.
There are many experiments demonstrating that the adaptive unconscious of human beings has the capacity to thin-slice, often with very useful results. What no one has shown, as of yet, is how thin-slicing actually works.
How does the allegedly ‘unconscious’ dimension of human beings have the capacity to interact with reality in a manner that displays both awareness and intelligence? What were the subjects in the University of Iowa card experiment picking up on (and how did they understand its significance)? Within the time that it took subjects to select ten cards, something in them was sufficiently aware in an intelligent manner about the nature of the experimental situation to induce their sweat glands to respond to the stress generated by the riskiness associated with red cards – a riskiness that normal waking consciousness did not possess (at least not in a detectable fashion), even as a hunch, until 50 cards had been turned over and which waking consciousness could not articulate until approximately 80 cards had been turned over. What were the subjects in the teacher effectiveness study picking up on (and how did they understand its significance), when they were able to judge -- as well as students could who had spent an entire course with such teachers -- the effectiveness of teachers with just 6 seconds (3 clips of 2 seconds each), 15 seconds (3 clips of five seconds each), and 30 seconds (3 clips of 10 seconds each) of exposure to soundless, videotape clips?
To say that all of the foregoing takes place unconsciously and automatically through a process of thin-slicing does not really explain anything at all. That terminology is devoid of the sort of content which would allow one to understand what is transpiring in the adaptive unconscious during the process of thin-slicing or what makes that phenomenon possible.
We know it happens. We just don’t necessarily know how it happens or what makes it possible.
In the case of the teacher-effectiveness study conducted by Professor Ambady, subjects might have been picking up on just a few features in the clips of a teacher engaged in teaching – such as physical signs that suggested the presence of: Warmth, respect for students, and/or enthusiasm concerning subject matter. If so, this could explain why only a short time of exposure was required by subjects to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher because, in the past, subjects – as might be the case for students in general – had learned that teachers who exhibited warmth, respect for their students, and were enthusiastic about their subject matter were generally found to be effective teachers.
The subjects in the teacher-effectiveness study – as also might be true with respect to most students – were probably quite familiar with an array of moods, looks, gestures, attitudes, and so on that have been displayed by many different teachers over decades of classroom experience. They are likely to have become quite skilled in being able to size up, or evaluate, teachers and, consequently, those subjects might not need to have to be exposed to a great deal of information in order for them to be able to quickly make a fairly accurate judgment concerning a teacher’s potential effectiveness. 
One also might raise a question, or two, about the nature of the selection process that was used by the researchers in order to compile their ten-second, five-second, and two-second clips of teachers teaching. Were the clips taken at random, or were the clips selected because teachers were exhibiting qualities of (or lack thereof), say, warmth, respect for students, and enthusiasm for teaching that the researchers believed were qualities that effective teachers had and ineffective teachers did not have.
If the video clips consisted of a random sampling of what teachers did in the classroom and if the subjects in the teacher-effectiveness study were not picking up on signs indicating the presence of, for example: Warmth, respect for students, and enthusiasm for teaching, in order to make their judgments, then, the nature of the process of thin-slicing in that context becomes much more mysterious and elusive. Furthermore, additional study might have to be undertaken in order to determine whether, or not, experimental subjects reached their conclusions through a different kind of evaluation process than was used by actual students who were exposed to their teachers for a much longer period of time than the experimental subjects were.
The University of Iowa card experiment, on the other hand, might involve a much more complicated and subtle set of issues than is the case in the teacher effectiveness study. For instance, how does one come to recognize the potential for risk after turning over just ten cards, and why does it take so long for that understanding to surface to a sufficient extent in waking consciousness to enable a person to have either a hunch concerning the situation or to articulate its character?
Is it possible that something within the subjects in that experiment was noticing that red cards had both higher payouts and higher penalties associated with them while also noticing that blue cards had lower payouts and lower losses associated with them? Is it possible that such a trend would show up in the time that it took to turn over ten cards?
In either case, we don’t know what is responsible for being able to be aware of the differential value of the two kinds of colored cards or how that capacity works. Whatever is taking place during thin-slicing, that process, or set of processes, does not appear to be automatic and unconscious, but, instead, seems to give expression to a process that exhibits qualities of both awareness and intelligence executed in some sort of deliberative, evaluative fashion in order to provide individuals with a basis for informed – but not necessarily correct -- action.
In psychology, priming refers to a process in which people are exposed – often unknowingly – to a certain kind of stimulus that, subsequently, tends to influence how we respond to some other stimulus. For example, Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele conducted an experiment involving black college students. The students were asked to provide answers to 20 questions drawn from a standardized test that often is used to help evaluate the suitability of students for graduate school.
When subjects were asked prior to the aforementioned test to identify their race when filling out a questionnaire, those subjects tended to do only half as well as when subjects were not asked to identify their race prior to taking the test. One of the destructive dimensions of living in a society that is steeped in racist tendencies of one kind or another is that individuals who are on the receiving end of racist behavior – namely, black people – might (quite unknowingly) internalize some of those racist attitudes and, as a result, develop negative opinions concerning themselves or their abilities.
The foregoing experiment by Aronson and Steele seems to illustrate the nature of the priming phenomenon. Prior to the experiment, the subjects had gone through several decades of being exposed to all manner of racist ideas, attitudes, and stimuli concerning black people, and, therefore, the subjects had been primed to be influenced by a subsequent stimulus – i.e., filling out a questionnaire that asks about race – and, consequently, tended to do only half as well answering the standardized test questions as when they were not asked about their race.
Following the foregoing experiment, individuals participating in the experiment were asked by the researchers about whether they were bothered because they had to identify their race in the questionnaire they filled out prior to being required to answer test questions. Individuals seemed to dismiss the possibility that having to respond to the racial identity issue on the questionnaire might have affected their performance in an adverse manner, and, yet, not only did the test results appear to indicate otherwise, but, as well, many of the participants in the experiment expressed words to the effect that they just didn’t have what it takes to do well in school.
In another experiment, conducted by psychologist John Bargh, subjects were tasked with playing board games that had been set up so that the only way in which subjects could win is if they co-operated with one another. Prior to playing the board games, participants were either primed -- through being exposed in subtle, indirect ways to an array of stimuli that emphasized a theme of co-operation – or subjects were not primed in that manner.
When subjects were primed, the subsequent games tended to proceed without conflict, and, as well, the subjects were more inclined toward interacting cooperatively with one another relative to those instances in which games were played when subjects had not been primed to act in a cooperative manner. Furthermore, in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of the Aronson/Steele study involving black college students, when subjects in the Bargh experiment were asked -- following the completion of the games – about what role co-operation might have played in their strategies or thoughts concerning the board games, the answers the subjects gave seemed to be devoid of any considerations involving the theme of co-operation.
In other words, the subjects seemed to have no idea that their behavior in the board games had been influenced by the priming process that occurred prior to the playing of those games. The subjects believed their behavior was due to choices made during the course of any given game just as the subjects in the Aronson/Steele experiment believed that their performance on the test had nothing to do with being required to indicate their race prior to taking the test.
Subjects in both experiments had been primed by being exposed to certain kinds of stimuli prior to having to act with respect to some given subsequent task. How those subjects engaged the latter tasks appeared to be influenced by the process of priming that had taken place prior to engaging such tasks, and, yet, the subjects seemed to have little, or no, understanding that their behavior had been shaped, to varying degrees, by the priming process.
Malcolm Gladwell indicates in his book, Blink, that the foregoing experiments appear to indicate that free will is illusory. In other words, behavior that, supposedly, is taking place in the context of normal, waking consciousness is not being directed by what is transpiring within normal, waking consciousness but, instead, is being shaped by events that took place earlier and about which individuals seem to be unaware.
Gladwell’s foregoing perspective might be both right and wrong. On the one hand, Gladwell could be correct that normal, waking consciousness is not necessarily the locus of free will that we often tend to believe is the case because, oftentimes, normal waking consciousness generates behaviors that are actually being shaped by influences that have taken place and/or are taking place beyond the horizons of a surface mode of consciousness. On the other hand, Gladwell might be wrong about the idea that free will is illusory since there appears to be something going on in the adaptive unconscious – what I have termed the “conscious unconscious” -- that requires choices to be made and which is sufficiently aware of various issues to be able (through certain kinds of reasoning and logic) to direct those choices to shape various forms of subsequent behavior.
More specifically, in order to be primed, something within an individual has to take notice of the stimuli that are being used during the priming process. Furthermore, ‘something’ within an individual has to generate various forms of meaning, significance, value, or influence, and, as well, ‘something’ has to choose to use some meanings and values, rather than others, to shape and direct subsequent behavior.
Normal, waking consciousness might be unaware of the foregoing sorts of dynamics. Nonetheless, this does not mean that those dynamics are taking place automatically or unconsciously
For instance, when black college students in the Aronson/Steele experiment performed only half as well on a bank of test questions when they were required to fill out a questionnaire asking about their racial identity, one might suppose that there might be a very complex dynamic taking place within those individuals that occurs beyond the horizons of normal, waking consciousness … a dynamic that gives expression to all manner of feelings concerning race that are rooted in years of being subjected to racist attitudes, ideas, and behaviors.
The foregoing experiences are frequently not written in the language of words but are coded in the language of emotions, impressions, and attitudes about which some dimension of the individual is keenly aware. Those feelings are not necessarily linear in character but often are caught up in non-linear feedback systems whose inner dynamics are very difficult to disentangle and, yet, that whole carries a determinate meaning or value for an individual … a whole that ‘something’ within the individual is aware of and selects to shape behavior.
Those choices do not necessarily have to be in the best interests of the individual who is doing the choosing. Rather, such choices are the result of a nuanced set of dynamics that generate coping strategies that are intended to help a person navigate the emotional mine fields of life as best he or she can.
In the case of some black individuals – for example, the subjects in the Aronson/Steele experiment -- the cost of surviving in a racist society appears to have been a Hobson choice of internalizing certain negative impressions concerning themselves to which they were subjected repeatedly while growing up in a racist society. Those internalizations are forced “negotiations” that society has imposed on them across years of their attempting to resolve, or cope with, the many problems that racism has thrown into the lives of those individuals.
Presumably, if one were to try to assist the subjects in the Aronson/Steele experiment to overcome their inclination to continue looking at themselves through the racist filters of the surrounding society, one would have to help enable those individuals to realize that – under duress – certain choices concerning identity had been made and that, now, new choices concerning those matters needed to be fashioned in order to be able to develop a constructive sense of self. In other words, they would have to learn how to not allow themselves to be primed by questions involving racial identity … and in order to be able to accomplish that resolution, they would have to permit two different centers of awareness within themselves – namely, normal waking consciousness and the so-called adaptive consciousness (the conscious unconscious) – to interact with one another with the help of someone who could help guide them through the process of facilitating the exchange of different understandings between normal, waking consciousness and the adaptive unconscious (i.e., the conscious unconscious).
What is transpiring in the so-called adaptive unconscious is not devoid of consciousness, nor is it devoid of intellect, choice, reasoning, logic, or insight.  Moreover, what is taking place in the adaptive unconscious is not necessarily automatic but often consists of an on-going dynamic involving shifting themes, issues, considerations, and choices that are conducted against, and playing off, a backdrop of existing feelings beliefs, values, meanings, attitudes, and memories.
As is true in the case of identity diffusion disorder – i.e., multiple personality disorder – the foregoing cases involve different centers of consciousness that have a compartmentalized or partitioned relationship with respect to one another. Normal, waking consciousness and the “conscious unconscious” are both engaged in making various kinds of choices within contexts that are governed by properties of awareness, intelligence, and reasoning that are not necessarily automated in nature (although some forms of automation – such as habits – might be present) and, from time to time, the choices that are made in each center of consciousness influence, if not interfere, with one another.
Many of us have been conditioned – by psychology, philosophy, neurobiology,  and evolutionary science -- to look at human functioning in hierarchical terms in which intelligence, awareness and choice are the exclusive purview of normal, waking consciousness. However, what goes on in conjunction with the so-called adaptive unconscious also involves processes that are characterized by conscious, intelligent, reasoned choices … but the forms of intelligence and reasoning that take place in the conscious unconscious often seem alien to the modalities of understanding that are associated with the processes of logic, intelligence, and reasoning that occur in waking consciousness.
If choices that are made through the adaptive unconscious – i.e., the conscious unconscious – come to shape behavior, is there not something within an individual that still is exercising choice or expressing a modality of will (although it might not be entirely free of various influences)? Just because normal, waking consciousness might not be the source of choice or the exercise of free will in those cases, one cannot necessarily conclude that choice and free will are illusory but, rather, one might have to consider the possibility that the locus of some instances of choice and free will comes from a dimension of the individual that is other than the locus that usually is cited when discussing issues involving choice and free will  – namely, normal waking consciousness.
More than a decade ago, Raymond Fisman, an economist, and Sheena Iyengar, a psychologist, conducted an experiment. It involved speed dating.
Speed dating makes use of the phenomenon of thin-slicing. In other words, based on very limited interaction with another individual (usually less than ten minutes), two individuals make decisions about whether, or not, they would like to spend more time (i.e., go out on an actual date) with their speed dating partner.
With one exception, the Fisman/Iyengar experiment was set up like real world speed dating situations. That exception had to do with a relatively short questionnaire that subjects had to fill out on four occasions – namely, prior to a given speed date, shortly after the occasion of that speed date, and, then, a month following, as well as six months after, a speed date had occurred.
The questionnaire consisted of a number of categories (e.g., shared interests, ambition, humor, intelligence, attractiveness, and sincerity). Subjects were required to indicate – using a scale of one to ten – what they were seeking in a potential dating partner, and, then, they were also required to evaluate the extent to which a given individual (i.e., speed date) had reflected the preferences that had been indicated prior to the speed date.
After compiling and analyzing the data collected during their experiment, Raymond Fisman and Sheena Iyengar discovered something interesting. More specifically, the qualities that subjects claimed were of interest to them prior to a speed date often did not correspond with the qualities of the individuals to whom they were attracted in speed dates.
Furthermore, the qualities subjects claimed to be looking for prior to a speed date often changed as a result of the qualities of an individual to whom they were attracted during a speed date. For example, if a subject claimed to be looking for someone who was funny and ambitious, and, then, had a speed date with someone who was sincere and intelligent, those subjects often would change the nature of the qualities they claimed to be looking for prior to the next speed date in order to reflect the qualities of a previous speed date to whom they had been attracted.
Preferences were given before the fact of a speed date, and, sometimes, those preferences would change after a speed date had occurred. However, subjects often did not have any understanding in normal, waking consciousness about how their preferences had been, or were being, formed. 
Many psychologists argue that the foregoing activity is taking place in the adaptive unconscious and, therefore, often is considered to be giving expression to some sort of unconscious, automatic process in which choice does not play a role. Nevertheless, even if normal, waking consciousness is clueless about where preferences come from or how they are formed, this does not rule out the possibility that there is ‘something’ in the adaptive unconscious – i.e., the conscious unconscious – that is keenly aware of what it is seeking in a potential date and recognizes the presence of what it is seeking when that set of qualities shows up and, as a result, that ‘something’ within us is attracted to those qualities when they are present irrespective of whatever normal, waking consciousness claims to be seeking.
Once again, evidence seems to suggest that there is more than one locus of consciousness/awareness operating within human beings. Normal, waking consciousness considers the foregoing sort of activities to be unconscious but, in reality, normal waking consciousness is merely referring to its own ignorance concerning those matters and, as a result, normal, waking consciousness tends to ignore, or to dismiss, that activity because it is considered to be inconsistent with what appears to be taking place in normal, waking consciousness.
Margaret Heffernan uses a two word term to give expression to the tendency of normal, waking consciousness to manifest a resistance to, if not hostility toward, that which occurs beyond the parameters of normal, waking consciousness – no matter how obvious, intelligent, and insightful the products of that “conscious unconscious” activity might be. She refers to the foregoing phenomenon as “willful blindness”.
Sometimes normal, waking consciousness is responsible for instances of willful blindness, and sometimes the adaptive unconscious (conscious unconscious) is the source of willful blindness. In either case, a locus of consciousness and form of reasoning actively resists the presence of certain kind of data or evidence.
All human beings engage in the process of thin-slicing. We often do not have, or do not take, the time to examine -- with any degree of rigorous, critical reflection -- the vast amounts of information that are generated through experience, and, consequently, we develop coping strategies that are intended to permit us to cut through the mounds of existential data to which life gives expression and arrive at heuristically valuable conclusions.
However, a great deal of thin-slicing takes place outside of normal, waking consciousness. As a result, in order to be able to gain some insight into what is transpiring beyond the parameters of normal, waking consciousness, we have to undertake a certain amount of reverse engineering and try to reconstruct in normal, waking consciousness the nature of the structures, influences, dynamics, and so on that are impinging on – in both constructive and problematic ways – normal waking consciousness.
Some forms of thin-slicing seem to be capable of accurately accessing certain dimensions of reality. For example, the University of Iowa four deck, two-color, multiple-valued card experiment revealed a human capacity to correctly parse experience in advantageous ways.
On the other hand, the previously discussed Aronson/Steele experiment involving black college students demonstrates how some stimuli (e.g., a box asking about racial identity on a questionnaire) have come to play a problematic priming role that results from a faulty manner of thin-slicing reality (e.g., adopting negative ideas about oneself based on how one has been treated by others on account of one’s race).
Biases constitute modes of thin-slicing. For instance, human beings develop biases for, and against, religion as a result of processes that often take place outside of normal, waking consciousness.
Biases also give expression to forms of willful blindness. In other words, despite the existence of evidence to the contrary, human beings often have a tendency to ignore that evidence and proceed to thin-slice experience through the filters of their biases.
Arguably, one of the most important questions confronting every human being concerns the issue of religion. Seen from the perspective of the present volume, nothing seems to be more important than trying to determine the truth about the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality.
Each individual faces the same problem in conjunction with the issue of religion. We need to determine whether, or not, one’s manner of thin-slicing existence does, or does not, give expression to instances of bias and willful blindness capable of distorting one’s understanding concerning the truth about the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality.
In effect, many theists claim that atheists are guilty of willful blindness with respect to the manner in which they thin-slice experience and disregard evidence that, supposedly, reveals the truth concerning the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality. On the other hand, many atheists claim that theists are the ones who are guilty of willful blindness when it comes to the manner in which theists thin-slice existence and ignore evidence that, supposedly, demonstrates that the truth concerning the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality has nothing to do with the existence of a god or gods.
Both theists and atheists often fail to critically reflect, in any rigorous fashion, on the contents of normal, waking consciousness. Furthermore, both theists and atheists often fail to critically explore the realm of the adaptive unconscious or conscious unconscious in order to try to understand what is transpiring beyond the parameters of normal, waking consciousness that might affect – constructively or problematically – one’s attempt to discover the truth about the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality.
What makes normal, waking consciousness possible? What makes the adaptive unconscious or conscious unconscious possible? How does each of the foregoing realms of consciousness facilitate, or undermine, one’s attempt to arrive at the truth concerning the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality?
In its own way, the adaptive unconscious or the “conscious unconscious” gives expression to modes of: Awareness, intelligence, logic, reasoning, and forms of choice just as much as does normal, waking consciousness – or, as it might be termed: “unconscious consciousness”. Yet, we do not understand how either form of awareness is possible or is capable of carrying out intelligent, logical, reasoned choices that might, or might not, reflect the truth concerning the nature of one’s relationship with Being/Reality.

Both realms of information processing invite critical scrutiny. We fail to do so at our own peril.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Challenge to Atheists and Believers Alike

The fourth volume in the Final Jeopardy series of books has just been completed. It's title is: Final Jeopardy: Religion and the Reality Problem. (or the Kindle edition). Its length is 562 pages. 

Some of the topics that are discussed in the aforementioned book are: Free will, suffering, consciousness, nihilism, mythology, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Friedrich Nietzsche, evolution, morality, irreligion, sacredness,  mysticism, and spiritual abuse. While most of the book is fairly general in nature, there are some sections of the book that explore -- at least in outline form -- certain facets of the Sufi Path as those aspects relate to some of the foregoing topics.

Among other things, the foregoing book critically explores, in some depth, the ideas and arguments of a number of atheist writers, including: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Bart Ehrman, Greg Epstein, Victor Stenger, John Allen Paulos, Stuart Kauffman, and Darrel Ray. I believe their perspectives (both individually and collectively) are fraught with a variety of problems. 

More specifically, the aforementioned individuals often tout their books -- or this is done or their behalf by individuals who are like-minded -- as being works of reason and science. Unfortunately, both reason and science often seem to be in short supply in those works. 

People are free to believe whatever they like. Moreover, I have no desire to take that freedom away from them. 

I do not know what, if anything, will happen to the foregoing individuals after death (and two of them -- namely, Christopher Hitchens and Victor Stenger -- might already have some insight into this matter). Similarly, I have no idea what fate lies in wait for me beyond the far (but drawing ever closer) horizons that circumscribe my Earthly life. 

I don't dislike atheists, nor do I dislike people who are committed to a different form of spirituality than I am. Furthermore, I do not harbor ill-will toward any of them. 

Like me, they are human beings who are attempting to do the best they can with the limited information they have. Quite frankly, I hope that things turn out felicitously for them in any number of ways, but all of these considerations are way beyond my pay grade. 

However, as has been said: "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." All of the individuals identified previously have spent considerable amounts of time engaged in throwing stones at the idea of religion, and, yet, if one looks at the structural properties of the conceptual houses from which they are lobbing their linguistic projectiles, one is able to develop a fair understanding with respect to just how fragile, flimsy, and vulnerable the foregoing conceptual structures often are. 

I do not have a problem with someone who criticizes the hypocrisy of people who claim to be religious and, then, proceed to act in ways that run contrary to basic principles of decency, morality, fairness, humanity, and character. And, in fact, there are many criticisms -- with which I would tend to agree -- that the individuals who previously were identified by name tend to level against those who are engaged in all manner of religious hypocrisy. 

Nonetheless, when the foregoing authors try to generalize from the acts of individuals and, in the process, offer blanket criticisms concerning the nature of religion, they become engaged in activities of confabulation in which they conflate and confuse their own invented imaginings concerning existence with the actual nature of religion. In the process, they arbitrarily define and frame religion according to their own likes and dislikes.

The nature of religion is very simple to state. It gives expression to an individual's search for the truth concerning the nature of one's relationship with Being/Reality. 

Some individuals engage the foregoing sort of search in very constructive, character-driven ways. Other individuals do so in very destructive, abusive, and problematic ways.

The truth -- whatever it turns out to be -- is sacred, hallowed ground and is deserving of both our veneration and commitment. Nonetheless, none of us (whatever our beliefs might be) is justified in supposing that what we believe is necessarily synonymous with the truth concerning the nature of reality.

Therefore, perhaps there should be some degree of humility present in the foregoing sort of search in order to allow for the possibility that one just might be wrong about what one believes the nature of truth to be (whether such beliefs are oriented in a theistic or non-theistic manner). Unfortunately, this sort of humility often seems to be missing from the works of many of the previously mentioned individuals.  

There are a number of atheists who have trashed a few of my books on religious issues -- especially ones that are critical of the writings of Sam Harris. They have done so without even reading what I have said, and I know this because their criticisms lack the specificity of someone who has gone through what has been written and, then, points out specific examples of what they believe to be problematic with whatever I might have put forth in a given book. 

I don't mind if someone has a legitimate criticism of something that I have said. However, the sorts of reviews being alluded to in the previous paragraph tend not to be exercises in honesty.

Such individuals provide negative "reviews" of some of my books based not on a sincere and genuine desire to engage in a dialog about the nature of reality but because they wish to try to control what other people do, and do not, read. Apparently, they believe that if they can place my writings in a negative light, this will discourage potential readers from purchasing those books ... but the tactic hasn't succeeded since, to date, I have sold thousands of books in different parts of the world.

Nevertheless, what some of the individuals who write blanket, negative reviews concerning my work are actively engaged in doing is not a matter of trying to provide genuine assistance to others with respect to the latter's search for truth. Instead, the former individuals wish to interfere with, or undermine, the possibility that any given seeker after truth might undertake her or his search in a manner that might lead to conclusions other than what such negative reviewers wish to impose upon the unsuspecting readers of those reviews. 

By becoming engaged in the foregoing sorts of activities, such individuals are immersed in processes of spiritual abuse and proselytizing on behalf of atheists everywhere. Given that those people often consider themselves to be antithetical to all manner of spiritual abuse and proselytizing, their activities are rather -- to say the least -- ironic in character.

Unlike the foregoing individuals, there was one atheist -- an individual from Canada -- who wished to remain an atheist but who indicated in his review that, nonetheless, he found the arguments in one of my books on religion to be both intelligent and well-reasoned. I appreciated that review more than most -- even more than some reviews that were written by people who agreed with me -- because despite the fact that the gentleman from Canada didn't accept my perspective, nevertheless, he was willing to take the time to read what I had said and, after having done so, was willing to acknowledge that despite whatever reservations he might have about my ideas, he was of the opinion that the book was not just an exercise in irrational, incoherent, ideological rhetoric. 

I hope people -- whether they believe in God or they don't -- will take the time to read the real world version of: Final Jeopardy: Religion and the Reality Problem (or the Kindle edition). I hope people -- irrespective of whether they agree or disagree with what the foregoing book says (or do a bit of both) -- will be interested in pursuing such ideas in an honest, sincere, fair, and humanistic fashion. 

I believe the foregoing book is written in such a way that anyone who reads it -- regardless of their conceptual orientation --  will come away with new ideas on which to critically reflect. My intention is to challenge people to re-think a variety of issues rather than to denigrate individuals whose ideas are being critically explored during Final Jeopardy: Religion and the Reality Problem

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Good Without God: A Sufi Response

Recently, I began reading a book entitled: Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein who is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University. The following discussion constitutes something of a critical review in relation to at least the introduction of that work.

I should begin by saying that the reason for critically engaging Chaplain Epstein’s book is not because I feel threatened by anything that he says concerning a nonreligious approach to life … any more than I would feel threatened by the religious ideas of someone with whom I might disagree.  The purpose of any exercise in critical reflection should be to try to: Explore possibilities, raise questions, probe problems, clarify issues, and enrich discourse.

Moreover, I don’t look at people such as Chaplain Epstein as enemies, evildoers, or individuals who are headed for perdition. I can sincerely say that I have no idea what the future holds – in this world or beyond -- for either Chaplain Epstein or myself.

We both are committed to exploring what it means to be a human being. The fact that we have come up with different perspectives concerning that issue and what, if anything, this means in the grander scheme of things entail considerations that are above my pay grade.

At one point during the introduction to his aforementioned book, Chaplain Epstein notes in passing that according to some opinion polls atheists are among the most reviled groups in America. He might, or might not, take heart to discover that I have come across the results of various opinion polls in which atheists are rated more favorably than Muslims in the United States.

Bragging rights aside concerning the identity of which group resides at the bottom of this or that favorability poll, Chaplain Epstein does say something in the introduction to his book with which I am in agreement. More specifically, he states: “The enemy … is not faith – the enemy … is hate, it is fear, it is ignorance, it is the darker part” that resides in every human being.

According to Chaplain Epstein, among other things, Humanists consider themselves to be “free thinkers, rationalists, skeptics” as well as naturalists. I find this description somewhat mystifying since it seems to imply that in order to be a freethinker, rationalist, skeptic, or naturalist, one must be someone who does not believe in God.

Free thinking, rationalism, skepticism, and naturalism can be rooted in both a nonreligious or religious context. Everything depends on the intentions underlying, and purposes for which, such cognitive activities are being used. 

For example, a naturalist is considered to be someone who believes that everything is a function of some set of natural causes or phenomena and, as well, believes that all references to supernatural and spiritual realities are ill considered if not irrelevant to establishing the truth concerning the nature of existence. Sufis maintain there is no reality but Divinity, and, therefore, such reality constitutes the only sense of naturalism that is possible … a sense in which it is wrong to distinguish between the natural and the supernatural since the natural gives expression to whatever the nature of reality makes possible.

Moreover, under the right sort of circumstances, even some mystics make use of reason just as Humanists do. However, there are differences in understanding between the two groups concerning the nature of reason, its possible limits, and how to apply reason to any given issue.

As far as the quality of being skeptical is concerned, part of the training of a Sufi is to develop a healthy and constructive skepticism concerning the reliability of the ideas, values, purposes, meanings, intentions, desires, and emotions that arise in one’s own consciousness as well as in the phenomenology of other individuals. There are many forces capable of leading one away from the truth – whatever that might turn out to be – and, consequently, one should refine one’s capacity for skeptical engagement of oneself and life in order to try to minimize -- as much as this can be accomplished -- the degree of distortion and error in one’s understanding of things.

If one wishes to adopt a skeptical stance toward life, then, one needs to be prepared to apply such skeptical inclinations to everything … including one’s own ideas, values, beliefs, and behaviors. To question just the religious ideas of other individuals is to invoke a biased and skewed form of skepticism.

One also must be skeptical with respect to nonreligious ideas as well. In fact, one should be prepared to be skeptical toward skepticism itself because, on occasion, we are able to uncover certain truths, and, therefore, being skeptical about what is true is the sort of hobgoblin of consistency that is characteristic of truly narrow minds.

In my opinion, there is no form of skeptical methodology that is more rigorous than the Sufi mystical path. At the same time, Sufi methodology indicates that skepticism is a means, not an end … that is, while adopting a skeptical stance toward much that takes places within the phenomenology of lived life is a very important thing to do, nonetheless, within limits, being able to arrive at a correct understanding concerning certain aspects of Being is, as intimated earlier, still possible.

Chaplain Epstein claims that the central issue is not about whether, or not, it is possible for someone who does not believe in God to be moral, perform good deeds or develop strong character traits. He believes that such possibilities are very real and, furthermore, he believes there are many examples to which one could point in defense of such a perspective.

He feels that the more interesting question is what makes such moral behavior, good deeds, and character possible. In other words, how does someone who does not believe in God go about being moral, or having character, or performing good deeds?

The question that Chaplain Epstein is raising is a good one … perhaps better than he supposes is the case. As a former professor, one of the issues that I had to consider with respect to any given student was whether, or not, the assignments handed in by that individual were his or her own work.

Did the person cheat on a given test? Did that individual plagiarize material from sources that were not properly cited in the notes or bibliography accompanying the main content of the essay or paper?

I didn’t start out with an orientation of suspicion when grading exams or papers. However, during the course of reading through what some students handed in, certain things might trigger such a concern.

I tried my best to get to know the students through interchanges both within and outside of classes. Many of my classes usually consisted of between 35-40 students, and by the end of the term, I knew them all by name as well as had a sense of what they were, and were not, capable of doing within the context of a given course.

Chaplain Epstein claims that he is interested in the question of how people can be good without God. I am interested in that question as well.

We are not necessarily the architects of our own capacities for: Consciousness, language, reason, logic, memory, intellect, creativity, understanding, or emotion. In fact, for a number of years in both Canada and the United States, I taught a variety of courses in psychology – and, consequently, I was able to develop a fairly informed insight into the epistemological status of the understanding of modern sciences – biological or physical – concerning what makes any of the aforementioned capacities possible or how they came into being.

All manner of hypotheses, theories, and models exist concerning such issues. What is missing is conclusive evidence that any of those ideas are correct, and contrary to the claims of some individuals, science is not even close to resolving the many mysteries that permeate our attempts to understand the origin and nature of either human existence or human capabilities.

If someone has doubts about the tenability of the foregoing claim, she or he might like to take a look at several books which I have written – such as Volumes I, II, and III of the Final Jeopardy series or the book: Evolution and the Origin of Life. All of the foregoing books go into considerable detail concerning different facets of particle physics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, evolution, and more that are not well-understood by modern science… and I might add in passing that none of the foregoing discussion pits some form of creationism against some form of secular materialism but sticks to just probing science per se.

So, when someone maintains that human beings exhibit moral behavior, good deeds, and/or quality character absent the presence of God, this triggers something in me that is similar to what used to occur when I was grading the test or term paper of some of my students. Namely, I wonder if the individuals who are making claims about what is possible without God might be committing a form of plagiarism in which they are taking credit for something that is not their own work and are failing to cite the proper sources that make their ideas and actions possible.

Where do the ideas come from that end up being expressed through good deeds or which result in moral behavior of this or that kind? What makes the compassion, love, aspiration, courage, patience, perseverance, and so on possible that permits one to understand, for example, the plight of others and, as a result, want to do something about such situations? Where does the will come from to carry through on the original ideas and intentions? Where do the intellect, memory, understanding, reason, and logic come from that helps to shape the realization of the original intention? Where do the means and opportunities come from that permit one to be in a position to help others? What caused the circumstances of someone to be in a condition of need and why?

Individuals who are inclined in either a nonreligious or a religious manner both tend to want to consider themselves to be the source of good deeds, moral behavior, and quality character traits.  However, neither group can prove that they are the primary causal agent for any of the foregoing events … all they can do is to indicate that on a given occasion a certain individual was the locus of manifestation through which such properties were realized.

Chaplain Epstein notes that thousands of innocent lives are ripped away by hurricanes, earthquakes and other “acts of God”. He indicates that an increasing number of people have come to conclude that the world does not have competent moral management and that, consequently, they feel they must become “superintendants” of their own lives and try to resolve the many problems that beset human beings … but they wish to do so in a way that can be considered to be constructive and, therefore, described as being “good”.

To contend that because thousands of allegedly innocent lives are destroyed through so-called “acts of God” and, therefore, suggest that God -- if God exists -- is not a competent moral manager is an arbitrary judgment based on complete ignorance concerning the nature of existence. Simply because one doesn’t understand why things are the way they are doesn’t necessarily mean that what occurs is due to incompetent moral management.

Moreover, one wonders why Chaplain Epstein should limit the “acts of God” to events such as earthquakes and hurricanes. If God exists, then, sooner or later, every human being dies through one or another act of God, and we have no better insight into the nature of our individual demise than we have with respect to the deaths of thousands of people via the way of floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, volcanic activity, and other natural disasters.

Someone dies at a very young age. Or, someone dies through no apparent fault of his or her own. Or, someone dies a slow, agonizing death.

What are we to make of any of this? A lot depends on whether, or not, one has the full story concerning such happenings.

Those who believe that the universe is operating through some form of incompetent moral management believe they have all the facts concerning such situations. One wonders how those individuals would go about proving that they are in possession of all relevant information about any given tragedy or death.

Human beings are notorious backseat drivers. We tend to kibitz about the way another person – or God – does things irrespective of whether, or not, we understand what we are talking about. We always tend to give preference to our own take on things and believe that one’s own understanding is the most reliable means for judging life events.

This is the way of the ego. Such an inclination is at the heart of the dark side of being human that Chaplain Epstein warned his readers about in the introduction to his book and about which I voiced my agreement earlier in this commentary.

In addition, implying that God – if God exists – is an incompetent moral manager because thousands of innocent lives are lost through “acts of God” such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and the like suggests that Chaplain Epstein knows of some absolute form of moral management which is independent of God and through which the actions of any god that would permit the destruction of innocent lives can be evaluated impartially and objectively. If so, one would like to know what the nature of that absolute form of moral management is and what constitutes its source of authoritativeness.

All we really know is that we are not in control of many, if any, life events, and such knowledge tends to leave us with a sense of helpless frustration. So, there is a tendency within us to adopt the existential stance of most politicians and state: “You know what’s wrong with the world, I’m not in charge.”

There are at least two things that are very evident when it comes to human existence. First, reality has a very stubborn tendency to resist our efforts to make it conform to our likes and dislikes, and, secondly, we are almost completely ignorant about why things are the way they are.

One can be as cynical, skeptical, rationalistic, and freethinking as one likes. Nevertheless, after the dust from all our cognitive activity ends, we tend to be as ignorant about the ultimate nature of reality as we were before engaging in such activities.

Operating out of a condition of ignorance will not shed light on whether, or not, the world is being governed through morally incompetent management. All of our speculations, theories, ideas, models, and conceptual systems concerning how we would do things differently if we were put in charge is so much spitting into the mysterious and unpredictable winds of existence that are buffeting our being.

I am interested in trying to find out what or why a billion nonreligious people believe what they do for the same reason that I am interested in finding out why billions of religious people believe what they do. I am interested in finding out whether someone – or any person -- is right concerning such beliefs, and I consider this to be the number one issue facing a human being … to try to determine – to whatever extent this is possible -- the location and character of whatever truths are accessible to human existence.

I don’t merely want to have an understanding in which to believe and through which to develop a purpose or be able to fashion a morality of some kind or find some sort of meaning concerning life. I want to know – if this is possible -- which purpose, form of morality, and meaning actually reflects the nature of reality.

This is the problem with which we all grapple and for which we all are seeking answers and for which we all – one day – might, or might not, be held accountable. Are the numerous decisions that we have made along the way and that have affected others in different ways … are such decisions ones for which we will have regrets if the truth is ever disclosed to us?

The song “My Way” has the line: “Regrets, I’ve had a few … but, then, again, too few to mention”. These are the words of a person who seems to be looking at life through the filters of his or her own myopic view of the truth of things … some one who is viewing life through the very rose-colored, self-serving glasses through which the ego engages life.

Wisdom begins to appear on the horizons of one’s existence when one is prepared to acknowledge the possibility that “My Way” might not be the best way to engage existence. One must be ready to really listen to what reality might be trying to tell us about its nature rather than imposing our own brand of ignorance on to the problems of life.

According to Chaplain Epstein, Humanism “means taking charge of the often lousy world around us and working to shape it into a better place”. This seems to indicate that he knows what “better” means, and if so, then, it tends to leave unanswered the question of what to do when people disagree about what constitutes the nature of “better”.  The foregoing issue also faces those who believe in religion … all too frequently, they assume they know what “better” means and, consequently, often do not critically reflect on the issue of what to do when two senses of “better” collide.

Chaplain Epstein indicates that Humanism “rejects dependence on faith, the supernatural, divine texts, resurrection, reincarnation, or anything else for which we have no evidence.” The issue of rejecting dependence on: Faith, the supernatural, divine texts and so on revolves about the problem of determining what is going to count as evidence and how to interpret such evidence.

Rejecting something as evidence, or citing it as evidence, is a meaningless exercise until one looks at the framework through which something is going to be counted as evidence or rejected as such. Furthermore, one has to ask about the degree of arbitrariness present in such a framework of epistemological or hermeneutical evaluation … and this is as true for religious believers as it is for nonreligious believers.

Wikipedia describes “arbitrariness” as the quality of being "determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle". However, this leaves a question in the wake of such a definition as the latter makes its way through epistemological waters.

More specifically, one can’t help but raise the following question: How arbitrary is a given person’s notion of “necessity, reason, and principle”? Or, asked in a different way, what is it that makes any given notion of: “necessity, reason, and principle” be something other than arbitrary?

Presumably, the answer to the foregoing questions would be a function of the truth. Any notion of necessity, reason, and principle that does not reflect and is not rooted in the truth is arbitrary. In short, arbitrariness is that which is based on something other than the truth.

Humanists insist that the journey from the womb to the tomb is all that we have … but they have no evidence to demonstrate the truth of their claim. They – like most of the rest of us – have only a deep, pervasive ignorance concerning such matters, and, yet, they appear to want everyone to proceed as if the Humanist understanding of things is the only necessary, reasoned, principled take on life, and, perhaps not so strangely, the Humanist position really is just a variation on the manner in which many, if not most religious people proceed as well.

No one wants to admit that they are ignorant about almost everything that matters. Consequently, no one wants to address the issue of how do we collectively proceed given such ignorance. How do we pursue and make allowances for what we don’t know without getting problematically entangled in each other’s lives?

According to Chaplain Epstein, “humanism is a cohesive world movement based on the creation of good lives and communities, without God.” Irrespective of whether one wishes to exclude God or include God in our lives and communities, the notion of what constitutes “goodness” is a long-standing problem.

Quite frequently, our ideas concerning “the good” merely reduce down to our likes and dislikes. Therefore, such notions tend to be quite independent of necessity, reason, or principle except to the extent that we like to throw such words around as we try to persuade one another that our system of likes and dislikes is better than your system of likes and dislikes.

Chaplain Epstein claims that for most people, “religion is not about belief in an all-seeing deity with a baritone voice and a flowing beard. It is about family, tradition, consolation, ethics, memories, music, art, architecture, and much more.” First, Chaplain Epstein’s reductionistic depiction of God is quite argumentative and narrow in scope.

More importantly, I am willing to venture that for many people who have a genuine commitment to the idea of God’s existence, their central concern is about a sense of relationship with Divinity via the mind, heart and soul rather than merely being a function of arbitrary images – auditory or visual -- of one kind or another. Even where images are present, I am inclined to feel it is the sense of relationship with Divinity that pervades such images that is of utmost importance rather than the images per se … that is, the images stand for something beyond the images themselves … something ineffable and hard to put in words … it is the dance of one’s phenomenology with a mysterious, unseen – but very much sensed – Partner.

Secondly, even if one were to agree with Chaplain Epstein that for many people religion is much more about family, tradition, ethics, memories, music, art, and architecture than anything else, one still might raise the issue of whether such people have missed the essential point of religion or spirituality. In other words, irrespective of however important family, tradition, memories, and so on might be within a religious context, nonetheless, to restrict spirituality to such considerations tends to obscure the following possibility – namely, that the opportunity for, and the journey toward, realizing one’s essential potential might constitute the primary purpose to which religion and spirituality are seeking to draw our attention.

I am not trying to say that what goes on in the world is unimportant. Rather, in the latter part of the foregoing paragraph, emphasis is being given to the idea that life might be a means to, and occasion for, a process of spiritual development rather than being an end unto itself.

Even if we all engaged the world as a project for pursuing goodness in this life and were successful in agreeing on, and realizing, such a project, if the world turns out to exist for something other than, or is transcendent to, such Earthly interests, then, however good we make the world, we might have missed the purpose for which life on Earth came into being. Living the ‘good life’ – whatever this might mean – has to reflect and be rooted in the truth of reality’s nature … we cannot arbitrarily decide what the meaning and purpose of Earthly life are and expect that everyone should submit to such an approach to things … anymore than we can arbitrarily decide that the purpose and meaning of life should be lived in accordance with some arbitrary theological notion.

Chaplain Epstein claims that we need what can be found or created in a Humanist community – “… a place where family, memory, ethical values, and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with intellectual honesty, and without a god.” I have no doubt that Humanists can come up with ideas concerning goodness and community that have meaning, value, and purpose for them … but how intellectually honest and defensible any of this might be is another set of issues altogether.

One could agree with the Humanist perspective that the journey from womb to tomb is unique and only comes our way once. However, acknowledging such a perspective does not require one to conclude that: “Family, memory, ethical value, and the uplifting of the human spirit can come together with intellectual honesty without a god.”

Of course, a similar sort of criticism can be leveled at those who find meaning, value, and purpose in this or that theology and, as a result, seek to play their own kind of zero-sum game with anyone who is unwilling to accept their edicts concerning the nature of reality. The commonality that ties all of us together – the people who are committed to some version of religious reality as well as the people who are committed to some nonreligious way of life – is our collective ignorance about so many of the key issues of life … an ignorance that we often do our best to deny, and a denial that tends to come at great cost to ourselves and the people amongst whom we live.

Despite the many accomplishments of modern science, we still have no demonstrable proof concerning how either the universe or life came into being. In addition, we do not know the how and why underlying the origins of consciousness, logic, reason, insight, memory, creativity, talent, language, and emotion. To claim that science offers the best account of the universe and its many mysteries is to arbitrarily inflate the status of the opinions and speculations of a group of very fallible individuals whose primary modus operandi appears to be its capacity to improve upon – within limits -- some of its many previously incorrect theories concerning the nature of the universe, life, and human potential.

This might be a sound strategy if one had an infinite amount of time to wait on some sort of final answer concerning the nature of reality. Unfortunately, this is not the situation in which we find ourselves since irrespective of whether one is inclined in a religious or nonreligious way, the time we have available to try to solve the mysteries of life is very limited … and, for unknown reasons, this constraint is much more severe for some individuals than it is for others.

Chaplain Epstein refers to Humanism through the filters of the European term: “lifestance”, and he claims that this term refers to something that is more than a philosophy but is not a religion.” One wonders in what sense a “lifestance” is more than a philosophy but other than a religion.

Such a statement seems to involve little more than playing around with the ambiguities of language and, thereby, making claims that can’t be spelled out in clear, defensible terms. To contend that Humanism is a lifestance and, therefore, neither a philosophy or a religion tends to ignore an obvious question … namely, if the Humanist lifestance is neither a philosophy nor a religion, then, what is it and from whence does it derive the sort of intellectual and moral authority that would warrant anyone, or everyone, to subscribe to its tenets?

Chaplain Epstein claims that: “Faith in God means believing absolutely in something, with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary.” To claim that people who have faith in God believe in something with no proof whatsoever is an attempt to reduce to nothingness the life experiences of people who believe ... it is an attempt to claim that because Humanists don’t recognize something as a proof, then, that something has no probative value … it is an attempt by Humanists to set themselves up as the arbiters of what is true and what is not true … and, even more importantly, it is an attempt to try to frame what human experiences have probative value and what human experiences don’t have such probative value. And, unfortunately, many individuals who believe in religion of one sort or another are often guilty of doing the same sort of thing.

Furthermore, one also would like to know just what is meant by the claim that Humanists have faith in humanity despite a great deal of evidence to indicate that such faith is not warranted. Just what is it in human beings that Humanists have faith in and how and where did this something come into being? Can Humanists prove that whatever dimension of being human in which they have faith came into existence and derived its potential from something other than Divinity?

For Humanists to claim that they want to do whatever they do without the idea of God raises a question … and it is a question that must also be asked, as well, of anyone who believes in religion of some kind. To what extent are one’s beliefs delusional in nature … that is, to what extent do one’s beliefs stray from the truth of things … for that is what a delusion is … a belief that is false … a belief that does not accurately reflect the actual nature of reality.

We all have our values, purposes, meanings, reasons, principles, and moral systems. Yet, we all lack the sort of definitive proof that would permit us to demonstrate to the satisfaction of any other presumably reasonable person that our values, purposes, meanings, reasons, principles, and systems of morality accurately reflect the actual nature of reality.

If there is no afterlife, then, what someone believes in this life has no causal relation to what transpires after we die. Irrespective of what we believe, we disappear into the abyss of non-existence, and that is the end of the matter.

If there is no God, then, talking about the good life is just an exercise in arbitrariness in which one tries to justify – without having any universally defensible basis for doing so – one’s own lonely, desperate need to have a sense of existential value, purpose, and meaning. This remains true independently of whether our definition of the good life is rooted in a religious or non-religious perspective.

However, if there is an afterlife and if there is a God, then what follows? Actually, nothing automatically or necessarily follows.

What becomes critical is discovering the truth – to whatever extent this can be done -- concerning the nature of the afterlife and the existence of God. Truth is not about having theories, hypotheses, speculations, opinions, beliefs, or a lifestance with respect to such matters … truth is a matter of accurate knowledge and understanding concerning reality.

Unfortunately, most of us are steeped in ignorance when it comes to the truth about the ultimate nature of reality. Even the precision of this or that science or the promises of this or that theology is helpless when it comes to answering what, if anything, existence is all about.

If I wanted to know what energy a certain species of sub-atomic particle might have when it engages in a certain kind of interaction with some other kind of particle, I would ask a quantum physicist. If I wanted to know about the nature of a given religious perspective with which I was unfamiliar, I would ask a theologian who knew about such matters.


However, when it comes to the ultimate nature of existence, scientists, humanists, and theologians are as ignorant as the rest of us are. Yet, depending on how open to a free-flowing dialog a given scientist, humanist, or theologian might be, I would be prepared to constructively explore with them what our collective options might be in the face of such ignorance and uncertainty.