Monday, January 11, 2010

Go with the flow

Once, when I was much younger, I overheard a conversation about baseball and Calculus.  The conversation basically centered around the question of whether baseball players were just innately good at solving Calculus problems on the fly.  

The proposition being debated was this:
“Calculus is the best way to solve the intercepting trajectory problems needed to compete favorably in baseball.  The baseball players perform as if they know the answers that would be generated by multivariable calculus. The baseball players must be calculating the answers to these complex problems in a subtle and profound way.”

The proposition stems from the idea that once you have a "best" way of doing something the way to do it faster is to simply be faster at doing it.  Listening to this statement with 21st century ears paints it a special brand of absurdity.  Picture someone saying that the fastest way to get from one coast to another is to walk as fast as you can!?  Why not get in a car, or a train, or a plane?  Walking may be a "best" way of betting from point A to point B but it is not the fastest in most circumstances.  The method dictates both the skillset needed to perform the activity and the way we measure success in the activity. 

Do the same rules apply when discussing thought?  Of course they do.  The method used to tackle a problem defines how we look at the answer and how we learn to achieve the answer.  A child may learn to add by counting their fingers and toes.  This works to develop an answering strategy.  The child may then memorize a set of addition tables.  This provides a larger set of answers faster, but does not provide the visual verification that the physical toe/finger  sum provides. 

One of the more emotional sources of resistance to the transition to atheist life is the silly notion that all thinking must be done using reason, specifically scientific reason.  The baseball player the elders argued about would be forced to do Calculus.  Playing “by feel” would be too spiritual.  If the players used some sort of visualization device like chi or guiding forces they might as well set up to begin a proof of some theist god's existence, wouldn't they?  Of course not!

The scientific method is an approach to reasoning that plods through information.  It is extremely good at establishing baseline information but it cannot be used to apply baseline information to actually doing much of anything.  

The next leap of reasoning is that of the engineering method.  Science establishes principles; mix these principles with some materials, and you have engineering.  With engineering you can build and design and do stuff, but it takes time.  There is a rich history of people using engineering principles to establish baseline knowledge.  The results have sometimes been wacky and wildly inaccurate theories.  There is little historical evidence of people using science to create great tangible things.  

Reason is diluted even more in the performance of most human activities.  It is easier to just know, or better yet just feel, when time is of the essence. 

When driving a car on a wet road it is possible to feel how well the tires are gripping the road simply by comparing the handling of the car with a memory of how the car handled on a dry road.  A very experienced driver anticipates the movement of the vehicle based on a series of instantaneous comparisons to a multitude of similar experiences.  In traffic a driver anticipates other drivers as well as the road melding a multitude of physical experiential memories to create a subliminally self referential method for driving.

If a person is as unidimensional as to only perform a single demanding function in their life it is fully conceivable that there would be no need for them to create a device to categorize their experiential methods for acting.  For someone who only drives all the time driving would only be driving.  Driving in the rain would only be driving in the rain. 

For most people there is much to be gained by creating categorizing tools that assist us when we apply patterns of experiential memory to a disparate things.  We can tell ourselves that doing something new is “just like” doing something we are familiar with. 

An advanced form of this is the use of a generalized feeling with a visual or tactile set of cues.  “feel the energy flowing through your body” or “see the lines of force connecting you to the intended action”.  Because these methods are used in the absence of reasoned verification they are often cited as examples of faith working.  If they are examples of faith working then the definition of faith that is used provides no evidence of anything supernatural.  I am describing the mind working without reason to perform actions for which the time lag imposed by reasoning impairs performing the action. 

Why, you might ask, am I going to such trouble to define the importance of types of thought that are entirely unscientific and, worse yet, steeped in the language of mumbo-jumbo? The answer is that in order to do anything cool one must first learn how to do cool stuff.  The algorithmic shortcuts that have been developed through thousands of years of human experience are described in an unfortunate language, but it is a language that can be understood.

Since I have a hard enough time doing things I am in no position to re-write the way masters have described doing them.  Instead I apply the knowledge of the 21st century to interpret these mechanistic descriptions.  This frees me from the need to appease spirits and daemons when doing anything that I must use “shortcut reasoning” to do well at.  It also allows me to get a more complete feel for the activity that I find enjoyable.

When balancing I am told to visualize the flow of energy called “chi”.  I avoid tensing my muscles and dampen overcorrection to minor perturbations in the balanced state.  I visualize a massless liquid that flows and sloshes. Each muscle is controlled, not in isolation, but as systems that respond to the flow of the imaginary liquid.  I do not have to calculate or postulate, the response is immediate.  What I use is akin to an applet called “balance”.

The thinking centers running the balance applet are the cerebellum and the cerebrum.  The reptilian brain perched on the brain stem can dictate actions quickly and efficiently but does so in an utterly unreasoning way.  In order to provide direction to the cerebellum the cerebrum must provide simple instructions.  Creating a virtual model of the instruction set (the visualization of liquid chi energy) facilitates the rapid indexing of the instructions.  When the cerebellum wants to know what to do next the answer is there.  The cerebellum does not care if the cerebrum is making logical sense.  It will twitch a muscle to respond to imaginary liquid energy as quickly as to the solution of a complex multivariate equation. 

The more that neural patterns of communication are used in the brain the stronger and more efficient they become.  The actual structure of the brain responds to the ways in which we think.  In this way the simple applet goes from software to firmware as it is used.  As one becomes better at visualizing the activity the more the visualization becomes unnecessary and we can become even more unthinking and automatic in our actions. 

Once the mental applet, described in the language of magic and superstition, is uploaded the need to describe it in supernatural terms disappears.  We can now identify the actions and describe them in terms of their effect.  Very complex actions are possible.  Identifying the process of learning them in an objective and nonmagical way only makes them a more powerful tool.

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