Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sixth Sense

This last Friday I spent a considerable amount of time talking with a small group of people about god. On Saturday one of those people died. I will not go into the particulars, but I should state that the death was caused by an accident whose details suggest a more than passing reference to suicide. The event was sudden, unexpected, and traumatic to those who knew him. I did not know him well at all so his sudden death was decidedly less traumatic for me than many other people. My most important connection to him was that I was one of the last people to speak to him.

I should tease out a observation from this: “One of the last things he ever did was speak to an atheist about god.”

The human mind generates patterns from significant events. With this death, and the recent death of my former roommate, and the cancer scare with a close friend, I have some material well suited for use in developing intricate patterns. The mind brings together partially experienced phenomena to form the glue for these patterns. With highly traumatic events the patterns can be so real as to form the backbone of some truly horrid pathologies. With less severe events the patterns are easily distinguishable from reality so they can be examined, and may yield clues about the workings of the mind upon close examination. I do not mean general clues about generically human minds, but actionable information about actual minds. In this case the mind is mine (A mind that is very important to me).

Some of my loyal readers will detect a tone of self-centered unconcern for the significance of events in this post. A man is dead. This fellow thought about stuff and made decisions that led to his death. People cared about this guy, and those people now question what impact they had on his unfortunate end. There are people on our planet juggling feelings of inadequacy, comfort, doubt, fear, love, loss, and a host of others. There is hurt enough to go around and I might possibly, through the application of human empathy, lessen the burden of some caring people. Instead I dispassionately remark that I could use this as an opportunity to examine some arcane aspects of my personal reality. I hope this apparent self-centeredness comes as a surprise.

I should leverage the self-centeredness by pointing out that I am sitting here writing about a person’s death on the anniversary of my birth.

Death is such an iconic event that lives are defined by it. Atheists are especially defined by their death. There are many stories I have been told of Atheists finding some sort of god, usually Jesus, on their deathbeds. My favorite stories of deathbed conversions have involved public figures who are not dead (or even very sick as far as I know) yet. Everyone dies, however, and I am constantly asked what I think happens after we die. I do not think that people who are perceived as believers are asked this same question as often as I am. While posing as a Christian (for social or survival purposes) I have never been asked this question yet. The answer: “it isn’t really going to matter to me; is it?” has not proved to be sufficient to anyone.

Death defines lives and drives conversations about god. Death emphasizes the interaction I had with the fellow who died, and our conversation was about god. However, the conversation about god was not about death. The fellow who had already begun acting on his unfortunate plans (which after some additional decisions would result in his death) was interested in life. He was interested in “finding” a god type entity that would help him in life.

I am not immune to doubt. I have wondered if lying about a god of some type would have resulted in a more productive Saturday for this guy. I think I could lie convincingly about the existence of a great bearded father in the sky who answers prayers and loves everyone all the time. Would this lie have saved (in a purely literal sense) this fellow? Some people readily state that: “we’ll never know”. I don’t think that question is a satisfactory capstone to the events, or my feelings on them.

There are many things that I will never know. I will never know, for instance, if George Steinbrenner would have lived longer if the Yankees had won 8 World Series. I will never know if drying my wash outside was seen by space aliens as a signal to go home, and that is why they don’t visit. The things I will never know range from the mundane to the fantastical. The things I will never know range from the unimportant to the heartbreaking. The things I will never know range from things I never want to know about to those things I would pawn my future to purchase a glimpse of, but they are all just things I will never know.

My doubts are easily driven by the society I live in to question my reliance on reason as opposed to the supernatural. Reason also invites doubt as a method of tempering the impact of partial knowledge on behavior. Doubt, in my mind, is caused by significant events, not by significant uncertainty. The reason for this is simple. I pay attention to events more on the basis of their significance than on the basis of any uncertainty connected to them. Because of this “focus bias” a very significant event with small uncertainty will cause much more doubt than a mundane event with very little certainty. I can look across the street and see that my neighbor’s front door is closed, and I have no idea who closed it, and I will probably never know.

So, now that I am over 900 words into this entry, let me reach back towards the beginning to gather an idea I left there, before it gets too far away. I mentioned the mind using significant events to create patterns. Just in the last paragraph I mentioned “focus bias” causing doubt in direct proportion to the significance of events. These two psychological predispositions work in concert to provide strong perceptual manipulations.

Perception is also manipulated to provide stronger focus. I can remember the unfortunate fellow’s face after a single evening’s conversation where I cannot remember most people’s face…ever. I can remember portions of the conversation that would be unnoticeably forgettable under most circumstances. This additional focus enhances focus bias and provides additional details from which to create patterns.

There is just one psychological feedback loop after another going on in the reaction to significant potentially traumatic events. It is not surprising that entire event cascades can be fabricated to fit the ever deepening groove of psychological resonance. The fabricating of events feeds the feedback loops with new material not available from unadulterated reality. Fabrication can also be used to enhance the significance of events, leading to even more pronounced patterns, and focus bias, and more fabrication. It is easy to see how a significant life event can, along this spiral path, lead to psychological pathology. I’m sure there are many other pathways to psychological illness also.

What tools can be used to halt this self-destructive spiral? Initially one can use denial. This is one of my favorite tools. The idea is to minimize the focus bias and pattern formation by downgrading the significance of the events themselves. This can be like applying the brakes; the spiral is still active but it is slower. Hopefully the additional time can be used to employ additional tools.

Re-directing attention, sometimes called sublimation, can be useful once denial has been successfully employed. The brain works by enhancing often-used patterns of thought. By working in established patterns (as opposed to furthering the establishment of a new pattern) the psychological resonance of the new pattern is diminished. Sometimes just getting out and going for a walk “clears the mind” enough for reasoned observations to be useful. I find more engaging activities, like cycling or swimming, are most effective. One must be careful with highly engaging activities as they may require a minimum level of attention in order to be safely performed. Failing to notice oncoming traffic while recreating the particulars of a conversation with a becoming-ex-lover can be very hazardous.

Eventually reason must be used to allow acceptance of the significant events. If reason is applied too early in the acceptance cycle it can be used to fuel the cycle of psychological pathology. Reason can only be properly used once perception is under control. Anything that alters perception, including (perhaps especially) mood or psychoactive drugs, can potentially pervert the effects of reason. I should ask “what happens in dreams?” but this is just a blog post not a dissertation.

Reason can provide context. Up until this point focus has been on the significance of the events and the effect that significance has on the way the mind handles the perception of the reality of the events. Up until this point the perception has been self-directed. Looking at the contextual events provides a means to rationally assimilate the significant events. They become more like events that the perceiver participated in and less like events that occurred to the perceiver. The perceiver is now afforded choice in the actions he performed; no longer is the perceiver a marionette driven by events.

Only after the choices can be identified can the actions be examined for what they were. In extremely traumatic situations it may be impossible to accurately recall the actions; let alone decide on the choices which led to them. In less traumatic situations (like this one for me) the choices can be examined.

I presented this guy with information on god(s) that I thought was honest and helpful. I wanted to be honest and helpful. I wanted him to have many enjoyable Saturdays, and thought the information I provided him would help him enjoy them. These were my choices: to be honest and caring. If more people chose more often to be honest and caring there would be more honesty and caring in the world; this is a good thing.

The doubt that drives me to think I should have lied and provide information I think is almost always harmful is a necessary part of my response to the events I am dealing with. I welcome that doubt. I welcome the denial, the re-direction, the rationalization, and the human emotions they protect. I welcome my humanity. Though frail enough to evaporate at the touch of a few poor choices my humanity brings me the experience of love (some of you were probably wondering when I would mention love. I’ve gone on much longer than normal without slipping it in). Love cradles my perception with mind-blowing elegance.

The fellow who died was cared for and loved. He undoubtedly left holes in the fabric of some people’s lives. I cared about him before he died and his death left me with some knowledge of how my perception of the usefulness of caring can be perverted by my human ways of handling emotional stress. I just hope I can use this knowledge to process some of the real doozie stressors coming my way.


Chris said...

happy birthday

adult onset atheist said...

Thanks Chris. I hope your new digs in Hollywood are treating you well.