Wednesday, January 28, 2009

An Interesting Example of Foresight

I sat in the audience at a recent religious discussion panel and had the good fortune to share conversations with two of the panelists after it had finished. Both panelists (the Muslim and Christian panelists), when questioned about why they believed (or why I should believe) presented practically identical variations of the first cause argument.
While I think that the standard response to the first cause argument (where did God come from, then?) is all well and good, I prefer to rely on my own brand of confusing weirdness - a sort of mathematical argument that even though the universe has a finite age, there does not need to have been a first instant of time, and hence no first cause is needed. Additionally, I like to object to the prohibition on infinite causal chains and to the crucial separation of cause from effect in the early universe, but this time I focused on time as a spatial dimension and so (possibly) finite but unbounded.
The difficulty with this argument, as I said explicitly several times during these conversations, is that it dispatches nicely with the question of a first cause, but it proposes no answer to the question of "why is there something rather than nothing?" - the best formulation I have yet heard for the idea apparently being pondered.
I was surprised, however, that both panelists seemed extremely resistant to the question being phrased in this fashion. It makes sense for them to resist it, since "God" is a clearly unsatisfying answer to this phrasing, presumably being a "something" himself, but I find it distasteful to think that the panelists had seen this consequence of the phrasing and consciously resisted it. Instead, I am left with the puzzle whereby, if they were being honest and candid about their thoughts, why would they have refused such a clear restatement of the question at hand?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Role-Playing Games, Schizophrenia, and Skepticism

What is it that role-playing games, schizophrenia, and skepticism have in common?

Besides being demonized by Christians, they all involve the reality-testing circuitry in the brain.

Role-playing games, and I refer here primarily to the pen-and-paper variety, require a group of people to all take on the mindsets of fictional characters inhabiting the same imaginary landscape while keeping the fictional separate from the real. This is not difficult for very many people when it comes to dealing with their own character and eir environment, but it suffers occasional (if notorious) difficulties when it comes to separating the personality of another player from the personality of the corresponding character. In other words, sometimes in-game conflicts get accidentally translated into real life.
Experience playing RPGs develops the skill of compartmentalization while at the same time bringing it into the consciousness of the player. Almost everyone has at least some capability to compartmentalize, but one of the primary causes of inconsistent thought and behaviour in a person is when a person doesn't realize that two compartments of their thought are contradictory. Becoming more aware of compartmentalization enables people to better avoid these sorts of situations.

Schizophrenia can be characterized in part as a critical failure of the brain's reality-testing circuitry - its major symptoms include delusions and hallucinations - in particular this is true of the paranoid variety.
Everyone has thoughts (usually fleeting) considering the possibility that others are acting maliciously towards them, and everyone occasionally imagines what it might be like if certain pieces of their life were acting to directly oppose them, but someone with paranoid schizophrenia simply doesn't treat these thoughts as imagination. A schizophrenic can't simply dismiss these thoughts, sometimes just imagining the possibility of betrayal is enough for em to believe that it is true.

There is some speculation among neuropsychologists that even normal people actually believe whatever they imagine, but they are able to subsequently disbelieve with even a moment's consideration. If this is the case, it seems all the more relevant for skepticism and the scientific method to be included in any educational curriculum.

Skepticism is the consistent application of strict evidentiary criteria to any proposition. In addition to being a fundamental part of the scientific method, skepticism is practiced by almost everyone in a large variety of situations (if you think you are never skeptical, I've got some property in Alpha Centauri I'd like to sell you).
The primary realization of skeptical thinking is that the human brain's reality-testing circuitry is not very accurate in most situations. Once you have had this realization, it is simply a matter of questioning how your innate reality-testing can be supplemented enough to meet the demands of modern life.

Really, the only negative consequence of applying too much skeptical thinking to a question is that it can waste time and energy. For example, is the table in front of you real or imagined? Your innate reality-testing software says that if you can see it and touch it, it's real. Of course our senses can be fooled pretty easily, so we can go to great skeptical lengths to determine whether or not that table is real. We can go through months of scientific testing, double-blind trials (of some kind) and painful statistical analysis to answer the question, but all this analysis is even more likely to give us the correct answer than the simple and obvious test, wasting a whole lot of time and energy in the process. The difficulty in thinking skeptically in practice is developing guidelines for determining which situations are worth leaving to your brain along and which are worth investigating in detail.

There is an additional point of contact between skepticism and role-playing games, specifically fantasy-based RPGs. In a role-playing game you can imagine what a world which involved magic might actually be like. The more experience you have imagining what life in a magical world might be like, the easier it is to recognize the faults of magical thinking in the real world.