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Author Topic: Conversion, reconciliation, and rationality.
scifibum
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I was thinking about conversion experiences. People claim to be transformed/reformed by divine power. One particular flavor of this is the man who loved sin (or hated righteousness) coming around to the opposite view. According to Wikipedia, the Latin word "conversio" literally refers to changing one's mind, or going the other way.

From an outside perspective, I might tend to view the invocation of divine intervention as a way to reconcile conflicts of self perception. I hope to illustrate by the following two narratives of the same events:

1) A young man finds that he greatly enjoys drinking alcohol and having sex with as many women as he can. Some of his associates discourage such behavior and so he keeps his indulgences secret from them. Over time he comes to realize that his drinking is interfering with his obligations, and that his sexual behavior has had some troubling consequences. However, he still enjoys the drink and the women, and is reluctant to give them up.

2) A young man succumbs to the Tempter, and against his better nature becomes a drunk and a lecher. He is so ashamed that he hides his behavior. The consequences of his sin mount against him, ruining his productivity and causing misery among others. But he is in the grip of Satan, and is too weak to change himself.

Now, IMO neither of those narratives is entirely fair. However, I think they are good enough examples of the beliefs that two different guys might hold about themselves, with regard to the same kinds of behavior.

What I want to illustrate is that while both guys come to a realization that they are doing bad things, the second guy, by virtue of his belief framework, has an option the first guy lacks: he can cast off the burden of knowing he was capable (and desirous) of sin, blame it on the devil, and accept the salvation offered by his god. This may reflect an important mechanism of human psychology (whether or not the specific beliefs are accurate).

The first guy is left with conflicting desires. He will very often be capable of changing his behavior, but it might require a process that is less about a pivotal change and more about a struggle to reconcile his desires.

I've heard and read conversion stories with the following hinges:
Slave owner converting to abolitionism
Jingoist converts to peacenik
Drunkard to teetotaler

It's very interesting, to me, that such reversals are so often tied to religious conversion. I mentioned a psychological mechanism that I felt was potentially important...

I know that some experiments have shown that stimulation of parts of the brain can cause experiences that feel strongly spiritual. And when religious people describe powerful spiritual experiences, they are often at the vertices of personal changes of direction.

(I know at least one guy who had a non-religious conversion experience, but interestingly, the stunning insight on which the conversion pivoted led to what seems to me to be a cherished dogma of transcendent significance. So it was, kind of, religious after all.)

What if the brain is built to permit reversals of behavior or belief via a sense of divine influence? Clearly that would not be the only way drastic changes can happen; I know that trauma can lead to sharp changes. I also know that a key insight can do the same. Often, neither are a practical/desirable method of accomplishing anything.

For example: should we socialize health care? Someone might be convinced that we should if the current system causes them a lot of grief (trauma). But we don't want to cause everyone a lot of grief; that's what we want to avoid. There's evidently no profound, discrete insight that will transform someone's position on this question overnight. It usually takes a lot of work to change someone's views.

Now, if someone felt inspired that it was God's will...

I wonder if a rationalist approach to discourse and government would necessarily discard what might be the most accessible and useful mechanism of human change. If not discarded, how it might be manipulated in novel ways is certainly an interesting question. I wonder if neurological insight into transcendent feelings will be a tool of totalitarian power, or if we'll actually (chaotically, organically) use it to transcend inborn tendencies that threaten our long term survival.

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kenmeer livermaile
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Much of modern talk therapy boils down to attempting to provide a transformative 'breakthrough' insight that, once achieved, makes conversion easier.

Having been through this mill several times, I'm more dubious than not.

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KidB
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Well, scifibum...or should I say William James?...I would argue that the second guy has a harder time because he has chosen to view his problem in terms of moral absolutes. The danger of which is that *any* failure of self-control is tantamount to total failure. Elevating one's personal struggles to cosmic proportions does not strike me as a pragmatic strategy for achieving personal moderation.
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KidB
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As for the possibilities of mind control, aiming for Ye Olde Pleasure Centres seems to work just fine. Also simpler.
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scifibum
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I didn't mean to imply that the second guy would always be advantaged. Just that, if I go by the narratives I've heard from hundreds of people, he might be able to swing a dramatic conversion. I would agree that the black and white of moral absolutes is pretty ripe fodder for personal misery.
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KidB
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quote:
I wonder if neurological insight into transcendent feelings will be a tool of totalitarian power, or if we'll actually (chaotically, organically) use it to transcend inborn tendencies that threaten our long term survival.
I must admit that I have wondered about this myself - especially since people have been doing it for hundreds of years. Neurological insight hardly seems necessary. The human capacity for ecstatic experience through music and group frenzy has been used to control populations throughout history.

[ February 09, 2010, 06:27 PM: Message edited by: KidB ]

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scifibum
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Look at the inverse: what if we can turn it off?
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KidB
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quote:
I didn't mean to imply that the second guy would always be advantaged. Just that, if I go by the narratives I've heard from hundreds of people, he might be able to swing a dramatic conversion. I would agree that the black and white of moral absolutes is pretty ripe fodder for personal misery.
Yes, that's true, even if only because his world view *is* dramatic. [Smile]

But I see your point.

I'm always charmed (and in some ways more convinced) by conversions that are anti-dramatic. C.S. Lewis, for instance, explains that he was riding in the sidecar of his brother's motorcycle. He was still a "skeptic" when the short trip to the zoo began. Nothing unusual happened along the way, but by the time he had arrived he realized he had "accepted Christ."

Nothing ecstatic or dramatic involved, just a kind of subtle shift into a different mental space. Apparently, a lot of conversions happen that way. When you least expect it...woops!.

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KidB
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quote:
Look at the inverse: what if we can turn it off?
Well, we can do that now, though the consequences are severe. What exactly would you be removing? I'm pretty sure the music-ecstasy axis involves many, many different brain parts.
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scifibum
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Yeah, let's not start with the lobotomies just now. I don't have anything specific in mind, other than the idea that perhaps we could suppress or ignore certain feelings in certain situations, with sufficient technology. Perhaps there's no potential there that isn't already available via earplugs and determined skepticism, I don't know.
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KidB
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Pure suppression with no side-effects might be a long way off, but I think we already can supress certain feelings by inducing other feelings, emotional or neurological "noise." I believe that, to certain extent, even television does this, as does a whole a array of medications.

Suppressing "spiritual feelings" is a hard concept for me to wrap my head around, since I think so many such feelings are aggregates or re-orientations of mental states we don't always think of as spiritual. That's the problem I have with dogmatic atheism which seeks to purge "religion" from the world - every component of "religion" has a non-spiritual corollary. It's a particular arrangement of parts rather than a thing unto itself.

[ February 09, 2010, 07:08 PM: Message edited by: KidB ]

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Adam Masterman
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quote:
Nothing ecstatic or dramatic involved, just a kind of subtle shift into a different mental space. Apparently, a lot of conversions happen that way. When you least expect it...woops!.
Pretty much how I experienced it.

Adam

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KidB
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Conversion to what?
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Pete at Home
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quote:
Originally posted by scifibum:
(I know at least one guy who had a non-religious conversion experience, but interestingly, the stunning insight on which the conversion pivoted led to what seems to me to be a cherished dogma of transcendent significance. So it was, kind of, religious after all.)
...For example: should we socialize health care? ... Now, if someone felt inspired that it was God's will...

"He Loved Big Brother"
"

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TommySama
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"(I know at least one guy who had a non-religious conversion experience, but interestingly, the stunning insight on which the conversion pivoted led to what seems to me to be a cherished dogma of transcendent significance. So it was, kind of, religious after all.)"

A friend of mine took like 10-15 niacin pills over the course of a day, then walked 10 miles to his parents house when the temperature was in the negative 20s, with an even colder windchill. A burning eagle appeared to him and told him that everything was okay, and a bunch of other bull****. Now he believes in Fod.

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scifibum
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Could you explicate that for me a bit, Pete? I don't get it. (It's been a while since I've read 1984, though I'm not sure that's the reason I don't get it.)
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TommySama
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Winston only believed that he loved Big Brother at the end of the book, after his torture. His brain was broken, so when he tried to critically think about the propaganda on the TV, he broke and joined in the excitement that everybody else was feeling. Only after he accepted the leader's will as transcendent did he realize he loved BB
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Pete at Home
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scifi, I really, really think that socialized medicine is a good idea. But try as I might, I cannot construe a what I would consider a satisfying religious motive for supporting socialized medicine. The closest thing to a religious conversion than I can think of, that would motivate someone to support such a program, would be worship of the almighty state.

I much prefer the secular reasons for socialized medicine, and I've argued them at length on this forum, IIRC second only to my long pro-ssm arguments, which are also secular.

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scifibum
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Thanks. [Smile]

As far as a satisfying religious motive, wouldn't revelation suffice? Not that it's important to me...it's not an important example. I mainly wanted to muse about what causes people to change directions.

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Pete at Home
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quote:
Originally posted by scifibum:
Thanks. [Smile]

As far as a satisfying religious motive, wouldn't revelation suffice?

Point to Scifi. [Smile] For some reason I didn't think of revelation as religion, but downstream revelation (God told X to Y so you must do Z) is deefinitely religion.

[ February 10, 2010, 06:33 AM: Message edited by: Pete at Home ]

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TomDavidson
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quote:
I wonder if a rationalist approach to discourse and government would necessarily discard what might be the most accessible and useful mechanism of human change.
Probably. But it's also akin to leaving your house unlocked in an unsafe neighborhood just on the offchance that your childhood sweetheart will drop by with a bundle of $100 bills in her arms. Yeah, religious "inspiration" is a fine way to motivate people; on the downside, it's a fine way to motivate people. It's too easily exploited.
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Adam Masterman
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quote:
Originally posted by KidB:
Conversion to what?

Vajrayana Buddhism (Karme Kagyu).
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JWatts
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quote:
Originally posted by TomDavidson:
Yeah, religious "inspiration" is a fine way to motivate people; on the downside, it's a fine way to motivate people. It's too easily exploited.

Marketing is also a fine way to motivate/exploit people.

Speech in general is also a fine way to motivate/exploit people.

Law is also a fine way to motivate/exploit people.

Would you eliminate them also?

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TomDavidson
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quote:
Would you eliminate them also?
I would certainly encourage people to learn how to defend themselves against the use of such techniques. The idea that we should be using the "conversion mechanism" -- which may just be a weakness of our brain chemistry -- to motivate people is, I agree, no better or worse than the idea that we should use sexual imagery to sell products to men; that said, I don't consider that practice particularly moral, either.
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scifibum
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quote:
Originally posted by Pete at Home:
quote:
Originally posted by scifibum:
Thanks. [Smile]

As far as a satisfying religious motive, wouldn't revelation suffice?

Point to Scifi. [Smile] For some reason I didn't think of revelation as religion, but downstream revelation (God told X to Y so you must do Z) is deefinitely religion.
I've realized now that I repeatedly used religion/inspiration/sense of the divine as if they are interchangeable. My bad.
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RickyB
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The most compelling argument I've heard in favor of religious belief compares it to the mathematics/physics use of imaginary numbers. It doesn't exist in any manner you can demonstrate, but you have to plug it in for certain equations to work. Similarly, belief in God/Goddess/Gods can't be justified by any demonstrable means, but you have to have it to accomplish certain end results. Thus the argument, of course.

I actually tend to accept that, but only if you leave "belief" and leave out the "god" part. You can call it "god" if that's what makes it work for you, of course, but it doesn't *have* to be that. Just belief that there is something that can't be put in words ("the way that can be spoken is not the way"), and yet is worth more effort than the mere animal man would force himself to go through.

So to take the C.S. Lewis example, what happened is that his brain realized that it was missing something to achieve a world-view that made sense and was compatible with what he sensed the answer to be was to "accept Christ". It's not like he suddenly realized that the physical evidence was overwhelming. How could he? But then again, there is no physical evidence for the existence of the square root of -1. Yet someone, the scientifically literate can enlighten me who, one day realized that imaginary or not, if you plug it in an equation it will produce a result that will yield a physical device that will, in fact, WORK as designed.

[ February 10, 2010, 06:37 PM: Message edited by: RickyB ]

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Viking_Longship
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People like dramatic conversion stories because they are dramatic. Yet if you hear many "testimonies" amongst serious evangellicals they usually run a long the "I went from a nominal Christian to a more committed one after I noticed my own shortcomings". My own spiritual journey isn't that dramatic either, but I have no other word to use other than conversion(s) to explain how I went from a Baptist, to Quaker, to Orthodox.
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TommySama
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"The most compelling argument I've heard in favor of religious belief compares it to the mathematics/physics use of imaginary numbers. It doesn't exist in any manner you can demonstrate, but you have to plug it in for certain equations to work. Similarly, belief in God/Goddess/Gods can't be justified by any demonstrable means, but you have to have it to accomplish certain end results. Thus the argument, of course. "

That is a cool argument. Super dishonest, but still pretty neat. I have a friend who believes in God because of mountains. I got annoyed, but there you go

[ February 13, 2010, 03:14 PM: Message edited by: TommySama ]

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Pete at Home
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Since some jurisdictions allow fundies to getan exemption from sex ed, I wonder if Tommy's future kids could get a consientious excemption from being taught imaginary numbers, because their father has taught them that imaginary numbers are dishonest [Wink]

quote:
A friend of mine took like 10-15 niacin pills over the course of a day, then walked 10 miles to his parents house when the temperature was in the negative 20s, with an even colder windchill. A burning eagle appeared to him and told him that everything was okay, and a bunch of other bull****. Now he believes in Fod.
[Big Grin] That's the funniest thing I've read all day.
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kenmeer livermaile
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What I like about imaginary numbers is the honesty of their name.
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RickyB
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quote:
Originally posted by kenmeer livermaile:
What I like about imaginary numbers is the honesty of their name.

Right? But still, the **** WORKS. Atoms can be split and harnessed with them, and to my knowledge ain't no-one shown a way to do it without.

Of course, if we always listened to the people who claim to talk for god, we would never have learned about imaginary numbers... [Big Grin]

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kenmeer livermaile
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What's funny is that ALL numbers exist only in the imagination, but only 'imaginary numbers' acknowledge this.
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RickyB
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In the sense that numbers exist only when a mind is present to count, true. But imaginary numbers don't even exist in that sense. I can hold units of many different objects in the value known as "the square root of 4". Not of -4. [Smile] Any other number, you can show an equation that results in it.

Just belaboring the point, sorry.

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Aris Katsaris
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quote:
I can hold units of many different objects in the value known as "the square root of 4".
Not sure what your point is. You can't hold π number of objects, and yet we call that a "real" number. You can't hold -10 number of objects, and yet we call negative numbers "real" too.
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yossarian22c
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quote:
Originally posted by RickyB:
Any other number, you can show an equation that results in it.

x^2 + 1 = 0.

That's the very nice thing about complex numbers. Every polynomial has the "right" number of solutions over the complex numbers. Complex numbers "exist" to be the solutions to equations.

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Al Wessex
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Nice, too, that they were invented (discovered?) just for that purpose. Another way of looking at it is that all numbers represent a distance from some known location, most often zero. Negative, positive, simple triangular expressions, ratios... I remember getting stuck on irrational numbers in school, thinking at the time that it was a somehow subversive notion, and that you shouldn't give teenage boys such toys. My interest in numbers and math started about then, and now I am a liberal.
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kenmeer livermaile
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We could invent #s that are positive by themselves or in action with other #, but in action with each other produce a neg value. I suppose that's an imaginary #?
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Dave at Work
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quote:
Not sure what your point is. You can't hold π number of objects, and yet we call that a "real" number. You can't hold -10 number of objects, and yet we call negative numbers "real" too.
But you can hold π liters of water in a container.
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kenmeer livermaile
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"You can't hold -10 number of objects, and yet we call negative numbers "real" too."

A balance beam can.

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Al Wessex
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So, conceptually speaking, is there a difference between a conceptual value (e.g., 2, π) and an imaginary one (2i, iπ)? Maybe I can't imagine 2i objects, but I can't count -2 objects, either. I can imagine a distance that is 2πR long, but I can't count that many, so is 2πR more real than 2πRi, which can be the solution to a cube root of an equation composed of natural numbers?

Real, imaginary, natural, what's the difference in my mind?

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