30 September 2010

Were they raving loons?

On the 28th of August I had the opportunity to attend a conference at the University of Saint Thomas, "Religion, Mental Health, and the Search for Meaning: Bridging the Gaps". The bulk of the morning was a presentation by William Parsons, a professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. Part of his discussion was on the subject of the states of consciousness experienced by our foremost religious teachers, including Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed, at the time of their personal conversion experiences. He said they were in highly altered states of consciousness; "they were almost raving loons."

This is not the first time I have seen this correlation amongs the most popular religions. In The Perennial Philosophy, for example, Aldous Huxley considers the mysticism of the most important participants in the various faiths precisely what is most perennial about them. The prototype for academic objective examination of these theological technicalities is William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James was most impressed by the testimony of mystical experience, including those of his contemporaries, such as Richard Bucke. I admire James' book greatly, but feel it has been supplanted as the chief source on altered states by the work of Charles Tart, particularly his books Transpersonal Psychologies and Altered States of Consciousness.

My copy of Altered States of Consciousness has the most delightful blurb on the front cover: "The book to read if you're doing anything with meditation, dope, hypnosis, dreams, subjective exploration of any kind." --The Last Whole Earth Catalog. The blurb just about covers the entire depth that I will be able to explore regarding consciousness and altered states of consciousness in one blog post. It is a universe, and nearly entirely unexplored. I sometimes liken our map of human consciousness to those maps of North America from the seventeenth century where they had a river running from Lake Michigan to the San Francisco Bay. What we do not even know that we do not know is probably just about everything.

Having covered in ridiculous brevity what I think about altered states of consciousness, let us look at a few important cases.

I. Moses

Moses' conversion experience is recorded in the book of Exodus. He had a visitation from Yahweh, or a vision or a hallucination of the same, in the form of a burning bush. There are no historical or archaeological records of this. I assume that there was a real human event which is the origin of this story. And my most likely explanation includes a person we might as well call Moses in an altered state of consciousness. This is hardly a deduction. I am a fan of Charles Peirce and his process of abduction, or reasoning to the most likely explanation.

II. Buddha

Buddha's conversion experience is documented at great length in Buddhist texts, although the standards of peer review in ancient India are not quite as rigorous as modern science. In his case, lengthy meditations and mortifications (such as fasting) were involved over the course of years in his pursuit of enlightenment. He is reported to have experienced a vision of every single thing that had occurred in his experience over the course of several eons of different incarnations. Since Buddha was born into royalty, the documentation of his adventures is as substantial as for any of our subjects. They may even be more reliable. The idea that he would abandon his wife and just-born child to go off on religious quest is suspicious. Nevertheless, I have no problem concluding that a highly altered state of consciousness was involved in Buddha's conversion experience and the beginning of the tradition of Buddhism.

III. Jesus

Jesus' conversion experience is described in the gospels as also occurring on retreat. He went out into the desert to pray and to fast and there had a vision of Satan and three temptations. This marks the beginning of his career as a full-time preacher and prophet and healer. I enjoyed Martin Scorsese's take on this in his film The Last Temptation of Christ. Unlike many artists who have depicted Jesus, Scorsese (and his actor William Defoe) make no compromises on their interpretation of the culture and the people to make them familiar to the audience. This Jesus is an extremely foreign guy living in an extremely foreign culture. This world is so foreign one gets the impression the default mode of many was more altered states of consciousness than unaltered states of consciousness. Scorsese and Defoe's Jesus is hallucinating in the first frames of the film.

IV. Paul

Paul's conversion experience is described in the book of Acts as an interruption in his daily affairs as a soldier. He was traveling, on horseback, and had an overwhelming vision of sight and sound that left him incapacitated and blind for a period of days. The book of Acts says the soldiers on patrol with him heard the sounds but did not see the visions. There is a literature describing Paul as an epileptic and his conversion experience as an epileptic seizure. He was a Jew, but there are no reports of him performing extensive meditative or devotional acts which would be preparatory to proper trance preparation. I do not know what to make of all this, although by any description hallucinations of this magnitude are an altered state of consciousness.

V. Mohammed

Mohammed was meditating in a cave on Mount Hira for weeks when he received his vision of the angel Gabriel. This is closely parallel to the cases of Jesus and Buddha. An individual with a devotional bent and long meditations and presumably an altered state of consciousness at the time of his conversion experience.

Could you say they were raving loons? I would not, but the coincidence of altered states of consciousness and religious innovation seems fairly conclusive, at least from what we know of our most popular religions. The odd man out in this story is Paul, who unlike the others, was not searching at the time of his spiritual emergency. Perhaps this gives motivation for the people who argue for the epilepsy explanation.

25 September 2010

Human performance, psychometry, and baseball statistics II

(This is part 2 of 3. Part 1 is here. Part 3 to follow.)

Today we examine learning curves and estimated time for mastery. To continue with the Lisp example, assuming you want to master Lisp, how much of your time should you plan to allocate for the task? K. Anders Ericson is the author of the relevant research findings. At a crude level of approximation, something like that takes ten thousand hours. This is a result I was first exposed to many years ago in the context of Buddhist meditation, in an Esalen conference presented by Helen Palmer (mostly known for her work on the Eneagram). She reported that to become skilled at Zen meditation requires ten thousand hours of practice. In the University of Wisconsin brain imaging meditation study , the subjects were Tibetan monks who had all logged a minimum of ten thousand hours of practice. The ten thousand hours of practice requirement was also reported popularly by Malcom Gladwell in his best-selling book Outliers. Another take on this: Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years. Ten thousand hours of 40-hour-weeks is five years, not ten; the number is imprecise, but the idea is consistent that ambitious projects take a daunting amount of time.

One of my dance teachers was fond of reminding me that practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice can make you perfect. For most of us even that is an exaggeration. I think we can reliably predict that ten thousand hours of very good practice will make you very good if you first possess an average amount of raw aptitude.

Baseball players display the 10 000 hour rule, or something very close to it, in their development. This is quantified in their statistics, and codified in the language of "rookie mistake". When you are the new guy, that is nearly always an acceptable excuse for the errors we all inevitably make in the beginning. One of the more popular verses in the I Ching is hexagram three "Difficulty at the beginning".

20 September 2010

Schopenhauer's fate

Schopenhauer had unusual views on mysticism which may be best revealed in an essay, from his book Parerga and Pralipomena, entitled "Transcendent Speculation on the Apparent Deliberateness in the Fate of the Individual" (starts on page 201 of my copy, Volume I, Oxford U. Press, reissued in 2000). It relies on aging and hindsight. It is not contradicted by my own experience.

To simplify, it goes something like this. In middle age we look back on choices we made in youth on which we deliberated very little: what girl to fall in love with, which profession to pursue, and so forth. These casual choices then turn out to have influences upon us for many years afterward. The people who we develop into are formed strongly as we grow into roles which began by the most remote chances. This can be described as fate, or fortune, or providence, for good or ill. Schopenhauer viewed this as the genesis of many of our religious impulses.

Perhaps a personal story could serve to illustrate. When I was a senior in college about to graduate, I had no idea what I wanted to do. During my freshman year, two thirds of the people I met informed me they planned to go to medical school and become doctors. I did know I did not want to be like two thirds of the people I met, so the one thing I did know was I did not want to be a doctor. Other than that I had no plan. I majored in Physics because I liked it the most and I considered it a flexible undergraduate base for whatever vague future notion I could ponder. Two months before graduation my future was nothing but vague notions and I watched my classmates appear wearing coats and ties and scheduling job interviews.

One day by chance I was walking by the campus placement center and decided to go in. I was wearing sandals and cutoffs, my hair was down to my shoulders, and I may not have shaven in two or three days. I introduced myself at the front desk and asked for information. It turned out there was an oil company recruiter looking for physics majors and he was sitting there in a room by himself. I had no resume or transcript or anything. The receptionist took me to meet him and we talked for a half-hour.

Later I did some coat-and-tie interviews with a few other corporate recruiters at the placement center with my paperwork and interview practice. And shortly after that I took the job with the oil company from the first accidental interview. I ended up working with them for over twenty-five years. This is precisely the type thing which Schopenhauer would describe as "apparent deliberateness in the fate of the individual". It was as if I had a guardian angel with me walking on the campus guiding me into the placement office at precisely the correct moment to be seized there, then.

This idea is not unique to Schopenhauer, although his treatment of it is the best I have read. There is an Internet podcast fellow, My Personal Rabbi (Rabbi Dubov), who illustrates a very similar point in an accessible manner. In his view, our personal struggles--whatever they may be: illness, relationship conflict, debt, overeating, drinking, smoking--are like an assignment from the Universe. We are here with the purpose of working to solve these problems on behalf of all of God's creatures. One time I described this to a physicist friend of mine and he rolled his eyes he was so incredulous at me raising this idea to his attention. It is a foundational idea in Kabbalah. Sorrow is a signal from the Cosmos that we have missed the mark and need to correct. The Stoics described this as temperance.

We can also find it Jungian Psychoanalysis. Carl Jung wrote in several places the proverb "our neurosis is our best friend". By which he simply meant that our subconscious should be attended to; down inside ourselves we have perfect knowledge of what we most need to work on. As Schopenhauer described it, this is all a speculation. At least it is speculation for all that we know so far.

15 September 2010

How to quickly read a thick novel by Joyce or Tolstoy

There are many speed reading techniques, but most are notoriously inadequate for dealing with challenging material. Two of the most daunting works for literature students are War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, and Ulysses, by James Joyce. I have a method for each which worked for me. These methods may be applied to other challenging works.

I. The Tolstoy method.

The trick to getting through War and Peace as quickly as possible is to recognize that the minor characters, like Denisov and Dolohov, do not need to be attended to at all in the first pass. There are dozens of these characters. They have names which are unfamiliar to English and American people. If you try and keep track of them all you can get bogged down deep. There are only five characters you have to pay close attention to: Natasha Rostov, Pierre Bezuhov, Andre Bolkonsky, Nikolai Rostov, and Maria Bolkonsky. When the action involves one of these five, read close. When the action moves elsewhere, skim.

Also there are two long passages in the book you can skip entirely. The passage in the middle of the book between Natasha's betrayal and Napoleon's invasion of Russia is long and of little importance to most readers. The epilogue is the same. Although these are of little importance to most readers, that does not mean they were not important to Tolstoy. They clearly were.

After you get through the book with this negligence, you may decide to revisit the book and investigate the parts you missed. This is well worth doing. I have read War and Peace so many times that I have lost count of the exact number. I love this book. Denisov and Dolohov are both marvelously drawn characters. The action after Natasha's betrayal is essential to appreciate that she is rooted in the earth of the steppes, in spite of her family's royalty. It is all great stuff, but many readers find it much too much to swallow it all in one gulp.

II. The Joyce method.

The key to getting through Joyce with no experience is to view him as a cross between a novelist and a bard. He was trained on poetry, poetry which was meant to be read aloud. His sentences which twist your mind inside out when read silently have a completely different effect on you when they enter through your eardrums. The sound of his sentences can be delightful, and this is still true even when you are not entirely clear exactly what you just heard. On Bloomsday in Dublin they read the book out loud for hours in packed rooms.

So to get through Ulysses fast, open to page one and start reading aloud. When your voice tires, read silently. You will make faster progress than if you had started reading silently on page one. You will not get far. Put the book down. The next day pick it up where you left off and start reading aloud. When your voice tires, read silent. Alternate. After about ten or twenty cycles, you should be able to read the book nearly as efficiently as any other book. His style takes getting used to. I have also used this method successfully with Finnegans Wake, which many people have described to me as completely unreadable. I like Ulysses, but I do not love it. I am almost indifferent whether to keep my copy. I will read War and Peace again and again.

(Yes I know that is Natasha Rostova and Maria Bolkonskaya.)

10 September 2010

Invoking Mary Poppins

For the Autumn Equinox, I am planning a ritual celebration which follows the same format I used for the Summer Solstice. There will be prayers, meditations, a pathworking, &c. This time I am going for an invocation of Venus energy, or you maybe could say I am invoking Mary Poppins.

Neither is exactly correct. The energy I am trying to invoke into my life belonged to a person I knew when I was a child that I had the opportunity to spend much time with. She is much older than I (if she is still alive) and thousands of miles away and I have not seen her in over twenty years; I will almost certainly never see her again, so for all my practical purposes she is now only in my own mind. If you were so inclined, you could describe her as an occupant of my astral realm. My skeptical friends do not believe in any such thing as an astral realm.

The strict scientific facts are not relevant. I could use more of her positive qualities in the conduct of my own life, so I am going to devote a couple hours on the Autumn equinox to formally invoking her nature into my living room. The formula I use comes from the book Prime Chaos by Phil Hine.

, , , three distinct parts . . .

In the first, the deeds of the figure are given, spoken in the third person. In the second, the qualities of the figure are given, spoken in the second person. In the third, the powers of the figure are given, spoken in the first person.

So, say I am invoking Mary Poppins. (The actual name is different, but the deeds and the qualities and powers differ only in degree, not in kind.) The invocation portion of the script will go something like: "she is Mary Poppins, who teaches that great manners and great fun belong together; you are Mary Poppins, beautiful and talented and whimsical and energetic and magical; I am Mary Poppins, possessing the power to keep a tidy house filled with happy people."

Confidently declaring these three sentences is the central event in the ritual. All of the other elements of the ritual are merely priming of the energy in the environment to permit this idea to anchor into my subconscious. There will be music: soundtracks to Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. I will read aloud William Blake's To the Evening Star. I will read aloud the pathworking number fourteen (the daleth path, the Empress path) from Garden of Pomegranates. Some of the paths in that book are poor, but the Empress one is splendid. On the equinox ritual day, that will be my fourth or fifth run through that pathworking. I have already done it a couple of times for preparation.

A strange thing about their empress path is it contains almost the entirety of Saint Paul's lesson on love from I Corinthians 13. A pagan ritual recipe book seems an odd place to find this, but it shows up in all sorts of odd places. The title of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly is a tribute to Paul's metaphor of seeing into a glass darkly from verse 12 of that chapter, and looking into dark mirrors is about the oldest scrying technique that we know of, so we see a common thread running through the two traditions.

There are a few other details already planned, such as I will be wearing green clothes, my green alexandrite ring, and illuminating the room with a green light bulb. And I am thinking of other things in my lead-in time to the equinox, but not a large quantity of additional details; there are only a couple weeks remaining before Autumn (on the calendar) is here. Since I live in Houston, there are several more weeks of summer weather to enjoy.

05 September 2010

Human performance, psychometry, and baseball statistics I

This is the first in a series of three posts on the topic of human performance, psychometry, and baseball statistics. In the process of writing, it outgrew single-post size.

Human ambition for achievement in modest measure gives meaning to our lives, unless one is an existentialist pessimist like Schopenhauer who taught that life with all its suffering and cruelty simply should not be. Psychologists study our achievements under a number of different descriptions--testing for IQ, motivation, creativity, others. As part of my current career transition, I have been examining my own goals closely, and have recently read a fair amount on these topics which are variable in their evidence.

A useful collection of numerical data on the subject of human performance is the collection of Major League Baseball player performance statistics--the batting averages, number home runs, runs batted in, slugging percentage--of the many thousands of participants in the hundred years since detailed statistical records have been kept and studied by the players, journalists, and fans of the sport. The advantage of examining issues like these from the angle of Major League Baseball player performance statistics is the enormous sample size of accurately measured and archived data.

The current senior authority in this field is Bill James, who now works for the Boston Red Sox; for the first twenty-five years of his activity as a baseball statistician James was not employed by any of the teams. It took him a long time to find a hearing for his views on the inside of the industry, although the fans started buying his books as soon as he began writing them.

In one of the early editions of his Baseball Abstract, James discussed the biggest fallacies that managers and executives held regarding the achievements of baseball players. He was adamant about the most obvious misunderstood fact of player performance: it is sharply peaked at age 27 and decreases rapidly, so rapidly that only the very best players were still useful at the age of 35. He was able to observe only one executive that seemed to intuit this--a man whose sole management strategy was to trade everybody over the age of 30 for the best available player under the age of 30 he could acquire.

There is a fair amount of more formal academic research on this issue. It is described in the literature as the field of Age and Achievement. The dean of the psychologists studying Age and Achievement is Dean Simonton. A decent overview of their findings is here. This is a meta-study of hundreds of individual studies. Many fields and many metrics are sampled. There is one repeated finding. Performance starts low at a young age and steadily increases along a curve which bears a resemblance to a Gaussian bell-shaped curve, peaks, and then declines. The decline is not as rapid as the rise (it is not a symmetric bell shape; it is steeply inclining from the left to the peak and gently declining form the peak to the right), but it is inevitably seen everywhere. The age of peak achievement varies, depending on the field. Baseball players peak at 27 (the curves from the psychology publications look exactly like the curve published by Bill James in his Abstract), business executives peak at 60, and physicists peak at age 35. Shakespearian actors peak late and rock stars peak early. These are statistical results and individual outliers abound. You, the individual physicist, may not be over the hill at 40, but this is the way to bet.

My hometown major league baseball franchise, the Houston Astros, recently had this empirical law verified for themselves in real time, and the hard way. They invested the bulk of their payroll budget on three players: Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee, and Lance Berkman. All three were over the age of 30, i.e., definitely into their decline phase. When their performance declined more rapidly than expected, the team lost many more games than they were planning for. They had a contending team's payroll and big plans, but now Tejada and Berkman are gone and they are rebuilding. In an attempt to cut losses, they traded their (prime-age) star pitcher for young players.

A recent post on Hacker News, Silicon Valley's Dark Secret: It's all about Age, generated 120 comments of heated discussion about institutional age discrimination and the unappreciated value of experience. The consensus view expressed there is young programmers have to advance into management or become unemployable near age 50.

It could perhaps be viewed as a biological ecosystem. We are in an ecosystem. The ecosystem selects for fitness. What is sometimes misunderstood is the ecosystem does not select for absolute fitness, but for fitness specific to a niche. If the available niches in this "ecosystem" are for 40 years-old brains, and there aren't any niches for 50 years-old brains, then some fully fit brains (in an absolute sense) are going to be out of employment opportunities. Faced with a system like this, the job seeker may have to be clever at finding ever narrower niches to squeeze into.

One of the moderators at Hacker News, Paul Graham, is a software venture capitalist. He is accused in the thread of unconcealed age discrimination--that he will not invest in entrepreneurs over 38, and claiming that nobody over 25 will ever learn Lisp. If you are a forty-year-old physicist and you want to learn Lisp and get venture capital funding for your business plan--well, good luck with that!


Please see paragraphs 8.4, 8.5 in the Google Terms of Service document!

About Craig

My photo
Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.