Category Archives: Spiritual

Dual Tyrannies of Data and Democracy (and what to do about it)

In this new age of extremes, celebrity and elitism without bounds, those that pride themselves on their enlightenment often make a big deal about being democratic in their ambitions and data driven in their thinking and reasoning.

This is also a new age of openness and deception. The increase in both is of course coupled. As openness is supported or exhibited, some of what is exposed resists and retaliates with deeper forms of deception.

And in ths new age, the old illusions also persist — like the illusions of rationality or unbiased examination or study without preconceived ideas — illusions that have a great impact on inference and our abilities to draw conclusions from observations. Democracy enters when we attempt to create a cooperative or civil society based in some semblance of truth or grasp of reality.

The problems I am focused on in this perhaps too provocatively titled article, are those caused by the use of data and democracy as tools of forceful persuasion or even hammers of coercion. While the idea that democracy is a system predisposed to tyranny is far from a new idea, the dangers in the new bandwagon of data-driven thinking seem to be less well known or thought about (even though Cathy O’Neil’s, Weapons of Math Destruction is a good start). So we will begin there.


It might be seem strange for someone who is a mathematician, with a great deal of experience in data science, who even founded the Data Driven Modeling and Analysis team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to be concerned with or ambivalent about data driven anything.

Yet I am.

In fact I am very concerned. And the source of the concern is the inescapable fact that every inference, every conclusion and policy that is derived from data, is extracted from the data through the use of prior assumptions, many of which are unacknowledged or even very difficult to see. We can begin with the fact that we believe that rationality is the way in which truth is determined. But this is just not the case. Everything we do is framed in the deeper emotional/spiritual context in which “we live and move and have our being”.

As a result, even the decision of what data to collect is determined by our prior assumptions and preconceptions, and as a result, we can, often unconsciously, predetermine our conclusions before we even begin looking at the data.

The other problem I have with data driven scholarship is that, in its current forms, it only tells about what is, about the systems that have gained ascendancy and majority control of whatever it is that we are studying. It can say very little about what is possible. As a result, I believe that the industry of data driven scholarship and decision making will tend to reinforce what is, and limit diversity and real progress and innovation. (And by innovation, I am not talking technological innovation, but something much deeper and far reaching.)

This type of data science determines truth by, in essence, going with the majority vote in which the data doing the voting, has not only been selected by unseen and unacknowledged assumptions and biases, but is also, by its very nature, without an imagination.

What kind of data and data driven inference do I believe in? To begin with, I should say that I am very much for careful observation of the natural world, of human activity and behavior, and of the larger “inner” spiritual world on which everything is based. I think that the art of observation is a deeply neglected art, the rewards of which are little known and sorely needed. The problem lies in the fact that observation — data collection — is too often colored by stiff systems of preconception and unseen prior models of reality, influencing both choice of what to look at and what to do with the observations that are made.

Quietness and stillness as disciplines are not cultivated as ways to begin to really see beyond our current positions and perspectives. The fundamentally spiritual decision to let go and open to stillness is blocked by a complex of fear and fear inspired prejudice which are in turn based on previous experience with violation and force. Those experiences causing so many to relinquish child-like openness to reality, block them from full entry into the “kingdom of heaven”. As a result, those former children grow into adults that create systems that prevent them from entry into that illuminated kingdom and which they then use to block others from entering.

There are of course many flashes of insight that make it through the web of self-defense based preconceptions. But far too many of these quickly become part of that system that then blocks other illumination, blocking even the ability to understand the original insights correctly. The illumination falls prey to the temptations of greed for impact or fame or prestige or even simple fear, and the vision that could have been, fades.


There is of course the question of what to do about preconceptions and biases that are often predetermining results, especially in the case of data driven analyses. I believe the answer begins with opening your eyes, with taking the time to think:

  1. Take the time to think. The drive for bigger, better, faster has moved many people to abandon the discipline of taking time to think, to see, to feel. As a result, this basic first step to moving beyond our operating assumptions to something bigger and richer, to inspiration and growth, is severely limited.
  2. Time to think allows us to cultivate quietness and stillness as ways to let go and hear and see.
  3. We are only willing to see and hear and feel  what that quietness and stillness tells us in a state of emotional safety. This implies emotional wholeness underlies this whole project. Anyone who tells you differently is misguided at best. (This place of emotional safety is not external — this is a thing of the heart, not of “safe places” or elimination of harsh environments. The world is crazy and unsafe in which the emotionally whole still find a way to thrive, without expecting the world to be kept at bay.)
  4. Emotional wholeness requires cultivation of connection with others opened by the understanding that differences, instead of threatening us, enrich us.
  5. Connecting with others, observing their bits and pieces of illumination in a state of quietness, we are enabled to take the useful bits and let the rest go. (Because of emotional wholeness, we filter and thrive. No need for trigger warnings or cocoons that wall us away from reality.)
  6. Data is always filtered — quietness allows you to be aware of exactly what those filters are and to replace those filters if you find better ones.

While this approach to data (observation) and the inferences from that data is not new — it has always been the path of those taking the time to think and seek illuminated inferences, this path is becoming rarer. The noisy, overconfident bubble of thought leaders, influencers and celebrities are drowning out the careful thinkers and doers.


Democracy, even in its most beneficial forms, is only as good as the data driving it. Because of the difficulty in determining what is biased and what is not, the safest route is always to promote maximal freedom, opting for mild regulation only in the cases in which to not do so would harm the principles on which the democracy is founded. When freedom and compassion and safety and a healthy economic/social ecosystem are the principles, then this job is far from easy. But as soon as the regulation is influenced by entities that do not share those values, the whole enterprise is in peril. And if, in addition to this, the data that is used is twisted by the values that do not align with the goals above, it becomes hard to see what is and is not happening.

Of course, there are macro-measurements that reveal problems. When the divide between the rich and poor threatens to engulf us, we know something is wrong. When prisons are overflowing, when the rich are rarely held accountable, while the poor have difficulty for even small offenses or even simply because they are poor or nonwhite or both — when those things become impossible to ignore, we know the system is deeply broken.  And when the data is screaming and subtlety and nuance is no longer needed, when the data overwhelms preconception and prior assumptions, we know we are near a precipice.

But all is not lost.

As we learn quietness and openness to change, the data we gather and use will inform and illuminate, and the collective projects we embark on will reflect a synergy between freedom and cooperation. Time to think, quietness,  and the observations made in that frame of mind will supply the light and progress that keeps the biggest collective project — the democracy we live in — alive and headed in the direction of sustainable progress.

Animals and Empathy

Many years ago, I ran a lab that used hamsters to study micro-circulation.  It is something that I eventually could no longer let myself do.

In recent years, I have come to be completely against the use of animals in experiments of any kind. I believe the cruelty that humans inflict on animals reduces, even removes their own humanity.

The lack of empathy shown in experimenting on animals should be frightening to us.

I propose that if we were fully conscious, fully mindful, that lack of empathy would horrify us. We would see the direct link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans. We would understand the lack of humanity, lack of conscience, lack of connection that enables us to kill other humans.

If we were to let ourselves feel with the whole heart, to understand that “the end justifies the means” is the most evil principle of all, to understand that mans inhumanity to animal and man alike is his greatest sin,  we would seek to heal instead of wound, to love instead of fear, to create instead of destroy.

Beneath all this cruelty is fear that drives us to deny our humanity, deny our empathy for other living things, deny other living things their right to life and peace. Believing that we must preserve our lives at the cost of anybody and anything that gets in the way, we attempt to save ourselves and in so doing, we condemn humanity to endless war and suffering. Only when we accept that “whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” will we ever bring the cruelty to an end.

Empathy will guide us through darkness to light, if only we open our hearts to it. And when their suffering ends, so will ours.

Faith Is Connection

Some use faith to connect with finite, comfortable places, perhaps in response to fears of one kind or another. Little boldness is required. Others courageously connect to the ragged edge, but without the calm quietness that warns of errors, omissions or even danger. Yet others refuse to acknowledge the fundamental, critical role of faith, making the mistake of identifying this primitive human faculty with something that implies a belief in God.

Faith is fundamentally neutral, having nothing to do with belief in dogma or God. “True faith” (or “false faith”) is therefore nonsensical: the words cannot sensibly be used together. Faith is simply the human faculty to connect and it is by that connection that  know, we experience, we see beyond. The great other, the great wholeness that dwarfs the tiny sliver of the universe that we believe we understand, can be opened by that connection we call faith.


In their abdication to a narrow vision of science and philosophy, many have surrendered an openness to paradox and a truly rich spiritual-mental-physical universe. Respectability tempts and seduces, but enslavement follows.

There is a radical faith not shying away from paradox, connecting us with a rich, bold and yet brilliantly simple vision. This faith draws us into a vibrant, living environment, for it is an explicit connection with Infinite Life.

In the patient, illuminated stillness flowing from connection, mystery and paradox, rather than being indicators of fuzzy or wishful thinking, become marks of clear vision. Quietly insisting on both horns of a dilemma, we are driven deeper until we find the transforming resolution opening us to new wavelengths of light, new worlds of thought and action.


Moving on from second hand knowledge of God to the vision through the torn veil, we find the connection that heals and illuminates.

Obi

Dogs are simple angels, disguised by their dogness, but ministering spirits all the same.

Filled with unconditional love and devotion, they are also sprinkled with flaws so as not to give away the fact they are working, under-cover, single-mindedly, to save as many humans as they can.

Their living fills us with joy, if we will but open to their joy. Their dying gives us such intense grief, it saves us from arrogance, if we permit ourselves to feel honestly their passing. And their simple, complete devotion and love while they are living disarms us so reliably, that we almost always permit ourselves to feel honestly, their passing.

Remembering them, we finally understand their mission in our lives.

We understand that love and humility are the channels through which all life and healing flow. We know that these simple, faithful friends never wavered, never faltered. We see the power of a pure heart.

Dogs are simple angels, disguised by their dogness, but ministering spirits all the same.

 

 

Metrics and Inequality

Metrics — measures of performance or value — drive what we do at every scale, from the small, individual scale to the massive global scales. When those metrics are founded on misconceptions of reality, they contort behavior in such a way as to appear to support those misconceptions. To get back to the natural order of things, away from the artificial reality created by those false beliefs, we must start by reseting our metrics.


I was reminded of this as I perused the Harvard Business Review (HBR) I had purchased for the purpose of inspiring thoughts and reactions. I do not peruse the Review very often, but when I do, I am usually turned off by a large amount of what I find. The price  of 16.95$ reeks of self-importance. And the articles overflow with much that I find distasteful in academia and in the broader, elitist culture — the same culture that is currently driving the world to the brink of destruction. But the metrics and implied metrics in the articles got me thinking about the influence of bad metrics, about the models of reality that implicitly encode inequality. Those models are everywhere.

Take the current focus in the news and social media on racism.

The real problem is that racism is an epiphenomena. Looking more deeply, we find the pervasive illusion of organic superiority/inferiority and the (negatively) powerful habits of ranking in all areas of life. These survive only because people can’t tell the difference between (1) powerful (negative) beliefs that become self-fulfilling prophecies and (2) fundamental truths. (While behavior does follow those unhealthy ideas, I am talking about potential here, not the reality created by those self-fulfilling prophecies.)

But to confront the fact that our brains are all pretty much equal, and what really matters is environment and opportunity, we have to face man’s inhumanity to man and our own moral degradation and greed.

And facing that fact is painful and difficult.

Once we begin to understand the effects of trauma of all sorts, of the massive power of emotions — actually, of our entire environment, we begin to understand the observed behavioral data differently. We begin to see that our beliefs in inequality combined with our inhuman treatment of others actually generate inequality. We begin to see that any solution to inequality that does not begin with the understanding that people are, actually, truly born equal is bound to fail.

Because we cannot fix inequality and believe in inequality at the same time.

Though it is a fact that there are organic differences, that there are a relatively small number of (very) basic groups of talents people are born into, any solution to inequality cannot succeed if it does not start with the understanding that these talents are not rankable, but are equally amenable to (even extreme) development.

When this position is taken, we see that inequality is pervasive, that the roots to racism are found in how we treat each other in every environment, including very white environments. In fact, if you were to restrict yourself to purely White Anglo-Saxon Protestant environments (though finding such environments is getting harder), one would find the fundamental disease that becomes racism in other environments.

When we begin building metrics based on the facts of equality, we begin to stand a chance of making a difference.

This brings me back to the HBR articles and their usual conformity to a traditional interpretation of behavioral data.


Of course the mistake the intelligent people who populate academia and the elitist cultures make, is the mistake that scientists often make, of not taking into account the effects of multiple time/context scales in their studies. It is sort of like the Chinese story of the man who lost his horse ( 塞翁失馬 — Sāi Wēng Shī Mǎ) in which what appears to be a good thing or bad thing depends on context that keeps expanding. Not taking all the different temporal/spatial/contextual scales into account, often leads to incorrect conclusions.

To many such observers, the data appears to confirm that (1) unfettered competition and greed are natural and probably  good and (2) inequality is organically based. (Note: I am not saying that all competition is bad, only that the current vision for competition is deeply unbalanced and actually unfair to many smaller entities that want to compete.) Of course, the more sophisticated the person, the more polished and palatable their presentation of these ideas.  But, as I observed above, the process by which we can see differently is uncomfortable for everyone and painful for most.

So instead, we pretend that the results of greed and inequality are some sort of natural law that we have no power over. And we end up missing the principle that enables us to find richness almost anywhere.

We do not realize that enough is a feast.


I am far from the first to observe that enough is a feast, that aiming for more than enough is wasteful, and that piling up great piles of wealth of all kinds (not just financial) and locking it away literally or figuratively is an obscene crime against humanity. It is just that even though it has been said before, by many others, it seems to be one of those things we need very frequent reminders of.

What I am interested in is a world in which taking time to think has priority over the rush of the over-achiever, where what my family and my dog thinks of me is more important than what my department or academia in general or the National Academy of Sciences thinks of me, where being a fundamentally independent thinker is more valued than status as a “thought leader”, where quiet generosity takes precedence over noisy philanthropy, and success is measured by whether or not I and those around me have enough, not if I have enough money or prestige to supply a small country.

In such a world, where “enough” becomes integral to our metrics, there is enough for everyone. And when this happens the enormous human potential that we have been obscenely wasting is unleashed.

When, as Bryan Stevenson makes a case for in Just Mercy, we understand that healing begins in seeing our own brokenness, we begin to understand why we strayed from “enough” in the first place. We then understand that everything good begins with healing, that, from the humility we gain in that process of healing,  every other good thing flows. Then we understand that humility is not so much the opposite of arrogance and the drive for status, as it is the opposite of spiritual blindness.

For blindness was the problem all along. What we needed, what we really wanted, was always at our fingertips. Only our inability to see the true order of things stood in our way.

Accepting this, we are set free to find healing and a rich abundance that has nothing to do with impoverishing others in any way.

Finding Quietness

Rereading parts of Glynne Robinson Betts’ 1981 book, Writers in Residence, recalled simpler, deeper times, when finding places of quietness and taking time to think was part of the routine many people used in order to hear themselves and others. In fact, reading this again prompted me to expand the time I spend without Internet interruptions. Steps as simple as ignoring email for extended periods or as comprehensive as turning the computer off for the entire weekend, are emerging as a necessary part of reclaiming quietness and time to think.

There is nothing profound in these decisions to disconnect — whatever is profound happens as a result of taking that time to see and listen and think.

When I do slow down, every pause, every quietness, every moment taken to see, to listen, to think, rewards with a rich, living connectedness and depth that cannot be exhausted. The fabrics of the past and future join with the present, without seams, without a sense that I am working to recall, to see, to feel. Time opens up, I enter, to travel my own path, to sit or stand or walk … stopping time, finding passage to places beyond space and time.

To the strictly modern intellect, what I have just said probably seems like non-sense. Reason, based on easily observable facts, will find little irrefutable evidence that a skeptic would find compelling.

I therefore offer no argument to convince the skeptic. Instead I say, “Come and see”.

When we begin to let go of dogma, the regard of peers, and the comfort of the in-group, room for discovery is created. Launching into quiet spaces, where fear is replaced by stillness, a boundless infinity surprises. We find flow.  In this personal place without limits, I find an overflowing garden, teeming with life. On the living path, everything is illuminated.

Yet this is something I cannot really transmit. It is only something I can hint at in what I write, faintly, incompletely. The experience of discovery, of knowing, of traveling to those places that are here and beyond at the same time, cannot be captured in words.

To see, you must see though your own eyes. To see, you must choose to slow down, find quietness, and dwell there.

I believe that most – possibly all – human beings have, at one time or another, experienced immersion in flow and a connection to the place without limits. There is a resonance emerging from any such experience, no matter how brief, that enables those with that experience to hear each other.  But life often seems to conspire to crush those memories, to remove our ability to hear and see. In the quiet, we can be moved to remember, to see, to hear. In the quiet we remember the place without limits.

In writing something of what I see and hear, there is a chance that faint recollections will be stirred in those that read, in the way Writers in Residence stirred my memories, my recollections of a time when quietness and time to think was plentiful.

The thought of this possibility brings a subtle sense of connection, of silent conversation, with those as yet undiscovered friends. Lingering in rediscovered quietness, we move against the flow of noise and commotion and modern distraction, encouraging all those in our circle of influence to rediscover for themselves their own place without limits.

Heresy and Freedom

Reading the words of Albert Schweitzer and bits of the life of Roger Williams is both inspiring and motivating: inspiring because they were both independent thinkers and motivating because their writing and lives ask for reflection and response.

I especially like the Epilogue in Out of My Life and Thoughts, Schweitzer’s autobiography; It seems more important today that it could have seemed in 1931 —

I am in complete disagreement with the spirit of our age, because it is filled with contempt for thought … The organized political, social and religious associations of our time are at work convincing the individual not to develop his convictions through his own thinking but to assimilate the ideas they present to him. Any man who thinks for himself is to them inconvenient and even ominous. He does not offer sufficient guarantee that he will merge into the organization. Corporate bodies do not look for their strength in ideas and in the values of the people for whom they are responsible. They try to achieve the greatest possible uniformity. They believe that in this way they hold the greatest power, offensive as well as defensive.

Yet I disagree with Schweitzer’s theology on significant points: I believe in Jesus the Messiah, that he was in fact God and Man, the His death did provide a way through annihilation for all of creation and a path to eternal life, that he was raised on the third day, that he is coming again. Further, I believe in the literal creation of the earth by the actual word of God and I believe in a struggle between God and Satan/evil centered on the existence of free will and God’s claim that free will is harmonious with good and life. And I believe that only in that context — of a cosmic struggle, that history begins to make sense. But I do not retreat into magic for explanation (the first part of this paragraph not-withstanding), neither do I believe that Jesus came to establish a religion, nor do I condemn in any way those that fail to believe as I do.

All this clearly begs for a much longer discussion, though more immediately it most likely triggers strong responses in many readers.

The facts that I have so many differences with what has become traditional Christianity — to the point that I find most of the dogma of Christianity to be unhelpful,  and that I am clearly at deep odds with the religion of science (and that is precisely what science has become — a religion) , often lead to me feeling isolated and politely ignored.

Which brings me to Roger Williams (1603-1683), one of the early proponents of true freedom in the new world. His life was one of innovation with concrete results that continue to this day. In addition to insisting on true freedom of conscience, and as a result being exiled to Rhode Island that he later obtained a charter for from the King of England, he was a friend to all those that did not fit in with the dogma and narrow way of life prescribed by the Puritans. Yet his defense of freedom to choose what we believe was not founded upon an idea that truth was somehow elusive. Neither was that freedom relegated to only those areas in which he had no strong opinion. Rather, it was his position that liberty of conscience was fundamental and God given. As a result, it was something that men could not withhold without grave consequence. And it is this that made his ideas so powerful.

Moving forward to the present, I find it disconcerting that the liberals and progressives with whom I agree on many fundamental principles, have such trouble applying what they believe when it comes to acceptance and tolerance as a practice rather than a theory. It reminds me of the same sort of dissonance between the theory and practice of Christianity.  There are of course many kind and respectful (and therefore tolerant) Christians and many similar liberals (some of whom are Christian) — in fact they might even be the majorities. But the minorities in these cases are loud and, sadly, often unchecked by their more reasonable brethren. And in both cases, underneath, separate from the individuals, there is that institutional desire to bend the wayward ones towards the “truth”. To me, this is the hallmark of a formal religion — the desire to bend the will of others to my way of thinking, the fear that somehow if others do not believe as I do, very bad things will happen to my tribe, my organization, or even me personally.

Ridicule that those who feel superior heap upon the “unenlightened” follows quickly. The stupid creationists and the unsaved, deceived evolutionists, the godless atheists and the ignorant bible-thumpers. And so on and so forth. Resorting to labels instead of real conversations based on a deep respect for life, freedom and a shared humanity, we retreat into our own smaller tribes. We view others through a montage of the worst of the loud proponents of the “others”. And because of the fear we gather and cultivate, we do not seek to find grounds for conversation.

Of course, there are terrible ideas and histories that beckon us to the side of fear: the atheist Stalin generating extreme suffering, the (unbiblical) doctrine of hell and the horrendous implications of what that would mean about God, the deep loss of freedom that results for various people on the fringes when socialists get the upper hand, the equally deep loss of freedom for the poor and the economic heretics when unfettered capitalism holds sway, the demonic inhumanity of the inquisition and the horrors of the Nazi experiment. These are indeed strong inducements to side with fear.

Yet there are also examples of real freedom and the alternative power of discourse based upon deep respect, not the least of which includes the life of Roger Williams. The path to  connections which illuminate and defeat fear all involve listening and talking and writing and reading and thinking and more listening and talking and listening … conversations of the right type are at the center of this model of positive change.

While I do believe that some conversations only work in very small settings due to the complexity of the subject matter and the fact that these conversations trigger deep fears that can shut down thinking and spiritual insight, there is still room for writing things down, for conversations that are slow and deliberate and open. Even though it is unwise to “cast your pearls before swine” — meaning that communication without the preparation of a history of respect and real connection can be worse than pointless — one can and should opt for the hope that there are those out there that do in fact seek real conversations, that are seeking to explore and will appreciate co-travelers, co-explorers. As long as we do not try to speak to each other from on high, from the perspective of one who is enlightened, but rather from a position alongside others, ready to listen and see, especially when in disagreement — so long as this is true, we will find ample opportunity for connection and progress.

To disagree is the extent to which my freedom, when combined with respect and love, permits me to fall out with others. And in this version of falling out, there is no reason that the conversation has to stop. While some ideas and ideologies must be restrained from crossing the line and actually hurting others, that line is not something that we are usually dealing with when focused on the present, local circumstances, whatever they are.

But to disagree and ridicule and belittle, to disagree and use force of any kind — spiritual, intellectual, physical — to try to bend others to my will, is a serious abuse of freedom. In fact, I believe that this abuse is the root of many problems in the present and the past, but that is another discussion.

So while I disagree with the theological conclusions of Albert Schweitzer, I also find deep inspiration in his writings. I find that in this falling out, nothing is lost and much is gained.

I think that Roger Williams would approve.