Simulated Sensations and the Imagination
By "simulated sensations", I mean that these thoughts are perceived as if they were real physical sensations. When you close your eyes, you know that you don't see anything, yet pictures still appear in your mind. While you are asleep, dreams come as visual motion pictures, with really vivid ones adding sound, smell, and the sensations that arise from the body sense so that one can feel one's own dream body run, jump, and (the universal "favorite") falling through the air. Daydreaming during a class or a boring presentation overrides the actual sensations coming in from the senses, substituting the simulated sensations that you are in Maui and not being bored to death. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a life lived via simulated sensations. "Imagination" is another name that we use to describe the generative part of the heart of man that generates these images at will.
The value of "simulated sensations" should be obvious. Prudent people almost always try to imagine the reactions to any actions that they are planning to do, while fools are usually those who do not take the time to run these mental simulations. This is what is meant when one says that they "thinking through" a problem or situation. However, if you have lived long enough to suffer the slings and arrows thrown by life, you know that even "thinking things through" before acting doesn't always succeed. Part of the problem is due to having an untrained heart.
Is it possible to have a trained heart? In certain areas, absolutely yes! In Hebrews 5, the writer of that book first introduces Jesus as our High Priest. Since he was writing to an audience familiar with the Torah and its sacrificial system, he knows that the question of authorization would be asked. In verse 10, he introduces the Priestly order of Melchizidek. However, it is the passage following that introduction that is of interest to us:
10 Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec. 11 Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. 12 For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. 13 For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. 14 But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
This is one of those "toss off" sentences that truly great professors and deep thinkers utter as an aside while discussing the main subject of the class, but which the truly discerning student grasps, ponders, and realises that the tidbit was worth ten times what they paid to attend. We have no idea who the writer of Hebrews was, but this passage not only reveals a great scholar and teacher intimately familiar with their subject matter, but also someone who is familiar with the process by which their hearers learn what is being taught. The linked word for "senses" is derived from "perceive", usually with the bodily senses, but also with the mind to the point of understanding (It is used in a context where it is said that the disciples did not understand Jesus' warning of his coming crucifixion). Here, the writer points out that long and skillful use of a corpus of knowledge exercises the understanding (which is something the heart does) to the point where the "senses" can do automatically what the mind formerly had to do using reason.
I believe that this is how the imaginations (systematic "simulated sensations") of truly experienced and skilled individuals work. The expert bass fisherman looks up and down the river and knows where to cast the hook: anywhere else just doesn't feel right. The skilled hunter mentally runs through the attack on the quarry, forsees a different result, and changes his position without realizing he his doing it. I knew a travelling salesman who was able to anticipate every move everyone on the highway in front of him would do before they made their move. Outside of his car, he was a financial dolt, but behind the wheel, he was Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel reincarnated and combined. An engineer for a system mentally runs through the behavior of their misbehaving system, "breaking" various parts in different ways, testing the resulting behavior until he finds the likely cause. Speaking as a programmer, I mentally run through hundreds of permutated simulations of different parts of the program I am writing, avoiding complicated code that mentally slows the simulation down, and choosing those code blocks that makes the simulation run smoothly.
The real acid test of a trained imagination is one that discerns "both good and evil" (v 14). A well trained imagination "kicks back" when things are not right, while the imagination of the inexperienced optimistically (and magically) leaps over unplesant difficulties. Milk is a liquid that is "eaten" easily, and is assimilated equally easily: even a babe can do that. Meat "fights back" all the time, in the process of hunting it down, killing it, cooking it, chewing it, swallowing it, and digesting it. If you're not careful, you'll try to handle too big of a piece or cut corners, and wind up getting yourself killed. Thus, when I try to force the code to process the data in a certain way, and my imagination refuses to make it easy, then I know there's a problem. The engineer's imagined system will not function when a certain part is mentally "broken" in a certain way. The fish in the bass fisherman's mind will not move to the area that doesn't feel promising. I once showed a supervisor at my place of employment how two different plant parameters that were being trended would reveal a system inefficiency if plotted in a certain way. An engineer in that group took one look at the plotted curves, left the room, and improved power production efficiency by several percentage points after (figuratively speaking) whacking some valves deep in the bowels of the plant with a wrench. After this experience, his supervisor asked some questions about the resulting curve, then called a meeting where he issued a "request" for the group to discover a method for tilting the curve one way during the summer months and tilting it back during the winter months. We all stared at him blankly, since what he was asking for was a method to systematically violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics: his inexperience allowed him, in his imagination, to do easily and effortlessly that which our trained imaginations forbade us to conceive of or articulate. People terrified of technology mentally see machines and processes breaking in ways and causing catastrophes that textbooks, and the knowledge of trained engineers, say is impossible or extremely unlikely: Those same engineers cannot mentally see or replay the "problems" that Luddites swear are there. This inability only convinces the latter that the former are "in the take" of management or big business, lamely applying an equally ill-trained imagination to the problem of the behavior of professionals with codes of ethics and conduct.
Training the "Senses": How It Works
The writer of Hebrews, in verse 14, talks of those who train those senses "by reason of use". What is mistaken as conscious thought is not really conscious, but the perceived effect of a well trained heart. Note the reddish orange feedback loop going from the "eye" in the image below back down into the "heart":
The "I" specifically focuses not only on the sensations the senses are perceiving, but also reacts to the thoughts from the heart, which are "simulated sensations": to the "I", they are both the same, both being sensations that one has to focus upon. The "I" chooses what to concentrate on, does so, and feeds that decision via the "feedback loop" down to the heart. The heart, if trained, will promptly respond by feeding "appropriate" thoughts as "simulated sensations" in response to what the "I" "chooses" to focus upon. One can picture the process as the "I" navigating a menu system being dynamically generated by the heart that responds to the choices being made by throwing up a kind of "sub-menu" of "appropriate" sub-selections. As a programmer, I am sure that the process is much more complicated than the menu system of Lotus 1-2-3 or Word for Windows, since it seems that "short term memory" resides in the "eye" in the image above (5 to 9 memory items, the exact number varying by individual), and is used to make a specific "menu selection" that can have between 31 and 511 "menu options", or make a "menu selection" while simultaneously supplying a parameter.
The point I want to emphasize is that, for those activities for which the heart is well trained, the process seems to flow so quickly and effortlessly that one may be forgiven for mistakenly believing that there is a "conscious" mind that is doing all this work of thinking, rather than it being a high speed game of mental "ping pong" where thoughts race from the heart up via the black arrow path to the eye, which makes a choice that races down to the heart, which reacts by sending "appropriate" thoughts back up to the "eye" via the black arrow path. The clue that things are not as they seem is that the process slows down considerably during the training process. Obviously, being well trained in how to train the heart (which involves training the heart on how to train itself) helps speed up the process a lot. (You may want to re-read that last sentence several times.)
Another mistaken belief based on the illusion of having a "conscious" mind that is doing all that work of thinking is the delusion at all of this is always under our control. It is not: the success of the process depends on the willingness of the heart to cooperate by choosing appropriate thoughts to present to the "I", as well as the "skill" of the "I" when it comes to choosing which thought to concentrate upon that constitutes the best "menu selection" being made. This mechanism, and process, is only as good as the training given to it: the saying "Garbage in, Garbage out" is very true for this situation. This mechanism and process is a given, but effectiveness is not a given or guaranteed!
This mechanism is the process by which a wicked heart passes the evil thoughts listed by Jesus up to "the man", and defiles him. It is not always under our control: it is the heart that sends thoughts up to the "I", and thus it, not the "I", is truly in control. It is this deeply buried source of thoughts that is outside of the conscious awareness, and control, of the "mental eye" that is the inward source of sin that Paul was talking about in Romans 7:
14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. 16 If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. 17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
We are familiar with the phenomenon that certain sights, sounds, or smells can elicit unbidden mental responses, some of them associated with less than savory experiences. A simulated sensation mimicking the original trigger will generate submenus to be presented to the "I" that are limited in choice, so the "I" feels compelled to either choose or to shut down, leading to further participation in a simulated simulation that triggers the acting out of compulsions. We are familiar with the sensation of feeling or thinking certain thoughts when we see a certain individual. We feel hate, disgust, love, or distrust. Some are acceptable, and some are definitely not. What's up with that? Entire nations stuff their women into FULL BODY BAGS because their men's minds inevitably and inexorably produce evil thoughts and behaviors at the mere sight of an uncovered face or ankle, while the French think nothing of the lack of dress of their women at public pools and beaches that would subject those to arrest if done at family beaches in the United States. From where do these thoughts, with their limited choices, come from? From "sin that dwelleth in me", that is, from a human heart that is corrupt. Paul continues this litany, which almost sounds like a bug report from the frustrated user of a computer program gone wrong:
18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. 19 For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. 20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 21 I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
"...Bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members." Let me illustrate how bound up the "process of sinning" is with the process of "simulated sensations" by the one damnable and pernicious sin that leverages, subverts, and exploits the Human Heart model as ruthlessly and efficiently as a virus subverts the genetic machinery of the cell: Gossip.
Gossip? Am I being over serious? Not at all. If you've been around people, you have probably suffered this: Someone comes up to you with some scandalous or juicy piece of "information". The information is imparted skillfully, colorfully, and with much verbal plumage: all the better to ensure that you, the recipient, will recall the gossip and think about it while re-enjoying, in your mind, the elegance of the phrasing. What's happening? You mind is being trained "by reason of use" to discern only evil about that person. The gossip may toss in a bit of flattery, which happens to be gossip that happens to be about you that is told to your own face, so that your sense of ego is tied to the "veracity" of the gossip. Or maybe the gossip tosses in a concerned "observation" that some danger is present, so that your instinct for self-preservation ensures you run those contingency "simulations" in your mind, with the victim doing successively unlikely and untoward actions to provoke your mind to produce "defensive" and "counter-offensive" plans. "Evidence" may be brought forth in the form of examples of otherwise innocent or well-intentioned behaviour, but with the gossip's encouragement to "look at the facts in a different way." When done in the halls of academia, this form of gossip is called "deconstructionism", but which our great-grandparents would have called "making mountains out of molehills". What's happening is that your mind is being trained "by reason of use" to assume that this individual, because they happen to be the cause of a huge number of contingency plans, becomes someone whose actions only cause bad things to happen.
So what happens the next time you see that person? What happens in your head and in your mind? What comes to mind? What "simulated simulation" of a certain gossip's voice is "helpfully" generated and thrown up into your mental "eye" by a cooperative (with the gossip) human heart? What "menu options" for interacting with that person are presented? Do you bother thinking about what mental "menu options" are missing? The poor victim hasn't done anything, and they're being tried and convicted in your mind without a chance to even know they are on trial!
Was I being extreme in comparing gossip to a virus? Watch what happens when you meet a mutual acquaintance and that knowledge "just happens" to trigger a memory of the victim. Or better yet, feel what happens inside of yourself: from whence comes that increasing pressure and urge to pass the gossip on? If it was done cleverly, be sure that the original gossip will disclaim all copyrights to the original verbiage so that you can pretend that you are as clever as they are when you use the same phrasology (elaborated somewhat to give yourself a sense of creativity and originality). One would think you had a high pressure hose stuffed into your ribcage and the valve opened to a tank of nitrogen pressurized to 3000 PSI, so great is the urge to pass it on. James had it right about the tounge, and Jesus Christ obviously had it right about where it all really comes from.
25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
What makes the difference between verse 24 and verse 25? Jesus Christ.
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