Sunday, April 13, 2008

All Truth Can Be Circumscribed Into One Great Whole

Do you ever feel that, as a Mormon, you tend to compartmentalize truth? I know I do. Things just seem to work best when the Church paradigm (Adam was a real person who lived in Jackson County, MO) is held separately from the secular/scientific paradigm (the earth evolved over a period of millions of years).

Although I do find myself, FARMS-like, attempting to reconcile the often fantastic claims of my religion with what I can observe with my physical senses and what I can reason out with my human brain, generally I fall short in this endeavor. But something I wear daily reminds me that all the pieces of truth I can garner will one day fit neatly into a big picture. There is a way to break through the paradigms of human existence and see Truth as it really exists. This implies that I shouldn't be satisfied with two bits of knowledge that contradict each other. Either one or both is false, or I haven't found a way of observing them which will reconcile the two.

Chiam Potok suggested that there are four possible responses to conflict between sacred and secular thought systems. First, the lockout approach: one can simply dodge the conflict by erecting impenetrable barriers between the sacred and the secular and then remaining in just one system. We see this in religious enclaves and communes, hidden away from "the world," but just as much in a closed-minded secular society which admits no transcendent experience. The second response is compartmentalization: one creates separate categories of thought that coexist in a "tenuous peace." Most of the mainstream Mormons I know have responded in this way. Third, ambiguity: take down most if not all walls and accept a multitude of questions without intending to resolve them. I see this approach to a certain extent in the Bloggernacle. I know, not everyone takes down walls, and we do give lip service to trying to resolve issues. In practice, however, a multitude of questions abound, and not much resolution takes place. Potok's fourth response is to take down all walls and allow complete fusion in which the sacred and secular cultures freely feed each other, perhaps leading to a "radically new seminal culture." I'm not sure, but I think what he advocates here is a removal, or at least a recognition of paradigm, political correctness, an acceptance of everyone's perception of the "elephant."

What we are taught in the Temple provides a fifth possibility--the circumscribing of truth into one great whole. This view gives us faith that indeed there does exist an absolute truth. Here we accept objective and subjective reality from both the sacred and the secular thought systems in the pursuit of the construction of an eternal "whole." In order to distinguish this state from Potok's fourth approach, there would have to be identification of "truth" and some type of blocking or rejection of evil or falsehood. Complete acceptance of everything would cause confusion and conflict. The problem lies in our inability to recognize pure Truth. Misuse of this approach brings us right back to Potok's first response.

What is our responsibility to search out and discover Truth? Is it immoral to plunk ourselves squarely into one of Potok's four constructs? We've all heard the advice to those who are confronted with ambiguity: to put our questions "on the shelf" awaiting the eternal day when all will become clear. Or does the undeviating course leading to eternal life necessitate striving to discover the truth of all things?


ptalady said...

I believe absolutely that we should never stop seeking for pure truth. It is what we were meant to do. We know that the word of the Lord is truth, and truth is light. D&C 50:24 tells us: "That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day." We are meant to continue in God, continue seeking, until all light and truth is made manifest to us.

Honestly, many members of the church are spiritually lazy. We've been told repeatedly that we are living beneath our privileges when it comes to the gospel. Yet many do not choose to seek; they put things on shelves.

That being said, I have never forgotten the parting counsel given by my senior historical research professor on the final day of class (at BYU). He said that at times in our studies, we would come across things that might cause us to question our faith. He said that if we find ourselves confused and struggling, it would be wise to take a few steps back to strengthen our foundation. He wasn't advocating putting questions on a shelf until 'that eternal day,' but rather giving ourselves the time necessary to gain the foundational truths we need to understand the answers. I tend to question everything, so that counsel has served me well.

Our efforts to seek truth are meant to be done "line upon line, precept upon precept." If we don't find the answers we seek, then there are simply other truths we need to learn first. The important thing is that we keep seeking. Like the prophet Alma said "these mysteries are not yet fully made known unto me; therefore I shall forbear" (Alma 37:11). The understanding we need will come to us when the time is right. It's not that God doesn't want us to have the answers; he just wants us to be ready for them.

NonArab-Arab said...

Great post BiV. I love what you're getting at with option 5. The sheer demands of life probably keep me in compartmentalization mode most of the time as a practical matter, but striving for that notion of all truth being circumscribed into one great whole is what life is all about for me. When I seek secular or spiritual truth in so many ways, I actually don't see it as seeking truth with an adjective, just truth.

I do think it is important to recognize the limits of our knowledge. Our minds are such puny vessels compared to the vastness of knowledge (and matter and energy and power and glory) in the universe. People frequently step back and do the thought exercise of saying "if there is no God and/or the only way to judge truth is via my 5 senses, then..." and come to the well-known conclusions that we are alone in the universe. However, but if that is the only exercise we are willing to do, then we are being self-deceptive, we are saying there are no Black Swans (I'm a fan of Nassim Taleb's, his books "The Black Swan" and "Fooled by Randomness" I highly recommend) simply because we have not seen one, not because they don't exist. The universe and its knowledge are so vast, and our position in it so puny, that even in the most purely human logical of arguments we need to acknowledge we know almost nothing about the big picture in which we exist and that we are going to be surprised - shocked - by things we will yet learn even in what we call the secular sphere.

So, we also need to do the thought exercise where we say: if there are matters of circumscribing-into-one-great-whole truth, would it include what we today with our limited perception label as matters of the spirit? If so, how might those matters be perceived and appear?

Such a thought exercise would not prove the existence of spiritual forces, I am not suggesting that. What it does do is open one's mind wider to considering what that great-whole-truth might look like so that one can be open to glimpses of it if it does exist.

All of which might strike some as mere spiritually-minded hope with no evidence, but I disagree. Sheer logic in my view says you cannot dismiss either the secular or the spiritual viewpoints, our piece of universal knowledge is simply too small. So then the next step becomes, how do you determine ultimate truth (or the small pieces of it we are able to perceive and which are most useful to us)? Is it by experimentation based on theoretically-based hypotheses? No doubt, that has produced great leaps forward in science. But if we get to the point where we think such a methodology is *the* route to truth, we misunderstand the most basic premises of science and statistics. Scientific experimentation is a sampling process. Under given controlled circumstances (in a wildly uncontrolled universe) we are able to reproduce results often enough to rely upon them most of the time. But we often have no idea what the robustness of those circumstances in which we tested really is. That is why a centuries-old scientific theory can be upended in a day by a new experiment that shows we've actually been running experiments in a bubble and that the much wider world has many more possibilities than we thought operating under often very different rules.

We need to realize this limitation, which in turn should lead us to realize that there are other methods for seeking truth. Medicine is a good example: a lot of traditional medicine, dismissed for many years by scientists and doctors as fables, when finally given a closer look, turned out to have something to it. Or on the flip side, medieval European doctors who relied upon theories about humors and such let thousands if not millions of patients die because they didn't spend time simply observing what worked and what didn't (as opposed to what many Arab physicians of the era did - see the medieval example Syrian Prince Usamah Ibn Munqidh's doctor Thabit and his encounter with crusader doctors here

And it is that observatory process that I think is actually quite important. It's nice to experiment and find evidence to back up theories. No, it's crucial and important for gaining knowledge. But, it's not the only way. There are things beyond our ability to understand all the rules and laws behind them, but which observation can indeed show us what works. There are the medieval Arab physicians I mentioned (and before them many Greek physicians who in reality were the fore-runners upon whom Arab medicine was built), but I also like to use the speculative trading world as an example. I've seen many traders who became dead convinced of a theory about how a price series was going to move because it had worked so many times in the past *and* analysts and/or themselves had created a theory as to why it had happened and in their minds turned it into a law. This led them down a primrose path and they blew up and lost their shirts. On the other hand, the most successful traders I have known are able to acknowledge first and foremost that they *do not* know why a price is going to go one way or the other or if it will. They form hypotheses, but they are not wedded to them so tightly they cannot consider the unseen alternatives. Above all, what they operate on is what they have observed, in the positive and the negative senses: on the positive side if it has been working, they'll keep trying until it stops working even if they can't say why. But on the negative side, they understand they may be wrong and do everything in their power to protect themselves (using options, hedging strategies, stop-losses, etc.) in case they are totally wrong. In other words: their minds are open to all possibilities, even if they don't understand all the reasons for them. They seek diligently to know the reasons if they can, but they acknowledge they cannot know everything and still take action despite that limitation.

So I believe it is for understanding ultimate truth. We cannot know it all, but we can observe what works. That is why I don't think Alma 32 is as some have interpreted it an attempt to turn faith into some kind of scientific experiment. Not at all, rather I think it is a call to open our minds to observational, experiential knowledge and not limit ourselves to purely experimental/labaratory knowledge. Both types of knowledge have their place and limitations, but in a massive unfathomable universe, I think we need to understand that as we seek to dip our toes into it that there is not only room for both, but that limiting ourselves to only one simply limits the number of times we are casting our lines into a fish-filled sea.

As a postscript to this now massive comment (sorry, brainfarts come when they come), I also think this has a lot to do with why Joseph Smith behaved in the way he did in his life. Here was an inherently curious, but ultimately relatively simple person from an intellectual background standpoint. But when God appeared to him and then started opening up the gates to let him stare into heaven - wow! Talk about drinking from a firehose. I think Joseph simply saw things far too big for the mortal human mind to comprehend. And here he was, filled with this image of something so vast, so massive, but limited to his human capacities to try and absorb himself and then explain it to us. The very thought of it just strikes me as overwhelming in the extreme. And if sometimes he said some things that seemed a bit off kilter or were hard to reconcile, in my mind that is a very natural result of trying to convey something almost impossible for him to fully understand let alone convey to others. But at the same time, what he did convey was a fresh stream running off from a sea of incredible knowledge and very worthy of drinking from. And I don't think that because I have proven it in a laboratory, I think it because I have personal experience with such things. The kind of experience that once healed a Frankish knight and mentally ill woman, and which I consider neither "secular" or "spiritual", merely truth.

Bored in Vernal said...

Wow, these are great comments, thanks for adding your thoughts to this post. I agree with both of you that often the search for truth is hindered simply because we are lazy or because we are busy with our lives and the things we have to do to survive.

But once we are really engaged on this search, other obstacles arise. I think for me the biggest frustration is not that I don't receive spiritual promptings, messages, communications--it's that I don't know if the interpretation I am placing on them is right.

There's also the problem of integrating two conflicting pieces of information--one observed empirically and one felt in the heart. How does one decide which is Truth? This is when the temptation comes to place things on the shelf or to compartmentalize, instead of continuing to wrestle with it.

elaine said...

I would have to agree with number four, that is to integrate all truth into one seminal whole, scary as that can be. And I agree with the others, this is an ongoing process. If we put it on the shelf, make sure it is a shelf always visible!
Yesterday in SS we discussed Jacob 5 and all the symbolism there, what the branches mean, what the roots mean, etc. To me that is a good example of our ineptitude when it comes to applying truth universally to all aspects of life. I have yet to find a problem that can not be wrestled with using Jacob 5 as a tool. Our problem as members is when we assign labels and compartments, limiting the use of absolute truths, such as those found in nature (olive tree growth!)
Yet the most important question you ask is, how do I tell what is really truth and what is just me?
Sheri Dew says it takes practice to know how the Spirit speaks to you. I agree. I know I still get it wrong...yet I have felt confirmation of truth in the middle of a cardiac physiology lecture in the same way I feel confirmation of certain truths while reading scripture. Yes. It IS all connected.

Anonymous said...

If one has to compartmentalize various parts of one's world view from others, there's a strong likelihood that a lot of effort is going into maintaining a belief system that is incompatible with "Truth" because the individual must deal with the inconsistencies through confirmation bias. Given that this creates significant discomfort, the individual can displace her discomfort by projecting it into the future when she believes that the discrepancies will be resolved in favor of both view, thereby eliminating the paradox or discomfort. Or as Joe Hill might say, "You will eat by and by/ In that glorious land in the sky / Work and pray, live and hay, / There will be pie in the sky by and by."

NonArab-Arab said...

I must admit I am a bit baffled when I hear friends - especially hard core atheist friends who consider themselves highly logical - rail against compartmentalization. Show me anyone - anyone! - who doesn't compartmentalize. Show me the person that doesn't compartmentalize some significant portion of their life and thinking and I will show you either a deity or the leader (or individual embodiment of) of a perfect Marxist utopia. Neither exist among humanity, sorry.

The question as I see it is not whether or not we compartmentalize - we do - but how honest we are about those compartmentalizations, how open our minds are to the vast possibilities (sensory and non-sensory) there are out there, and how aware we are of our biases (which we will never eliminate) so that we can deal with them most honestly and effectively and even utilize them for positive benefit.

Anonymous said...

Once we begin speaking about "paradigms" and "compartmentalization" we must be prepared to discuss the sociological, scientific, and psychological constructs within which these terms operate. I'm not sure that compartmentalization occurs in all humans; I would require something more than the statement that it is a fact to accept that hypothesis. We should attend to BIV's own statement, "Although I do find myself, FARMS-like, attempting to reconcile the often fantastic claims of my religion with what I can observe with my physical senses and what I can reason out with my human brain, generally I fall short in this endeavor." The "fantastic claims" of her religion cannot be reconciled with observation or reason: they are unreasonable and without rational foundation, essentially requiring, as I said in my earlier post, an abandonment of the search for "Truth" by placing the acquisition of that Grail in an unobservable, unknowable and imaginary post-death world.

NonArab-Arab said...

I actually fundamentally disagree with this statement:

"they are unreasonable and without rational foundation, essentially requiring, as I said in my earlier post, an abandonment of the search for "Truth" by placing the acquisition of that Grail in an unobservable, unknowable and imaginary post-death world"

For reasons I explained above but which I fully understand may have gotten lost in my muddled attempt to explain. So I'll try once more.

Are they "unreasonable" and "without rational foundation"?

Only if one makes what in my mind are two basic logical errors. The first is to mistake the scientific method for something it is not - i.e., to assume it "proves" things via experimentation and evidence. This scientific method does not do. You cannot actually prove anything via scientific method, you can only disprove. One may run 100, 1000, 1000000 or more samples/experiments and reach the same result, but all you have done is show that within your sample a rule has held. Now, that is likely enough to give you a high enough degree of confidence to operate on the basis of that result, but you have not in fact proven that things are always so. You have only shown that within your sample you produced a high proportion of similar returns. You do not know within the broader universe where your sample fits. Is your sample the one in a trillion case or is it the median case? You do not know. Again, at a certain point your degree of uncertainty is low enough that you are willing to accept it as a practical rule, but if you make the mistake of assuming you have a "law" rather than a practical guide, you have made a fundamental error. The only thing you can actually do is falsify via experimentation, not prove. In other words, I cannot prove that a loaded die will always roll a 5. I could roll that die a million times and turn up fives, but I have not proven there is a law that it will only turn up fives, I have merely established a high degree of confidence that I believe it will. If after a million rolls it comes up 3 or any other number even once, I have falsified the claim. I can only prove that it is *not true* that it will always come up 5, I cannot prove it is true that it will always come up 5.

That is the first logical error. One can not say that the so-called "fantastic claims" of a religion are "unreasonable" or "without rational foundation" unless one can show they have exhausted every possible reasonable possibility or rational foundation in the universe and found every single one lacking. Given this is beyond our abilities, one can not establish that fact.

The second error one must make is to assume that only those phenomena we currently understand by not just our sense but our current level of knowledge are those that establish a rational foundation. Time and time again, science itself has shown that new levels of understanding that were previously thought impossible are in fact possible. Other possibilities must always be considered, even - especially! - ones we currently consider impossible. We do not have to believe those things are or must be, but we must acknowledge their possibility if we are being honest and genuinely logical. And here is where the role of experiential knowledge as opposed to experimental deserves its due. Experimental is valuable, but experiential - knowledge of things that we know have worked via trial and error even though we may not know why - often leads the way. Indeed, hypothesis making in the scientific method is itself often the result of experiential trust or intuition in something. But even where it doesn't lead to a scientific hypothesis and statistical significance, it may still be of value and produce a high degree of positive results which in turn may someday (in this life or the next) find its "proof".

This is where spirituality falls in my view, and it is no way illogical. It is experimentally un-proven, but those who point this apparent flaw out often forget that every scientific experiment is itself unproven! Such experiments have merely attained statistically significant confidence (which itself may be illusory if the skews are misunderstood) and we have constructed what we think is the explanation, they have not proven anything in the big picture sense. In that sense, experience can give us similar confidence as well even if we are unable to run the same tests on them at present.

I probably haven't made that any clearer than the first time...oh well, but I tried.

Anonymous said...

You are creating a straw man. Science does not propose "ultimate truth" only a useful answer, subject to repetition, which is always subject to change or revision as the scientist searches for a more elegant solution.

Of course, the search for "ultimate truth"is a claim to meaning, for which there is no substantial reason to suppose exists.

NonArab-Arab said...

I'm not saying science proposes ultimate meaning, I am saying many people make the mistake of thinking it does.

Indeed your second statement ("Of course, the search for "ultimate truth"is a claim to meaning, for which there is no substantial reason to suppose exists.")points to precisely that point. *Not* saying you are saying this, just that your statement is typical of one I hear many atheists make in their argumentative chain. They say there is no substantial reason to say it exists, and then they claim therefore the only logical assumption to live on is that it does not exist (if they don't make the even bigger step that they believe this proves it doesn't exist). Some religious have added cost-benefit analysis and said "perhaps there is no God, but if there is a God, the reward of believing is so high; and if there is no God the cost of disbelieving so high; that even if there's only a tiny possibility the expected value of believing dictates believing".

But whether taking the believers or unbelievers side of that argument, they are both missing the point. The point is that when making the statement that science provides no substantial reason to believe, science is only to sample 0.000000000000001% (whatever it is, tiny number, you get my point) of the possibilities in the universe. It's like saying you conducted an experiment to see if there were whales in the sea by taking teaspoon samples of seawater from the beach. You did the sample a billion times and never once came up with a whale in your spoon, therefore the experiment shows there is no logical basis to believe there are whales in the sea.

This is the problem with science being used as a method to determine whether there is "ultimate truth" or not. It is the wrong tool and ultimately incapable of providing insight into this question because the universe of possibilities is so gigantic and our position in it so confined that it becomes impossible to get a proper sample.

NonArab-Arab said...

sorry, in my little cost-benefit analysis thing by some religious folk, I meant to say:

"perhaps there is no God, but if there is a God, the reward of believing is so high; and the cost of disbelieving so high; that even if there's only a tiny possibility the expected value of believing dictates believing".

Anonymous said...

Why would one's behavior change if God exists? Or no?

NonArab-Arab said...

Two possibilities: if one believes in God and some religion, one will engage in rituals or other acts and patterns of living which that religion says are necessary to prepare for what comes after this life. If you don't believe you won't. Also, if one believes God has given commandments for things that are proscribed for whatever reason, you won't engage in those activities if you're a believer but very well might if you are a non-believer (kosher rules, word of wisdom rules, halal rules, certain sexual mores, religious dress codes, etc.).

But I suspect (correct me if I'm wrong) you're getting at basic moral behavior towards other people in this life. If one is a secular humanist who believes fundamentally in treating others well in a secular golden rule fashion, I don't suppose that level of behavior would change at all from a religious-golden-rule believer. On the other hand, if one doesn't believe in God and takes a view (as some of my friends have) that life is about getting the most for ones' self and if others can't take the heat it's their own fault so screw them...well, obviously that results in a very different attitude towards how one treats others. Likewise, a believer who refuses to live up to their beliefs in this regard and ends up taking on a set of personal views that undermines that which they profess to believe in might do the same in negative terms.

Anonymous said...

Exactly, not only does it not matter, it doesn't matter.

NonArab-Arab said...

Ummm...that's not what I said.

LifeOnaPlate said...

BiV: The immediacy of life often stops introspection, in my opinion. The problem is, most people don't care to wonder about empiricism, sense perception, the nature of reality, and other philosophical aspects because those things aren't going to fill their stomaches or make sure the car payment makes it on time or that Billy gets a better math grade. This probationary state harasses us with the "tyranny of the now," and when people get tired they generally want to escape and relax rather than sit and study and seek and confuse themselves. This is OK, while Mormons assert we are here to gain knowledge, and that the glory of God is intelligence, we realize that day-to-day acts of kindness are more important than understanding the theory of relativity.

Taking some ideas from Hegel I have been thinking about truth as the fruits of a covenant. (We are shaped and we shape reality as a society.) Hegel saw the importance of the individual being swallowed up by the whole. It is a twist on the "lose yourself for my sake and find yourself" doctrine. God has set up this probation to deliberately teach us the demands of freedom, as well as our responsibility toward the whole. (This is a very terse explanation, I haven't yet committed any of these thoughts to writing until this moment, actually.)We can be a self because there are selves, but as selves we recognize our ability to affect as well as be affected, etc.

Hegel talked about viewpoints evolving from thesis, to antithesis, and finally to synthesis. (For example, thesis=the family unit. As a child grows she comes in contact with society which is an antithesis to the family, an outside group competing for attention and allegiance. The synthesis arrives if the child learns to combine the family and the society as parts of a whole rather than as distinct elements. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.)

Reality to Hegel is things as they are, were, and will be, as composed in one Absolute reality. We humans go through cycles which bring us ever closer to the absolute truth of science, philosophy, art, etc., which Absolute Hegel believed was God. (God not as a literal being as Mormons would say, but as a "Absolute Truth." I would compare this to the fundamental truths that God understands and wishes to introduce to us so that we can become "one" with Him in this knowledge, thus, gods.) Hegel used this outlook to emphasize the eternal nature of cycles, paradox, contradiction, and to explain evil.

My view, I believe, helps explain how the Church can function while members hold different beliefs (a literal creation 6,000 years ago vs. evolution.) That issue is ultimately a chimera, a distraction for the time being; I don't believe the Bible was formulated to teach us science; it was calculated to form a community. I am unsure that science can really find the "beginning" or if they could even agree that there was or wasn't one. Still, this view allows for members to hold different beliefs while achieving the same ends.

Anyway, this is random and scattered; I haven't formulated it all as you can see.

You might be interested in reading Ian Barbour's "Myths, Models and Paradigms." You can pick up a copy online for 5 bucks or so, it is an excellent starter for the issue of science and religion.

NonArab-Arab said...

Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. I like that, a good summation of processes I've seen in my life.

LifeOnaPlate said...

Or as Joseph Smith said: "by proving contraries, truth is made manifest."

If a member doesn't like paradox they may be in the wrong Church.

NonArab-Arab said...

I really like the Arabic Book of Mormon translation of the 2 Ne. 2:11 phrase "there must needs be opposition in all things". The word used for "opposition" there is tanaaquD which really has a meaning much closer to "contradiction" than "opposition". Maybe not fully true to the English text, but it gets precisely at your point which I think is an important key to life.

Bored in Vernal said...

Myths, Models and Paradigms sounds like something I would really be interested in. Thanks for the pointer.

I was reading M&M's post Generalizing the Personal and was pondering how this fits in to what we are talking about here. I think there are so many life choices that are personal and will vary according to the individual. I really have no problem if one person decides homeschooling is right for their family and one person decides the opposite. But then there are certain choices that seem to come closer to ultimate truth. It does bother me that we can't come to a consensus on whether or not the earth is 4,000 years old. It either is or it isn't, right? Being baptized into a certain church is another example. Is there one "true" church? Are their choices that are dependent upon Absolute Truth?

Anonymous said...

"It does bother me that we can't come to a consensus on whether or not the earth is 4,000 years old."

There is a consensus. Consensus doesn't mean unanimity: there will always be some Flat/Young Earthers who believe the ridiculous.