Thursday, April 2, 2009

Mormonism and Personal Construct Theory

German philosopher Hans Vaihinger developed a system of thought which has had a profound effect upon me lately. He explained that our thoughts and constructions about God and the universe are best viewed as useful hypotheses rather than representations of objective reality.

This is a strange and frightening concept for Mormons. Latter-day Saints are highly invested in a "one True Religion" and in one way of seeing the truth. Mormons have difficulty seeing that Joseph Smith and nineteenth-century members might have held different world-views than ourselves. We even embarrass ourselves by, for example, superimposing our own unique temple practices upon Old Testament traditions.

In contrast, Vaihinger developed the philosophy of "as if," in which people try out different constructions of events in order to see what might happen when they act "as if" these constructions are so. Here's how it works:

  • Imagine that there are an infinite number of ways to construe the world.
  • To gain a fresh and potentially transforming perspective, purposefully loosen your construction and entertain novel possibilities for understanding it another way.
  • Test out these new possibilities by acting "as if" these new constructions are true.
  • If the constructions adopted fail to prove useful (or even if they do and one wishes to simply experiment with even more alternatives just to see what might result), formulate further alternative constructions of the same events and act "as if" these apply instead.

Personal Construct theory has been explained by George Kelly as a "playful" way to explore the world, an experiment in behavior that that people can use in testing their personally constructed hypotheses. It can be used as a tool in psychotherapy; for instance someone who is shy could act out the role of a "gregarious" person for a few weeks; living "as if" he or she were more outgoing in order to experiment with new ways of behaving and anticipating life. The construct system is an instrument, an ongoing creation of an active person for more easily finding our way in the world.

It scares me to death.

I've always been especially skilled in seeing and entering into others' paradigms and world views. But I've tried to hold on to a notion of One Truth of which Mormons were cognizant. It has been an anchor in my life to know that there is a divine purpose to life, that my trials are given to strengthen me, that there is a God who loves and created me, and a Jesus whose atonement covers my sins and shortcomings. Increasingly, as I've opened myself up to different paradigms, I realize that this is only one world view.

What happens when a Mormon opens her/himself up to this possibility? Do you believe the Kantian assertion that the human mind tortures itself with insoluble problems, searching for truth where no possibility of achieving the truth exists? Can one really know that there is a God, or is faith simply another fictional explanation of observed phenomena (and not always even the best one)?

In the strange and eerie faithless landscape one inhabits as varying models are entertained, can the "as if" theory be of assistance? Does acting "as if" God is there satisfy the human longing for truth and meaning when we find that there are other paradigms that work quite as well in explaining truth? What could happen if we loosen our construction of God and entertain other possibilities? Does this excite you or depress you?


MoHoHawaii said...

When I let go of my orthodox LDS belief system, it was as if a huge stone had been removed from my back. I traded belief for uncertainty, but paradoxically my level of stress went way, way down.

I think it depends on the individual. For me, the "certainty" of Mormon cosmology came with crippling cognitive dissonance. It made me miserable. Others seem to get deep satisfaction and peace from their faith.

I'm perfectly happy with finite mortality. I find the idea of immortality unnatural and disturbing.

I don't think there's one right answer here. What makes sense in the world as you observe it? We won't all answer this in the same way.

Tom Rod said...

A few disjointed thoughts:

What specifically is so disconcerting with traditional Mormon beliefs?

We focus so much on what is true and what isn't. Wouldn't be simpler to ask what "is" and what "isn't"? Either God is, or He isn't. Either immortality is, or it isn't. Things of that nature we have no power to change--either their existence is outside our realm to change, or the process is currently beyond our explanation (Arthur C. Clarke has a wonderful quote on technology and magic I'm sure you're familiar with).

When I went through a trial of belief soon after my mission, I kept coming back to the most basic of questions: what is the nature of God, and does it matter? I believe it does.

I believe the organization, economy, and order of life beyond this is sufficiently different from our current worldview that we cannot at this time understand it, and thus it is not "revealed."

Revelation is simply seeing things as they really are. Not much too that. But we spend so much time trying to discern things we cannot at this time that we exert ourselves until we are blue in the face and pooped in the pants, like a small child. This may imply we are trying in the wrong way to gain the results we desire (increased worldview, strengthened knowledge, etc.). Let God reveal Himself to us--if He wants to be known He will make himself known. If He wants to tell us the LDS church is true let Him do so. No reason to force it. Not to say you won't live it once known, but there is no reason to force your whole round existence into some square cognitive-disassociative whole.

Good luck!

Bored in Vernal said...

Tom, here's what's disconcerting: you think God has been revealed to you in a certain way, and then one day you get a "revelation" that completely contradicts what you previously believed. Which of your perceptions is correct? Whose perceptions can you trust? Is it even possible to know what "is or isn't?" Is it possible to know the nature of God with certainty?

As MoHo says, we won't all answer in the same way. Once you admit the possibility that someone else's paradigm may be equally as valid as your own, you are cast adrift on a sea of uncertainty.

This is where I am right now, and I have lost my bearings.

MoHoHawaii said...

A good friend of mine is the minister of a large Presbyterian congregation in South Carolina.

I told him the story of how I was once on a business trip to India and went to a Hindu temple. I was overwhelmed by the very recognizable attitude of worship that I saw in the people there. What was interesting to me was that the icons and symbols were so different from the religion I knew (Mormonism) and yet the devotion, faith and hope for divine intercession was utterly familiar.

My friend the pastor listened to this story and then told me that he feels that God has called him to be faithful within his tradition but that his community of faith is not inherently privileged, more valued by God or "correct" than any other. His moorings seemed to be quite intact. He is confident of his relationship with God and the value of his ministry to others.

Mormons are challenged by this because of our claim of unique status with the Almighty. I think this weakens our faith, in general, and causes the kind of distress that BiV is expressing here.

In the end, we are alone in our search for meaning. We have eyes, ears and a brain. We just have to experience the world, study alternative cosmological views and then make our way.

BiV, I can understand where you are coming from. I wish you well in your journey. Your empathy and sense of fairness are a curse. :-)

Anonymous said...

"My friend the pastor listened to this story and then told me that he feels that God has called him to be faithful within his tradition but that his community of faith is not inherently privileged, more valued by God or "correct" than any other."

I agree with the pastor, with this wrinkle: part of being in the pastor's faith community likely includes accepting some sort of exclusivity--e.g., to get to heaven one must believe in Jesus or receive certain Sacraments. I cannot speak for him, but either he rejects the exclusivity teaching of the Christian tradition, or he accepts it at the same time he does not accept it.

A good friend, who is an observant Jew and a sociologist/anthropologist of religion, once told me something similar to what the pastor said: my friend feels called by God to be an observant Jew, but does not claim that his faith community is privileged above any other. But, he told me, part of being an observant Jew means accepting an exclusivity of the correct way to worship and come to God. And so, he told me, he believes, at the same time, that there is only one way to God which is Judaism, that he has been called by God to be an observant Jew, yet others may be called by God to other faith communities, and no faith community is privileged by God above another.

I see things essentially the same way. If you asked me: do you believe either (1) that the LDS way is the only true and living way (or Church) or (2) that no religious faith is inherently privileged by God above another--I would answer "yes".

Believing two irreconcilable things simultaneously? Yes. F. Scott Fitzgerald would say it is the sign of a first rate mind; most would say it is a sign of mental illness; Terryl Givens would say it is another gospel paradox; physicists might say it is another example of quantum mechanics; Joseph Smith and Eugene England might say it is an exercise of proving contraries.


Last Lemming said...

physicists might say it is another example of quantum mechanics;

Well not exactly, but I get your point. For about the last ten years or so I have had to constantly remind myself that if you can believe quantum mechanics, you can believe anything.

Tom Rod said...

I have considered what you've said.

Sometimes I wonder if with all our strugglings and strivings we're similar to a story I heard when I was a kid. This guy was commanded to push on a stone day in and day out. Years go by, and the adversary came to tempt him. "Why do you push on this stone every day? What have you done to move it?" 'Why, nothing at all! Why AM I doing this every day?' The man continued to struggle with his command with these thoughts. Then the Lord came, and the man asked Him why he was commanded to push the rock if after all these years he hadn't moved it. "Why, the command never was to move it, only to push it. In pushing it your body has become strong, your mind and spirit disciplined."

Our natural disposition is to find out the why and the how. I'll agree to that. I also agree that my understanding of God, along with the plentitude of varieties of belief systems, may not all be completely correct. But I don't think it matters if our understanding is completely correct, What matters at this very moment is if we are 'pushing the rock' as commanded.

Alma fasted and prayed many days and nights to know the things of God, as have others. To learn, Joseph Smith taught, we have to do as they did and follow what they followed. The sophistries of the human intellect are, in my opinionm a poor substitute.

To answer your question, what matters in following revelation is following the one we currently have. How are we to discern revelation from personal thought or temptation? The scriptures give us those keys. D&C 50, many of the writings of Paul, and other scriptures teach us how we are to "try the spirits" to determine their source and their intent for us. If it is of Christ, it invites to do good, to believe in Christ, and serve our fellow man. Beyond that we are not held to it.

BiVm I don't know if anything I've said sinks in or if it anger or offends you. Remember I'm just some random guy who occasionally reads the posts here cause one caught my eye from Google Reader suggestions. I don't really know much about you, your situation in life, or even of a surety all your others posts. But when I comment I really am trying to be clear and speak up when its important.

Well, to sum up, I wanted to leave a thought from Hugh Nibley I found the other day (and I apologize I cannot remember the greek words he used--his level of depth is most often beyond me). The measure of our life is not the acquisition or progression of our knowledge or certainty, but in how we apply the knowledge we gain to serve our fellow creature.

Elizabeth-W said...

You pose this question: Is it possible to know the nature of God with certainty?
Here's what I think.
We can have neat and tidy but not necessarily "True". We could also have very messy and confusing but probably more "True". I can barely understand how electricity works, let alone quantum mechanics, so how can I possibly begin to understand the nature of GOD?
So, I am totally comfortable in "acting as if".
Despite growing up in the church I never, ever felt comfortable with 'one True Religion', even as child. All around me there were people so confident, so assured. That hasn't ever been me. But I'm at a point I feel more... relaxed I suppose is the best word. Not bothered by the ambiguity. I find it freeing.

SteveP said...

I love Vaihinger! I have a first edition copy of his "The Philosophy of "As If." He's far too little studied today. You did a great job of explaining his views. Thanks for reminding me about him.

You mentioned opening the 'as if' possibility was frightening, but isn't that exactly what we ask investors to do when they first encounter the church? Open to new possibilities? I would argue that we never should stop investigating. I think we demand it of others and we should demand it of ourselves. Our Faith can take it.

Great post by the way.