Thursday, September 1, 2016

SURT notes 1.2.4 p.89

(The idea that time isn't real is an obstacle to understanding God. We try to associate the Aristotelean unmoved mover with the Newtonian observer outside space and time, and we end up with an absurd, omni-God.)

Time is meaningless in a block universe, and is meaningless to an observer outside of time.

Devaluing time is tied to privileging mathematics as reality. The ideas that math is reality and that understanding universal laws will allow us to know all that is, was, and will be is not science. It is philosophy or metaphysical assumptions, and probably not sound, at that.
We do better to put the Newtonian paradigm in its place, to drop the block-universe picture of the universe, to recognize the reality of time all the way down, to dispense with the notion of a framework of natural laws outside time, to admit that the laws of nature may change, and to deflate the claims of mathematics to represent a uniquely privileged channel of insight into reality.
(Dropping the omni-God requires a lot less intellectual stretching and rationalization than maintaining it. We do have to let go of the false comfort of a God in control of everything. A God living in nature with us, however, matches our lived experience better. Saying we are of a substance with God is not the same as saying we know, or can comprehend, everything about God.)

The Big Bang broke the laws as they currently are. Our evidence is that many natural laws aren't constant in time.

We have accepted conceptual maneuvers that disguise contradictions in the cosmological narrative.:
  1. Newtonian prediction from initial conditions and laws has been generalized too far, from systems where it applies to the whole universe.
  2. Sometimes we assume current conditions in the universe apply throughout time (cosmological presentism). (This can be subtle, I think)
  3. We have to have immutable natural laws to be able to do science.
  4. Reductionism in cosmology--we can understand all of time and space by studying small parts and extrapolating.
"All of them are tainted . . . by circularity."

. . . consider what the cosmological discoveries of the last hundred years might . . . mean once we relinquish the impulse to reconcile them with the tenets of the time-denying and mathematics-worshipping tradition that we dispute.
The hypotheses of the book:
. . . time is real . . . everything changes . . .mathematics is useful . . . because it abstracts . . . , not because it affords us privileged insight into timeless truth.
According to the predominant view of theories attempting to unify gravity with the other three forces,
The structural explanation is much more likely to help explain the history of the universe than the history of the universe is to explain the present structure.
Accepting the opposite would turn physics into a more narrative science, like history and evolution and social sciences, than the purely theoretical science we have often imagined it to be.
There is better reason to believe today in a succession of causally connected universes than there is to believe in a plurality of causally unconnected universes.
Accepting the multiverse (causally unconnected) prevents the need to deal with the reality of time.

String theory deepens the problems of the unreality of time and the ascendancy of mathematics rather than resolving them.


SURT notes 1.2.3 p.75

What is Natural Philosophy?
Here are some of its enduring characteristics . . .
Its first hallmark is to take nature as its topic: not science but the world itself. . . . Science and natural philosophy have the same subject matter, but not the same powers and methods.
A second characteristic . . . is to question the present agenda or the established methods in particular sciences.
Natural philosophy tries to distinguish what scientists have discovered about nature from their interpretation of these discoveries. [interpretations are more often biased] . . . The cost for relying on [preconceptions] is an unacknowledged blindness: the progress of science requires that they be occasionally identified, resisted, overturned, and replaced.
Natural philosophy can be useful in the early stages of change, but later you need new data.
We deal with problems that are both basic and general. We do so, however, without depending on metaphysical ideas outside or above science.
When we reenvision science (or religion) there are problems with introducing ideas beyond the realm of the testable. No untrammeled speculation (nothing supernatural). The goal is to discuss foundational matters without relying on foundational doctrines (or dogma in the religious context). Natural philosophy isn't science, but it can change science. (It isn't revelation, but it can shape revelation.) Expectations shape the path.

Natural philosophy is different from the detailed daily science of a field. Daily science can gradually force change of fundamental assumptions and frameworks.

Philosophical or theological discourse can point to new possibilities, even though they can't establish validity.
Such a change may be motivated by the hope that it will throuw surprising and revealing light on well-established facts and suggest a shift of direction: a new way of looking at the familiar, offering a path into the unfamiliar.
That experiment changes theory implies that speculating on theory is worthwhile so long as it could effect experiment. (Theological speculation is useful when it influences how we practice religion.)

Meta-discourse is more often interdisciplinary and able to question field specific orthodoxies. (Science and religion can help each other ask better questions, even when they can't give each other answers.)

Reform is the typical mode of change. Revolution is the limiting case of extreme change. (I can contribute to revolution through persistent reform.)

Institutions and ideologies that foster criticism and revision allow more constant social change:
An institutional and ideological ordering of social life can have, in superior degree, the attribute of laying itself open to criticism and revision.
Some conditions for freedom and for adaptable societies:
Practical progress requires freedom to experiment and to recombine not just things but also people, practices, and ideas. Moral emancipation demands that we be able to relate to another as the context and role-transcending individuals that we now all hope to be, rather than as placeholders in some grinding scheme of hierarchical order and pre-established division in society. Neither of these two sets of requirements is likely to be satisfied unless we succeed in building societies and cultures that facilitate their own reconstruction, weakening the power of the past to define the future and diminishing the extent to which crisis must serve as midwife to change.
(Are you creating the need for crisis?)

Having an ideology or institution that can be fixed is more important than having one that is right. "Corrigibility supersedes finality." We can be fully committed to an organization that values correction even if it is sometimes wrong. (When an organization ceases to allow for substantial change, how should we relate to it?)
We can engage in such an order, even single-mindedly and whole-heartedly, without surrendering to it. In the midst of our ordinary business, we can keep the last word to ourselves rather than giving it to the regime. In this way, the social world that we inhabit becomes less of a place of exile and torment; it no longer separates us from ourselves by exacting surrender as the price of engagement and isolation as the price of transcendence.
(If Mormonism is correctable, I can belong and be independent. The false dichotomy of blind faith vs. rebellion is broken.)
An institutional and ideological framework of social life that is endowed with this power to facilitate its own remaking enjoys an evolutionary advantage over the rivals.
(God is not dead, but fundamentalism will always die. Dogma will eventually change to something more substantial, or it will also die.) Our available choices evolve as our institutions and ideologies evolve.

Natural philosophy should revisit fundamentals, connect fields, discuss big picture ideas, not just details.

Popular science is where natural philosophy is currently done.
 The popularizing books have become a secret form of the vanished genre, a crypto natural philosophy.
In this respect, the arbiter of science is practical success: success at guiding intervention and at correcting perception.
(The arbiter of Mormonism should be the same. "By their fruits . . .")
Its assumptions about the workings of nature can be both parsimonious and accommodating because they are likely to be compatible with a range of different conceptions of how part of nature is organized.
(With orthopraxy as judge, orthodoxy can be accommodating.)

There is always more than one consistent view of reality.

Science can't avoid assumptions, so assumptions need to be explicit and evaluated explicitly. The bigger your claims, the more significant your assumptions are likely to be. Most scientists will not recognize their assumptions. (Most receivers of revelation will not recognize the assumptions that color their interpretation of the revelation.)
. . . a major scientific system represents . . . a frozen natural philosophy, just as an established institutional and ideological regime amounts to a frozen politics. . . . it becomes . . . entrenched against challenge.
(Correlation is at the same time a useful aid for diffusing knowledge and a frozen theology, entrenched against change.)

We need antidotes to our biases: "Natural philosophy . . . can provide an antidote to metaphysical bias, when such bias is disguised as empirical truth."

Natural philosophy can confront disparate fields and methodologies. Major changes in thought will also change practice. (Applying scientific methods to religion and vice versa can check our biases. Religious and scientific methods will not replace each other, they will remove unreal roadblocks that resulted from institutionalization.)
The point will rarely be to replace the procedures of one science with those of another; it will more often be to remove the impediments that a methodological prejudice imposes on a substantive reorientation.
Analogy can start you on new ways of thinking.

We desire speculative ideas with real consequences, not just detached analysis of science. (Mormon Transhumanism is not simply speculative theology. We practice theology to help us act, and right theology is vindicated by its fruits.)
Its proposals grow in interest if . . . they express physical intuitions and anticipate pathways of empirical inquiry.
But speculations, even vindicated, are foreshadowing, not the final word.
[Speculation] can help draw around the canon of established science a larger penumbra of untapped intellectual opportunity.
Math is a tool, not the judge of right and wrong.
If mathematics were everything that those who believe in its premonitory powers make it out to be, natural philosophy would be both less useful and less dangerous than it is.
 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

SURT notes I.2.2 p.67

Once we free ourselves from the superstitions that prompt us to see the study of society and history as weak biology and biology as weak physics, we are free to recognize these analogies and to learn from them.
Prejudice against other disciplines doesn't make us better scientists. History and social science have a richer tool set than physical sciences.
In this pursuit, the mind can stock itself with intellectual resources, richer than those that the traditions of physical science make available, with which to confront the tasks of natural philosophy. They are resources with which to reimagine the relation of laws, or other regularities, to states of affairs, of history to structure, and of the repetitions to the new.
Math is useless:
It is futile to look, as natural scientists are accustomed to do, to mathematics for inspiration in the solution of these problems. What we find in mathematics is a peerless body of conceptions of the most general relations among features of the world, robbed, however, of all phenomenal particularity and temporal depth: a lifeless and faceless terracotta army.
Math will be useful after we know what it needs to describe. Math doesn't tell you what reality is.

Laws of economic systems are falsely universal:
What the economists took to be the universal laws of economic life were, by the terms of this criticism, only the laws of one particular "mode of production": capitalism. The were, in the conventional language of today's philosophy of science, effective rather than fundamental laws. The false universality claimed on their behalf rendered them misleading even for the historically specific domain to which they properly applied.
Stable institutions are interruptions of the struggle over terms of social life.
The harder they are to challenge and to change, the more they assume the false appearance of natural phenomena.
If that is how it has "always been", it takes on the appearance of eternal law. If we take a different view of institutions, we will be able to make small changes in them more continuously and easily without crisis.
The idea that structures of society represent artifacts of our own creation . . . failed to develop. . . . It was stopped from such an evolution by its juxtaposition . . . with ideas that limited its reach and compromised its force. These compromises were the illusions of false necessity. Three such illusions have exercised paramount influence.
The first illusion has been the idea of a closed list of alternative institutional and ideological systems. . . .
The second illusion has been the idea that each such type is an indivisible system, all the parts of which stand or fall together. . . .
The third illusion has been the idea that higher-order laws of historical change drive forward the succession of indivisible institutional systems in history. . . .
Institutions favor these illusions, I think. They preclude the need for substantive change and at the same time set the current institution apart as inevitable and better than everything that is past.
In fact, the fundamental laws of history do not exist. History has no script. There is nevertheless a path-dependent trajectory of constraints and causal connections that are no less real because we are unable to infer them from laws of historical change. We can build the next steps in historical experience only with the materials--physical, institutional, and conceptual--made available by what came before. However, the force and character of this legacy of constraint is itself up for grabs in history. By creating institutional and ideological stsructures that facilitate their own revision and diminish the dependence of change on crisis, we can lighten the burden of the past.
(Joseph Smith put lots of things in place to allow for continual change. Why do we saddle ourselves to ideologies that resist that change?)
In the subsequent history of social theory, these three necessitarian illusions have ceased, increasingly, to be believable. Yet students of society continue to use a vocabulary that relies on them and to display habits of mind formed through their use.
The illusions of the closed list of alternative institutional systems and of their indivisibility have sometimes survived, in a climate of half-belief.
Such effective [not eternal] laws, however, emerge and evolve together with the formations themselves. No fundamental laws stand behind them guiding their co-evolution. It is a view reminiscent of ways of thinking long established, although also unexplained, in the life sciences, but, to this day, foreign to physics.
(We've seen firsthand the evolution of religious law adapted to the day, but still want to identify anything we don't want to change as eternal and timeless. Maybe none of it is timeless.)

Declaring private property and free contract as the winners of evolution gives a veneer of inevitability inconsistent with real history of social structures.

The past matters, but it doesn't rule:
We must acknowledge the reality of constraint and the power of sequence that help explain the prevailing arrangements and assumptions. We must acknowledge it, however, without conferring on such influences a mendacious semblance of necessity and authority.
(As Gods we must recognize that the adjacent possible is constrained by the past, but not set up artificial constraints for it.)
We must reestablish the indispensable link . . . between insight into the actual and exploration of the adjacent possible. On this basis, we must exercise the prerogative of the programmatic imagination: the vision of alternatives, connected by intermediate steps to the here and now, especially alternative institutional forms of democracy, markets, and free civil societies.
We can change society and history consciously, but nature can't consciously change itself--unless we learn to do it:
The institutional and ideological regimes melt down periodically in those incandescent moments, of practical and visionary strife, and become, at such times, more available to reshaping. So, too, nature passes through times in which its arrangements break down and its regularities undergo accelerated change. A difference is that we can hope to change forever the character of the structures and their relation to our structure-defying freedom. Nature, so far as we know, enjoys no such escape.
(I have the impression that many conservatives recognize the need for businesses to adapt and be agile to succeed over time, but don't want their governments or religions to do the same. Those should not be contextually true, but absolutely correct for all people and for all time. Is this insistence the reason that significant change requires revolution? How much are radicals who say they won't accept measured change really responsible for problems they create through radical action? How much of their revolutionary excess would be blunted by institutions with mechanisms for continual change? I think a lot. I think to succeed as Gods we will have to learn to live in continual change.)

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Problem of Pain

The following post was published on The Transfigurist on 4/26/2016


https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_laughing_face_%28left%29_and_a_face_expressing_acute_pain_%28rig_Wellcome_V0009322.jpg

The problem of pain is not in its logic. It only defeats false Gods, or Gods unconstrained by the realities of the nature we live daily.

The problem of pain is in the gut wrenching sadness of watching a parent lose a child and thinking of your own precious children. Of watching a man or woman lose the love of their life. Of watching families uprooted, homeless and cast upon the whims of unwilling strangers, thinking of the time you were jobless, homeless, and on the road with two kids, whatever stuff you could fit in a sedan, and only safe because of the luck of belonging to a family able to help. Of visiting your neighbor and smiling and talking like good neighbors do, but noticing empty cupboards in their tiny, broken, rented home, knowing your kids--who may be limited in where they go to college by what scholarships they can get--will be going to college (or its future counterpart), but who knows where these childhood friends will go from this tiny town with one in six adults unemployed. Of walking by the friendly old man who is always out giving candy to kids on Halloween, with a smile and happy words, and seeing his perpetual rummage sale--and realizing how poor many of your neighbors must be for his to be even a marginal business--selling stuff you wouldn't even donate to a second hand store or give to a friend.

That is the problem of pain. When I don't shut it down or blame it on somebody so I can pretend it's fair, or at least deserved, I see it for what it is. It is evil. It hurts. It hurts even when it doesn't hurt us. We hurt and we rage at injustice. At an unjust universe. At an unjust God. Yeah, even the Gods that might be real. They aren't stopping the pain. They aren't fixing the problems. Even if they might fix them later--balancing out all that wrong on some imagined scale of eternal justice--that doesn't do squat for here and now. What's unrighteous about that anger? Anger at big, powerful people, comfortable in their positions, with enough resources to fix things if they cared enough? You want to know how I'll react if you tell me that anger's unrighteous? Probably you don't, but I probably wouldn't react much. Everybody says dumb things. It's a pain, but usually not much. I've survived worse.

But when my heart hurts, when I see happy kids with deprived futures, when I see kind, uncomplaining people with no hope or purpose but to get by until they die, when I feel irreparable loss--big or small--sometimes I either cry or scream, or both. Maybe not on the outside, but maybe so. And it doesn't matter that our Heavenly Parents have an answer. Especially not since that answer seems to be that the universe is unjust and uncaring--even the one they live in. It's just pain. There is no fix. There is no right answer.

One thing that makes it better for me? We cry together. We scream and rage against that pain together, and we say NO! NO PAIN HERE! NOT IF I HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY ABOUT IT! And sometimes we do have a say, so we do something. But sometimes we don't, so we still scream. We still cry. And we love each other, because that's all we can do. We create that out of the uncaring universe. Maybe we have to live forever with the problem of pain. Whatever explanation we give, it's still pain. But every loving being we make in this universe--as parents here, or as Parents hereafter--makes the universe care that much more.

Image Credit: Wellcome Trust

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How I wish my students would read science: a case study on Gender Ideology

I have wondered about the issue of Gender Dysphoria, and when several of my friends and acquaintances posted links to a position statement by the American College of Pediatricians, I was interested. Even as a public LGBTQ ally, I continue to be sceptical of positions that fail to recognize the predominant biological sex binary. I was encouraged as I began reading the ACP position that it distinguished between the clinical definitions of sex and gender, since we often don't understand this distinction because of less specific definitions of the words in common speech. Here I'm going to model stream of consciousness how I read a scientific argument like that made by the ACP, and the kind of thinking I try to model for my Biochemistry students as we work through scientific arguments. We usually don't pick such ideologically controversial topics, but there is still plenty of ambiguity in Biochemistry.

Initial Impressions

The American College of Pediatricians webpage looked like a valid organization of health care professionals. (I believe it is, even with what I later discovered about the group).

The first point highlighted the predominant sexual binary and its import for continuation of the species. Both facts that concord with my prejudices and understanding. While we don't need every individual to reproduce for survival, we need most individuals to reproduce. But the ACP paper failed to even acknowledge that sex is determined by many more genetic factors than those found on the X and Y chromosome, and they identified all variation from the binary as a disorder. This very black and white oversimplification made me uncomfortable.

At point 2 they recognize the sociological and psychological contributions to gender. Gender is significantly defined by culture and psychology (some have argued completely, but I suspect this doesn't reflect a typically more ambiguous reality). That gender is significantly culturally defined also agreed with my understanding and biases. But once again their statement is black and white, not recognizing any genetic or epigenetic component to gender identity. This increased my discomfort.

The first sentences on point 3 made me uncomfortable--implying a very strong separation between mind and body, psychological and physical problems, that I'm not sure is justified scientifically. In the remainder of the point they identify gender dysphoria as a recognized psychological problem by citing the DSM-V, a diagnostic manual which tends to contain the broad consensus standards by which American psychologists work. This inclined me to believe that gender dysphoria is a problem, and increased their credibility in my emotions.

With point 4 they state something that seems self-evident to me, and a reason I think puberty delaying drugs should be approached with _extreme_ caution. They said that puberty is not a disorder, and delaying it is a disorder. While I still was uncomfortable about the lack of nuance (delaying puberty is sometimes a smaller problem than the alternative), it further inclined me to believe them.

At point 5 I thought, if only 98% of gender dysphoric boys and 88% of gender dysphoric girls resolve their gender dysphoria after puberty, we really shouldn't give them puberty delaying drugs that come with real health risks (points 6-8). But the words "as many as" gave me pause once again. Why are they saying "as many as"? If there is a number, you should look into it. If there isn't a number, you should be dubious of the claims.

Then points 6-8 seemed to be continuing a rhetorical trend that made me uncomfortable. 6 implies that all children who delay puberty will choose to undergo sex changes. It took me a minute to think about it, but while delaying puberty is partly for the purpose of making later sex change less difficult, it is explicitly for the child to have more time to mature and make a very difficult, life-altering decision. Yes, the child is still too young to make a fully mature decision, but at least the child is an older teen rather than a young teen or preteen. And it isn't the puberty delaying drugs with the health risks, as at least one of my friends understood after reading the ACP statement. It's the cross-sex drugs. If this is a scientific statement, they should be justifying these claims with numbers, or make it clear that they are speculating and give justifications for their extrapolations. What is their evidence that children who delay puberty invariably choose sex-change and its associated risks instead of resolving their gender dysphoria and undergoing late, but otherwise normal, puberty? They don't provide links for this, so it looks a lot like a slippery slope argument, and further reason for concern.

Point 7 then compares suicide rates among cross-sex adults over an unspecified period of time with what will happen to children who undergo the same procedure much earlier and after delaying puberty. It is reason for concern, but it is apples and pears (related, but not the same). They do provide a reference to the peer reviewed article, which is good, but they don't even provide a link. And the journal it is published in is in the Public Library of Science. That means it is free online. Why, in such an important statement, would you not take the minute required to provide your readers with a link to the original research? This made me look at the other references more closely. While the references are sound, none of them provide clickable links, despite many of them being freely available online. This is disturbing in an organization that claims professionalism.

But I had only done some of this analysis by the first read through. I had noticed numerous red flags, but all the things that accorded with some of my prejudices, and the proper science-speak on other points, made me inclined to believe the the ACP conclusion in point 8 that using drugs to delay puberty is probably harmful. I wasn't comfortable with calling it abuse--especially since I was aware of a study that found that children who delayed puberty were just as happy in their 20s as their peers who did not, so I had memories that gave pause to claims of abuse. But I though, we probably shouldn't be delaying puberty for most cases of gender dysphoria if it only helps such a small percentage of the already small percentage of children with gender dysphoria.

Looking Further

I still had to relieve my concerns with the red flags. I made myself look further. The comments of another interested party on Facebook helped, but it turns out it isn't hard to discover something about the ACP by a simple Wikipedia search:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_College_of_Pediatricians

This group consists of 60-200 members--except that's an estimate because they don't publish how many members they have, just the credentials of a few. That's compared to the American Association of Pediatrics 64,000 members. So it comprises at most 0.1-0.3% of American pediatricians. So this statement is officially supported by only a very small percentage of pediatricians.

I read the follow up clarifications on points 3 and 5. Instead of 2 and 12% of male and female children that don't resolve gender dysphoria, it may be 30 and 50% that don't resolve after puberty. Most likely it's somewhere in between, maybe 1 in 6 males and 1 in 4 females. Where are the recommendations of the ACP for those children? Are those children simply broken and not valuable? The ACP position is clearly that they are broken.

I then went to the "about" page and read it. The ACP makes it clear that they are starting from an ideological position: "We expect societal forces to support the two-parent, father-mother family unit and provide for children role models of ethical character and responsible behavior."

Scientific Merit

At this point, I would hope it is clear to any of my students that the ACP position statement is of dubious scientific quality. Before concluding that my beliefs are scientifically justified, I should be going to other sources. The Wikipedia article suggested a likely one, so I looked it up. Here it is, Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation and Youth from the American Psychological Association. Just having skimmed a few parts, it's a much more useful read--broadly informative, more nuanced, and less dogmatic in its claims. Clearly more focused on caring for the child rather than asserting an absolute societal norm.

So while I don't think I disagree with any of the facts presented in the ACP position paper, and I agree with the recognition of gender dysphoria as a problem, I am back to believing that the best way to address the problem is to give parents and health care providers tools and choices. They are working directly with the children, so give them best tools available and the right to do their best to help their children as they see fit. Do you imagine the parents care more about a sexual agenda than about their own children? Maybe a few, but I doubt many. I'm sure they will sometimes make mistakes, and that cultural norms sometimes hurt children, but we've been ideologically hurting 2-30% and 12-50% of these children for generations without any possible help for them. I'm glad that doctors are trying to help this small population, and hopeful that over time they will figure out the best ways to do it based on empirical observation more than on ideology.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Interacting with the Disaffected from Mormonism

I continue to be a believer in Mormonism. I don't think many people who know me question this, even if as practicing Latter-day Saints they think I could be more committed to my ward or the LDS church, even if they question my understanding of doctrine or faith, or what it means to follow God, or even if they know my sins and failings. Doubters and unbelievers don't hesitate to identify me as believing, if they think about it. Yet I have spent some significant time and energy over a period of years interacting with and learning from many who question and criticize Mormonism at different levels, some who leave or have left, and a smaller fraction of those who have become critics of Mormonism or religion generally. A friend asked me for advice on interacting with friends who are also critics of Mormonism. Here's my advice:

Do your best to muddle through as lovingly and sanely as possible.

But now for an answer that is really a personal reflection. What do I try to do? What do I succeed in doing? I have several answers. Here is a list as they come to mind:
  • I spent time getting to know what critics were talking about. I read critical and apologetic material, and I read scholarly material. I read and enjoyed the softer scholarship of Hugh Nibley (I like his peer reviewed stuff on the ancient world really well, too), as well as the alternative framings of Mormonism provided by writers like Eugene England and some scientist saints in stories and testimonies like those posted in Mormon Scholars Testify, and before that in the book Expressions of Faith (My dad's testimony is included. His and Paul Cox's are two of my favorites.) 
  • I also read some "New Mormon History" somewhat randomly. I didn't know people who could recommend the best stuff. Now you can find great recommendations like this top 10 list discussed in Rational Faiths podcasts.
  • I listened to lots of podcasts to learn more about LDS history and doctrine. In the process I learned a lot about LDS culture, and the intimate details of the stresses people feel as members of the LDS church. It's worth listening to people's stories. Perhaps worth more than listening to the interviews with experts, but I loved many of those, too.
  • I started engaging with the disaffected. I like this term, because I think it describes so many of us so well. We have lost affection for the LDS church, perhaps Mormonism generally, and maybe even religion and God. The degree varies. I still feel a lot of affection for all of these things, but not as much love and trust of leaders and institutional structures. But I am much more than acquaintances with people along a multidimensional spectrum of disaffection.
I suppose now I'm getting to how I engaged and how I engage with the disaffected.
  • I don't engage much, now. I engaged most when I was trying to figure out what I thought on dozens of issues. Now it's mostly just with loved ones.
  • I try to be willing to validate emotions. I'm convinced emotions are real and matter. When a person feels betrayed or angry, that is really how they feel. There are real reasons for it or causes of it. Their perception is a valid reality whether I share that reality or not. I don't get to say people are wrong for experiencing their own experiences.
  • I try to be informed and validate factual observations that are unflattering to Mormonism. If you are my close friend, I might even tell you I think something you think is evil is evil.
  • I try to assume the best of every party--present or not, public figure or private individual. I want people to think I'm thoughtful, loving, principled, etc. So yes, I spin news and arguments to make everyone look as good as I can.
  • I share and write criticism when I feel like I need to. But when it's criticism, I sit on it for a while to see if I really feel like saying it and if I can say it in more understanding ways.
  • I share and write apologetics when I feel like it. I hope I'm rarely insensitive, but I like explaining ideas I think are valuable and comparing them with alternative ideas.
  • Mostly with all of this I just tell my story. Sometimes my story is an attempted logical argument. Sometimes it's an emotional plea. But I try to show real respect that others can have different, morally justified, stories.
  • When I disagree and feel like it needs to be said--maybe because I imagine there is an impressionable audience--I try to disagree pleasantly and not worry about winning a debate. I try to bow out considerately and let others have the last say (except to maybe show that I heard and understand what they said)--most of the time. I'm convinced that's as effective as debating for influencing people in most settings.
  • I post my thoughts mostly on blogs where people have to actually go a little out of the way to read my full thoughts. I love it when people listen to me or read my words, but they need space for their words, too. They also need space to not care about me. Especially since, you know, I'm a white, heterosexual, educated, lifetime Mormon, American male. That doesn't mean my voice doesn't count, but my life is pretty well represented in the Bloggernacle. I need to be willing to step out of the spotlight, however much I love an audience.
I love several disaffected Mormons. Not just like. So I'm sensitive to their feelings. I love many whole-life committed LDSs. So I'm sensitive to their feelings. I don't always act sensitively, but I feel remorse when I realize a slight. I muddle on and keep trying to love both groups. Sometimes it's easier for me to love one more than the other, but mostly I'm just learning how to be comfortable perpetually in between.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hard Questioning

I wrote most of this a couple of years ago when I was unsettled by this topic. I still think most of these thoughts are accurate. I'm less invested in the outcomes, since I no longer see myself as having a future of potential influence within the standard structures of the LDS church. Partly because I feel these things less, I'm finally ready to share them and hope that others will recognize these same issues and enact changes that will make Mormonism even better. I plan to keep working to improve the things in the world that God seems to be leading me towards, and I'll keep doing what I can to build Zion.

Questioning and Getting Answers

What is the experience of questioning and getting answers in the LDS church? I really thought about this a lot a couple of years ago after listening to the interview with Hans and Birgitta Mattson on Mormon Stories. How does one learn more than has been taught, or unlearn a mistaken teaching? Few of us doubt the existence of mistakes in past and current LDS teachings, but what is the experience of learning more--or differently--than the current, dominant teachings?

Hans and Birgitta Mattson's experiences and my thoughts

From the experience of Hans Mattson, it is clear that general leadership is extremely busy with administrative functions. They have little time or energy for theological and doctrinal thought that is not related to policy or immediate action. They have to steal that time from their busy days just like the rest of us, and maybe more than most of us. Asking difficult historical or doctrinal questions of general authorities is discouraged by the culture, according to Brother Mattson (and my experience/perception). Most of us just don't have access. This is one of the drawbacks of a very flat structure where nearly everything is done at the local level. The very few general authorities just can't physically do much more than the essentials, and they have decided answering historical and doctrinal or theological questions is not usually essential. Unfortunately, access isn't the only obstacle. Sometimes leaders--at different levels in the heirarchy--actively discourage questioning and searching. Also culturally, we most often say that only one person is allowed to get revelation on troubling theological questions (or at least allowed to express revelations publicly). Unfortunately, this is the same person saddled with the most administrative responsibility. There are also many teachings that we should seek our own inspiration and not rely on the prophet for everything. We need to learn to trust ourselves. It's understandable that many mid-ranking leaders would wish to spare their potentially overburdened superiors from frivolous demands, but all actions have consequences. So what is the fallout if an ordinary member, who will never get to know the Prophet, seeks his or her own answer? This is what I've seen and imagined:
  1. The new answer agrees with something already revealed, and everyone is happy. 
  2. The individual is satisfied to keep a subversive or contrary answer private, and everyone is happy. 
  3. The answer disagrees with current policy and is made public:
    1. It is minor enough, or local leaders are tolerant enough that the breach is allowed to exist.
    2. The person is alienated into leaving the LDS church, or at least decreasing activity.
    3. The person is disciplined into silence or leaving. 
    4. The disagreement with current policy or doctrinal perceptions is not of a kind that leaders and members fully recognize or understand, or it agrees with broader cultural norms so much that it gets ignored or accepted without conscious reflection.
    5. The issue is passed up the line until:
      1. It is stopped and the idea is silenced or disciplined.
      2. The president of the church takes it under consideration and we receive new guidance on the subject that is then instituted as a top down policy. 

Seeking an Official Answer

What does a member do who wants an official answer? This has always seemed reasonable to me, since we are told that we should seek answers from God, that God only speaks to the whole world, officially, through His Prophet, and some of the things we want answers for effect the whole world. How can that member know if an answer is being sought, or if the best questions are being taken to the Lord in prayer? If there are discussions of difficult historical, doctrinal, or social issues going on among church leaders--if revelation is being sought--how can a member know it?
  1. Trust it is happening, or that it isn't really important, because the Lord is at the head of the church.
  2. Infer it from public statements or policy changes, or hear it through rumors of varied quality. 
  3. Some lucky members can know what's being thought about from family and personal connections.
  4. Ask church leaders, but at best receive an acknowledgement your question was noticed, and at worst be sent back to ask powerless local leaders.

Knowledge Accessible to Ordinary Members

Ordinary members, and even leaders not in the privy councils, don't know what is being discussed, how it is being discussed, who is discussing it, what information is available to those discussing, what questions are being asked, what revelation is being sought, etc. They don't know the members of the 12 or other high leaders. What can most members know about church leaders? They may have:
  1. A personal testimony of the calling.
  2. A sense that these are loving, well-intentioned men (when you have any personal contact with them).
  3. Lots of stories of in the moment, personal, or administrative inspiration.
  4. Official church publications.
  5. Public speeches.
  6. Public policy decisions and webpages, sometimes filtered through several layers of governance.
  7. Several, infrequent statements, both scriptural and extra scriptural, that affirm the humanity, frailty, and fallibility of our leaders, and that we err when we expect them to be free from weakness or limitations.
  8. Several, but more frequent, statements that leaders are inspired and following God.
  9. Occasional teachings that God speaks according to our understanding and preparation.
  10. Teachings that we should be seeking and acting on our own revelation.
Many people feel unheard, unrepresented, and even unwelcome within the LDS church. This seems like a problem to me. We aspire to be at one, to take the Gospel to the whole world, and to save all humanity, so when we fall short because of our own choices it seems like a problem.

Projecting Onto Leaders

I'm going to project, now, onto my church leaders. All of them grew up pre-internet. Almost all of them, and perhaps all, grew up in a world where Mormonism wasn't respected. Many governments around the world did not officially recognize the LDS church. They knew people persecuted--truly, legally persecuted--by the country they lived in because they were trying to live their religion. They all understand that the sacred is not to be made public, so they understand keeping secrets. They have seen the fallout of public disagreements on inflammatory issues. I imagine that all these things lead to a bias against openness--a wariness. It's also possible that leaders are nearly as open as ever, but the church has gotten so big that size has effectively closed off the workings of leadership from the average member. Whatever the reasons, leaders keep decision making processes opaque to the vast majority of members. There are real, human dangers to openness. Unfortunately, we are experiencing the real, human dangers of opacity.

The Ideals I Hope For

I believe the ideal is complete transparency. We all struggle to do our parts, just as the Prophet does his, and while we don't flaunt our weaknesses, we don't seek to cover them. We create ways for the voices of the poor and the alienated to be heard, and we become of one heart and one mind.

The reality is, you open up and it's likely someone will slam you. So how can we, as we move in and out of positions of influence in the LDS church, change the institution toward the ideal of at-one-ment without opening it to destruction in this world red in tooth and claw?

I hope we can each and all begin to accept the responsibility to change this Church and Kingdom of God into the society where we are truly at one. We have a great starting place--a vast community where people teach and learn and give. What can we do to make it a place where we are changing hearts towards the vulnerability of Zion? If we want a community of gods--gods who don't have to turn to authority for every answer, because at some point there will be no higher authority or more knowledgeable expert--what must we do?

I think many of the tools are at hand. I also think we will have to use them in unsettling ways for many currently in authority and out--from the bottom to the top. I hope we will get started, anyway.