Friday, March 22, 2013

My Testimony vs. Science

I listened to a series of podcasts that gave an overview of the psychology and natural history of religion. The gentleman being interviewed did a great job of withholding his atheist bias during the majority of the presentation, and just presented convincing research about how our brains and societies work. I found it very interesting, and thought, how well does my testimony hold up in the face of these psychological facts? It didn't turn out to be as interesting an exercise as I had hoped. Science doesn't say much about the truth of things it can't test. It can give insight into how we form our testimonies and what aspects of our testimonies we might want to reexamine. I give you some of my thoughts on how I and other Latter-day Saints might refine and modify, and I would say strengthen, our testimonies. As a fair warning, doing these things might destroy dearly held beliefs and have social consequences for you. I'd say it's worth it, and you can still be my friend.

1- Beware Conformity:

If a group of people that you belong to proclaim a particular belief, it is highly likely that you will believe it even if it isn't true. Approximately 75% of people can be influenced to believe something that is clearly false at least some of the time.

If the correct answer is unclear and the stakes are high for getting the right answer, conformity is even more likely.

1+ Embrace Loyal Dissent:

A single dissenting voice frees the many people to make their own choices. Squashing dissent increases the likelihood that you will believe falsehoods propagated by conformity. Embracing dissent from loyal group members increases the likelihood that you will learn new truths as new light and knowledge are revealed.

2- Beware telling yourself something is true:

Telling yourself something is true, and even better, telling others it is true, leads you to believe the truth of your statement even if it is demonstrably false. If you think there are important reasons, or if you receive a reward of any kind (monetary, social, hormonal, etc.) for making a particular truth claim, you are even more likely to believe it, even if there is hard evidence against it.

2+ Proclaim your most examined beliefs:

Each of us has personal knowledge and personal experience that have been tried and tested. There is no shame in not knowing everything. If what you mean is "I believe," go ahead and say it. Tell your stories. Stories are wonderful and rich in meaning. Avoid sweeping generalizations that at best carry little meaning and at worst are demonstrably false. What do you mean when you say "I know the church is true"? If you are an honest Latter-day Saint, you know it doesn't mean everything we teach is true and perfect. It doesn't even mean every way I think the church is true is true. Figure out what you mean by the claim "the church is true," and say that, instead. Why do we even need to say "I know God answers prayers"? Instead, tell how God answered your prayer. It may be easier to assert that we should follow the prophets, but it's worth doing the work to figure out specific ways that following the prophets has made your life better or made you a better person. A critic may question the source or interpretation of your personal experiences, but he can't change that you had an experience.

3- Beware seeing what you want to see:

Confirmation bias is an extremely common occurrence among humans. We actively practice it when we selectively recount faith promoting stories and silence those that appear to contradict our faith. We also practice it when we cease looking for new light and knowledge on a subject, or decide that scientific data can't be part of revealing light and knowledge. "A Manual, a Manual, we already have a Manual and need no more Manual." Insert your favorite source of doctrine, and the danger is the same.

3+ There are endless beauties waiting for us:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all yeneed to know.
No one would force Keats to mean that every other fact, theory, technology, or work of art on the earth is irrelevant. Knowing that beauty is truth and truth beauty is a beginning that leads us on to seek out ever more beauty and ever more truth. If you aren't aware that this call to seek new truth and change our doctrine is an integral part of LDS belief, you are missing out. If you forget that God is revealing things to men and women all over the world, all the time, as our own prophets have taught on multiple occasions, you are missing out on a lot of beauty.

4- Beware the traditions of the fathers:

Beliefs persist. Once we have come to believe something, we are likely to continue to do so, even if we are faced with contradictory evidence. How long did it take Latter-day Saints to accept that skin color had nothing to do with premortal righteousness after the priesthood ban was lifted? It has taken a full generation, and there are still those alive who believe it. How successful was Joseph Smith in establishing a Zion society where all were of one heart and one mind, and there were no poor among them? How many Americans still circumcise their boys as a hold over from when people thought circumcision would keep their boys from falling into the sin of masturbation?

4+ Traditions are beautiful and true:

Our traditions give us stability, community, joy, and a sense of belonging. Correct traditions enrich our lives and lead us on to greater beauties. Traditions teach us where we came from and what we can aspire to. Traditions of prayer and charitable offerings have made me happy. Traditions of education and hard work have made me productive. Traditions of family have brought me endlessly surprising children and a marriage that is willing to thrive in the face of inevitable problems. Traditions need to be examined, but one thing we can learn from biology--if the tradition has survived, it at least isn't maladaptive, and it might even be true.

5- Beware eyewitness testimony:

Eyewitness testimony is fallible and malleable. It must be examined with care. Unfortunately, much of our religious experience is only available through eyewitness testimony, and is not verifiable in any other way. Anything that can only be established through individual, eyewitness (or earwitness, or mindwitness) testimony needs to be approached with skepticism. It's that simple.

5+ Everything is known through eyewitness testimony:

In making this observation, I am not claiming equal value in all testimony. When I can explain how my testimony was gained, and independent people, unaffiliated with me, all over the world, who have examined their personal sources of bias, and can physically show the results to other observers, all gain the same testimony, it ought to carry a lot more weight than when a mentally ill person claims to have seen a pig fly. But social science doesn't have the luxury of being scientific like physics or math. It often must rely inherently on subjective evidence. And history has it even worse. All we have for most of is fallible, eyewitness testimony. Any claims of truth or falsehood of eyewitness testimony are inseparable from our personal biases. While eyewitness testimony must be evaluated with care, great care must be taken before it is discarded, as well.

6- Beware institutional uses of manipulative methods

It is likely that many of my beliefs were formed or strengthened in part through the use of manipulative techniques like those employed by advertizers and salespeople. This is evidenced by continued use of these techniques in many church settings.

6+ We must manipulate and be manipulated

Any time we limit someone's agency, even to do good, we are treading on dangerous ground. But we can't avoid influencing one another's choices. Another way of manipulating is called choice architecture. Choosing to avoid influencing others is choosing to let other factors do all the influencing. Instead of abnegating our chances to influence others, we should examine our methods and aims. We can choose how we manipulate. We can put candy in the checkout line, or we can put it on an out of the way aisle. Any manipulation we do should be to allow people a greater ability to choose the things they value. We can influence others while still allowing them love, respect, and trust that they will choose good things for themselves--if we give them the chance.

7- Beware the voices in your head

All types of spiritual experiences can be (and arguably have been) replicated through entirely physical, biological processes. Really. Be careful what you claim and do based on internal spiritual experiences (and even some group experiences).

7+ God is in all things

There can be a knee-jerk reaction to claims that our powerful, spiritual experiences are simply chemical reactions in our brains. Give that up for a minute, and ask yourself, how does God communicate with my physical body? Do you think there will be no physical consequences of communication? Do you think those consequences will be proof against imitation? If you have sufficient reason to believe in God, knowing that He speaks to us through our beautiful bodies should be a joy to you. Yes, we have to be careful that we aren't accepting false messages as from God, but learning how God made our minds is heavenly science.

8- Religious beliefs are untestable

When beliefs cannot be verified or falsified through the scientific method, it is easy to maintain belief in falsehoods. In fact, untestable religious beliefs are a perfect example of this. There are at least thousands of different, contradictory beliefs about the nature of God around the world. Most of the world must be wrong (I think it most likely that all of us are wrong in some specifics and most of us are right in others--what we have right and wrong depends largely on our religion). Religious people and organizations frequently do unintended harm to individuals and groups when they push too hard belief in, or adherence to, untestable beliefs.

8+ Religious beliefs can be tested

I don't want to believe false things. I think most of us don't, but it is nearly certain that each of us does. Our prophets do not exempt themselves from this human condition. It's almost certain that each of us teaches some false and hurtful things at times. To repent of the falsehoods we believe and the wrongs we do we must judge. We must ask ourselves if our beliefs can be tested, and if they can we must submit them to the jury of evidence and reason. We must ask ourselves if our beliefs bear good fruit or evil fruit, and really be willing to judge the fruits of our beliefs, not just assert their goodness. I find it particularly invigorating when a belief bears both good and evil fruits. It suggests to me that I have a window into greater understanding. Maybe it means I believe something that is partly true and partly false. I have a starting place to explore and ask the right questions to get answers. I have a chance to exercise faith that God will reveal new light to me, and to repent and correct my flawed course.

9- Revelation can't be wrong

In scientific research, the goal is to gain knowledge and understand truth, but along the way being wrong is a virtue. It is a virtue to uncover your own and others' errors. It is a virtue to not have the answers, already. Religious belief idolizes revelation and rejects the notion that prophetic statements may contain error. This hinders learning and even moral and spiritual progress.

9+ Revelation can be wrong

Although we usually dismiss these doctrines in speech and practice, it is an integral, subversive tenet of Mormonism that revelation can be wrong--especially if you take it out of the narrow context in which it was given. And even if no past revelations were wrong, we believe in never-ending revelation of things we have yet to imagine. This can be extremely disquieting, because embracing these doctrines requires you to live in a constant state of uncertainty. After 5 or 6 months as a missionary, switching companions and cities almost every month, I expressed some discomfort at the constant stream of changes. My mission president said, some people would pay to have so many new experiences. (I don't know if it occurred to me at the time that my parents were paying for it, but his point still stands.) Not everything is changing constantly, but accepting that we are wrong sometimes, that our prophets are likely wrong sometimes, and that even our scriptures might be wrong sometimes can invigorate our faith and strengthen our religion if we let it. It can make us more loving, less distressed when we come face to face with the errors of our prophets, and more ready to embrace our neighbors' faults and pains--strengthening our bonds of mercy. This religious humility can help us become Gods who weep.

Coincidentally, my mom pointed me to the first article in a series where it looks like a number of specific applications of these principles for Latter-day Saints will be addressed. She didn't know I was writing this--inspiration at work (or at least a sensitive mom who pays attention to what's important to me).

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