Wednesday, December 31, 2014


I recently did some of the tests on They ask you a number of questions to get at how much you care about certain foundational moral values: Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity. On the "Moral Foundations Questionnaire" I came out very close to the average among political liberals for caring about not causing harm, for valuing fairness, and for not believing authority has inherent value. I was in between the conservative and liberal averages on valuing loyalty, and I seem to really dislike things I find disgusting--even though I don't very actively seek to constrain society (or my friends) to my particular standard of purity on the things asked about in the questions. These numbers were fairly predictable to me, except for how much I seem to value purity (really more a weak stomach when it comes to things I find disgusting). But there was a second, shorter questionnaire that just asked you outright to rate how much you care about different moral values relative to other people. To judge by my self-reporting on "What is your moral decision type?, one would imagine that I care less about moral values than the average person--let alone people with truly strong moral sensitivities. However, I don't think people who know me would evaluate me as a weakly moral, apathetic, or middle of the road person. So what's going on?

It's a simple case of awareness of personal bias. I'm not imagining, here, that I can correct for my personal bias, but in answering the "moral decision type" questions, knowing that somebody has to be average and that few people are at the extremes, I tried to think of the group of people I really know and regularly associate with. In most cases, I figured my moral sensibilities were average or just barely one side of average. Looking at the aggregate results, most people don't feel that way. Once again, most people rate themselves as significantly above or below average, depending on the trait and whether they feel above or below is admirable or not. Consequently, my self evaluation placed me as much more "average" than the average self-evaluation, and closer to my values from the "Moral Foundations Questionnaire" than the average self-evaluation. But I didn't get all that close.

Another test I did was the "Implicit Happiness" test. I rated my life as fairly satisfying, and as having met many of my hopes and aspirations. This placed me noticeably above the average self-evaluation for life satisfaction, but I know that I feel sad and depressed quite a lot. After taking the Implicit Happiness test, it showed me as noticeably below average on personal happiness. Again, I wasn't surprised. My unhappiness is in the way my brain and body work, not in an unfulfilling life. Maybe I'll be able to modify the brain chemistry with time and tools like meditation, but I haven't succeeded yet.

I tell these stories just as a personal reminder of how poor we are at statistical evaluations. Sometimes we get it about right, sometimes we are way off, and sometimes we aren't asking the right questions. That brings me to my most recent difficulty with evaluations. I've started writing letters of recommendation for students. It is clear to me that average recommendations don't get people into programs, even if an average applicant (the poor applicants have typically been weeded or self-selected out) is amply deserving of entrance, and likely to do very well. I also want to save room at the top for recommending the occasional, truly exceptional student. So I get these questionnaires, and they ask me to rank students in the top 5%, next 10%, next 20%, etc. on various attributes. It's a terrible method, but there may not be a better one. Top X% among what group? All students at my school? All biology majors? Biology majors that are likely to apply for the program? All human beings? So my emotions tell me, this student is a bit above average for my classes. He or she is determined, consistent, conscientious, and will make a good doctor, pharmacist, dentist, or whatever if he or she receives the proper training. I have no doubt I would prefer my student in these positions over some professionals I have met in the same field, or at least not less. So I inflate the numbers a little. I sit here wishing all of us recommenders had better developed statistical intuition, because I feel like I'm bending the truth, but the reality is, I'm making what I know to be an approximately accurate adjustment for the poor statistical intuition of the majority of recommenders. I'm not claiming more than I can justify. I'm not sending unprepared students places they don't belong, but I am using statistical intuition to ignore statistics and acknowledge the human biases of recommenders and evaluators. If my student has the same GPA and other quantifiables as another, I'm not going to doom his or her application by giving an above average rating when I can feel OK about an excellent. I won't call him "outstanding" or her "top of the class" if they aren't, but I won't hold back on honest praise.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Richness of the Strait and Narrow

My last post was supposed to be a one paragraph introduction to this idea: The exaltation of the Gods depends on allowing us--Gods in embryo--to travel as many paths to Godhood as possible.

This conclusion follows closely the belief that Gods evolved. Evolutionary success depends on maximizing reproductive rates. If the universe is as complex as required for Gods to be loving, faithful, trusting, creative beings, then it is unlikely that there is a single, optimal path to godhood. Just as there isn't a single way to become a healthy, productive adult, a single path to godhood is absurd. Again, I'm not denying some commonalities, but such commonalities will be limited to the bare essentials of productive and healthy godhood. Here's why.

There are, as of yet, undiscovered ways for Gods to increase their reproductive rates. Gods are never going to escape from an evolving universe, especially since they are in part driving that evolution. This means that, even if some Gods were able to figure out the single, optimal way to create more Gods at a particular point in time, the universe will change and new solutions to the problem of reproduction will become more effective. Without changing to match the universe, the Gods will lose ground in the reproductive race. So to maximize reproductive potential, Gods must explore as much of the reproductive possibility space as they can. This means empowering individuals to take different paths. Thus, preparing us for that future where we each must boldly take the best path we can find, without anyone having been there before to tell us how it will turn out, requires teaching us that confidence as soon as possible.

This means our Mormon God is in the business of doing only enough to keep humanity headed in the right direction while allowing the maximum amount of variation and freedom. As a loving God He's got a plan to pick up the broken pieces along the way, but He can't prevent even some intensely awful, temporary evil without losing reproductive fitness. So in one more way, atonement does not require making us the same, but bringing us to unity in a society of ever increasing diversity.

This raises the question, how can we have a society without any manner of "-ites" with the amount of diversity required in a successful community of Gods? One answer might be, we must cease defining different as other. We have to own variety.

So here is the sequence of questions for us Mormons to debate:
  1. Did Gods evolve? I say yes. If you say no, what kind of universe do you believe in? Is it really consistent with other tenets of Mormonism you believe in?
  2. Is the universe (or multiverse, or sum of what was, is, and will be) complex or simple relative to the knowledge of the Gods? Again, I say yes. If you doubt this supremely complex universe, do your other beliefs about God really support a belief in a simple universe?
  3. Does diversity contribute to the evolutionary fitness of the Gods? Yes, too. This seems to me unavoidable if you answer yes to the first two, but maybe it isn't. I could be missing something.
Go ahead and think about these for as long as you need. There are other answers out there, but if you are with me to here, there is no way around the need to become one in diversity. While diversity is not simply a good for its own sake--most variations either have no bearing on godhood or lead away from it--I think we have a long way to go in embracing the varieties of goodness that God likely recognizes as paths to exaltation. My suspicion is that the "strait and narrow" is not the "same and narrow-minded", but is as rich as all human goodness.

The Strait and Narrow Path to Godhood

I have imagined for myself a universe where Nature rules, but Gods have evolved with such understanding, power, and unity that they shape nature, fostering generations of new Gods and inviting all that is to join their great song of creation. Out of chaos arose Great Ones who call forth order of unimaginable complexity and beauty. It is a beautiful picture, to me, with one little problem--we can only glimpse a tiny piece of this grandeur. Maybe we are already Gods, like my three little boys are already humans, but we clearly fall short of comprehending, or even seeing, the vast expanses of knowledge that are likely so commonplace to our parents that they hardly even notice the details anymore. We may be co-participants in creation with God, but mostly unconsciously simply because we are growing up. The things we consciously create are like making our spaceships and castles out of Lego blocks. Such observations beg the question, if we are so immature, what does our path to Godhood look like? In creating an image for myself of a God who evolved from chaos (although I would argue this is the God Joseph Smith came to understand, if only in part, later in his life. After all, the Theory of Evolution wouldn't be presented for another two decades), am I throwing away the scriptures that teach us that strait is the way and narrow is the gate that leads to eternal life, and few there be that enter? Let's explore the question together. I'll start, and you help me flesh it out.

A couple of things worth remembering. We are in a universe (or multiverse, or cosmos, or reality) so vast and varied that Gods can be infinite and eternal and still not comprehend the scope of it. I could be wrong on this, but the other options are either deterministic, guarantee our extinction, or make God a being wholly other, taking away humanity's full kinship with deity. Complete determinism is uninteresting, our extinction is fatalistic, and I reject (as do most Mormon prophets) a separation from God in type. So if you are with me on these three points, I invite you to accept these limited and possibly infinite Gods or work with me until you understand that these really are the Gods of Mormonism. At this point we can ask, what does it take to become one of (or part of?) these Gods?

I answered this question in part, previously. We must become radically compassionate. There can be no will left among us to destroy one another. We must get to the point where every one of us is seeking to ennoble all the Gods to the extent of our abilities. There is a glimpse of this order in Doctrine and Covenants 76, where even those in the telestial glory eventually submit and becomes servants of God. Doing what? Bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of humanity, presumably.

We must become creators. Without seeking to bring forth additional Gods, we may not cease to be (I'm not sure about this), but we will cease to be numerically significant in the cosmos. And I'm not sure beings who lack the desire to create could achieve eternal life. Life is not a static state. It is a continually adjusting, dynamic near-equilibrium. This is true of all life we know and of the universe that sustains it. We can imagine entirely different sets of laws, but it is difficult to imagine laws responsible for dynamic and eternal beings like our Gods are not subject to and sustained by laws at least analogous to our laws of thermodynamics.

We must have faith. We must have faith in what we can become, but we must also have faith in the rest of humanity. We can't achieve Godhood alone. As has been repeatedly taught in Mormonism, we cannot be saved by ourselves. We need our families. We need our ancestors. We need our communities. Gods trust one another not to destroy each other. They arrive at that trust through trials, but it is still something that they must give. In a cosmos founded on agency, we can only know the future of our fellow agents on trust. We must trust their yet unmade decisions, and we must even empower those decisions. We must give each other the power to create, and with it the power to destroy. We must be leaders and enablers, not managers and enforcers.

Thus far Evolution lays out quite a strict path. Just look at your own life, setting aside other people's choices, and ask how easy it is to be as compassionate, creative, trusting, and empowering as is required for Godhood? If this isn't a strait way, I'd be hard pressed to find one harder. But how many paths can arrive at this goal? We've seen time and again that Evolution often provides multiple, independent solutions to the same problem. How could this path be compatible with the requirements of LDS priesthood ordinances for salvation? This is where I suspect many Latter-day Saints will stick at these evolved Gods (if they've managed to get past the sticking point in my second paragraph). This is either a hard question or an easy question, and I'm not sure which. I'll venture some thoughts without many answers.

The path I've laid out matches well with the great commandments--love God and love your neighbor as yourself. It even provides evolutionary reasons for these being the greatest commandments. It matches well with the admonition that not all who say Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of God. It provides evolutionary motivation for the requirements of community and why salvation must be communal. It explains why Christ had to Atone for all humanity, and why each of us must fully partake of this at-one-ment, in a way that is practical and natural and not simply an abstract notion of justice. But it doesn't explain why someone needs to be dunked under water by another who pronounces some claim to divine authority. In fact, at first glance it may make sacred ordinances like baptism appear to be the silly and pretentious acts implied by my last words. Where does that leave me? It leaves me wondering.

I have experienced the power of priesthood ordinances. I believe my life is richer and I am a better person because of them. I think it's easy to argue for the value of ritual and covenant. They have great power to strengthen individuals and communities. As tools for bringing about great good or great harm they are unmatched in the history of humanity. I have found them to do much good in the LDS church as expressed by the lives of members who strive to keep them.

I long ago accepted that God sees more than I. Maybe God sees a reason that this set of particular LDS ordinances, performed in approximately a certain way (minor variation is allowed), by a certain set of priests, is essential. I can accept this based on my personal experiences with God. It could be necessary. I can't give a reason why, though. I can share other people's testimonies. I can cite scripture. I can even share my blessed experiences with priesthood power. I can intellectually assent to the requirement because of the LDS doctrine that all who desire--past, present, and future--may receive these ordinances. But I can't give a reason. I can say I trust God to have a reason for the mysteries, but I will not compel another to act on that trust. So evolution leaves me a universalist. Any solution that makes you into a God-like being--loving, creative, faithful, empowering, atoning--is sufficient. It is likely there are numberless solutions to this problem. Think about how each life is different, even among faithful LDSs, and we say of course. But there must be some things in common among the exalted. Evolution doesn't explain how one particular set of ordinances can be among those, at least not at this level of exploration.

So do I throw away the prophetic claims of essential ordinances and just take them as valuable but non-essential, ritual acts? Do I say, it's fine for the community to have this myth, but it's only in their imaginations? By now we know that I don't go to the other black and white extreme of rejecting the real power of ordinances and priesthood, but that is a predictable position some would take from my evolutionary view of Gods. For now, I can defend the value of ritual and covenant on scholarly grounds. I can trust my personal experience of priesthood ordinances and how they connect me to something mystical--something greater. Evolution does tell me that the path is strait and the gate is narrow, and it's likely that many won't make it in. Evolution even confirms the greatest requirements for entering into that gate. But the numbers of ways to walk the path are as varied as the people who follow it.