Friday, August 28, 2015

Knowledge: The Stuff of Rational Thought

Recently I was involved in a comment thread under an article about religion. I know, it's not a very smart thing to do, but there was one commenter who was berating everyone for their lack of rational thought, while at the same time exhibiting a distinct lack of rational thought. I couldn't resist. I called him out on his fallacies and I was rewarded by being called "muddled-headed" and a "moron". He has yet to respond to my further inquiries. But he did give me substantial fodder that may result in 2-4 blog posts.
"Rational thinking is not dependent on knowledge."

This statement came from one of his replies. From one perspective this seems like a non-controversial statement. Someone's ability to think rationally, the actual mechanism of thinking, is not dependent on knowing certain facts and data. For example, if I wanted to give all of my students a pencil I could rationally plan that out and get the pencils. My ability to rationally think through that problem does not depend on my knowing how many students are in my class. Even if I think there are 15 students, when in reality there are 150, knowing the incorrect number of students may change the way I approach the problem and may cause problems, but that does not impact my ability to rationally think through the problem.

On a larger level, if I thought that the American Revolution was all about "Taxation without representation", and then after reading some books I acquired more knowledge about the causes of the revolution I might change my views about what caused the revolution, but that won't change my ability to think through the new data and reach a new conclusion.

Also, if someone is presented with some new data, it would seem that their ability to incorporate that knowledge depends not on having the knowledge, but on their ability to reason and think through the data. Thus it makes sense to say "Rational thinking is not dependent on knowledge."

So far that statement seems perfectly logical, but if we think about how we actually interact with knowledge and data, that formerly rational statement begins to unravel. My response to that statement was, '"rational thinking is not dependent on knowledge" is akin to saying "breathing is not dependent on air".' Just as breathing requires something there to be breathed in order to make sense, rational thinking requires knowledge in order to work. Knowledge is the stuff that is rationally thought about.

But the connection is deeper than that, because there is some knowledge changes the way we think. This happens both on an individual level and on a societal level. As pointed out by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, there comes a point where certain data does not fit with our paradigm forcing us to change the way we think about the world. But we may still argue that even a paradigm shift does not change to underlying processes that make our thoughts rational.

For anyone who has learned something profound, we know that what we consider to be rational thought changes throughout our lives. There is certain knowledge that when obtained changes the way we interact with the world. It in effect changes our rational thinking. These experiences are usually profoundly personal. These are the moments when old knowledge takes on new and added meaning, and connections are made between seemingly disparate facts.

In these special cases rational thought does not operate passively on our knowledge, but knowledge and rational thought become co-operative, evolving simultaneously. The original statement given above assumes a certain staticity and independence to rational thought, as if it could operate in a vacuum. But this view leads to an ontological quandary that cannot be resolved without additional data and an evolution in our manner of thinking.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Amaron Misquoted Scripture

You may not remember who Amaron is, partly because he only contributed five short verses to the Book of Mormon. He is perhaps most famous for being Omni's son (who has a whole book named after him, even if he didn't write 86% of it). We don't know anything about him because he wrote so little, but he did manage to misquote a famous scripture.

There is a famous prophecy that appears several times in the Book of Mormon that reads:
"Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence."
In one form or another this same prophecy appears 19 times in the Book of Mormon, plus one final time when Mormon records the fulfillment of the prophecy. But in his brief contribution, Amaron managed to misquote the prophecy. He quoted it as:
"Inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall not prosper in the land." [Emphasis added]
All other versions give it as:
Keep commandments → Prosper
But Amaron gives it as a negative statement:
Don't keep commandments → Don't prosper
But if you look at the original prophecy, the promise is that if they did not keep the commandments then they would be cut off from the presence of the Lord. This is not necessarily the same as "not prospering". I have seen several modern saints who have made the same mistake, and it is an easy one to make. But we must be careful about the promises made by the Lord. They are very specific and they are phrased in a certain way for a reason. Sometimes we may be like Amaron and inadvertently misremember a scripture because we think it is functionally equivalent, but upon further reflection we realize that there is a very specific reason for the wording of certain prophecies and scriptures.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Checklist Generation: Conflating Culture with the Church

I was recently reading something by a former member of the Church who was relating their experience as a member. As they reported they came to the realization one day that all the commandments and rules in the Church were just one big checklist. This "stunning" realization lead them to question their faith, decide that it was a bunch of drivel and they promptly left the Church. They were now explaining how they have since "found Jesus" and were now engaged in an outreach to other members of the Church to "save them from their false idols". From their description it would seem that all Mormons are given a specific checklist they must follow and when they have checked everything off they believe that they can bound away merrily into eternal exaltation.

This characterization of LDS doctrine struck me as particularly odd considering we are taught that we must only rely "upon the merits of Christ, who [is] the author and the finisher of [our] faith." The commenter related how he felt so liberated after he freed himself from the "deception taught by the church" that we are save by our works, typified by the checklist of commandments. After reading his comments I came away wondering if we were ever members of the same church, and where in the world he got his ideas about LDS doctrine.

I do recognize that some people reduce the gospel to a set of things to get done; read your scriptures, say your prayers, do your home/visiting teaching, don't murder anybody. But more often than not we hear admonitions to not treat the gospel, or any of its parts, as a checklist. Which makes me wonder how this man managed to go most of his life without ever hearing those admonitions, let alone end up thinking that the Church actively teaches the checklist gospel.

To try and understand where these ideas come from I used Google Ngram Viewer to look at how the frequency of the word "checklist" changed over time. What I found was both a little surprising, but at the same time understandable.
As can be seen in the graph above, "checklist" was used very infrequently before about 1935. In that year there was a rather famous plane crash that could have been averted if the pilot had used a checklist. Since then the use of "checklists" has grown, especially in the 1960's and 70's. What surprised me was the drop is usage after 2000, though this may be due to it being replaced by the phrase "to do list" (interestingly enough the word "list", as a noun, has also seen a steep drop after 2000, also interesting is the fact that "checklist" displaced "check list" in the 1960's).

So it would seem that our obsession with checklist, to do lists and all sorts of lists is a recent cultural phenomena. In a more general sense the idea that we go through the motions without the corresponding faith and belief is nothing new. But to make the assertion that the Church has reduced salvation to a bland checklist of items, practices and commandments, is to mistake a current cultural phenomena for eternal doctrine. We should not blame the Church and discount its doctrine because of a cultural meme.

For those of us who are still faithful we can use this as learning opportunity to see how sometimes our current culture affects the way we see the doctrine of the Church. If we slip into the error of treating the commandments and ordinances of the gospel as items on a checklist we should realize that that is a result of our culture and we should work to remove that from our thinking.