Friday, March 18, 2011

Doubting your doubts

Just now, I read a Mormon Times article by Orson Scott Card, called Guessing leads to knowing. I actually liked most of the article, which surprised me since I don't generally think much of OSC. He's correct that almost all human progress comes from someone who had a hunch or a guess or a crazy idea that they decided to try out. Guessing is indeed a good thing.

However, his reasoning is flawed because his proposed "tests" (praying for confirmation, following church commandments) are not really experiments in a scientific sense. People can believe they feel the Holy Spirit confirming wildly different ideas. How do you know which is correct? Science measures hypotheses against objective reality. OSC proposes testing hypotheses against subjective experience. At best, the experiments may prove which ideas resonate with you personally. If that's all you're after, that's a fine result. But you can't then extrapolate your findings as objective truth.

My father-in-law told me to "doubt my doubts" when he first found out about my disaffection with the LDS church. It didn't make much sense to me at the time. But now I think I understand the premise behind the phrase: that your "doubts" are really just new beliefs. As such, they should be subject to scrutiny just as your original beliefs were. If I accepted the premise that doubts are just new beliefs, I would certainly accept the conclusion that you should "doubt your doubts".

However, there is a fundamental difference between belief and doubt. A belief is a positive assertion that something is true. A doubt is a neutral assertion that I don't know whether something is true. For example, I might say that I doubt the Book of Mormon is a historical record. That statement by itself does not imply that I believe it is not a historical record. It simply means I don't know. I make no assertion in either direction.

Now, one can certainly examine the evidence and come to a tentative conclusion with a reasonable degree of certainty. Would I say the Book of Mormon is more likely to be historical than not? No, based on the evidence I have encountered I would say I believe it's more likely to be biblical fan fiction. However, this statement is not a statement of doubt. It is a statement of belief based on evidence. Do I doubt this belief? Of course! I am willing to change my assessment based on new evidence. And you can believe that's true because I have done so already.

If this is what is meant by "doubting your doubts", then I suppose I already do. But do I doubt the mechanism of doubt itself? Should I boomerang back to my original beliefs before disappearing in a puff of logic? That would be silly. As Orson Scott Card said himself, doubt is the vehicle of progress. To doubt the act of doubting would be like using the Internet to spread the message that all technology is evil. It would be inconsistent, and achieve nothing but a smug self-satisfaction in a castle built on semantics.

So doubt your beliefs. Doubt all your beliefs. If they are worth believing, they are worth doubting. But don't test your beliefs against your feelings. Test them against evidence. And is it worth the self-inconsistency of trying to "doubt your doubts"? I doubt it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Oh dear, the end times are here (again)

[Somehow, I was never notified of several comments that were waiting for approval on various blog entries over the past few months. If you made a comment that was not approved until today, I'm sorry!]

I got a visit from the Jehovah's Witnesses this morning. They've been around before, and I am usually far too accommodating. I tend to smile and nod and listen for as long as they want to talk. I usually avoid confrontation whenever possible, and I find it difficult simply to say I'm not interested, even though it would save us all a lot of time.

One of the men introduced himself and asked if he could share a short message from the Bible (he emphasized the word "short"). I said sure. He began to read from Matthew about how Jesus had said there would be wars and famines and... yes, even earthquakes as signs of the end times. He specifically said that the recent earthquake in Japan was a fulfillment of these words. I smiled and nodded and failed to mention the many hundreds of earthquakes and other natural disasters that happen each year. Not to mention the countless number throughout the ages since Jesus allegedly spoke those words.

I choose to interpret these constant signs over thousands of years somewhat differently. I believe it is the fulfillment of the laws of physics. These prophecies are not written in the pages of the Bible, but in the very fabric of the universe from the beginning of time. Far from being signs of the end of the world, they are signs that the universe is still doing just fine, thank you very much. With or without Jesus, with or without the kingdom of God... and frankly, with or without humanity. To think that earthquakes are a sign given specifically to humans seems pretty self-centered.

Anyway, he continued talking about how we would be okay as long as we are part of the kingdom of God. At the point where he asked me, "What do you think the kingdom of God is?" the jig was up. I couldn't just smile and nod anymore, so I said, "I don't really know and honestly I'm not interested in spending much time talking about it." He was very polite and thanked me for my time and the opportunity to share their positive view for the future despite the calamities in the world today. I was surprised at how quickly and graciously they left me alone. I think I need to try directness more often.

I'm not sure whether I should be offended that the JWs showed up on my doorstep using such a horrible tragedy to push their religion. I'm not one bit surprised, of course. People have been doing that for all of recorded history. It's hard to fault them too much for actually believing what they're teaching, either. People like to try to make sense of the world, especially the parts that are senseless. For them, a giant earthquake simply confirms what they already believe. Just like every other natural disaster, and just like the great invisible Second Coming of 1914. People see what they want to see.

So I think I'm not offended. But the tactic of capitalizing on others' misfortune to push your own agenda, used consciously or not, still strikes me as poor taste. At least I had the good sense to articulate my disinterest, or I would probably still be standing in my doorway right now.