Things that we mystify

Even if my personal journey results in my continuing to believe as I have heretofore done, there are some things that will change in my belief system as a result of refinement and sincere questioning. In a sense my faith will be purified to remove all “less solid” beliefs. Healthy scepticism leads to changes in assumptions, such is the evolution of our faith and knowledge generally.

One such area for me is our common mystification of certain events, which is the topic of this article. In the church we tend to mystify certain things that may not actually be intrinsically so mystical.

Here are some examples:

1. Losing things, praying, and finding them

A very very common cultural mystification in Mormonism is the tendency to, when something has been lost, pray about it and seek to find it.

When I was a teenager I lost a beautiful blue kite of mine. I really wanted to go out kiting, but I just couldn’t find it. The way I was brought up culturally as a Mormon by my parents was to pray shortly after, or even before, looking for something that has been lost. When you find it – hey presto! Heavenly Father is helping you to find it. So I prayed and I felt an impression (or had the idea) that I should clean my room since it was very untidy. Within minutes of cleaning I found my kite in one of my cupboards.

This is a typical story that might be shared in a fast and testimony sacrament meeting. Another very very common version of this is losing car keys and praying to find them. I mean — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of God helping people find their car keys or other lost things.

But I sincerely question whether or not this is a mystification of something that is intrinsically not what we think it is. And so I have a few rebuttals against this mystification, firstly an argument, secondly some experiments, and thirdly some history:

1.1 Putting things in perspective

Although we believe that God has infinite bandwidth (in other words, even if He did have “better things” to do with His time, it doesn’t matter, he has infinite time and bandwidth so He can do it all) I still question whether helping us find our car keys is, in the grand scheme of things, truly benevolent when contrasted with the other issues in the world. The world has poverty, disease, hunger, unemployment and lack of education problems to deal with. Next time I lose my car keys maybe I’ll kneel down and pray (and I mean this sincerely, this is not a sarcastic prayer) “Oh God, please, let me not find my car keys, and, in exchange, help some people in third world countries who are suffering today.” Perhaps in this statement I share sentiments with Jeffrey R Holland from his recent talk Are We Not All Beggars: “I do not know all the reasons why the circumstances of birth, health, education, and economic opportunities vary so widely here in mortality, but when I see the want among so many, I do know that “there but for the grace of God go I.” I also know that although I may not be my brother’s keeper, I am my brother’s brother, and “because I have been given much, I too must give.””

Perspective?

1.2 Experiments for empirical validation

Recently I decided to do some experiments of my own in this area. We all lose things occasionally, so I have natural samples to work with. My habit inherited from my upbringing is, as described above, to pray before looking so as to find things.

Recently I’ve decided to stop praying before looking for something and instead just go straight to looking for it. (Please don’t quote 2 Nephi 32:8 to me “for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray”, this is just an empirical experiment, I do still say daily prayers) — In other words, remove that one variable from the equation.

The result: I can’t seem to find any evidence to support that I was finding things more often or more quickly before than I do now. I still find things, and I reckon I find them just as quickly as I did before.

Of course, I’ve not taken the time to do this really really properly. In the ideal scenario, I should do many experiments of both variations and record things like how long it took to find the object (with a stopwatch or something) and try to account for other variables. Perhaps the function of prayer is just to receive comfort (but not actually get help in finding the object?) – I dunno. When I discussed this with Annie she says prayer helps her to calm her anxiety from losing something. There’s also the possibility that prayer focuses your mind on that object so as to remember where you put it, and that’s why “it works”.

But let’s be honest, even the very act of doing some kind of empirically validating experiment on this topic seems to shut down the hypothesis in our minds. Of course there’s going to be little to no difference between those times we pray and those times we don’t. Unfortunately, without having an alternate reality, we can’t do a strict control test (A/B test) so it’s ultimately impossible to prove anything here.

Recently I lost my phone in a bathroom by my office without realising it. I had just left it there after getting changed. I was giving a presentation to a group of people immediately afterwards so I didn’t even realise that my phone was missing. About thirty minutes later a guy walked in “looking for Shawn” and returned it to me without my even knowing that it had gone missing. I didn’t pray, I didn’t even know it was missing. No one knew it was missing. No one prayed for its return.

Of course, and let me be clear on this, I am immensely grateful that this guy helped me to find my phone. It would have been a real pain to cancel all the accounts and buy a new one etc. If God is there, my gratitude is towards Him for “it returning”, I am not even going to claim that He returned it personally, maybe He did. If there’s no God, doesn’t matter, I am still grateful in general (to the ether? I don’t know, does gratitude need to be focused towards a particular individual? ) that the phone came back. I think the general solution is gratitude, more on that later.

What’s even more interesting is that the phone came back to me during this period of personal doubt. One would suppose that during my faithful times something like this is more likely to happen. Maybe God is reaching out to me in my time of doubt with coincidental events to make me believe more?

Anyway, I think the probability of my phone returning to me is more a function of which society I happen to find myself in (and the values, ethics, and personalities of the people within the society) than it is a function of prayer. I grew up in South Africa so I understand why the tendency to see a phone returning as a miracle!

1.3 Some history

I’ve been curious to discover some historical evidence for where this particular idea of finding things after praying came from. I was interested to discover the recent revelation of the church that Joseph Smith used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon. Though you won’t find detail like this on the church site (they avoid such topics for obvious reasons) FairMormon (props on these guys for just talking about what really happened) reports the following:

Question: How did Joseph use his seer stones as a youth?

“Joseph as the village seer: the use of the seer stone prior to the Restoration

During his tenure as a “village seer,” Joseph acquired several seer stones. Joseph first used a neighbor’s seer stone (probably that belonging to Palmyra seer Sally Chase, on the balance of historical evidence, though there are other possibilities) to discover the location of a brown, baby’s foot-shaped stone. The vision of this stone likely occurred in about 1819–1820, and he obtained his first seer stone in about 1821–1822…

Sally Chase’s clients consulted her to find things which were lost, and Joseph Smith had at least one client who did the same.

Lower down on the same page:

“Question: Did Joseph place his seer stone in his hat while looking for lost objects?

Martin Harris recounted that Joseph could find lost objects with the second, white stone:

I was at the house of his father in Manchester, two miles south of Palmyra village, and was picking my teeth with a pin while sitting on the bars. The pin caught in my teeth and dropped from my fingers into shavings and straw. I jumped from the bars and looked for it. Joseph and Northrop Sweet also did the same. We could not find it. I then took Joseph on surprise, and said to him–I said, “Take your stone.” I had never seen it, and did not know that he had it with him. He had it in his pocket. He took it and placed it in his hat–the old white hat–and placed his face in his hat. I watched him closely to see that he did not look to one side; he reached out his hand beyond me on the right, and moved a little stick and there I saw the pin, which he picked up and gave to me. I know he did not look out of the hat until after he had picked up the pin.

Joseph’s mother also indicated that Joseph was sought out by some, including Josiah Stoal, to use the stone to find hidden valuables. He came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.”

I assume for most members of the church this story would come as a surprise  — the pre-prophet Joseph Smith looking into a white stone to find lost objects and “hidden valuables” (the anti-Mormon critics call this “buried treasure”)? This indeed suggests something supernatural at the very least, but I would wager (and I think most would agree) that if today some random member of our church, or even a leader  claimed to have a seer stone that can find lost objects, we’d probably say they were being deceived by peeping spirits or something. I doubt we’d buy it.

In any case, for the purposes of this article the historical evidence is suggestive of the idea that finding lost objects was something mystified in the early church and something Joseph Smith did in particular. Back then he used a seer stone, today we just say prayers. Why don’t we use seer stones today to find our car keys when they’re lost? Maybe I should start a seer stone factory 🙂 (I’ll have to pray about it first).

And that brings us to the second mystification: remembering things and having impressions.

2. Remembering things and having impressions

The topic of remembering things is not entirely unrelated to the idea of praying to find lost objects, as often we lose something because we simply don’t remember where we put it.

But it is also more general and different in scope so I’ll address this as a second mystification.

John 14:26:

“But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”

Firstly let me point out that this scripture specifically refers to “whatsoever I have said unto you” and I think the context was to the apostles, so it refers to the teachings of Christ, not other information generally. I am not aware of other scriptures (correct me someone?) that claim the Holy Ghost can bring “all things generally” to our remembrance.

But that’s certainly a teaching of the church. In the recent face to face with Elder Bednar and the youth he refers to this for the topic of school-work and study (which is a belief I’ve carried my entire life, before every exam I would pray for help to remember the things I’d studied, before maths exam I would pray even more earnestly!). Our stake president recently shared that he was meeting up with missionaries from the mission where he’d served, he remembered their names and attributed that to the Holy Ghost guiding him.

I sincerely question the extent to which we mystify this one. Perhaps some impressions are of the Spirit, but at this point in time I am not clear on whether any really are.

OK, so here are the rebuttals:

2.1 The human faculty of pattern recognition, and human memory, and inspiration

I’m not an expert on the human body or the human brain, so if anyone wants to correct the following please do. But what I do know is that our brains are incredible. We are still working on understanding how they function. A visiting neurologist to my university once said that one of the grandest mysteries of the human brain is whether it is clever enough to figure itself out.

Our memory is incredible, without going into much detail we have different layers of memory (short term, medium term, long term) and information is passed between them through certain processes (that include sleep). Memories are triggered when neurons fire in combinations similar to before.

Can we really attribute memory to the Spirit? Is it an exaggeration to say that we may just remember things naturally? Do people in the church who have the gift of the Holy Ghost tend to remember things any better than those who aren’t in the church and don’t have the Holy Ghost?

Another matter is pattern recognition, which is very much related to memory. Pattern recognition is the ability to discern similarities in experiences and information that comes to us and relies on memory to achieve this.

Humans are very good pattern recognisers. I mean, we’re so good that we’re too good – we see patterns that aren’t even there. When the September 11 attack occurred, some people claimed to see the face of the devil in the smoke cloud that emerged from the building.

Devil Smoke

I mean, I can see it too, but that doesn’t mean it really is the devil! When we were kids didn’t we all enjoy staring up at the clouds and discerning shapes of familiar objects in them?

There was actually a piece of toast that sold for $28 000 because it was thought to have a divine message (in the form of an appearance of the Virgin Mary) in it.

Grilled cheese

 

Perhaps it was this very piece of grilled cheese that Neil Tyson was thinking of when he quoted in Cosmos:

“We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe. To that end, we’re all too eager to deceive ourselves and others, to discern a sacred image in a grilled cheese sandwich or find a divine warning in a comet”

Of course for us “Mormons” we may think this is ridiculous. But for someone with $28 000 this was very important! They may turn around and wonder about our “magical underwear” that we wear and judge it with the same ridicule that we do their grilled cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary. Who’s to say for sure that it was not a divinely sent image of the Virgin Mary?

Our minds have an incredible ability to discern patterns. Without shame and without a huge need for justification I think it’s fair to say that a large percentage of our success as a species over our lifetime is exactly due to our ability to recognise, predict, and act according to patterns. The stars tell which season it is, when it’s time to plant, harvest, hunt, etc.

Recently in our stake conference a visiting authority shared his testimony. At one point he said, to the effect of, “when we believe these things become real to us”. I kid you not – it might even be recorded. A sceptic would pounce on that very quickly. Believing in something means you interpret the patterns of that thing in a positive manner (confirmation bias) and ignore any outliers that may conflict with your theory (to avoid cognitive dissonance).

So, we’ve established that both our ability to recognise patterns and remember things are innate faculties of the human mind. To be comprehensive we should turn to the idea of creativity and the flow of ideas (otherwise worded “pure intelligence”) — Perhaps these natural faculties are enhanced by the Spirit, but it’s beyond doubt that at least they are, to begin with, natural faculties.

2.2 Experiments

Just like with finding lost things, I have done some experiments in this area more recently. Both in the area of memory and impressions. These are not done nearly as rigorously as they could be, but they are a start.

2.2.1 Memory

Just yesterday night I went to the chemist to purchase some medicine. Originally I wanted to buy just antihistamine, but when I arrived I had the idea that I could also buy some throat gargle.

So I asked for the antihistamine, and got some. But then I forgot what else I wanted to buy. I am sick at the moment so my mind is a bit slower. My first instinct was to pray “Dear Heavenly Father, please help me remember what else I wanted to buy” but because I knew I was doing this experiment I didn’t pray. I just thought. “What is it? What is it?” — I walked around for a minute and it came to me: “ah yes, the throat gargle”.

No miracles, no unnecessary mystification, the human mind has the ability to “encode, store, retain and subsequently recall information and past experiences” — does it have to be more complicated than that?

2.2.2 Impressions and ideas

For the area of impressions I offer three very simple stories.

Story 1: The first is about this very blog. The concepts I discuss on this blog have been weighing down on my mind for quite some time now, I’m talking in the order of 2-3 years. When I finally decided to start this blog I started writing down ideas. Within a day I had enough ideas for at least 30 articles. As of right now it has 28 articles, all written within exactly a 2 month period (what a coincidence! It must be magical), that’s just shy of an article published every two days!

Why the intense burst of inspiration?

I’ve used many scriptures and quotes throughout this blog, both of prophets, apostles, atheists, scientists, and so forth. Most of them are quotes that I’ve run into whilst doing research and being a member of the church for twenty years.

I’ve found my ability to recall, identify and find these quotes now are as good, if not better than my ability to recall quotes while preparing a sacrament meeting talk. One would expect me to have a diminished ability to recall quotes and have ideas when writing about doubtful topics than faithful ones (shouldn’t I be having a stupor of thought?), because I doubt the Holy Ghost would assist me in writing about doubtful topics. I’ve found no such challenge. My ideas for this blog have been plentiful and flowing, and many of them are critically oriented.

Story 2: The second is a story that happened recently at work. The building owners notified us that there was going to be some work done on the power to the building and it would be down for 2-3 hours around midnight. My boss asked me whether we’d want to switch off any of the IT equipment (routers, phone system, servers, modems, etc.) in our server room. Since I came from a background in IT I was pretty confident; no, nothing needs to be switched off. When the power goes off the equipment will shut down, and when it comes back up it will come back up. That’s how IT equipment works, it’s designed to be restarted.

My boss asked me one more time; “are you sure?”

“Yes of course, no problem. ”

After the power cut happened, the phone system didn’t come back up. We had to get it repaired. I apologised to my boss, explaining that I was confident from prior experience that it should have come back up, and even the phone system guy who came out to repair it confirmed that fact, but it did go down. At the end of this conversation my boss said, to the effect of “I just had this idea that something might go wrong.”

— by all definitions that’s what we’d call “an impression”. It was an idea, a thought, an inspiration, that something would go wrong. He’s not a member of the church. He’s not even religious in the traditional sense. I thought you needed the Holy Ghost to get these ideas, these impressions? Perhaps non-members can get them too? Perhaps everyone at all times has had them?

Or could this just be non-mystical? Could it just be a smart business man exercising good productive paranoia? Could it just be good pattern recognition? Does it have to be magical?

Story 3: The final story is of a “miss” impression. I’ve put a conscious effort in recently to record impressions, I write impressions down into a spreadsheet and I trace them later on to see if anything eventuated from them. Recently I had scheduled to work from home on one Tuesday, and I had been at a client meeting all day on Monday. So I had not been in the office for 3 days. (Weekend + Monday). I generally feel I have the above mentioned “productive paranoia” (this link goes to an article I wrote on the subject) so I was thinking “I need to get into the office to show a good face, I need to be working hard with my colleagues together” etc. those kinds of thoughts.

I actually had a feeling of dread surrounding this day. I felt that if I didn’t go to the office something would go wrong. This feeling of dread is congruous with a general negative spiritual impression. But this time, instead of panicking, I just wrote it down. I wrote an email to myself and scheduled it for the end of the day, writing, in effect: “I feel something bad is going to happen if I don’t go to work today, did something happen?” and I stayed at home. At the end of the day I got the email.

Nothing bad happened. Nothing negative happened at all. Or at least it didn’t happen on that day and in my life in relation to going to work. My feeling of dread was just my standard productive paranoia — the feeling that I need to work hard (which I did on that day anyway) and need to show face.

I wonder how many times in my life I’ve had a good or bad feeling that actually meant absolutely nothing. I notice something interesting as a pattern in my life; I am not a mornings person, in the mornings I tend to be more grumpy, tired, and unhappy. On my mission in the mornings I would pray a lot to receive peace and happiness, and yet still I am a grumpy mornings person.

Am I receiving impressions in the morning about bad things that are going to happen? Every morning? Or am I just a grumpy morning person and that’s the way it is?

Demystifying is nothing new

I could go on with other examples, but many of them relate to the above ideas; interpreting patterns in a favourable way to what we believe.

Demystifying is nothing new. The examples I’ve given above are just things that I have heretofore mystified to which I now approach with a bit more scepticism.

To illustrate, how often do you think the rain, or absence of rain, is a result of divine intervention? Perhaps in our everyday life we don’t believe this, but certainly in the past (in the Book of Mormon for example) there are examples of people interpreting the rain as a result of divine providence (perhaps England is a more blessed nation of God than the Israel, it turns out).

Another very striking example is that of Newton who first discovered the law of universal gravitation, quoting from a paper about the story:

“Isaac Newton’s discovery of the Law of Universal Gravitation was one of the greatest scientific achievements in history. By combining his theories with the experimental data gathered by other scientists such as Johannes Kepler, Newton showed that the motion of planets going around the Sun, moons orbiting around planets, and objects falling near the earth’s surface was described by the same simple universal laws. Newton believed that the Law of Universal Gravitational Attraction was evidence for God’s design.

While Newton’s equations are simple to write down, their solution is not always simple. It’s easy to solve Newton’s equations when there are only two objects (e.g. the Sun and a single planet) gravitationally attracted to each other. They will orbit each other indefinitely in stable and predictable orbits. But as soon as you have
three or more mutually interacting objects, it’s almost always impossible to exactly solve Newton’s equations. You have to approximate. It becomes difficult to calculate whether or not the planets’ orbits will be stable indefinitely. When there are three or more objects, it is possible that their mutual interactions will cause one
or more of the orbits to become unstable. Our solar system has one Sun, nine planets, and many moons and smaller objects all interacting with each other. [This excerpt was first published in 2003. In August 2006, the International Astronomical Union named Pluto a “dwarf planet.” Officially, eight regular planets are recognized.] Are the orbits of all of the planets in our solar system stable over long periods of time, or does their mutual interaction make them unstable?

Newton struggled with this question for some time. He could not come to a definite conclusion, but he eventually came to believe that planetary orbits in our solar system were, in fact, unstable. Each time one planet’s orbit brought it close to another planet, the two would perturb each other’s orbits around the sun.
Newton thought that after a few hundred or thousand years of these perturbations, some of the orbits would become unstable.

How did scientists get around this problem? One proposal was that God occasionally (every few decades or centuries) sent a comet through the solar system—a comet with just the right mass and just the right trajectory
so that its gravitational attraction would “correct” the planetary orbits and keep them stable for another several centuries.”

Newton couldn’t solve the problem of stable orbits in the solar system with his understanding of gravity, so he invoked God; the orbits were ultimately unstable and so God would come in and “correct” them every now and then. This was a mystification; there was something we didn’t understand and so “God did it”. (A classic example of the “God of the gaps” type argument).

As the paper goes on to explain, the next generations of mathematicians and astronomers picked up on that work and solved it; showing no need for mystical intervention.

Conclusion: Gratitude as a solution

After reading this one may think: “But if we start to demystify these things that happen in our everyday life then the eventual result of this is we will become grumpy atheists like Richard Dawkins!”

That’s not true on both accounts; both becoming atheist, and becoming grumpy.

The solution which I feel more and more is the great importance of the principle of gratitude. We need to practice gratitude in our daily lives for the many opportunities and “blessings” that we’ve been given. “Count your many blessings, name them one by one”.

Some of the most personally meaningful prayers I’ve had were gratitude prayers, where I don’t ask for anything but just focus on being grateful for everything I have. These have always left me more joyful. Practising gratitude through various avenues (prayer, meditation, etc.) is in no way unique to our faith. There’s a beautiful TED talk by David Steindl-Rast (a Catholic monk) here where he speaks about gratitude as the anchor of a joyful society.

With gratitude as the key principle, our narratives can change to be both more profound (in my opinion), more joyful, and less mystical (meaning they are less vulnerable to intellectual attack and more “scientifically solid” too)

  • “I found my car keys! I’m not sure if it was indeed God who helped me to find them, but either way I am grateful.”
  • “I found a great parking spot at the supermaket! I’m not sure if it was God who helped me, but either way I am grateful.”
  • “I remembered the maths I studied for this exam and did quite well. I am not sure if it was God who helped me, but either way I am deeply grateful.”
  • “I had a hunch, an intuition, to not trade in this stock, and it turns out that I was right. I am not sure if it was God who helped me, but either way I am grateful that I didn’t lose my money.”
  • “I feel full of ideas and creativity in my life. Creating new things makes me joyful. I am not sure if these ideas and talents originate from God, but either way I am truly grateful for them.”
  • “I had a positive feeling about pursuing this career opportunity and it turned out that this was a wonderful learning opportunity. I am not sure whether this feeling was an impression of the Spirit (and it doesn’t really matter whether it was), either way I am deeply grateful for this opportunity and the lessons learned.”

The wonderful things that happen in our lives may or may not actually originate from God. He may or may not actually exist. It doesn’t matter. Let’s be grateful for everything we have and practice gratitude for the opportunities of each moment, and hope for the best in the “next life” and the eternities.

D&C 78:19

“And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more.”

Shawn

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