Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents?

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Try wrapping your mind around this. Source

So how do you respond to the overwhelming complexity of the universe? If you’re like me, you get up, put your pants on one leg at a time, and try not to think about it too much. But from time to time, you’ll wonder what the point of life is, why you are here, how soon is now and who ate the last piece of cheesecake. You will not be content with a life lived uncertainly–you will look for, and find, answers. Well, at least what will pass for answers.

But how do you squeeze answers out of an uncooperative universe? If you’re anything like me, you’ll take the handful of things that you (think you) know, stir in some unexamined assumptions, add a dash of emotion and before you know it, you are filling in the blanks with something that makes sense out of the (un)known.

It turns out that humans are suckers for and pretty good at creating “a simple and coherent account of people’s actions and intentions.”[1]  Partly because “laziness is built deep into our nature.”[2] But also because

you cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.[3]

It turns out that the stories we tell ourselves generally stand us in good (enough) stead. They help us get up in the morning, put our pants on and make gold records. They give us meaning and purpose and provide comfort in a world that can be cruelly indifferent to individual fate. They connect individuals to communities and inspire altruistic behavior. Of course, the opposite it also true. They lead us up the garden path and provide cover for cruel indifference. They define and keep outsiders at arm’s length and inspire selfish acts.

One lesson of Christ’s ministry is to be careful of such just-so stories, no matter how compelling, lest we miss the Messiah for his having been born in a manger rather than a palace, for example. The account of Jesus healing the blind man provides an instructive exchange in this regard:

1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.

2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?

3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.

5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

6 When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,

7 And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.

Jesus’s audience was familiar with cause and effect; the law of the harvest wasn’t pulled out of thin air, after all. The man was blind, and something had obviously caused this deviation from the norm. They were even open-minded enough to allow for two options and withhold final judgment until an authority had spoken. But they had jumped to a conclusion–someone must have sinned.

If you’re anything like me, you are a lot like them. I jump to a dozen conclusions before breakfast on a slow day. For the most part (I hope!) my myopic view of the world remains relatively harmless. But the urge to fill in the blanks is always there, especially when it comes to accounting for other people’s actions and intentions. Like when a missionary assigned to the ward goes home early despite appearing to be in the prime of health. Who did sin, this man, or his parents? Or when the couple who faithfully served in leadership positions for many years stops coming to church. Who did sin, this man, or his wife?

See how easy that is? Way easier than getting to know these people. Much simpler than interrogating our assumptions. A walk in the park compared to revising our worldview of causality.

Nevertheless, we’d be wrong and, if acted upon, the consequences of these unconscious mental shortcuts wouldn’t be harmless when our easy answers boomerang around our communities as rumors. Still, we’d be in good company. Jesus’s audience remained convinced that someone had sinned, and even added Jesus to the list. Resisting one’s assumptions about how the world works goes against our energy-saving nature. But the consequences of remaining comfortably numb could be eternal. So let me join Oliver Cromwell and our own Michael Austin in beseeching you, “in the bowels of Christ, [to] think it possible you may be mistaken” when it comes to accounting for the actions and intents of those with whom we share a pew.

[1] Kahneman, Daniel. “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Macmillan, 2011. iBooks.

[2] Ibid. “A general ‘law of least effort’ applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.”

[3] Ibid.

Comments

  1. Everyone that drives slower than me is an old moron that needs to get off the road. Everyone that drives faster than me is a crazy maniac . . .

  2. Wonderful post. Very related is that the hardest words for a person to utter are “I don’t know.”

    Add to that, there’s very little accountability for making assumptions about a situation. If I judged a missionary for going home because I thought he was sinning, where is the negative consequences in that for me? There is none. The positive consequences (talking positive/negative reinforcement here, not good/bad) is that I get to take that short cut and not look at some really hard truths about the missionary program. So we are internally rewarded for jumping to a quick conclusion with no internal reward for uncertainty.

    And then of course there is the negativity bias to throw into the mix.

    The mammal brain is a fascinating, fascinating thing.

  3. Thanks, Peter. The quote near the top (fn 3) was worth waking up for this morning.

  4. Talk about mental shortcuts….It seems like the church narrative I internalized while growing up was that whenever anyone wasn’t completely a ‘tow the line’ Mormon, it was because, well, Satan. I don’t ever recall hearing any other explanation. It ALWAYS came down to “that person must not be praying, reading scriptures or is lacking faith in some way…therefore….Satan.
    Was this anyone’s else’s experience?

  5. Aaron, then you must be an old moron. (-:

  6. Kristen – yes.

  7. Aaron–that’s the spirit!

    Indeed, ReTx. We crave certainty and reward those who exude it, even if it turns out they’re wrong.

    Wally–Kahneman is great and his book well worth reading so you can get the unfiltered-through-me version.

    Kristen–an experience very much like yours prompted this post.

    Franklin–if the shoe fits…

  8. Kristen, that hasn’t been my experience, but I know that it has been others’ experience. I think this depends highly on a person’s family/ward culture.

  9. Peter, this was a good post. We’re so conditioned to think that the simplest explanation must be true, but real life is often so much more complex than our ideas of it are. Simplicity is attractive, and simple explanations are elegant, but in my experience, the when I prioritize simplicity in explaining the world around me, I necessarily de-prioritize realism and relevance.

  10. Indeed, JKC. I’m guilty myself of crafting simplistic narratives about, say, the support the president-elect found among members of the church. So when I point a finger, three are pointing back at me!

  11. Peter, this is really great — and love the Kahneman quotes (have you read his 2005 novel Die Vermessung der Welt, which also investigates our concepts of epistemology in the fictional setting?)! You have very nicely summarized the issue and emphasized Christ’s answer on this point!

  12. John Mansfield says:

    . . . a few words about being a theoretician . . .

    [The following are the closing paragraphs from John Lumley’s lecture that he gave after being awarded the 1990 APS Fluid Dynamics Prize. “Some comments on turbulence,” Phys. Fluids A 4 (2), Feb. 1992, pp. 203-211.]

    I would like to close with a few words about being a theoretician in the United States toward the close of the 20th century. The United States is a curiously unsympathetic environment for a theoretician, or any scientist interested in fundamental work. We have a sociocultural/historical myth with which those of us who were children here grew up, of egalitarianism, practicality, inventiveness. An American, in this myth, is a man who rolls up his sleeves and pitches in, solving the problem at hand in a clever, simple, practical way (often involving bailing wire and-a wad of chewing gum), usually saying over his shoulder that he does not hold with book learning. Edison is often suggested as an example. Many of our heroes had trouble in school. We tend to regard too much faith in what is written as being a foreign invention. In this environment, the theoretician is viewed with alarm, and felt to be irrelevant. He is regarded as impractical, pie in the sky. It does not help that any theoretician worth his salt can come up with several contradictory theories a day. He had a beautiful theory to explain yesterday’s data, but this morning it seems that those data were wrong; this afternoon he has a new theory to explain the new data. Who can trust a man like that?

    Despite all that, theory is what gives meaning to observation. Understanding is the process of constructing simple models that explain the observations, and permit predictions. What the theoretician does is a vital part of the loop, and does not receive enough credit here. Our typical reaction to a theory is “let’s see some computations. How does that compare with the data?’ Those pragmatic questions are legitimate, and of course, any theory must rush to answer them. However, first the theory exists alone, as an entity in and of itself, and deserves to be appreciated on its own merits. Is it internally consistent, does it connect all the known behavior in a minimalist way? Does it patch smoothly to previously accepted theories? A theory that does all that in an effortless way is often called elegant. Tomorrow, it may be wrong. Even so, it deserves to be regarded as one of the better things of which man is capable.

  13. I haven’t, John, but will add it to the list.

  14. And thanks for sharing those insightful remarks, John Mansfield.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff.

  16. I had not thought of Christ’s response to the people who assumed someone was to blame for the man’s blindness as evidence to support the notion of uncertainty and complexity being a necessity of creation. Profound implications. It is easier to be happy when one strives to be and remains curious, as opposed to assuming and judgmental.

  17. A mild correction to john f.’s comment: “Die Vermessung der Welt” is not by Daniel Kahneman, but by the German writer Daniel Kehlmann. It was translated into English as “Measuring the World.” It’s a pretty good novel. I had not connected it with Kahneman’s ideas, but I suppose it’s not a bad connection to make. The novel is about two great 19th-century scientists: the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. With their different temperaments, methods, and personal gifts, they “measure the world” very differently, but each is brilliant in his way. Kahneman’s work tends to focus on how human nature creates pitfalls in our perception of the world. The novel is, perhaps, a somewhat more optimistic flip side on similar themes.

  18. oops! that’s right! Loved Kehlmann’s novel — thanks for making sure I got his name right.

  19. rebeccadalmas says:

    1. I know less than what I don’t know.
    2. Knowing I don’t know is the best boost to curiousity.
    3. Truth is never to be feared because Christ can bridge gaps and redeem from any ugliness we uncover, especially about ourselves.
    4. My convictions are precious and so are another person’s, even if they contradict mine.
    5. The universe is infinitely complex which will give us something to do in eternity.

    That’s how I cope.

  20. rebeccadalmas says:

    Kristen, I suppose that shortcut was a default of sorts for me, too. But I think that trying to be open-minded in defense of the Church helped me learn to be open more generally. And then personal experience changes everything of course after a while, everything is at the very least broader and more complex if not dismissed completely or turned on its head…more complicated, but richer.

  21. Kristen’s experience is similar to mine.

    The simplistic reasoning also applies often to tragedy. If we can’t find evidence that a bad thing was the result of someone’s sin, we still utilize simplistic reasoning, “This horrible event must be happening for a reason.” It is much easier to accept hardship if you know God had a specific lesson in mind than it is to contemplate God allowing us to be victim to chance. The epilogue to the book of Job suggests reasoning behind his suffering (someone having a bet with God), and even the above NT scripture passage suggests purpose in the man’s blindness. Sheer randomness makes us feel vulnerable.

  22. rebeccadalmas says:

    Mary Ann,

    About bad things: it was a great shock when I learned my family circle did not inhabit a protective bubble, but a necessary and fruitful part of growing up. Nowadays sometimes I wonder if some events have created a well-calculated (not by me) opportunity by design or that I just create those connecting narratives in hindsight because of the result that I now see.

    I often think of faith and knowledge as opposite sides of a disk we walk on. We work and the full extent of the faith-walk and then cross that boundary into knowledge. Then we keep walking doing the work of knowledge till we reach the extent of knowledge, then we can make the choice to cross over again into faith in another aspect of truth. And the cycle continues.

  23. And, despite the wonderful illustration at the top of the page, we’re supposed to believe that Joseph Smith’s explanation for what is really going on is supposed to be the Correct Answer. I have arrived at the point, maybe unfortunately, that I just can’t believe that any longer. I have no idea what the Correct Answer is, and if there is some important stuff going on behind the curtains, I’m perfectly content to wait until mortality is over to get a comprehensive explanation as to what the deal is. Provided that I will still exist at all at the end of mortality. If not, there’s really no point in worrying about it. Maybe the Methodists or the Catholics really have it right, and I’m going to be sent to Hell for a very long time. All I can do at this point is wait and see, given that I have no confidence that any personal revelations that might be provided to me are simply wishful thinking on my part.

  24. Ronkonkoma says:

    I find the distances in space to be unimaginable for example light travels at the rate of 186000 miles per second so one light year is about 6 trillion miles. Even at our fastest technology like the space shuttle it would take 40,000 years just to travel one light year. If there is intelligent life like us on other planets somebody wanted to make sure we could never reach it. One would have to conclude that the universe has no limits it has to be unlimited

  25. I find I cannot control myself. I try to always speak in opposition to a nearly ubiquitous (Christian and Islamic) belief that is vacuously repeated and never challenged: God has a plan for each individual, unique to that individual…and it may involve Him taking actions that create problems for us and/or those around us–as one of our “tests” or “trials.”

    In the scripture quoted above, Christ says, “but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” That seems to mean that the man has suffered with blindness so that Christ could work a miracle and thus engender the faith of those around him. Mary Ann (2:57) refers to this common doctrine that God is the cause of many of our/the world’s trials.

    It is not necessary for God to work such details and all the quadrillions (conservatively) of ripple effects of inserting Himself…saving or not saving someone from dying/suffering/killing, etc. We will all have random trials and opportunities to grow or decline in righteousness without His intrusions, therefore (Occam’s Razor) He doesn’t do it. And, a strong argument can be made that if He did He would be violating our Agency.

    I now return control of this channel to others

  26. We should all be aware that the simple mistake of not looking at a stop sign can end our life. God is a Darwinist, he created this world in these harsh terms. We are full of racism, sexism and homophobia. We are full of self-justification. We contribute to other’s misery and think it is justice. My assumption is that God has created this world in opposition to heaven, since we could never appreciate eternal life without the possibility of death at a stop sign.

    I really love the Gospel of Thomas:
    (2) Jesus said, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All.”
    (3) Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”

    This should be the goal of our lives, to bring the unconscious into consciousness and live a life as much without assumptions as possible.

  27. Pen Dragon, the point of my post is to encourage all of us to consider that we may be mistaken in our easy assumptions about how the universe works, which would include the justifications for practicing and preaching racism, subservience of women, opposition to the recognition of LGBTQ rights, etc. At any rate, the line you latched onto was meant to be descriptive (mea culpa), not prescriptive.

    fibisti, I too shudder at the notion of God the micromanager and that the blood and horror we visit upon each other is actually a character-building experience. As for the biblical account, well, it too is embedded in a worldview even as it takes aim at another (and in my view far worse one where an individual is held responsible for the vicissitudes of mortality).

  28. Thanks for this, Peter. I find that the more I learn, the more complicated everything gets, and the more I realize that I don’t really know much. The journey is fun, though.

  29. “The journey is fun, though.”

    Indeed, Jason. It’s important not to become paralyzed or throw up our hands in despair.

  30. If only the journey could be equally fun for everyone.

  31. Pen Dragon says:

    Peterllc, I took the line as descriptive, not prescriptive; the thing is that “not thinking about it too much” is basically a requirement for remaining active in the church. Anyone who “thinks too much” will leave the church, whether or not the church (or any other prescribing power) forces them to. Just look at the posts on this blog, and how many gaping flaws in church doctrine and practice they expose. How can anyone justify sticking around in the face of all that? Not thinking about it too much seems to be the only way.

  32. Pen Dragon – But aren’t you doing the exact same thing you are accusing those who stay of doing?

    “Understanding and appreciating our fellow human beings is only possible to the extent that we are willing to step outside the narrow and misguided dogma… (box).” Why not try this yourself when it comes to those who choose to stay? Why not view them outside of your box in the same way that you are asking TBMs to view you outside of theirs?

    I spent a lot of years angry at the church. I totally get the frustration. There’s not a lot about church history, scandals, social-issues that I have not studied. I still choose to stay and I’m not doing it blindly (or err.. quietly).

  33. John Mansfield says:

    According to the old joke, the optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true. This comes to mind seeing again the devotion some have to the hope that the world is random and unknowable. How far do the randomists bring this devotion into daily living? Probably not very far, or they would be unfunctioning: out of box thinking means relaxing assumptions, not throwing out all knowledge and logic and coherent thought. Or perhaps thinking is overrated, and feeling their way through life without explicit models or conscious thought works best for many. The randomists are being more anti-intellectual than they probably intend.

  34. Pen Dragon says:

    ReTX: So why do you stay?