Predictions for 2017

World News/Events

  1. Donald Trump will not be removed from office: 90%
  2. No new conflict with 100+ US casualties: 90%
  3. Logan will receive a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
  4. At least one mass shooting in the US, 10+ casualties: 90%
  5. Obergefell v. Hodges will not be revisited by the Supreme Court: 90%
  6. No regime change/civil war/interstate conflict in East Asia: 90%
  7. None of Trump’s cabinet appointees will be rejected by Congress: 80%
  8. Oil will be less than $80/barrel: 80%
  9. Congress will not pass restrictions on lobbying or term limits: 80%
  10. At least two Islamist terror attacks in Europe, 20+ casualties: 80%
  11. War for the Planet of the Apes will be rated lower than the first two films: 80%
  12. Situation in Ukraine will neither resolve nor significantly deteriorate: 80%
  13. No major diplomatic/military confrontation between EU and Russia: 80%
  14. Dakota Access Pipeline gets built: 80%
  15. Justice League will receive a Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
  16. S&P 500 annual return will be higher than 10%: 70%
  17. Death toll in Syrian civil war will fall relative to 2016: 70%
  18. Individual mandate/pre-existing conditions coverage will not be changed: 70%
  19. No significant escalation in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: 70%
  20. Donald Trump’s approval ratings will not be >60% or <35%: 70%
  21. One country in the EU will leave/announce plans to leave: 70%
  22. Angela Merkel loses re-election bid: 60%
  23. No outright coup or rebellion in Venezuela: 60%
  24. EM Drive results widely accepted as valid: 60%
  25. The “Iran deal” will not be dismantled/significantly modified: 60%
  26. Returns to big-five defense contractors will beat the S&P 500: 60%
  27. Democrats will attempt to filibuster the nominee to replace Justice Scalia: 60%
  28. Deportations will not increase by more than 20% of Obama admin levels: 60%
  29. President Monson will die and be succeeded by Russell M Nelson: 50%
  30. One Supreme Court justice will die or retire: 50%

Personal Life

  1. I will still live in my current house: 90%
  2. I will not be the victim of a crime: 90%
  3. I will panic expensively (>$300) over what, in hindsight, was not a problem: 80%
  4. My life will not be directly impacted by the election: 80%
  5. I will love Civilization VI and hate myself: 80%
  6. I will write at least five times here: 70%
  7. I will have a second car: 70%
  8. I will have a firearm: 70%
  9. My youngest child will start talking: 70%
  10. No one I know will be directly impacted by the election: 70%
  11. My oldest child will start reading simple words: 60%
  12. My income will increase by >5%: 60%
  13. Our household will have positive net cashflow in 3/4 quarters: 60%
  14. I will leave the Continental US at least once: 60%
Predictions for 2017

Predictions for 2016: Results

Here’s the result of my predictions for 2016:

  1. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee: 90%
  2. There will be no significant change to LDS teaching on gender or sexuality: 90%
  3. Neither ISIS nor Bashar al-Assad will be removed from power in Syria: 80%
  4. No large-scale US ground offensive in any country: 80%
  5. Congress will not pass any new legislation restricting gun ownership: 80%
  6. Black Lives Matter will lose momentum, fade from prominence: 70%
  7. Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee: 70%
  8. China’s birth rate will stay below 1.7 births per woman: 70%
  9. Independence Day reboot will receive a Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
  10. Rogue One will receive a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
  11. No head of state of any country outside Africa will be forcibly deposed: 60%
  12. ISIS will not attack or claim responsibility for violence in Jordan or Israel: 60% (It was an “ISIS affiliate”, and the rocket didn’t even make it across the border, but I’ll still count this one.)
  13. The S&P 500 will have a return of 10% or more: 60%
  14. Oil will be less than $100/barrel: 60%
  15. Congress will not pass any new legislation restricting abortion: 60%
  16. President Obama will not close Guantanamo Bay: 50%
  17. No significant escalation in the Israel/Palestine conflict: 50%
  18. President Monson will pass away and Russell M. Nelson will succeed him: 50%
  19. Marco Rubio will be elected President of the United States: 50%
  20. George R.R. Martin will publish The Winds of Winter: 50%

wnpred

The blue line represents perfect calibration: you can’t be right about everything all the time, but if you make ten predictions at 70% confidence, and you get seven right, then you’re assigning the right probabilities to your expectations, and you get to brag about it on your blog.

In this case, I was about 10% too cautious across the board. I stuck with a lot of safe, status-quo predictions, and Trump notwithstanding, it turns out the status quo is an even safer bet than I thought it was. I’ll try to get a little wackier for 2017.

My personal life, on the other hand…

Personal Life

  1. My wife will give birth to a healthy boy: >90%
  2. I will not be involved in a physical confrontation of any kind: >90%
  3. We will move out of state: >90%
  4. I will prefer our new location to our present one: 80%
  5. I will maintain my present weight within ten pounds: 80%
  6. I will be as exhausted with Fallout 4 as I was with Skyrim a year after: 80%
  7. I will publish at least 25 posts on this site: 70%
  8. My hair will thin past the “point of no return” (I’ll have to keep it buzzed): 70%
  9. A tool I am developing at work will be completed and implemented: 70%
  10. I will vote for the Republican candidate in the 2016 Presidential election: 60%
  11. I will make at least one new, close friend: 60%
  12. Our household will have positive net cash flow in all quarters of 2016: 60%
  13. I will write something that I will publish somewhere other than this site: 50%
  14. I will acquire a new hobby: 50%
  15. I will be able to bench press more than my body weight: 50%

plpred

Most of these predictions also felt like safe bets on the status quo at the time I wrote them so I’m puzzling out how I got it so wrong.

I probably underestimated the mana-drain that the birth of my son would entail, but it would be a lie (and kind of a scummy lie) to pin it all on him. I think I was making predictions-as-resolutions in a few cases, assuming that the level and direction of my productive energy would stay constant, which never happens.

But I feel pretty good about what I got done in 2016. Got a better job, bought a house, had a kid, recovered relatively quickly from buying a house/having a kid. It was probably unrealistic to expect to gain ground on half a dozen different fronts simultaneously, and the biggest gains came in areas of my life that I wasn’t really thinking about last December – but overall, a good year.

2017 predictions to follow shortly.

Predictions for 2016: Results

“Utah Mormon” hate is just class hate.

“Woke Mormon” is not a good look, guys.

Hardly anybody calls themselves a Utah Mormon, but pretty much everybody knows one when they see them.

It isn’t exactly geographic – plenty of Mormons who have lived in Utah all their lives will insist that they aren’t “Utah Mormons.” And no matter where you live, someone in your ward can point out the “Utah Mormons” for you. (Though never, of course, to their faces.)

In general, it’s the repository for everything that the right sort of Mormons consider square, inhibited, regressive, provincial, prejudiced, passive-aggressive, gullible, insular, and ignorant.

More specifically, Utah Mormons:

  • Give their kids dumb names (Braden, Braxton, Brynlee, Jaden, Jaylyn, Raylee, Kaden, McKayla, McKendra)
  • Have never lived outside Utah and/or don’t ever want to live outside Utah
  • Constantly get suckered by multi-level marketing schemes
  • Assume everybody knows their tiny Utah town (and refers to everything outside Utah as “the mission field”)
  • Display cluelessness about other races/cultures/religions
  • Have rigid social/cultural expectations that are not cleanly distinct from their religious beliefs
  • Hold “outdated” views on any number of culture-war shibboleths
  • Enjoy tacky, kitschy, low-brow entertainment
  • Get into trouble with prescription opioids
  • Vote Republican, fall asleep watching Fox News

But if you scrubbed out the names and places, this could describe working-class Americans pretty much anywhere (and if you scrubbed a bit harder, working-class/rural people all over the world). Many an Appalachian kid comes home from their first semester at NYU ready to ruin their family’s Christmas with the above complaints.

So if what we really hate is people who haven’t traveled as much or had as much education as we have, why make it about Utah?

Partly because we’re rightly ashamed of that impulse, and pretending it’s regional makes us feel better. But also: like most other diaspora cultures, the Mormon diaspora really is wealthier, better-educated, and more cosmopolitan than the home culture. So while it’s crude (and pretty unfair to a lot of people in Utah), there’s at least some truth to the stereotype, at least on the margins.

The mechanism is pretty simple: people with social, intellectual, and financial resources have the freedom (and strong incentives) to chase opportunities far from home, while people without those resources tend to stay put. (This is obvious if you think about it – an Indian who lives in Utah is probably wealthier and better-educated than the average Indian or the average Utahn, just by virtue of having made it that far – and the same is true of a Utahn living in India.)

And again, it’s not like those traits are exclusive to Mormons (or even to the American working class) – you can go down each “problem” on the list, from pill-popping to MLMs to reposting viral conspiracy theories on Facebook, and find analogues among rural people anywhere in the world.

But you don’t often hear Chinese or Indian kids fulminating against the conservative, insular communities their parents came from. Second-generation kids joke about the differences, sure – but mostly among themselves, and never with the undercurrent of personal contempt that you hear from “definitely-not-Utah-Mormon-Mormons”.

So what’s our deal? What keeps us from viewing the ways we differ from “the folks back home” with some nuance and class?

First: despite their best efforts, all these progressive, sophisticated Mormons haven’t really escaped the Protestant work ethic. They keep score differently, of course – wouldn’t dare imply that the poor deserve their lot – but the gullible, the ignorant, the unfashionable, the out-of-touch? Yeah, kinda.

In other words, there’s a strong sense that the difference between “us” and “them” is essentially moral. They have access to the same facts, the same advantages, the same opportunities, but they choose to be boorish and small-minded. And when one is so unused to thinking of anything as really sinful, it becomes easy to forget one’s duty to forgive.

Second, there’s a certain amount of social cachet in being a defector from an enemy tribe. Soviet defectors were celebrated in the US and given speaking gigs, because their stories powerfully demonstrated the moral superiority of the West. (The same is also true of American defectors to Communist countries, though they couldn’t afford such lavish perks.)

Likewise, if you want to establish bona fides among cosmopolitan progressives, one shortcut is to chuck your townie cousins under the bus. And if you frame it in terms of “things we Mormons need to do better”, you get the added advantage of looking honest and humble and self-critical. But of course you’re not really talking about yourself at all – the point of all that posturing is to show that there is no “we”. I’m not like them (gross), I’m like you – and all your prejudices about them are 100% justified, as we few honest insiders will admit.

For other diaspora communities, the “home culture” benefits from its remoteness.

I suspect that the reason we don’t see many Chinese and Indian kids loudly renouncing their home cultures in order to join “polite society” is that they don’t feel like they have to. Their conservative, insular relatives are on the other side of the world and they don’t get to vote in American elections, so they aren’t the enemies of Progress and Culture the way your apocalypse-prepping, Bambi-murdering, wildlife-refuge-occupying Mormon cousins are.

So they get to go back home and appreciate their culture for what it is, from the sublime to the ridiculous. They get to genuinely love and respect their racist uncle (who is probably more racist than yours), because they’re allowed to notice that he has other virtues. They get to take what is rich and beautiful about their home culture, and make it part of themselves, because they’re allowed to acknowledge that secular Western liberal philosophy doesn’t have their great-grandparents beat on every conceivable axis.

So maybe it would be good to start thinking of ourselves as strangers in a strange land. If we could view our own heritage with the same humility and curiosity that we reserve for “exotic” cultures, we’d probably be less anxious, less lonely at church, less constantly mortified on behalf of strangers. Or at least less insufferable at Thanksgiving.

“Utah Mormon” hate is just class hate.

A Tree In The Vineyard

1024px-Olive_trees_on_Thassos[Content warning: Horticulture.]

The difference between wild olive trees and domesticated ones is that the domesticated ones are bad at being trees.

Tame olive trees distribute far fewer seeds, their root systems are weaker, they don’t grow as tall, and they have less dense foliage, because all their resources are poured into unnecessarily large, sweet, oily fruits. But wild trees grow olives that are barely edible — just enough to appeal to wild animals, who are usually pretty hungry and not that picky. They’re small and bitter, and a wild tree can pump out a lot of them.

In a human-controlled environment, “tame” traits are (kind of) adaptive: branches that have them are nurtured and encouraged to breed, while the wild, woody, bitter branches are “hewn down and cast into the fire“. But the selection pressure is still so strong in favor of wildness that a tame, productive vineyard will go wild without a human constantly working against it, fertilizing and pruning the most productive branches, and cutting down the wildest ones.

And we can’t just root out the wild phenotypes either, because totally tame trees are feeble — they fall over in high winds, they’re the first to die in a drought, they’re more vulnerable to parasites, and they often stop producing because their weak roots and thin foliage just can’t support them anymore. So olive horticulturists have to continually graft tame branches into wild root-stock (and vice versa) to keep the vineyard healthy and productive.

In the Allegory of the Olive Trees in Jacob 5, wildness maps to “the natural man”.

Or, if you prefer, the Goddess of Cancer, saying “KILL CONSUME MULTIPLY CONQUER”. Or “survival values“. Everything about the wild tree is optimized for competition, survival, and reproduction — it gives only what it must to meet those objectives.

In Meditations on Moloch, Scott Alexander tells a story about sentient rats on an island, who split their time between two basic tasks: doing what they must to survive, and “creating art” (i.e. doing the things that make life worth living). But they’re also consuming and breeding exponentially, so that they fill the island and begin to starve.

Soon, one group of rats realizes that they can dramatically increase their odds of survival by gathering food while everyone else is busy creating art. So all the rats who still bother with art either die of starvation, or get with the program and spend their whole lives scraping for survival like everybody else. Rats who figure out that overpopulation is the problem and voluntarily limit their offspring will be overwhelmed by those who don’t. Rats who have scruples about cannibalism will get eaten by rats who don’t.

Basically, the message is that if resources are scarce enough, the future will belong to those who are most willing to jettison every activity, every belief, every moral restriction that does not improve their competitive fitness. So you end up with a race of creatures who may be just as intelligent as their art-making, leisure-loving ancestors, but who are basically feral (i.e. “wild”) in every way that matters.

Tameness, meanwhile, maps to “the spiritual man”, the transcendent man — one who is recklessly indifferent to survival outcomes, and optimizes for an entirely “un-natural” set of values.

Tame trees channel enormous resources into “fruits” that don’t improve their material situation at all, unless there’s a master of the vineyard carefully cultivating and protecting them, continually rebalancing the scales in their favor.

This is basically what Jesus has to say about “taking no thought for the morrow”, because God feeds the sparrows and clothes the lilies — or “whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” If there’s a lord of the vineyard, then abandoning one’s immediate self-preservation to do what he wants done is the optimal strategy.

And if you’re confident that you live in a well-kept vineyard, that selflessness isn’t really selfless. If you’re waiting for the master of the vineyard to make up all your sacrifices and cut all your competitors down to size, then you haven’t transcended the game — you’re just using a different strategy to win.

But it’s definitely a risky strategy — if there’s no master of the vineyard, or if you’ve got an incorrect idea of the sorts of fruits he’s interested in, then it’s suicidally foolish. And sure enough, this kind of transcendent self-denial leads people to pour themselves out in all sorts of pointless ways, for all sorts of cruel and vicious gods.

What makes things interesting is that neither of these strategies is obviously superior.

Our lives are abundant enough that all kinds of wasteful strategies seem to work out just fine — we aren’t bound by iron Malthusian laws to do only what will ensure our survival and reproduction. We can, of course, be rapacious moral nihilists like the rats on the island — and they do seem to enjoy a great deal of material success. But we can also abandon self-preservation in the name of Christ (or the planet, or the proletariat, or the Reich, or the Singularity, or Islam)  without slamming up against our resource constraints and being competed out of the system.

Robin Hanson says that this moment of freedom (or, in his words, delusion) is a fluke, a “dream time”, in which we’re so far removed from Malthusian constraints that we can pretty much do and believe whatever we want, and get away with it. In other words, we don’t live in a well-kept vineyard or a harsh Judean wilderness — instead, we live in something like a rainforest, where we can afford to blow our resources on  huge, costly signals. And someday we’ll eat the rainforest up, and be back where we started, utterly enslaved to survival.

Jesus, meanwhile, explains it as wheat and tares growing together, and the rain falling on the wicked and the just. In the Allegory of the Olive Trees, every tree in the vineyard is some hybrid of wild and tame, and they’re all fertilized and pruned and nourished regardless. So there’s no clear “optimal” strategy — at least, as far as the trees can tell.

If you believe in God, it’s pretty interesting that he designed it that way — an existential bubble in which we actually have to wonder whether there’s anything out there bigger than us, and just decide what kind of people we want to be. Noah Smith points out that what matters most about God is not his power or his knowledge, but his goodness — that he chooses to take responsibility for things weaker than himself, things that have nothing to offer him. This life (which imposes immense costs, both for us and for himself) seems designed to present us with the same choice — which says something about who he is, and what he considers important, and what he intends for us.

A Tree In The Vineyard

Perfection is not a straitjacket

I attack hard problems the same way that I assume everybody else does.

When I chose my major in college, I tried to imagine the most likely outcomes that would result from each choice, and then weighed them against each other on a basically linear scale of “total expected happiness”. It wasn’t really as formal as that — but I spent a lot of time thinking about what was most important to me in a job (time, money, risk, intellectual stimulation, social impact), and I tried to choose a major that would give me all those things, maximized in the right order of priority. Basically I made pro/con lists.

But these comparisons never seemed to reach a satisfying conclusion, and still haven’t.  I love the degree that I chose, and really do believe it was the best fit overall — but when I have a dull day at work, I think longingly about international relations or journalism, and when money’s tight, I daydream about computer science or accounting. (Seriously.)

I assumed, like Dr. Chang did, that this anxiety was rooted in my own ignorance: maybe I’m bad at predicting which choice will give me the things I care about most, or maybe I care about the wrong things. I assumed it was, fundamentally, an information problem; that there was one correct choice, and if I could have all the ramifications of all the possible options laid out in front of me, it would be possible (if not trivial) to spot the “best” outcome, and take it.

This kind of thinking also colors my intuitions about God.

If all our decisions are analytically solvable, a perfect being never faces any decisions at all. God is always perfectly aware of the most correct course, and he always takes it. Perfection might allow him a few aesthetic liberties, but otherwise he’s straitjacketed.

And if our goal is to approach that perfection, then we’ll be straitjacketed too; only worse, because we’ll be identical and redundant: all responding to the same perfect information with the same perfect morality, and supplying the same optimal output. (Not to belabor this point, but it’s just one more nightmarish consequence of Plato’s insistence on philosophical tidiness, his need for everything to converge on a single point.)

Leaving aside religious questions, the idea that hard choices always have One Right Answer is a troubling one, because it implies that your “identity” is just your peculiar configuration of stupidity and moral brokenness — the unique way in which you fail to arrive at the optimal conclusion. And in the paradisiacal post-singularity future, when all computational problems become trivial, we’ll all be slaves to our perfectly defined utility functions.

But Chang rejects the idea that all hard choices are “solvable”.

In other words, there’s no way of breaking down the various results of each decision into “happiness points” and deciding which pile is bigger, because they involve measures of value that simply aren’t comparable. It’s not just computationally difficult to determine whether marrying one person or another is your optimal decision — it may well be impossible.

This doesn’t mean there are no sub-optimal choices you could take– there certainly are, both for moral decisions and pragmatic ones. But there may be multiple “best” choices, each of which maximizes a different set of values, none of which are comparable to each other. (For what it’s worth, this appears to be the Church’s official position, at least on the question of “soul mates”.)

Of course, utilitarianism (and by extension, rationalism) is built around the opposite assumption. If we can boil down all the possible consequences of a decision into quantifiable, comparable units, then there is an analytically “correct” choice — or at least, a choice that is the clear best fit to one’s preferences.

Intuitively, it seems wrong (or maybe just distasteful) for there to be exactly one optimal response to all the decisions that make us who we are — but it’s hard idea to disprove.

No matter how complex a problem is, it’s always possible that the answer could be “moar data” or a more sophisticated analysis. So far, every objection I’ve come up with could be answered with, “Well, that’s just one more thing to factor into your utility function”.

But when I go back to the thought experiment — imagining all the possible outcomes laid out before me — it seems like it really would be impossible to compare the different lives I might live. This seems especially obvious when I consider the granular details of spending my life with one person versus another, or raising one set of children versus another.

I simply wouldn’t trade my wife and daughter for any other family, no matter how ideally suited to my preferences. It’s a choice with an effectively infinite opportunity cost. But that doesn’t mean it was the only right answer. If I could see all those hypothetical forgone relationships with as much clarity — maybe a dozen different happy lifetimes of intimacies and old stories and shared struggle, with a dramatically different cast of characters — it seems like each of them would also become incomparable and irreplaceable to me.

There are certainly a lot of sub-optimal outcomes; but it’s also easy enough to imagine more than one happy outcome, and all of them different.  (I know Tolstoy said all happy families are alike, but he was also a 19th-c. Russian novelist and therefore a huge buzzkill.)

This is possible partly because preferences are dynamic, and (at least to a certain extent) within our control.

In other words, I don’t just have the freedom to live in New York City or Omaha. I also have at least some capacity to deliberately fall in love with my choice — to make it right for me (or more accurately, make myself right for it.)

Likewise, as long as you find the right sort of person (one of the many “right” people for you), you can have that incomparable, irreplaceable happiness — though you are making a decision about who you will become in order to achieve it. And I’ve never met a couple so perfect for each other that their love wasn’t at least partly a conscious choice.

To some extent, these preference changes happen whether you want them or not. If I had majored in journalism or computer science, I would have been constantly surrounded by other wannabe journalists/programmers, and I would have chosen mentors and role models in “my” industry, and my definition of success and what’s cool and what matters would soak in from a completely different social ecosystem. The effect would be even stronger if I chose to nurse and encourage it.

In short, I could work hard to become the sort of person for whom journalism/computer science is the right choice. That doesn’t mean it would work out, but the point is that your choices can change your preferences — so that an “optimal” career (or spouse, or community, or whatever) is one that is close enough for you to manually nudge your preferences into harmony with it. And people who master that skill enjoy a much larger scope of possibilities.

Needless to say, if we can liberate the idea of perfection from the idea of uniformity, that’s a pretty big deal.

If nothing else, it can make life a little less terrifying for folks like me who are constantly re-litigating their choices, always wondering if they did the exact right thing, or did enough. It makes happiness an ongoing choice, rather than a train you might miss; and it helps explain why greater freedom to make the “right” choice doesn’t seem to make people happier.

It also resolves a few theological paradoxes: for example, it might explain why God gave Adam what seems like conflicting commandments — he could either keep the commandment to stay away from the fruit, or he could keep the commandment to cleave unto his wife. It wasn’t a trap, or a test for him to pass or fail — it was a choice. (And it became the right choice after the fact.)

For that matter, it explains why God would be interested in free will and consciousness in the first place (since it’s more than just “the ability to get the wrong answer”). It explains why he would aspire to create “Saints; Gods; things like himself” — since those Saints and Gods will be more than just an army of redundant, identical, fully optimized utility zombies.

More importantly, it makes theosis, or heaven, or singularity, or whatever eschaton you’re anticipating, seem like something worth having. Instead of merging with the undifferentiated divine (extinguishing choice and consciousness and identity), or becoming wirehead gods on lotus thrones, perfection looks more like infinite diversity, in infinite combinations.

Perfection is not a straitjacket

More Mormon Heresy: God is Not a Great Old One

Azathoth

As I understand the creedal view of the Fall, God’s Plan A for humanity was to live with him in eternal righteousness and bliss.

His creation was perfect, because he is perfect. Everything, including humanity, was exactly as it ought to be. But then Adam and Eve ate a fruit that they were specifically asked not to eat — so instead of paradise, we get murder and starvation and rape and smallpox, and then we all die, and everybody goes to hell forever (because it’s our fault too) unless we get right with Jesus.

Leave aside the question of why God cares so much about this particular rule. If God meant for us to live with him in paradise, and that plan was wholly contingent on humans staying away from a particular tree, then putting Adam and Eve and the snake in the garden, together, unsupervised, with the no-no tree dead in the middle, seems like a pretty glaring oversight.

I realize I’m oversimplifying this. Most Christians view the tree and the serpent as a deliberate test of obedience — but what possible purpose could such a test serve? He was omniscient, and they were only what he created them to be, so it isn’t as if they might surprise him. And they were created perfect — there’s nowhere to go from there but down — so it can’t have been for their benefit. The idea that this was all a “test” makes him sound like a kid who got bored of his ant farm and decided to smash it — but only a troubled kid would blame the ants.

This isn’t a doctrine that we can just lay aside as a “mystery”. It requires either a god who is pointlessly cruel, or a god whose mind is so incomprehensible that he can hardly be called good, or even sane by human standards. And sure, God’s ways are not our ways — but if your god’s morality is truly, bewilderingly alien, you should consider the possibility that you might be worshipping Azathoth by mistake.

The Mormon view of the Fall solves a lot of these problems; but it does so by relaxing some pretty important theological assumptions.

(Which is why the rest of Christendom doesn’t buy it, and furthermore won’t let us join in any reindeer games).

Plato starts from the idea that everything has a cause, and all causality must funnel down to an Absolute, an “uncaused cause” — and that’s what he calls “God”. Which means creation has to happen ex nihilo: God absolutely must be the very first thing that ever existed, and the cause of everything else, because that’s what Plato defined the word to mean. (The question of why all of Christendom decided to take so many theological premises from a pagan is an interesting one that I will leave to the reader — here’s a good place to start.)

But if you’ve committed to creation ex nihilo, you have to start with a flawless creation (because God is perfect and would not create anything imperfect), and explain how we got from there to the smoldering tire fire that is human mortality, without implicating God in any way. One really convenient way to do that is to assume that we had it coming — that Adam and Eve provoked God’s righteous wrath, and it’s all their fault.

Of course, then you’re stuck trying to explain why the punishment was so horrible, and why it’s still going on even though Adam and Eve have been dead a while. So then you have to come up with a concept of inherited guilt, and then you need a doctrine of depravity to explain why God’s idea of justice makes no damn sense to the rest of us, and then you’ve got a god whose morality is completely orthogonal to our own.

It’s a bit like the geocentric model (another iffy Greek idea that was official Christian doctrine for a while). When you start from flawed premises, your model can only go so far before it starts to need some serious hammering to make it fit the world as you observe it. In this case, insisting on God’s perfect omnipotence means relaxing your assumptions about his perfect justice and goodness — but you can’t do that, since that interferes with the Platonic ideal as well — so you have to come up with more and more expansive definitions of “perfect justice and goodness”, and you end up with something incomprehensible and kind of scary.

Mormons get around these difficulties by rejecting the assumption that everything necessarily has a cause.

In Mormon cosmology, God and matter and intelligence just are, and always have been. What God created was pattern, order, and meaning — and while he’s omnipotent, it still takes time and effort to get things done. But that’s true in either model: instead of snapping his fingers and resetting the server, he had to sacrifice his son to redeem us from the fall. Instead of saying “let there be earth”, he made it in six days (subject to some nebulous definition of “days”).

So God’s creation will be perfect, when it’s done — and it’s going exactly as he intended — but we aren’t wedded to the idea that Eden was the high point of human existence and we screwed it all up. It’s not as philosophically tidy as the creedal view, but fortunately God is not required to partake of the Platonic form of Philosophical Tidiness.

Why does any of this matter?

Because the most powerful engine of opposition to religion is people’s emotional disgust with this inscrutable Augustinian elder god. It isn’t that modern people are less likely to accept supernatural factual propositions: religiosity is down in the West, but belief in UFOs, ghosts, astrology, and ESP are as strong as they’ve ever been. It’s accepting moral nonsense that people find so distasteful — and rightly so.

A god who is perfectly omnipotent, but only questionably, theoretically “good”, is a basilisk — and it might claim your allegiance, but it doesn’t really deserve it. Of course, the gospel does require us to occasionally suspend moral judgment and trust that God knows better than we do (which is a bridge too far for some people) — but it’s because God has a broader view of the facts in question, not because God’s notion of morality is fundamentally alien to our own.

He is, in fact, good — and in a very homely, human sense that doesn’t take a lot of explaining. It’s only incomprehensible in its scope.

One of the worst memes to come out of the “Mormon Moment” was the perception that we want to blur the distinctions between ourselves and mainstream Christianity — that we just want to be included and accepted like everybody else. But the differences in our teachings really are quite profound. We place a lot of emphasis on playing nice — and we should! — but we should also admit that to accept the gospel is to reject some ideas that other Christians (at least theologically minded Christians) consider fundamental — with the obvious corollary that those ideas are false and ought to be rejected.

I just wish we were more okay with being different. We’re not weird. Azathoth is weird.

More Mormon Heresy: God is Not a Great Old One

Predictions for 2016

In keeping with my tradition of shamelessly cribbing from Scott Alexander, I’m going to make some predictions about the coming year — and in January 2017, I’m going to grade those predictions based on my stated level of confidence in them today.

I’m kind of hoping that these predictions turn out to be either ludicrously overconfident or way too cautious, just because they seem relatively sensible to me, and having to re-evaluate my idea of “sensible” sounds like an adventure. Here goes.

World News/Events

  1. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee: 90%
  2. There will be no significant change to LDS teaching on gender or sexuality: 90%
  3. Neither ISIS nor Bashar al-Assad will be removed from power in Syria: 80%
  4. No large-scale US ground offensive in any country: 80%
  5. Congress will not pass any new legislation restricting gun ownership: 80%
  6. Black Lives Matter will lose momentum, fade from prominence: 70%
  7. Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee: 70%
  8. China’s birth rate will stay below 1.7 births per woman: 70%
  9. Independence Day reboot will receive a Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
  10. Rogue One will receive a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
  11. No head of state of any country outside Africa will be forcibly deposed: 60%
  12. ISIS will not attack or claim responsibility for violence in Jordan or Israel: 60%
  13. The S&P 500 will have a return of 10% or more: 60%
  14. Oil will be less than $100/barrel: 60%
  15. Congress will not pass any new legislation restricting abortion: 60%
  16. President Obama will not close Guantanamo Bay: 50%
  17. No significant escalation in the Israel/Palestine conflict: 50%
  18. President Monson will pass away and Russell M. Nelson will succeed him: 50%
  19. Marco Rubio will be elected President of the United States: 50%
  20. George R.R. Martin will publish The Winds of Winter: 50%

Personal Life

  1. My wife will give birth to a healthy boy: >90%
  2. I will not be involved in a physical confrontation of any kind: >90%
  3. We will move out of state: >90%
  4. I will prefer our new location to our present one: 80%
  5. I will maintain my present weight within ten pounds: 80%
  6. I will be as exhausted with Fallout 4 as I was with Skyrim a year after: 80%
  7. I will publish at least 25 posts on this site: 70%
  8. My hair will thin past the “point of no return” (I’ll have to keep it buzzed): 70%
  9. A tool I am developing at work will be completed and implemented: 70%
  10. I will vote for the Republican candidate in the 2016 Presidential election: 60%
  11. I will make at least one new, close friend: 60%
  12. Our household will have positive net cash flow in all quarters of 2016: 60%
  13. I will write something that I will publish somewhere other than this site: 50%
  14. I will acquire a new hobby: 50%
  15. I will be able to bench press more than my body weight: 50%

 

Predictions for 2016