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


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

Sell That Thou Hast

Mary of Bethany

When Mary of Bethany pours out a bottle of spikenard on Jesus’ head, Judas complains that this gesture is criminally wasteful. The ointment was worth nearly a year’s pay for a laborer — it should have been sold, and given to the poor.

John dismisses this criticism on the grounds that Judas was a crook, but nowadays we call that “ad hominem”; and anyway Matthew puts the critique in the mouth of “the disciples”, so apparently Judas wasn’t the only one who saw it this way. And frankly, he’s got a point: is this symbolic gesture really the best use of Mary’s (apparently considerable) resources?

Judas is basically proposing “effective altruism”: channeling one’s do-goodery so that it does the most good possible, at the lowest cost possible.

The “most good possible” can be a little tricky to nail down — whether it’s better to help kids with schistosomiasis or river blindness, for example — but it’s pretty clear that giving $50,000 to either of those causes would make the world a better place than, say, buying your dad a speedboat. This is essentially Judas’ complaint: Mary bought Jesus an extravagant gift, when she might have saved a starving orphan.

On a gut level, I find this logic really, really compelling. It isn’t just a question of “good, better, best”; when you put the options side-by-side, there seems to be something fundamentally immoral about buying the speedboat. And those options are always side-by-side — no matter what you spend your money on, it can always be measured against what you might have done (quite cheaply) for a suffering little boy or girl in West Africa.

Of course, this turns everything we call “normal life” into a moral atrocity.

If I spend $9.00 at the movies, that’s a family of six that I could have protected from malaria for three or four years. I could keep those people safe from a slow, wasting, impoverishing death — and it would cost me so little that I wouldn’t know the difference a week later — but I’d rather see Star Wars.

I’m willing to be challenged by that, and go without a few luxuries; but if you take this idea seriously, almost every choice is suspect. First of all, having kids was a colossal moral failure, displacing hundreds of thousands of sick kids overseas. So is renting an apartment — I could live in a van, and save hundreds of lives every month.

While we’re at it, suppose I want to give it all away, and become an aid worker: well, dreadlocked grad students looking to atone for their privilege are a dime a dozen. What these causes really need is money. If I’ve got the math to be a hedge fund manager, I could save a lot more babies by “earning to give” than getting an MA in White Savior Studies and flying myself to Senegal. (But which one makes a better profile picture?)

I don’t have much of a philosophical defense against this way of thinking, except that it sounds exhausting*; and Jesus didn’t seem to go for it.

If it was my first time hearing the story of Jesus’ anointing, and you asked me what Jesus would want done with that bottle of ointment, I would have gone with Judas every time — especially given what Jesus had already said to the rich young ruler. Even knowing how it ends, I’m still with Judas a little.

But Jesus calls Mary’s gift a “good work”, and says: “the poor you will always have with you; me you have not always”.

Jesus is clearly saying something about his (perfect) moral calculus — but he didn’t show his work.

We don’t know exactly why this expensive symbolic gesture was an acceptable alternative to changing the course of a poor person’s life.

We know he isn’t arguing that helping the poor is a waste of time (source: everything else he ever said); so is Jesus saying that this is a special case — and if it’s a choice between “the poor” and himself, he is actually the right target for this lavish spending? Or is he rejecting Judas’ basic philosophical point, that it is always better to do good for people who need it more?

I lean toward the latter argument: maybe our moral obligations aren’t that simple, and can’t be boiled down to cash value and QALYs. I don’t have a clear reason why that’s true; I just think it’s more likely that that’s what Jesus is saying. (If he does accept Judas’ arithmetic morality, he’s basically saying, “You just don’t understand how important it is that I smell nice right now”. And that sounds unlike him.)

The only clear takeaway is that “his ways are not our ways”, and immediate material relief for the poorest of the poor is not his only priority (though it is certainly on the list). This lets us breathe a little easier about our place atop our mounds of accidental wealth, but:

We should acknowledge that this is pretty morally tricky.

The suffering of the poor, both in Jesus’ time and in ours, is not something we can blithely dismiss. Forgoing Jesus’ anointing really would have been enough to save someone from starvation and filth and humiliation, from a kind of misery that you and I cannot imagine (assuming they handed the purse to somebody besides Judas).

Jesus did and said a handful of things like this — things that contradict our basic moral intuitions (calling a Samaritan woman a “dog” when she begged him to heal her child, lashing out at Peter for a seemingly innocuous remark) — and while we can’t ignore them, it seems like we ought to be really careful how we use them. Our moral intuitions are God-given, too.

And the difficulty is even more serious in our time, because we have so much more capacity to do good.

Today, the Lord requires 10% of our income for temples, meetinghouses, colleges, thrift stores, mediocre movies — and yes, a wonderful, underrated welfare/humanitarian apparatus. Nothing on that list seems like a bad or corrupt use of funds, and the accusation that the Brethren are fleecing the Church to finance their modest apartments and conservative suits is frankly laughable.

But on the other hand, there are children whose eyes are being consumed by parasites right this minute, and a typical Mormon’s tithe could rescue thousands of them every year — and that’s not where the money is going. I believe that Jesus knows what he’s doing, and that the Brethren follow Jesus; but let’s not pretend that isn’t a weird result.

So what should we do with this idea?

First, I think the Lord’s priorities (both in the scriptures and in Church government today) illustrate that human effort isn’t interchangeable in the way effective altruism assumes. The Church has tasks to perform that could not be taken up by any other group. Mary wasn’t replaceable with any other rich lady in Israel.

From this perspective, it makes sense that the Church’s priorities are controversial — we have to do these jobs precisely because nobody else thinks they’re worth doing. For the uncontroversial good that God wants done, he can enlist anybody, of any faith or none; nobody has a philosophical objection to malaria nets. But when God needs to perform a “strange act”, something that we wouldn’t think up to do on our own, it takes revelatory authority.

This doesn’t absolve us of our individual responsibility to make the best use of our stewardship — to live modestly, give freely, and give wisely — but it does mean that our summum bonum isn’t necessarily to be cash machines for humanitarian non-profits.

So we’re back to President Hinckley: “Just do the best you can — but be sure it is your very best.” We’ve got an individual work to do, and it’s our responsibility to find it out, by careful thought and prayer. But effective altruism shows us that it ought to be really careful thought and prayer — and maybe when the course is unclear, and revelation isn’t forthcoming, it can help us be sure.


I should note that most people who subscribe to this philosophy don’t constantly flagellate themselves about not doing enough — they just set aside an arbitrary slice of their income for effective charity. This sidesteps the philosophical problem, but they make a pretty solid case that this would be enough to change the world if everybody did it.

Sell That Thou Hast

Heck in a Handbasket

OId Man Yells At Cloud

The “signs of the times” listed in Matthew 24 are broad enough that they can be (and have been) applied to pretty much every generation since Jesus.

So if you’re going to hold him to those prophecies, you’ve got to wonder why he wasn’t a little more specific. C. S. Lewis makes a pretty compelling case that God did this, like most things, on purpose:

Precisely because we cannot predict the moment, we must be ready at all moments. Our Lord repeated this practical conclusion again and again; as if the promise of the Return had been made for the sake of this conclusion alone. I shall come like a thief. You will not, I most solemnly assure you you will not, see me approaching. […] There will be wars and rumors of wars and all kinds of catastrophes, as there always are. Things will be, in that sense, normal, the hour before the heavens roll up like a scroll.

I think most Mormons would agree with this, at least on an intellectual level: we’ve gone through several would-be eschatological boogeymen in living memory (fascism, Marxism, nuclear war, Islamic radicalism, etc.) — and it’s hard to get wedded to a new interpretation when the old ones seemed just as plausible and didn’t pan out.

Still, being “latter-day” saints, we can’t abandon the idea completely.

Modern revelation doesn’t tie us to too many particulars about the “last days”, and it’s a little gauche to speculate about it in Sunday school; but it seems like those words ought to mean something. Maybe Jesus isn’t coming back next week or next month (or even in my lifetime), but “soon”, in some real, reasonable, not-jerking-you-around sense.

So while most of us aren’t expecting to see crowned locusts with human faces and scorpion tails any time soon, we are expecting the world to get worse; to turn steadily away from virtue, and slide into moral chaos and despotism. And oddly, it seems to be the older folks (who have seen more than one potential world-ending scenario come and go) who seem most interested in constructing end-times mad-libs from current events.

This narrative drives progressives nuts, for obvious reasons.

Mostly because it casts them as the foot-soldiers of Mordor (or the effete, decadent quislings who hold the door for them) — but also because it’s a really easy expectation to fulfill: almost any grab bag of social or cultural anxieties can be stitched into a narrative of decline, so someone’s personal “signs of the times” often tell you more about them than about the state of the world.

They point out that recent decades have seen a dramatic shift away from traditional Christian morality; but they’ve also seen a billion people lifted out of poverty, huge gains in life expectancyfree-falling crime and conflict death figures, even declining rates of divorce and teen pregnancy (corresponding with lower rates of marriage and higher rates of abortion, but still).

From this perspective, the social changes of the last few decades have been a resounding success, and all this noise about decline is mainly just conservative Christians adjusting to a society in which they no longer call the shots. They’ll keep dragging us into modernity, things will keep getting better, and one day we’ll be mortified that we made such a big deal about it.

But material prosperity isn’t quite enough to kill this idea.

We expect the quantifiable, material problems — war, poverty, etc. — to be lagging indicators of spiritual decay. Of course there will be times when people are wicked, and fat, and rich. In fact, if you take the “pride cycle” seriously, there seems to be a causal link between prosperity and wickedness.

But this is a tough argument to falsify. From a rationalist point of view, once you’ve conceded the quantifiables, you’ve essentially conceded the argument. The data says things are getting better all the time, even as society runs screaming from our values, and we’re stuck talking poetry: stuff like “virtue” and “decadence”, for which it’s really hard to find p-values.

So, if we want to persuade anybody else that our values are essential to human flourishing (before events do the persuading for us), we’re going to have to examine this declinist narrative more carefully, and think about the mechanism by which we expect it to work.

How does our theory of social decline fit with the doctrine of moral agency?

We say that the world is growing more wicked, but “the world” is an aggregate of billions of people, each with individual opinions and motivations and agency. How does a system as big and chaotic as that become “more wicked”? What does that even mean? Does everybody just decide to go bad, all at once? In other words, is it really a moral question, or a sociological one?

If it’s strictly moral — people doing wrong when they could have done right — you’ve got to wonder what could possibly make a whole society of free individuals beat a simultaneous mass retreat from virtue/decency/sanity. And if it’s purely sociological — people doing what any group of people would have done in the same circumstances — should we even call it “wickedness” at all?

The way the Brethren talk about the future is instructive.

It isn’t strictly pessimistic, with the wicked growing more wicked and the righteous “holding the line” for Eisenhower-era morality. The divergence goes both ways: the wicked will grow more wicked, but the righteous will also grow more righteous. They also love to talk about how the greater temptations of our time come with commensurate opportunities to do good.

From this perspective, our material prosperity isn’t inherently corrosive to human morality — if that were true, it would be pretty perverse of God to reward righteousness with the very thing that will destroy it. Instead, material prosperity is a source of freedom, to do good or evil.

This explains how the cycle of righteousness > prosperity > wickedness > collapse can seem like such an iron law of the universe (at least in the scriptures), without interfering with individual agency. Power and prosperity make it easier to accomplish good aims, but they also make it easier to absorb the costs of wickedness and delay repentance. We live in a time in which people will be more free than ever before; so they’ll have a lot more runway to get going in one direction or the other, and the divergence in values and outcomes will be correspondingly larger.

So what does this mean for our “heck in a handbasket” narrative?

Does the fact that we’re living in “the last days” really imply that things are just going to get worse, and worse, and worse until Jesus comes back? We were already a “latter-day” church way back in the 19th-century, and it seems like a lot of things have gotten better since then (morally as well as materially).

This puts us in a tough position: it’s pretty easy to argue that we’re currently on the brink of decline (in fact, that seems to be pretty close to the mainstream consensus). It’s harder to make the case that human civilization has been on the skids since 1830. Are we really more wicked than South Carolina in 1861, or Russia in 1917, or Germany in 1933?

I was aiming at something more conclusive when I started writing, but now it seems like the question is less important than I thought. It really doesn’t matter if this current arc of decadence and decline is “the big one” or not. Every downswing in the pride cycle looks like “the end of the world” to the people living in it; and the proper response is the same either way.

Heck in a Handbasket

The Sacred Register


For Muslims, the revelation of the Qur’an in seventh-century Arabic is not a historical accident.

Every syllable in a modern copy of the Qur’an is shown exactly as it was dictated to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel; so the language of the text (not just its sense) is considered miraculous and holy. This means that, while almost all dialects drift and die out over the centuries, Qur’anic Arabic will be a living tongue as long as there are pious Muslims.

Of course, everyday spoken Arabic has drifted just like every other language — so most native Arabic speakers are practically bilingual, using classical Arabic for elite stuff (law, religion, politics, culture, etc.), and another, completely different colloquial Arabic for everything else. Basically, imagine that you speak modern English, but every politician, news anchor, preacher, and novelist talks like this.

This complicates a few things: for starters, it’s harder to teach literacy when your written language is so different from the language kids hear at home. It also means that uneducated folks have a harder time engaging with politics and news, since it’s in a language they barely understand. But it’s rich, and beautiful, and anyway God speaks classical Arabic, so there’s not much to be done about it.

English has registers, too, but they’re subtler.

Our high, formal English involves a lot of Latin words, and we use it for medicine, law, academia, or when we just want to sound authoritative/educated. In a cover letter, most people don’t “ask about the job”, they “inquire about the position”. Most of our swear words are just the Germanic equivalents of respectable Latin words like “copulation”, “excrement”, “urination”, etc.

A big part of the joke in “Can I Have Your Number” is a low-class guy’s attempt at a high, Latiny register of English (“can I please receive the secret code, that if entered telephonically…”) Which makes that sketch seem a lot meaner, now that I think about it.

But the “formal register” really sticks out with police, because they’re basically the only blue-collar guys who have to speak regularly on television. Next time you see a cop at a press conference, watch how they pile every sentence with Latin, especially when they’re nervous (“…at that juncture, we apprehended the suspect, and proceeded to…” etc.)

Of course, now that common, dirty rubes use Latinate words as a class signal, it no longer works as a class signal — so the trend in business and creative writing is to move back toward the blunt, visceral Anglo-Saxon register.

For Mormons, there’s also a “sacred register”.

Like classical Arabic, Jacobean English was sacralized and frozen in time by its use in a prestige text (the King James Version of the Bible). Unlike classical Arabic, it isn’t exactly a prestige dialect — you’d never use it in an academic paper or a job interview. It’s strictly used for scripture, prayer, and ritual.

I’ve occasionally heard Mormons complain about this, for basically the same reason Arab reformers do — it adds a linguistic burden to our attempts to teach and understand the gospel. And those complaints never go anywhere for the same reason: God gave us the Book of Mormon in Jacobean English, so that’s what we’re going to use.

And the dialect of the Book of Mormon also isn’t a historical accident. I don’t know exactly how Joseph received the language of the Book of Mormon, but it clearly came through in a dialect that Joseph understood to be “holy”; and my heuristic for these things is, “When God does something weird, at least consider the possibility that he knew what he was doing.” With that in mind:

Having a sacred register is more useful than it looks.

First, there’s evidence that language influences cognition and personality — and if that’s true, the benefits of a holiness dialect seem obvious. I don’t kneel to pray because I think it suits God’s vanity — I do it because the physical act triggers a mental change. Even if there’s nothing special about Jacobean English, the fact that it instills a mental “posture” is valuable.

Second, the challenge of archaic language may be a feature, rather than a bug. There is no such thing as a “plain English” translation of an ancient Middle Eastern text — the cultural and linguistic divide can either be obvious to the reader, or it can be bridged with heroic leaps of assumption and interpretation. (Not to say that the KJV is perfectly impartial — but at least modern readers know that they aren’t getting the plain, unambiguous sense of the original.)

Third — and this is pure aesthetics — I think there is something a little bit special about Jacobean English. It’s gave us Shakespeare, for one thing, and the King James Version is itself a towering achievement of English literature. Handel’s Messiah would not have worked in the New Revised Reformed Common Man’s Living Translation.

And maybe it’s just tribalism, but I can’t read the NIV without hearing it in the voice of a hip youth pastor with a headset mic and a tambourine. (Ok, it’s probably just tribalism.)

Fourth, it’s really not that hard. Stop sniffing around for things to complain about, you look ridiculous.

The Sacred Register