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

The Most Important Mormon Heresy


(pictured: not a fan)

It’s hard for an atheist to believe in free will.

If sentience is just a complex chemical process in the brain, then every decision and preference, down to the finest detail, is determined by the movement of organic molecules, doing only what Newton says they’ll do.

More broadly, you’ve got “nature” (the deterministic clockwork inside you) interacting with “nurture” (the deterministic clockwork outside you), to produce a larger and more complex system of deterministic clockwork. It would take a pretty clever argument to find room for human choice in there (not that people haven’t tried.)

Creedal Christianity moves the problem one step back, but it doesn’t change much.

Now you have a “soul” which can ostensibly override the influence of your genetics and environment — but no matter how complex that system becomes, your soul and your genes and your environment were ultimately created ex nihilo by God, so the chains of causality are just as unbreakable; all your capacities for good and evil were given by God from the first, and you’ll only ever do exactly what he created you to do.

Most Christian traditions teach that this doesn’t interfere with free will — in fact, justice demands free will, so that God can send sinners to hell — but there’s not much explanation of how that might be possible. (At best, you get koans about “parallel lines meeting at infinity“, which is theology-speak for “you figure it out if you’re so damn smart”.)

This problem isn’t specific to atheism or Christianity. The source of human consciousness doesn’t really matter: as long as it has a source, as long as every component of your decisionmaking can be traced to some prior cause, it’s all just very elegant clockwork; and we enjoy the illusion of choice only because we can’t trace the billion causal threads that have already made the decision for us.

For Mormons, though, intelligence is co-eternal with God.

You still have genetics and environment (the “natural man”) pushing you in one direction, and your God-given “divine nature” pushing in another; but your intelligence, your “self-ness”, isn’t subordinate to any prior cause — it just is.

As far as I know, Mormonism is pretty much alone among Abrahamic faiths in taking this view — and if you asked a mainstream Christian theologian to list all our mortal heresies, it would probably make the top three.

This means that, for better or worse, no one else is really talking about it — but this one truth has immense implications: not the least of which is actual, non-illusory, non-paradoxical human freedom. Or, as President Packer put it:

“The Lord’s votin’ for me, and the devil’s votin’ against me, but it’s my vote that counts.”

And it raises as many questions as it answers. For example:

What is the purpose of existence?

For mainstream Christians, the answer is pretty simple: we were created from nothing to glorify God. Not only that — the concepts of “purpose” and “existence” were also explicitly created by God.

For Mormons, it’s trickier. Our intelligence wasn’t created for a reason — it wasn’t created at all. Certainly we were organized as spirits and sent to Earth for a reason, but that isn’t quite the same thing.

From a mortal perspective, the Mormon “meaning of life” looks a lot like mainstream Christianity — we’re here to repent, exercise faith, and receive salvation through the Atonement of Christ.

But if you pan back a little, and consider why God implemented the Plan in the first place, it starts to look a bit like Buddhism: our intelligence was “wandering since beginningless time“, in a state of disorder and confusion, without purpose; and God, having transcended that state, provided a path whereby the rest of us could transcend it too.

(Of course, in Buddhism, “transcendence” means blowing out the candle of individual consciousness/attachment and merging with the undifferentiated divine — so, basically the opposite of exaltation. Can’t win ’em all.)

And if you pan back further still, the gospel feels almost existentialist. In the beginning, the universe was chaotic, formless, meaningless. But:

God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.” (Joseph Smith, King Follett Discourse)

In other words, the creation was an act of imposing meaning on meaninglessness. Our existence has meaning now, but it didn’t always.

If our actions aren’t deterministic, what makes people good or bad?

I guess the obvious answer is “nothing makes them, they choose” — so instead let’s say, “What’s the difference between good people and bad people?”

It seems like “eternally joyous all-powerful godhood” is unambiguously preferable to the alternatives, and sooner or later everyone is going to make a fully informed decision. So is it just a question of delayed gratification/impulse control (people get a lesser inheritance because they simply didn’t feel like waiting it out)? That seems like kind of a prosaic way to decide who gets transcendence and who doesn’t.

In The God Who Weeps, the Givens offer an alternative hypothesis: maybe Godhood is hard for the same reasons being a good person is hard. Loving people who are free to reject you, free to hurt each other, free to make themselves absolutely miserable — is a risky and painful experience, especially for a being whose capacity to love and empathize is so dramatically superior to our own.

From that perspective, it’s a lot more obvious why “trying to be a good person” (i.e. repentance) is a primary criterion of who gets exalted. The “test” of mortality makes a lot more sense if our experiences here are actually relevant to what we’ll face there.

It also explains how, even in the full light of post-mortal certainty, we won’t change our minds about what we want. If you didn’t like heroic all-consuming sacrificial love down here, you’re going to like it even less up there.

The Most Important Mormon Heresy

How God handles AI risk


[Content warning: Wildly speculative. If you find that sort of thing uninteresting/distasteful, turn back now, etc.]

“AI Risk” is a trendy concern in the rationalist community. The mellow version of this idea is that the odds of creating a self-improving (“runaway”) AI in the next 100 years might be low, but with exponential growth it’s hard to tell, and anyway it’s so dangerous that even a small likelihood of creating a hostile alien god is worth worrying about. (I find this argument pretty persuasive.)

But, to their credit, many AI theorists have asked, “If it’s inevitable, why don’t we see this happening anywhere else in the universe?

The universe has been around a while – there’s no reason to expect that we’d be the very first species to reach this point. And yet there are no stars winking out as they become encased in Dyson spheres (breathless headlines notwithstanding), no implacable world-eating swarms of nanorobots — in fact, no indication of intelligent activity of any kind. It’s weird enough that we haven’t seen any garden-variety aliens — but the idea that there are unrestrained, godlike superintelligences out there, making no discernible ruckus whatsoever, is even harder to believe. So what gives?

One theory is that it has happened before, and we’re living in a “pocket reality” created by a transcendent intelligence.

The justification for this view is pretty interesting:

First, assume that it’s at least possible for such an intelligence to develop (i.e. that there’s no iron law of the universe that prevents a computational singularity from occurring).

Second, suppose that we’re not the first species to get this far – meaning there’s at least one such superintelligence in the universe, capable of simulating (or generating) a reality that would be indistinguishable from the real thing to humans. And third, assume that superintelligences would be interested in that sort of thing (simulation/creation).

If those assumptions hold, we’ve only got a 50% probability of living in the “real” universe, rather than a pocket universe under the stewardship of a transcendent intelligence – and if you’re willing to allow for one such simulation, why not two, or twenty, or a thousand (meaning your odds of being born in the “real” universe are 33%, 5%, and 0.1%, respectively)? The only limitations would be the computational power of all the matter in the (real) universe, and probably the speed of light.

So you wind up with better-than-even odds that the observed universe is the creation of a transcendent intelligence, from a handful of reasonable assumptions – all you have to believe is that a singularity is possible, that humanity is not the first to achieve it, and that the resulting entities would be “creators”. (Of the three, only the latter requires much justification – the first two are almost antipredictions.)

By far the weirdest thing about this theory is that it gets atheist computer science geeks in the Bay Area talking about God with a straight face. Granted, it’s often in the context of “can we kill it before it kills us”, but still. The idea of God (or gods, or at the very least Q) has been reconstituted into secular jargon and put back on the list of Serious Topics for Serious People — which is, if nothing else, kind of funny. Having said that:

I’m not a fan of logical “proofs” of God’s existence, and this isn’t meant to be one.

If your belief in something requires a logical argument more complex than, “Look, here it is, QED”, you’ve basically admitted that you have no personal experience with that thing; or, if you have had such experience, you’d rather play word games than talk about it. Either way, it feels insincere – make the real case, the case you believe in, or don’t.

This argument doesn’t inevitably point to the LDS concept of God (anthropomorphic, benevolent, responsive-to-humans, etc.), let alone the particulars of our doctrine. The creator in this model could just as easily be a Deist “watchmaker god” with no interest in humans whatsoever, or a completely alien creator whose goals defy human comprehension. Or maybe the assumptions don’t hold, and it’s all bunk.

I’m also not saying that God is the result of a technological singularity, or that Kolob is made of computronium (though, if that turned out to be true, I’m sure I could get over it.) I’m just saying that, if the above assumptions are basically valid, it might explain a few things.

First, it provides a way to reconcile God’s eternal pre-existence with the doctrine of eternal progression.

Of all our disputes with creedal Christianity, the idea of a “transcendent” God is probably the most serious. From their perspective, anything less than Plato’s eternal, all-encompassing One is an idol (which is why Jesus’ divinity and relationship to the Father gave them such fits.) And, to be fair, the scripture makes it pretty clear that God exists outside of time, with no beginning and no end. Mormons believe that God is the eternal and unchangeable Creator of all things — and that does seem to conflict with the picture of God as transcendent.

But if you imagine this universe as a simulation (a “creation of the mind of God”), or an inflationary pocket with its own spacetime, the contradiction disappears. From our frame of reference, God does exist outside time and space, He is infinite and unchangeable, and He is the Creator of all things. This view of Mormon doctrine still doesn’t play nice with Plato, but it at least plays nice with itself.

Second, it resolves the “Fermi Paradox” analogue raised by both models.

If you believe a singularity is possible, you have to deal with the fact that we see no evidence of it, anywhere, in an inconceivably vast cosmos. If you believe there’s a loving God who intervenes in human affairs, you have to deal with the fact that those interventions, if they exist, are so subtle as to make His existence a matter of debate.

In both cases, the evidence you expect to see depends heavily on what goals you expect such a being to pursue. For example, if God’s endgame in creating humanity was to have people to praise him in eternal ecstasy, He could have just created us that way – He would have no reason not to make His existence empirically obvious. (You can say, “God works in mysterious ways”, but that’s not an argument so much as a thought-terminator.) So that’s probably not what God is about.

Likewise, if there were omnipotent AI whose mission was to consume all matter in the universe and turn it into paperclips, it seems like we would have seen something like that by now. It would be catastrophically disruptive, and a being like that would have no reason to conceal itself from us. The set of “stuff a runaway AI might be interested in” is pretty big, and space is also pretty big, so it seems like there should be at least a handful of them out there, making space look weird somehow.

The Mormon answer to these contradictions is that God is interested in the creation of independent agents.

This is intuitive to me — if your knowledge and power were effectively infinite, it seems like pushing matter around would get boring pretty fast. What else would you be interested in?

If God’s goal is to create beings that act for themselves — that are destined to become like Him — it makes sense that we don’t see any flashing neon signs pointing the way. If we were continually aware of a benign omnipotence, waiting in the wings to give eternal joy to the obedient and eternal damnation to the dissenters, we would obey — but it would be as reflexive as sneezing, and with as much moral significance. For God, it’s just a slightly more sophisticated way of pushing matter around.

Atheists often belittle religious people for grounding morality in fear of divine punishment (i.e. “you shouldn’t need a Magic Sky Fairy™ to tell you right from wrong”), but in fact, our lives seem carefully designed to remove that problem: there’s always enough evidence to make room for reasonable belief, but never enough to reduce obedience to operant conditioning. We can be constrained by the facts on most other matters, but for normative/moral issues, there’s always a choice.

And the concept of “AI risk” also illustrates why exaltation is a moral challenge rather than a technical one.

The driving anxiety behind the “AI risk” movement is, “How can we ensure that an exponentially expanding intelligence will share human values?”

But if there was already a transcendent Omnipotence shepherding humanity, maybe the question would be reversed: “How can I ensure that these embryonic Gods share my values?”

How God handles AI risk

Pattern-matching and Mormonism


Above is an example of Google’s “Deep Dream” pattern-matching algorithm.

They programmed it to find dogs and pagodas, and no matter where you tell it to look, it will damn well find you some dogs and pagodas. Which makes it a pretty handy metaphor for delusion.

Scott Alexander suggests that dreams, drugs, religion, and schizophrenia all involve essentially the same “failure mode”.

Human brains are hard-wired to look for patterns, too, and we get big neurochemical rewards when we find (or create) one. But while we’re dreaming, or on DMT, or schizophrenic, or religious (the theory goes), this pattern-matching ability is completely disinhibited — so that patterns seem to emerge from meaningless noise. If you’re asleep, random brain activity gets stitched into a (bizarre) narrative. If you’re paranoid schizophrenic, innocuous social interactions become loaded with secret signals, and interpreted through the lens of a vast conspiracy. People on hallucinogens find the underlying fractal architecture of the universe in the spackling on the ceiling. And if you’re religious, you see the Blessed Virgin in your toast.

That’s a flippant summary, of course; there’s got to be at least some truth to this. Powerful religious experiences usually do involve a deep sense of clarity and connection and meaning that is, like a dream, very difficult to recapture after the fact. You can kind of remember how it felt, but the memory feels hollow somehow — like you forgot the central Truth that tied it all together. All of which are reasonable things to expect, if your pattern-matching algorithm was going temporarily bananas.

Psychologists would say that your conscious self has the more accurate interpretation of the dream. You haven’t forgotten some important fact that tied it all together — it never was tied together. One assumes that the same is true of profound religious experiences — the way you feel about them after you’ve “come down from the mountain” is what really happened, and that fading sense of contact with the divine is just your mental “immune system” mopping up erroneous patterns now that it’s functioning properly.

This model is pretty internally consistent — but it’s consistent because it’s recursive.

Once you’ve settled on a baseline “reality” (in this case, a mechanistic, materialistic, random universe), anything that calls that model into question can be dismissed as runaway pattern-matching. Almost no experience, no matter how powerful or vivid or “real”, could possibly falsify this model (unless God or your DMT spirit animal were deliberately trying to falsify it.)

It ignores the fact that conscious human minds also impose patterns on their observations, and that those patterns are not more obviously correct — they’re just harder to get away from. If you’re raised in a secular materialist society, your default pattern will be “random meaningless static”, and your waking mind will impose that pattern on all your experiences, whether it’s an obvious fit or not (just like the Peruvian peasant imposes Jesus on her breakfast.)

That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad pattern, necessarily; if you think the risk of a “false positive” (imposing meaning on a meaningless experience) is much more serious than the risk of a “false negative” (incorrectly discarding a meaningful experience), then a strong memetic defense against weird beliefs is probably a good thing. As a Mormon, it’s pretty clear what side of that question I come down on, but I can understand the appeal.

So what is happening to the brain when we have spiritual experiences?

I don’t think we can dismiss the role of hyperactive pattern-matching out of hand. Clearly something strange is happening in our brains when we feel that surge of intelligence and clarity — there must be some sensitivity that is getting cranked up to eleven. Some have speculated Joseph Smith’s seer stone worked by inducing this state of heightened sensitivity (essentially serving as a focus for meditation) and allowing him to receive revelations that he could not receive in a conscious state. I’m not convinced that that’s the whole story, but it probably helped.

The fact that these experiences feel a bit like dreaming is neither problematic nor surprising — we’re not obligated to accept the assumption that dreaming is wholly internal and random.

The fact that it has so much in common with hallucinogenic drugs, on the other hand, is a bit of a puzzle.

The Holy Spirit’s influence is both infallible and unmistakable — that’s what makes it a safe heuristic for testimony. If we’ve discovered a drug that can “fake” the experience of revelation, we’re in trouble. Admittedly, because I haven’t taken these drugs, I can’t say how analogous the experiences really are — but from a Mormon perspective, the weirdest thing about these experiences is how doctrinally sound they seem to be (despite being obtained in a seriously doctrinally-unsound way). It isn’t just that people think they’re hearing the voice of God — it’s that the voice seems to be saying basically true, good, wholesome, Mormony things. These guys aren’t being told to sacrifice their pets, or hold orgiastic black masses, or even vote Democrat. So, I dunno — it’s a pretty weird case, but if truth is being taught, the Spirit bears witness, right?

I don’t have any idea what to do with that information. It’s not impossible to imagine receiving true revelation from an iffy source (cf. the witch of En-dor); and it seems likely that these drugs would make you more sensitive to both friendly and hostile influences, or allow you to receive things you’re not really ready for. There’s probably a good reason that these states of consciousness require some discipline and spiritual maturity to come by “honestly”.

Pattern-matching and Mormonism

The Myth of the Ignorant American


People love to talk about ignorant Americans. Especially on the internet, we like to picture some unwashed, glassy-eyed behemoth squeezed into a shirt that says “These Colors Don’t Run”, trundling across Wal-Mart in a motorized shopping cart.

And while obesity, sloth, and poor fashion sense don’t have anything to do with a lack of education necessarily, the implication is as clear as you can make it. Particularly relative to our refined European neighbors, Americans are superstitious, medieval boors who think dinosaur bones are a Satanic deception.

And to be fair, we do have a curious belligerence toward scientific ideas that are uncontroversial everywhere else. With characters like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum on center stage in American politics, one might be forgiven for making a few uncharitable assumptions about Americans in general.

But here’s where it gets weird: Americans love science.

A higher percentage of Americans qualify as “scientifically literate” (able to answer basic questions about science and the scientific method) than their peers in Europe, Japan, and Russia. According to the National Science Foundation, the average American also holds a more positive view of science and scientists; they’re more likely to visit informal scientific institutions like museums, planetariums, zoos, etc., and to describe themselves as “very interested” in new scientific discoveries.

Americans file more patents, write more grants, and publish more peer-reviewed scientific papers per capita than the EU, Japan, or Russia. Of the world’s top 20 universities, all but 3 are American (that depends a little bit on who you ask, but the consensus is surprisingly strong).

The average American is still scientifically illiterate–but only because the average person is scientifically illiterate.

Interestingly, 86% of Americans describe scientific education as “absolutely essential” for one reason or another–but only 53% know how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. In other words, we’re crazy about science–as long as somebody else is doing it.

I’ll admit, it’s a little hard to believe that Americans could be as scientifically aware as our friends across the pond. After all, they haven’t been arguing about where dinosaur bones come from for over a century.

But while pseudo-scientific beliefs based on Biblical literalism are in decline all over the Western world–and Europe is definitely way ahead of us on that score–those ideas are not being burned away in the brilliant light of reason. They’re just being replaced with other pseudo-scientific beliefs.

Most Europeans accept, for example, that the Earth isn’t 6,000 years old; but they’re just as likely as Americans (or more) to believe in homeopathy, astrology, ghosts, elves, ESP, and the long-discredited theory that vaccines cause autism. (I was personally affronted to learn that the average European considers homeopathy “more scientific” than economics. Harrumph!)

So superstition is not the exclusive purview of Bible-thumpers; but, you also won’t hear EU lawmakers demanding that schools “teach the controversy” on horoscopes, or pressuring state hospitals to treat cancer with tinctures of cadmium salts. And there’s something to be said for that.

So why is the political climate so different in Europe?

While the average American and the average European are comparable in terms of scientific literacy, America’s intellectual landscape is far more polarized–due mostly to our embarrassingly top-heavy educational system.

While our universities are second-to-none, the state of American public education is dismal. Only 75% of Americans graduate high school, and those that do are generally ill-equipped compared to other industrialized countries. Our 15-year-olds are near the bottom of the barrel in math and science, and 62% of our high-school seniors can’t read at their grade level.

Unsurprisingly, only a few of us actually make it through that world-renowned university system, so the United States has become the most polarized, intellectually-unequal society on the planet. While Europe’s high-quality public schools and mediocre universities assure a relatively uniform distribution of scientific knowledge, American education is a “tale of two cities”, with educational outcomes cleanly divided along socioeconomic lines.

That’s why science starts fights in the US, and not across the pond.

Like so many markers of class and status, certain non-scientific beliefs have become a kind of rallying cry for people who feel disenfranchised–particularly (though not exclusively) lower-class American whites. Rejecting “elitist” science is a way to establish membership in a bullied and martyred tribe–and when you’re on the losing end of so many impersonal social forces, feeling bullied and martyred can impart some dignity to your suffering.

But the important thing is, it’s a political phenomenon, not a religious one. Populists like Michele Bachmann don’t reject the scientific consensus on climate change and vaccinations because the Bible has anything to say about those things; she rejects them because rejection of elite consensus is part of her brand. It’s a powerful channel for populist resentment, and American politicians have been making hay with it for over a century.

Note that our most vitriolic debates on science (the Scopes-Monkey Trial, IVF, climate change, etc.) haven’t come in periods of great religious revival; they’ve come in times of extreme inequality: the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the mid-70s and 80s, and the present.

European pseudo-science, on the other hand, isn’t accompanied by stark economic inequality, so it isn’t a convenient political shibboleth–and in most cases it’s mildly tolerated, and quietly believed. (Though the rising anti-vaccination movement has lately given France and the UK a taste of aggrieved, tribal pseudo-science.)

Why does all this matter?

First: Because mocking people for their lack of education is counter-productive, and it also makes you look like an entitled prick. But most importantly, life is just too short to make fun of people for not knowing things.

Second: Because reason and faith are not locked in an age-old struggle for the soul of humanity. What now seems like a natural, inevitable conflict is only about a century old, and it’s a gangrenous part of our culture that needs to be cut out–along with the persecution complex and the smirking, willful ignorance that comes with it.

The Myth of the Ignorant American