I appreciate the kind welcome to T&S and all the good comments and questions. I know I haven’t responded to some of them yet, and I’ll try to rectify that soon, but I wanted to make sure I had this post ready to go.
My goal is to live up to my promise to walk through a religious example of epistemic humility in action. At the end of the last post, I suggested that one of the dangers we face when our beliefs conflict with each other is that we will fictionalize one of those beliefs by compartmentalizing it. At the other extreme, we can so privilege certain beliefs that anything which contradicts them is dismissed out of hand. Both of these approaches spare us from the anxiety and frustration of cognitive dissonance, and both of them also cut us off from further growth.
The alternative, and this is where my example begins, is to frankly admit that we are confused. When I was a teenager, Nephi’s description of the “great and abominable church” provided me with just such an opportunity for confusion. The problem arises with Nephi’s claim that there are only two churches (one of the Lamb of God and the other of the devil). This cheerful disregard for what appear to be the most fundamental elements of social reality (formal institutions) created a mild but uncomfortable dissonance between prophecy that I wanted to take as more than metaphor and the only way I knew to see the world.
Rather than shrug, I let myself be bothered by this. This wasn’t a great trial–I’ve chosen a low-stakes example to work with–but more than none at all. And it’s precisely because I had it in the back of my mind every time I read through Nephi again, noodling at it with every iteration to see if I could get anywhere with it this time, that when I stumbled upon Ronald Coase’s breakthrough 1937 paper “The Nature of the Firm” I was primed to see the eerily close parallel it held with Nephi’s prophetic vision.
In this paper Coase asks a deceptively simple question: what determines the size of the firm? What was most revolutionary about this paper was the perspective Coase adopted to even conceive of the question. Rather than take firms as building blocks, Coase instead took a holistic and functional view of the economy as a single giant, interconnected, continuous process. With this view, Coase forced us to see that boundaries between companies are ephemeral and arbitrary.
A company, after all, is just a collection of people who have chosen to unite in the pursuit of their individual goals. You may have an accounting department, an analytic department, and a customer service department all working in the same firm. Or, on the other hand, you might decide to contract out the analytic work to some consultants, or hire a call center to handle your customer service. One of Coase’s points (although this wasn’t the point of his paper) was that, to a large extent, the same people can do the same work and make the same products regardless of where you draw the boundaries. And if that’s true, do the boundaries really matter after all? The foundational nature of formal firms turned out to be, from a certain perspective, largely illusory. (The actual point of Coase’s paper was to figure out what determined where the boundaries would fall, and the answer has to do with transaction costs. If you were curious.)
That’s more or less exactly the approach it seems that Nephi took in viewing religious institutions. Rather than be distracted by denominations, Nephi started with individuals and their religious activities. And, as Nibley argued in “The Prophetic Book of Mormon”, there can be only two types of such activity:
Yet standing in the middle ground, we are faced with absolute decisions… There we have only two choices. The road up and the road down are the same, says Heracleitus… You are taking either the up-road or the down-road; there is no third way, for if you try to compromise and go off at an angle, you will never reach either goal. You are either repenting or not repenting, and that is, according to the scriptures, the whole difference between being righteous or being wicked.
This provides sufficient basis for a binary division, but Nephi’s use of the word “church” requires more. The word “church” implies some kind of coordination or engagement in a larger, unified work. But how could everyone in the world be coordinating in one of two great projects without being aware of it?
This is where I borrowed a concept from systems theory: emergence. Emergence is the concept used to describe things like termite mounds or the way that fish swim in schools and birds fly in flocks. In both cases, combining lots of little agents results in macrostructures or macrobehaviors that emerge from the decentralized interactions of the agents. No termite has the blueprints for the termite mound, and a flock has no leader, but in both cases the agents coordinate to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
I do not believe that Nephi was the world’s first system’s theorist. Instead, I believe systems theory gives us a new way of looking at the world, and that in this case we are perhaps able to catch up to some extent with the way that Nephi, and perhaps many prophets, see it: stripped of the pretensions of our self-proclamations of word and intention and seen in the light of our actions in response to incentives.
It doesn’t really matter if we perceive ourselves as participating in one or the other of the churches, just as it doesn’t matter if we realized that it was the Lord who was metaphorically hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger. The heart of the matter is that, in our actions and decisions, we are participating in lifting ourselves and our neighbors up, or we are not. There are two churches. Nephi was right.
Now I could have just stated that (“Nephi was right.”) at the very beginning and closed the book on the matter. Perhaps some would even see that as faithful, but I do not. Denying our ignorance or confusion doesn’t make it go away, and in any case I don’t believe that faith is about getting the answers right to a test. If we try, if we just assert that we do in fact believe what we think we are supposed to believe then we’re missing the point, failing at failing (which is important in learning), and worst of all we could end up living locked in denial with our fictionalized beliefs. Did you cry when Doby was killed? I did too, but I don’t think it means I have a testimony of Harry Potter. Belief is a tricky thing.
On the contrary, I think the point of faith is to stick determinedly to the process of learning rather than to have the right content in the right buckets in our brains. In short, you can’t fake it, and so you might as well be honest about what you do and don’t believe and proceed from there. Thus: epistemic humility is the key starting point to building authentic faith.
On a final note, I want to point out that perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from this experience wasn’t about Nephi or about prophets. It was about waiting and about being confused. There are a great many of things which perplex me today, and some of them have far higher stakes than this example did. I don’t believe that all of them will be answered in due time during this life. I expect to die with many questions unanswered, but I also expect to be at peace with a life and a faith that is perpetually a work in progress.