Monday, July 30, 2007

Charting our own paths: What do you use for a map and compass?

One interesting aspect to post-Mormonism is what we do with our new found ability to chart our own path in life. In Mormonism, everything is spelled out as to what one must do and believe. You are "free" to obey or to choose the path of unrighteousness, for there is only one right way to believe and live. They permit you to make a few choices such as what you study in school or where you live, but most other decisions, even the size of your family (it must be large) are dictated to you.

But, now, a whole world of real choices are open to us. The choice is no longer the right way or the wrong way, but which way do I want to go out of all the possibilities. We still have to deal with the judgments of the larger society and our families, what is legal and what is acceptable, but the field is much more open than it has been.

Please share what you use to guide your decisions in what to believe and in what to do.

After being burned badly by earnestly believing something that I can now objectively show is not true, I have come to lean more on reliable, objective evidence to guide my beliefs. I believe what I must. On issues where the evidence is not conclusive in the strictest sense of the word such as the existence of Santa, yet there are still mounds of evidence that would suggest that the likelihood of its existence is extremely low, my beliefs reflect that which is most likely. But, I don't close myself off from reconsidering those beliefs should new persuasive evidence emerge. If it is truly a toss-up, such as whether there is microscopic life on Mars, then I simply refrain from beliving anything on the issue and wait for more data.

I think where I differ from a lot of people is how I weight the evidence that is available on a given question and how I estimate the probability of what is likely. I have learned enough in psychology to not trust the meaning we give to our own experiences. As much as we try to be objective and rational about our own experiences, we just aren't. We suffer from confirmation bias, selective memory, false memories, the Barnum effect, we use the availability and other heuristics that often lead to the wrong answer, we are subject to priming, prejudice, and other flaws introduced by how our bodies process data through both sensation, perception, and interpretation and the meaning we give our experiences. As a result, I don't put much stock in anecdotal evidence. I don't completely ignore it; I use it to generate hypotheses, but it is too unreliable and subjective to be an effective instrument to determine what is real or true.

Scientific methodology is not entirely objective either, but it is the best thing we have to rule out competing hypotheses. I would trust the results of a properly reviewed and replicated scientific experiment anyday over my perceptions of my own experience. This brings me to my next point, how I decide how to live. I pay attention to what research shows are the likely outcomes of various behaviors and the contingencies that influence those outcomes.

Case in point: Before the birth of my son, my wife and I discussed whether or not we would circumcise him. As I am atheist and my wife is agnostic, we had no religious reason to do it, so we considered other factors such as would he fit in among his peers, the loss of sensitivity, whether there were any health benefits, genital mutation, making a decision for him when he is not old enough to give his consent, inflicting pain, the healing process, and whether it is better to do it now or later. New studies had just come out showing that circumcised men were much less likely to contract AIDS than non-circumcised men. (A new study shows that they are 60% less likely to contract AIDS). Our doctor said that it was really a matter of personal preference whether we did it or not. For us, the scales tipped towards going ahead and having him circumcised. Like vaccinations and other things, we were making a decision for him at a time when he could not that could protect his life and health, based on the most current research available, and it would save him the pain of having to do it later in life if he chose to.

Below is a copy of my basic values and morality, but individual decisions are informed by what science tells us about the likely consequences of our actions.

1) Strive to use your best judgment. Realize that these guidelines are aspirational in nature. Their intent is to guide and inspire toward the very highest ethical ideals. There may be times when the most appropriate course is to supercede one of these principles, so use your best judgment. Practice moderation - you need not run faster than you have strength.

2) Strive to limit the harm one causes. Be aware of the possible consequences of your actions, and make a reasonable effort to not cause unnecessary injury or obstruction or damage. This includes harm to one's self, others, all creation and the environment. This does not mean that you should seclude yourself so as to limit the chances of doing anyone harm and it is understood that by living you will cause some harm - you have to eat something, your body fights bacteria, you will produce some waste products, etc. Be reasonable with one's expectations on this point.

3) Strive to benefit one's self, others, and the environment. In as much as it is possible, and with respect for the desires of others (i.e., don't help when your help is reasonably not wanted), help all to live healthily and adaptively.

4) Strive to be trustworthy. Excepting times when honesty puts others in danger, seek to be honest in your dealings with others. Hold in confidence information that should be kept confidential. Act with integrity and be true and honest with one's self.

5) Strive to take appropriate responsibility for one's actions. Keep your word and uphold your commitments. Repair the damage your actions may have caused. Sincerely apologize to, and if possible reimburse, individuals you may have injured. Know the laws and what is expected of you. Once you have done what you can to right your wrongs, forgive yourself and move on.

6) Strive to be fair and just. Inasmuch as possible practice equity. Be aware of and try to limit the influence of one's biases and prejudices.

7) Strive to respect and protect the rights and dignity of one's self, others, and all of creation. It is not enough to ensure that you are not mistreating others, you must strive for social justice for humans and the humane treatment of animals. All people have a right to self-determination. Special safeguards may be necessary to protect the rights and welfare of persons or communities whose vulnerabilities impair autonomous decision making.

8) Strive to be patient and forgiving. Try to have patience with one's self, others, and anticipated events in life. Free yourself of the bondage of resentment and prolonged disappointment.

9) Strive to gain understanding. Knowledge enables one to make better use of that which is available and helps one to successfully adapt to one's environment.

10) Strive to love, show empathy, and be compassionate. We are a social species and for much of our lives are dependent on one another. It is important to our well-being and mental and emotional health to have strong relationships with others. Loving is satisfying to the soul and beautiful. Empathy and compassion can calm arguments and disagreements.