Saturday, November 14, 2009

Man's search for meaning

It wasn't long after I came to believe the Church wasn't true, that I came to believe that in all likelihood, there isn't a god either. The cosmos then lacked the ability to give purpose or meaning. It did not create all that existed for a reason nor with intent. Creation came about by mindless matter/energy simply carrying out the soulless laws of nature.

At first blush, that makes the universe a rather emotionally cold and scary place because no powerful essence is looking out for you. You face the raw elements alone and if something tragic happens no Thing will notice, care, or rescue. The awareness of this and bold confrontation of this is what constitutes existential angst. Many people are so uncomfortable with the thought, that they will not allow their minds to accept or even entertain it. "There must be universal meaning," they protest with nothing to support their declaration other than their own discomfort.

But, why this discomfort? Why this angst? Must it have come from a god; a creator to persuade us He is there? If not, then why or how did nature put it there through evolution? Why does it seem that most animals and young human children never have to confront this angst? Why is it only the burden of adult homo sapiens? Why can't why be as blissfully unaware or unconcerned with the meaning of life? Maybe we need to become unconcerned with it and simply live as others do.

Is this dissatisfaction with meaning a mere side effect of other mental abilities which gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage? I think so. One of our great abilities is to problem solve. When we solve problems trace back the steps to determine cause and effect of how the problem situation happened. Then as we attempt to come up with solutions, we play out in our minds how what we do might start a chain reaction to our desired end result according to what we know about how things work. We sense a disparity between what is and what we want. Then we give purpose to actions we take and tools we use. Their purpose is to make contributions to help us reach our desired goal. For example, we give a twig purpose when we use it as a tool to get to the termites in a stump. The twig has meaning for us as a termite getting tool.

I believe we humans began to see all things around us as potential tools to help us reach our desired ends. Even other people began to have meaning in our lives when we saw that they could help us get what we want. And then thanks to an ability that does not fully mature until our teen years, we are able to reflect on our selves and see ourselves as objects in the world. Once we can do that, we begin to wonder what purpose we serve and to whom are we a tool. That leads us to the next question, is all of creation a tool in the eyes of a being that could manipulate us all.

Now, organisms have a desire to conserve energy. It gives us an evolutionary advantage as it traditionally took a lot of calories to catch and consume calories, so it is best if you hold onto your calories until you need them to gather additional calories. So, we are lazy. If there is not a purpose behind an action (i.e., shelter, food, sex, etc), then our bodies slow us down and demotivate us. One why our bodies get us to slow down and be demotivated is through depression. When depressed our bodies are telling us whatever we are doing is not working, slow down, think it through, and come up with a better approach or regoal, but you have been wasting energy going down that path. We have learned to look for a purpose for doing something before you do it. If we can't find a purpose, we say, "What's the point?" and then don't bother.

So, let's put it all together. We aquired the ability through evolution to give meaning and purpose to things. We also aquired the ability to see ourselves as objects and wonder whether someone or something might have meaning or purpose for us. We need a reason to act, or else we want to conserve energy. Although we can see the functional reasons were do many survival tasks, we may start to wonder whether survival itself is worth the effort. What's the point?

(I have run out of time to finish. I'll post more later.)

My acceptance of no life after death

Bonogold wrote:

Well, as my belief in TSCC disintegrated, so did my belief in God. Now there's nothing for me to fall back on when I need comfort from the terrible things I see in the world. I've suddenly become overly emotional, even crying at stupid little things - almost like some kind of separation anxiety. Then a colleague/friend died unexpectedly this week, and I don't know how to cope with all of this. Life seems cruel and pointless. It's one thing to never have believed in God, but it's quite another thing to have one view of existence/the universe for your whole life and turn it upside down all at once. Has anyone else experienced this? Any advice? My life isn't in shambles. I'm actually much happier now in all areas except this one. I don't spend most of my time thinking about these things. It's just that when they do come up, I can't find the comfort I used to find - and I really, really miss that. It's the only reason I ever wish I could believe again.

I think I can relate. I felt the way you did when I first lost belief in the church and god over 3 years ago. Frankly, I've just come to accept it (kind of like accepting the death of a loved one). Time dulls the pain of the injustice of having no day of reckoning. I believe the scales of justice are never balanced and that is just the way it is. I don't believe in karma or an afterlife.

Olivia Newton-John was a guest judge on American Idol a few years ago and she wore a shirt that had a slogan which has since become a favorite of mine. The shirt said, "It is what it is". I try to simply accept what is most likely reality. In a lot of ways I have given up the concept of justice and instead focus on consequences that foster pro-social changes in behavior. I reject the notion that "the scales" can really be balanced anyway regardless of what any judge - human or divine - could do to the offender. The important thing is to try to reduce the likelihood of the offending behavior happening again through consequences, therapy, social skills training, etc. Natural death serves a purpose in that it ultimately prevents a person from ever doing harm again even if the person never has to account for their wrongdoing.

Basically, I am ok with things being what they are. Most of us during childhood came to accept that life isn't fair. Accepting that there in all likelihood is no final day of reckoning is just one step beyond that. I think we can learn to accept that, too.

Importance of Informed Consent in Rituals

I was part of the "Order of the Arrow" in Scouts growing up and also went through the Mormon temple without knowing in advance what would happen.

I don't like uninformed consent. It is disorienting and scary to not know what is going on or what will happen next or what limits there are to the experience. It puts participants in a psychologically vulnerable state in which they feel pressured to go along and do things they probably would not had they been informed ahead of time. Sure, any participant is free to leave or opt out, just like during a Mormon endowment, but the participant feels intense psychological pressure to conform (and none of the people in charge even have to make a threat). The experience just takes advantage of normal social pressure to conform.

But, after a person does conform, cognitive dissonance kicks in and their minds make them believe that they actually wanted to do it because that is the only reason they can think of for why they did it.Had they been threatened, then they would have that excuse for why they complied, but in the absence of threats, they can't understand why they wouldparticipate in such a humiliating ritual, and so their mind assumes then that they did it because they wanted to. And the more uncomfortable it was, the more they convince themselves they really like it. This is classic cognitive dissonance theory.

These are prime manipulation techniques whether the members putting on the ceremony consciously understand that or not.

Now, as a side note, people go into haunted houses not knowing what to expect, but they do expect the experience will be kept within certain boundaries. They expect to be startled and see gruesome things, but they expect that no real violence will occur. With secret rituals, the initiate has no idea what boundaries exist for the experience. Participants in psychological experiments know that some review board not affiliated with the researchers had to approve the protocol. But, there is no oversight of secret rituals.

Existential Angst

Existential angst, even reaching to the level of depression, is common among deep thinkers. So, common, that there is even a great literary movement that goes by the name of existentialism with authors like Camus, and works like "Waiting for Godot" and "Rosencrats and Guildenstern are Dead". Perhaps it may give consolation to some that they are not alone in walking this path, for many have struggled with these same issues before them.

Sometimes it is useful to catergorize depression into two types: organic and situational. Organic depression would be caused by severe neuro-chemical implances and often result in psychomotor retardation, loss of energy nearly everyday for an extended period of time, and multiple depressive episodes throughout one's life. Situational depression, on the other hand, may only occur a few times within a person's lifetime, and usually accompany a series of life events (e.g., failures in an important life domain, repeated rejection and loneliness, a seemingly insurmountable problem, etc). Situational depression serves a purpose, it is to inform us that whatever we have been doing isn't working for us, and that we should slow down and re-prioritize our life and re-orient ourselves. Unlike frustration, which simply suggests that we should find another route to our goal; depression suggests that we perhaps give up on that goal and find another way to meet the underlying need our old goal was supposed to meet.

For example, I once knew a man who believed the only way he could feel successful and competent was to be a great salesman. The only problem was, he sucked at being a salesman. His failures led to frustruation and discouragement, but he was able to avoid depression as long as he could come up with a new pathway to use to approach his goal of being a great salesman. New pathways included: reading self-help books, attending seminars, talking to successful salesmen for advice, selling different products, trying new ways to attract customers, etc. But, when he had finally exhausted all the pathways he could think of and still experienced failure, he fell into a deep depression. The thing that finally freed him of his depression was realizing that he did not have to be a great salesman (goal) to feel successful and competent (underlying need). He could feel successful and competent by being a great employee and providing for his family with a steady paycheck. So, he re-goaled and found a new way to meet his underlying needs.

Philsopher King: Your brother had the goal to one day have an eternal family and become a god, etc. His principle pathway to that goal was to be a good Mormon and do all the things good Mormons do. That goal is no longer attainable now that he knows it doesn't exist. There are no more pathways to that goal, so he naturally has become depressed. If he were my client, I'd have him first search for his underlying emotional needs. What does he most crave? To feel: wanted, appreciated, valued, understood, needed, cared for, cared about, important, competent, safe, prepared, worthy, etc? Once he has identified that, I'd help him brainstorm ways to get that need satisfied. All of our emotional needs can be satisfied by either ourselves or by other people. And if it is by other people, there are things we can do to elicit the responses we need from other people.

I'll end by sharing how I found my way out of existential angst. I realized that although my existence has no eternal or cosmic meaning or significance, my existence could have meaning and significance locally, in space and time to the people around me whose lives I touch and influence. My life matters to my wife and kids. If I committed suicide, it would deeply sadden them and disadvantage them in their lives. And I choose to care about their feelings. And although, they, like me, are nothing more than a contained chemical reaction and all the feelings they have are nothing more than a chemical reaction playing itself out, I am a homo sapien and I am content to do what homo sapiens do, care about the feelings of other homo sapiens, even while knowing my "caring" is just a chemical reaction itself. My wife and kids give my life meaning, locally in space and time, no matter how ephemeral. The human mind is the only thing capable of giving meaning and it is also the only thing that craves it. So, I get my need for meaning fulfilled bythe only humans I'll ever know (my contemporaries). It would be convienient to be like the deer who have no need for meaning and blissfully live their lives without it. But, I am a human, so I will do what humans do: live my life, satisfy my needs, experience my emotions, and enjoy my fellow humans.

Did I consider the possibility Holland might be right?

Someone asked,
Did any of you stop to consider that maybe Jeffery Holland was right and we are among those "who just wished to exit the church" who have to spend the rest of our lives "crawling around, over, or under the Book of Mormon" because it is something that even us apostates can't deny is true?

We're all just being decieved by Satan and we've given up our eternal exaltation and turned our backs on the truth and the faith of our Fathers, for what?

Holland is right that we don't know how the Book of Mormon was written. There is no clear consensus on the most likely scenario as to how the Book of Mormon was likely created. And there are many failed theories.

But, for me it does not matter who or how the book was written. It is enough for me to know that it could not be of ancient American origin. And if it is not ancient American in origin as it claims and as it has to be for the Church to be true, nothing else matters. It doesn't matter if it was written by Spalding and Rigdon or Smith.

I can't answer why Hyrum quoted from the Book of Mormon before his death or why Joseph testified of it to the guards. I have my theories, but I don't know. But, me not knowing the motivations of Joseph and Hyrum should not in itself negate what I already know through hard physical evidence.

The Book of Abraham was the smoking gun for me. It proves Joseph was a fraud and that he was deceitful while producing so-called scripture. The Book of Mormon has so many challenges to its authenticity, there is no question that it was written around the early 1800's in America, not 600BC to 400AD.

In short knowing the mind of Joseph is not necessary in determining whether the Book of Mormon is a fraud.

Happiness is no longer my goal

I have been having a number of conversations with friends and co-workers lately which have helped me articulate my present views.

As Mormons we were taught that "Men are that they might have joy" and that happiness was the end of our existence and the purpose for which we were created. Since leaving Mormonism and belief in god altogether, I have familiarized myself with a fair number of philosophies of life that are out there.

One great objective in Budhism is to give up attachment and desire, for by so doing one can eliminate suffering. I believe that that works (if one gives up attachment, one will eliminate the personal experience of suffering), but I fundamentally reject the notion that getting rid of personal suffering is good or should be a goal. I don't want to give up desire or attachment, because they are the only way I can feel true closeness and intimacy. I will gladly suffer the risk of pain and loss so that I can enjoy interpersonal warmth and love. Suffering is not all that bad. I have no phobia for pain. It is not that I want more pain in my life, but I accept it as part of life and am willing to experience it if it leaves me open to truly live.

I also find no appeal in the waves of new age movements that have lately come along such as "The Secret" and the works of Tolle. Tolle could be right in his fundamental approach; there is certainly no way to know for sure (I think there is some benefit in at least occasionally attempting to give up one's sense of self), but fundamentally I believe we are biological creatures, and our mental functions and experiences are born of the hardware of our neural circuits and the "software" we pick up from the environment."The Secret" I find just wrong on the face of it. Thinking good thoughts doesn't metaphysically make things happen.

There are a whole host of other religions and philosophies that tell us that we should make more of ourselves - that we should through meditation transcend ourselves and be more/better than the typical human. There is this emphasis that we should be doing more, accomplishing more, growing more, there is so much personal development that we need to get done before we die, we must prepare for whatever comes after death, etc. UGGGHHH & ICCCKKK!

A co-worker asked me the other day how I might live my life differently if I knew I only had two years left to live. He said that would put an urgency in him and rattled off a number of things he would do or attempt to accomplish and how he would spend his time. I thought for a moment and realized I wouldn't do anything different. I am living exactly how I want to at the present time. My immediate family is my main reason for living and I am spending time with them, and if I die, I die. So what? I don't feel that there is anything for me to accomplish, anything I must do or expectation that I must meet.

As far as the Universe is concerned, nothing is expected of me. In a few hundred years my existence will be completely forgotten (if not before then), and in a few billion years, nothing will be left of the organisms that once inhabited the planet earth. The universe really doesn't care if we exist or not, and certainly doesn't care what we do with our lives.

I am content to be a human being, a homo sapien. I do what homo sapiens do. Birch trees do what birch trees do; robins do what robins do; and I do what homo sapiens do. Nothing at the cosmic level is expected of the birch, the robin, and nothing is expected of me. I don't have to be anything or become anything; and I don't have to be happy or reach some meditative state of being (which I think is just a psychological trick anyway - it is not like we are really transcending our brains - our brains are making the experience).

For me, it is relieving to not have anything I have to strive for at the cosmic level. Now, I know I do have expectations for me locally in space and time. My contemporaries expect me to behave a certain way (pro-socially) and provide for myself and family (physically, emotionally, socially, etc). As a human I have needs and wants that I desire to have fulfilled and I work towards satisfying them. I have dreams and goals, but they are my dreams and goals that come with no external pressure to measure up. They weren't goals that were given to me by a deity, pretentious prophet, cosmic entity, or some new age guru who has a misguided confidence that they have THE powerful answer to the purpose of life.

I don't need to be happy; I am content to just be what I am - a human being. I am happy sometimes. I have given myself permission to feel a wide range of emotions, so sometimes I feel angry, sometimes I feel peace, sometimes I feel discouraged, sometimes I feel hopeful, sometimes I feel frustrated, sometimes I experience flow, and on and on.

Now for a tangent. I think emotions are a natural and normal part of being a homo sapien. I don't feel that it is bad or evil or that one is sinning if one experiences a negative emotion. I believe each of the various emotions serve a purpose and gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage. Most serve to draw our attention to something that needs to be addressed for our well-being. Sometimes, we get stuck in an emotion (like depression or anger) or experience an emotion when the situation doesn't really call for it (an intense phobia of germs). In these cases the emotions may be causing us problems in our lives, and we need psychological help to work through what needs to be taken care of or retrain our emotions to respond differently. I am a masters level psychologist and I do that kind of work.

The FLDS have a saying that they tell the women and girls among them - "Stay sweet" - meaning keep a smile on your face and a cheery disposition and stuff all negative emotions. To most of us that is obviously unhealthy. But, many religions and movements to a lesser extent promote that same message: happiness is the goal and if you are not happy you are not as developed, matured, strong as, good as, enlightened as, accomplished as you should or could be. The message is you need to become like the Buddha, the saints, the gurus, the masters, the transcendent ones, etc. They say, "these people have reached a level of peace, a spiritual plane, an enlightenment that you need to obtain. They have set the example for all to follow." I reject that. Sure it is enjoyable to reach those altered states, as I have done before and do on occasion. But, those states are just another part of the human experience and do not need to be the standard by which everything else is judged.

Look, I acknowledge that for some people, living their lives with those aspirations works for them. I celebrate their humanity and as a good friend support them. I am just saying that for me, I no longer feel expectations from the cosmos or a god. I no longer use happiness as a milestone to mark whether I am measuring up anymore, or being all that I could or should be. I don't look up to transcendental states of consciousness with any special awe or high regard.

I am sometimes asked are Mormons Christian?

I've heard arguments both for the position that Mormons are Christian and for the position that Mormons aren't Christian. I've read the quotes by Hinckley and others that usually get trotted out in such discussions.

The question really only seems relevant to two groups of people: 1) those who believe Christianity is the only true religion so it really matters if one is a ChristianTM or not; and 2) Mormons who don't want to be thought of as "less than" because they are not thought of as part of the Christian majority. The question might also be relevant to anthropologists/socialogists.

To the anthropologist, when considering all of the different religions that have and do exist (Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, etc), Mormonism clearly is a product of and fits in the camp of Christianity. Mormonism considers the Bible holy scripture and the word of God and features Christ as a god to be worshipped. Clearly, Mormonism has some unique theology and rituals and as such should not be catergorized within the Roman Catholics, or the Protestants, or the Armenians, Coptic Church, or Eastern Orthodox movements.But, Mormonism still fits in the larger umbrella of Christianity nonetheless.

Now, to many Protestants, those differences in theology in Mormonism are all so important. Since Mormonism doesn't fit into their rather overly strict definition of what a Christian must believe, many Protestants don't consider Mormons Christian. But, many people reject the Protestant definition of Christianity as THE definition of Christianity.

Some Mormon leaders, who wanted to emphasize that Mormonism is different/better than the predominant form of Christianity, have said things that one could interpret as them claiming they are not part of what they believe is the corrupt and apostacized Christian movement. But, most, if not all, would claim that they are the true followers of Christ and therefore the true Christians.

Many modern Mormons consider themselves Christian as they look to Christ as their Savior, Lord, and as the Son of God.

Personally, in a lot of ways, I just don't care. I don't believe either Mormonism or Christianity is true (or any other religion). To me, it is like arguing whether the Pharoah Amenhotep's brand of theology (monotheism) can be classified as part of the ancient Egyptian religion which believed in many gods, or not.

I sometimes think we get too caught up in trying to categorize things as opposed to just appreciating the differences and the similarities for what they are.

Would I have had a crises of faith had I not been Mormon?

I have often said that I am glad I grew up Mormon, else I might never have figured out that Christianity and the theology in the Bible is not true.

I don't know that I would have investigated the true history of Biblical theology if I had not first had to investigate the true history of the Book of Abraham.

I don't know that I would have ever questioned what I believed were promptings from God or that I communicated with God in my prayers, if I had not first had to question the "promptings I had received from God" that Mormonism was true.

I might have never questioned divine miracles, if I had not had to question priesthood healings.

I might have never had second thoughts about the intense love I felt from God, if I had not learned that those same feelings indicate nothing and are almost certainly created by our own brains.

Mormonism has proven to be a great stepping stone to teach me to investigate thoroughly and critically religion. I am happy with where I am now, and I am not sure I would have gotten here had I not been raised Mormon.

How I stopped thinking about god

Someone who no longer believes in god wrote this:

In my logical brain I just can't accept a higher power. But when I'm not sitting here thinking about it, random thoughts will come to me subconsciencely about God. Then I have to stop and remind myself that I don't believe in that anymore.

How can I start getting my subconscience to think the way my logic brain does?

I responded by saying: I think it was time more than anything else. I was a habitual pray-er when I believed. So, after I stopped believing, I would occasionally catch myself kneeling before my bed at night or folding my arms and bowing my head before meals. I would remind myself that I don't believe in that anymore. It has been years since I have even thought about praying. In fact, it is so natural not to pray now, I often start eating at my in-laws house when the food is served before the prayer (not intentionally, I would wait out of respect for them but I forget).

Do souls exist?

A friend of mine named peter_mary had this to say when someone asked if we thought souls exist. Below is what he said and then how I responded.


I tend to think I don't have a soul (this comes as HUGE suprise to everyone I've offended on my way to Outer Darkness...)

But then, I suppose it's how you define "soul." If we define "soul" as that sense of "self" that allows us to diferentiate ourselves from our surroundings, and that makes us truly unique in the spectrum of human beings, and that retains that sense of unique "selfness" (selfiness?) throughout the course of our lives, then yeah--I have a soul.

But in no way do I consider that soul to be differentiated from ME. In other words, there is no distinction between my body (the fleshy stuff) and my soul (the "selfy stuff). I believe that my sense of self resides in my brain, and that were my brain to be damaged (contrary to popular belief, it has NOT been damaged to date....that I know of) my sense of self could change radially and unalterably.

Furthermore, when I exhale my last breath, and the electrochemical processes in my body shut down, I believe that sense of self will simply cease. I see it as an emergent phenomenon of the manner in which the brain functions, serving us well (as evidenced by the ridiculous degree to which humans have moved into virtually every niche known to mother nature.) Subsequently, when the brain ceases to produce the electrochemical impulses, so, too, do all the associated emergent phenomenon cease.

Strangely, that doesn't bother me in the least.

By the way, I think "selfiness" is a most excellent made-up word.

Ditto! I could not have expressed my opinion on this subject better than peter mary just did for me. Thank you!

I believed in a soul before I delved into graduate studies in psychology. Every "function" we imagine a soul to do is done by the biological brain, from personality, to intelligence, to sense of self, to memory, to processing sensatory input, to whatever. The most convincing evidence of that is the loss ofspecific mental functions due tolocalized brain damage. If we do have a soul, it seems incapable of compensating for the loss of function from brain damage.

I researched Near-death experiences and have become convinced that there is no evidence there of a soul. And I dismiss outright reincarnation stories.

It is not bad if a woman is sexy

Although a man, I consider myself a feminist. I am for women and for making opportunities for women to be who and what they want to be. I am also for men and for people of all races, and people of all sexual orientations and sexual identities. I am a humanist and want all humans to have opportunities to be who and what they want to be, provided they don't hurt others.

My morality is simple: it is not good to hurt others (sexually, physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, etc). Now, I have a few caveats to that which is not relevant in the current discussion.

I admire and value intelligent and accomplished women. I also admire beautiful and sexy women. I also admire nurturing and supportive women. I can find nothing fundamentally wrong or demeaning about being sexy and beautiful. Appreciating one or another attribute about a woman does not equate to objectifying them. When I recognize a woman as intelligent (or am even turned on by her intelligence), that does not mean I see that woman as nothing more than a brain built for the sole purpose of stimulating me. Similarly, when I recognize a woman as hot (or am even turned on by her hotness), that does not mean I see that woman as nothing more than a hot body built for the sole purpose of arousing me.

Now, I do have a big problem with those who truly objectify women as it gives them permission to invalidate the woman (her feelings, her personhood, her worth, etc). And I believe that is damaging to her.

But, I reject the notion that a woman flaunting her sexiness is by definition demeaning herself.She could be, but it does not necessarily follow that she is. It could be argued that there are women who demean themselves by flaunting their intelligence if they think they would be worthless if not for their intelligence.

The danger comes in thinking that this or that attribute is the only one of worth, and that we or others are worthless without it.

So, I'd suggest we lay off those who celebrate their sexiness. If we don't know them, we don't know whether or not they are demeaning themselves as it depends on what they think about themselves and the meaning they give to what they are doing. Furthermore, we should not think that a woman who flaunts her sexuality is demeaning other woman. It just does not follow. We need to spend more time battling ideas and beliefs than being critical just because we see a portrayl of someone being sexy. The ideas that we need to battle is objectification (that a woman is not a person, but exists only for us), that the only characteristic of worth is sexiness, that if you don't look hot you are worthless.


My wife once told me that one of the things she admired about me most was my integrity. Years later, it was my integrity that led me to leave the church immediately after learning it was not true. And the wonderful thing was my wife was understanding because she knew I was acting on my integrity. She eventually researched the same stuff I did, and left the church with me.