Reasoning from Different Premises
In 1987, an American economist named Thomas Sowell wrote a book titled A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. In it, Sowell tries to answer the question of why the same people align so closely on a host of issues, even though those issues aren’t interconnected and cover a wide range of subject matter. He says:
“One of the curious things about opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of the issues…. [Issues] may range from military spending to drug laws to monetary policy and education. Yet the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the fence, again and again.”
Okay, I know I probably lost you at “military spending,” but stay with me, because this absolutely has application beyond politics to religion, including Mormonism (in all its flavors). Instead of concerns over military spending or education reform, Latter-day Saints are discussing female ordination, same-sex marriage, and other elements of progressive orthodoxy – and that’s even before considering extra-Mormon doctrinal issues like the need of formal congregations, the importance of baptism, the role of judgment and tolerance, or even the nature of God. Familiar Mormon (and Christian) faces can be consistently found on opposite sides of the fence on these, and numerous other, issues.
But it’s not that people we disagree with “just don’t get it.” Sowell continues,
“A closer look at the arguments on both sides often shows that they are reasoning from fundamentally different premises…. They have different visions of how the world works” (emphasis added).
Having different visions of how the world works, different paradigms, is actually a pretty big problem when it comes to having productive discussions. Given that difficulty, can’t we just ditch these visions? Or, at least, can’t we just ditch the inaccurate ones?
Not really. Sowell concludes,
“It would be good to be able to say that we should dispense with visions entirely, and deal only with reality. But that may be the most Utopian vision of all. Reality is far too complex to be comprehended by any given mind. Visions are like maps that guide us through a tangle of bewildering complexities. Like maps, visions have to leave out concrete features in order to enable us to focus on a few key paths to our goals. Visions are indispensable – but dangerous, precisely to the extent that we confuse them with reality itself” (emphasis added).
Each of us has a vision, a paradigm upon which we operate. As Sowell suggests, this paradigm is like a map. As we grow and learn and generally experience life, we form our map. We also leave out certain realities because they muddle our view and would otherwise confuse our understanding.
This isn’t malicious, though. In fact, it’s essential.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re wandering through downtown Seattle using a satellite image to guide you. The photographic detail might be cumbersome, but you can probably manage.
But don’t stop there. In addition to the image itself, this map includes other information – the street names, the business names, and perhaps even a transcription of billboards and storefront advertisements. It includes current weather conditions, historical seasonal averages, and air quality details. It includes street grading and geological information. It includes pedestrian and vehicle traffic patterns (with live updates). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Oh, and don’t forget – this is not a map of the city of Seattle, or even the Pacific Northwest, or even the United States. This is a map of the entire earth.
Such a map would be overwhelming, and ultimately useless.
It’s true that we leave out realities that we deem unnecessary – consciously and subconsciously – but that is why. There is nothing immoral or wrong about leaving details out; our mind simply includes only those details it deems necessary to function.
Here’s a visual example, with not-so-subtle religious overtones. Below are two maps, each detailing the route from Pike’s Place Market in Seattle to the Seattle temple.
The first image is much more useful. It leaves out the useless details of the terrain, and even includes notable street/highway labels and a route I could take. If I get lost, there is enough detail that I could probably get back on course.
But the top map is not reality. Neither is the bottom map, for that matter. Each leaves certain “concrete features” out. I’ve engaged in selective editing to ensure that I can make my way.
With our personal paradigms, this presents a very real risk. Without exception, details are left out of our maps, our paradigms, our guides that help us to see the world and thus help determine our actions. We may have left out something small, akin to an inconsequential street name here or there. On the other hand, it is quite possible, even probable, that we have left out something important, effectively leaving us a map of downtown Los Angeles as we wander through uptown Manhattan.
Paradigms and Prophets
Knowing that our paradigms are flawed, but also recognizing that they help determine our actions, we should be certain that they are as accurate as possible, at least in the most vital areas. But how do we even start?
There is only one mind that comprehends all truth, or in other words, has a paradigm that is reality. God, who is omnipotent, has the perfect vision and is perfect in all He does. President Uchtdorf, in the Women’s Meeting of the October 2014 General Conference, said,
“We might find ourselves asking, “Do we really need to obey all of God’s commandments?”
“My response to this question is simple:
“I think God knows something we don’t—things that are beyond our capacity to comprehend! Our Father in Heaven is an eternal being whose experience, wisdom, and intelligence are infinitely greater than ours.4 Not only that, but He is also eternally loving, compassionate, and focused on one blessed goal: to bring to pass our immortality and eternal life.5
“In other words, He not only knows what is best for you; He also anxiously wants you to choose what is best for you” (emphasis in original).
Luckily for us, God shares from His infinite wisdom and capacity those concrete details that He deems vital for us. On a large scale, God has historically done this through prophets.
Having a prophet doesn’t mean that we will be able to understand all that God understands. Man’s mind is still finite and our maps need to be simple. Rather, having a prophet means that we can be taught the most important concrete features to include in our maps. This ensures we make better decisions and we wander throughout life. From a Mormon perspective, modern prophets can tell us which concrete features are vital for us right now, in our day.
In just a few days, we get the chance to hear from those leaders that we sustain as prophets, seers, revelators, and (if I can be so bold) map-makers. May we actively listen and find out which “concrete features” we most need to include in our maps as we navigate through life.