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Friday, March 31, 2006 

What the heck does Occam know, anyway?

My brother flew into town last night and ate at a dinner for LDS doctors where Elder Ballard spoke. The other people at his table included an older couple named Wirthlin. They asked Rob about his schooling and, when he told them where he went, they asked him about a son of theirs. It turns out that their son was the only other LDS med student at Rob's university.

Afterwards, Rob and I sat around and talked about Mormon doctrine (sad, but true). We began to talk about Elder Hinckley, the son of President Hinckley. Neither of us had a problem with Elder Hinckley being called to the Quorum of the Seventy. I theorized that the fact that he was well known to the Brethren was a factor that contributed to his being chosen, but it wasn't the only factor. Rob felt that God had put him in that family so that he would be known at the time that God needed to call him into the Seventy. We may be looking at two sides of the same coin, but mine feels less pre-determined to me.

In our church, we believe in an active, involved God who is responsive to prayer and action on our part. As a result, we search out connections in the events and encounters in our life in order to discern the divine meaning that they communicate to us. We are encouraged to look for signs and omens and we believe that responses to our prayers can take many forms, some obvious and others less-so.

Others choose another path, one of demystification. Events that coincide simply coincide. Any meaning that we assign such coincidences is arbitrary and, therefore, without objective meaning. The patterns in tea leaves are determined by that vagaries of fluid in motion, not the unseen pattern of the universe. That drops of water create fractal patterns is interesting, but really only for the pretty pictures created. This is the strong belief that there is no man behind the curtain, so it is fruitless to search for one.

Some find in this an enticing economy of belief. Why manufacture supernatural causation when everything can be explained by experiment, human ingenuity, elegant rationality, and sufficient time?

To be frank, I don't know if my brother or I am correct in the Elder Hinckley argument. I doubt it is statistically unusual for my brother to meet the parents of an acquaintance at an LDS medical function, but it fascinates me that of the 50 or so tables available he got seated with them anyway. It isn't that I object to the search for the science in coincidence, it is that I just don't find the answers satisfying.

In high school, we read The Stranger. I was impressed by my teacher's description of the existential hero on a tight-rope over death, refusing the safety of religion or anarchy that would be found at either end of the rope. His own honesty and clarity of vision was so important that it was more important to maintain his dangerous position than to flee to the easy answers or the complete nihilism that would be found at either end of the rope. Above all, this convinced me that Camus, Sartre, and the lot were blowhards. Never buy from the salesman who assures that anyone who disagrees with his sales pitch is stupid or insane. I am sure that they are patting themselves on the back for the bravery of saying that everyone else is wrong, but I remain unconvinced.

In truth, I love connections, coincidences, and unseen forces. James Burke recently spoke at BYU and I have long been fascinated by his ideas. I believe that there is magic in the world, a mystery beyond all our understanding. Coincidence is reflective of this. May we all have the humility to admit, as in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. This is my prayer today.

John, it blows me away that you managed to throw that Rumsfeld quote inbetween the words "humility" and "prayer".

I agree that there is magic and meaning in coincidence. We seem to be created/evolved to recognize such, as if there has always been profound importance in recognizing patterns in the chaos of information around us. We're pretty good at it too, and we naturally find the pursuit and recognition of patterns highly rewarding. So much so, that we regularly see patterns where none exist--we create the pattern/association in our own minds and give meaning to it...and I don't thik this is bad thing; it helps us remain oriented, and it oten gives us reason to proceed in a certain direction when the otherwise would be no clear reason.

I'm not disagreeing with the idea that God teaches and directs us with such patterns, just thinking that we are much more integral to the process of creating such patterns...as if we were already gods.

Just a my thoughts as provoked by yours. Thanks for the post.

CS Lewis says something about the true lack of coincidence in those we live near or are related to, our acquaintances as well as our family. His theory is that God is the master of ceremonies in all these things and they are not accidents.

I like Donald Rumsfield, Watt. I'd go out with him, if he were younger.

But I wouldn't vote for him.

Watt, you have to accept truth where ever you find it.

Anne, well, it CS Lewis said it, it might as well be LDS doctrine. ;)

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This Week's Topic:

  • The Sabbath Day

Various Authors

  • Monday:
    Kaycee opted out of Mormondom 4 years ago. She calls herself agnostic.
  • Tuesday:
    Sarah is not your average Gospel Doctrine Teacher.
  • Wednesday:
    Carrie Ann comes from pioneer stock, and lives in Provo, but is open minded and fair.
  • Thursday:
    Ned Flanders hasn't been to church in a while, but maintains an interest in all things Mormon.
  • Friday:
    John C. is an academic with a sense of humor and a testimony.
  • Saturday:
    JP's not going to church and feeling okay about it.

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