Should truth be simple, easy to comprehend?

Andrew Sdoubt, faith, Logic, questioning 27 Comments

OK, friends and pals of MormonMatters…let’s play a game. (You just can’t get this at any of the other blogs, btw.)

Some of you may have played this game before…or understand how it is played. If you do, then think back to the first time you played the game (when it was as unknown to you as it is to many), and don’t spoil it for the rest.

There will be prizes. Although, they will be the nonphysical kind.

OK. So, here’s the game.

There are three doors in front of you. What I can tell you is that one of the door contains within a fabulous, yet utterly nonphysical prize. The other doors contain cureloms (…which I think is a goat. Maybe). Your job is to pick the door with the fabulous prize in order to win it.

Monty Hall Problem

Here are your three doors

But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. When you’ve picked a door (but before you’ve opened it!), I will open another door that has one of the cureloms in it. I will then give you the chance to stay with your door, or switch to the final, still unopened door.

…ok…so, before we get started with the game, I’ll ask you a question. After I have revealed one of the curelom-containing doors, do you think you should stay with your door, switch to the other door, or do you think it doesn’t matter?

[poll id=”176″]

More after the break, folks! (Including spoilers)

If you truly haven’t heard of this scenario, then please acquaint yourself with the Monty Hall Problem. Or, as some call it, the Monty Hall Paradox.

Why should this ever be considered a paradox? The truth…it is just so simple! It is so easy to comprehend! If I — the guy running the show — picks one of doors with the cureloms in it, then I have done you a tremendous favor. I have changed the odds from 1 in 3 to 1 in 2!

Of course…now that it is 50/50…it really doesn’t matter if you stay or if you switch your door. Each has an equal likelihood of containing the prize, and each has an equal likelihood of containing curelom-goat.


Statistically, if you switch doors, your probability of winning everything doubles from 1/3 to 2/3.

…did you see that coming? (To those of you who already saw this before, did you see the answer coming the first time you saw it?) Can you make sense of this truth? If you mosey back to the wikipedia page I linked you, you can see an explanation — several, actually — of the probabilities. In fact, there are freakin’ proofs.

I see the Monty Hall Problem as one clear instance where what is true isn’t what is immediately intuitive or easy to comprehend (for most.) Other examples? 0.999~ = 1. The plane will take off of the treadmill. All of quantum physics. (I imagine that when I’m old and dying and science has come up with new physics paradigms, I’ll be eating that last one…)

So, that brings me to my topical question: should truth be expected to be simple or easy to comprehend?

Especially in Mormonism (and especially if we’ve lost or doubted or questioned our faith), we often have a nascent belief that truth should be simple. Perhaps even easy to comprehend. At the very least, when we understand true concepts and principles, it should enlighten. Make everything understood. Make sense. Our doubts often come in the situations when we find an incongruency in these expectations — we either found out that what was easy to swallow, easy to comprehend is seeming more and more unlikely to be true, or that what we have found to definitely be true is nevertheless complex, nuanced, and extremely difficult to grasp.

And we may know people (perhaps even ourselves) who deal with such incongruencies in different ways. We have talked endlessly of “putting things on the shelf” (or, if you will, establishing cold cases.) And when we discuss such things, different sides often respond in different ways.

Why should we shelve things? Don’t our doubts say meaningful things to us? Why should we continue to believe things that seem unintuitive, unlikely, incredible (in the more mundane sense of lacking credibility), or, well, unbelievable? Shouldn’t we follow our noses?

…or is it the case that we never ought to have expected truth to be simple and easy to comprehend? And rather than live lives where our assumptions and understood storylines seem all to work without problem, we were supposed to live with — as many people have also begun discussing — with tension, paradox, uncertainty, and mystery?

…nevertheless, this also produces bad business advice. I think it is one thing to say that the truth may, in fact, not be simple or easy to comprehend. However, this does not necessarily mean we should accept things that seem to us unlikely…just because we are throwing out a sense of intuition for the likeliness of truthful things (…or the truthfulness of likely things..?). But then, how do we decide which unlikelies are keepers, despite their complexity or elusiveness to grasp?

Comments 27

  1. Sometimes the truth is counterintuitive. Is that the case more or less often, than it is the case that the truth is intuitive? The fact that someone has to think up this kind of parlor game suggests that a counterintuitive truth occurs less frequently than an intuitive one.

    In any case, regardless of whether some truths may be counterintuitive and complex, we are told that the truths of the Gospel are not: “…[T]hat men might be made partakers of the glories which were to be revealed, the Lord sent forth the fulness of his gospel, his everlasting covenant, reasoning in plainness and simplicity….” (D&C 133:57.)

    Mystery, tension and paradox are all well and good, but I don’t like them when they’re used as backstops when a thesis that is originally sold as simple and plain, turns out not to be so. Reverence for “mystery” is better suited to churches that have embraced it from the beginning (like the Orthodox, for example). It doesn’t work so well when other churches’ creeds are mocked for being self-admittedly “incomprehensible.”

    I can conceive of a Mormonism that embraces mystery, but what exists today is not it. Like Grant at the Wilderness, we are going to fight it out on the line of straightforward literality if it takes us all summer.

  2. All these posts about truth, BCC has one up as well. I am more than a little uneasy with the notion of truth itself. I am also very uneasy with the thought that truth can be talked about in terms of “should be.”

    The notion of truth has undergone some very rigorous critiques in the past 100 years or so but it seems that people operating within religious paradigms are largely unaware of this philosophical / psychological work. Regardless, obviously you are drawing upon our common Mormon idea that out there somewhere there is a universal, eternal, completely stable, unchanging thing to which we give the name “truth” and that this thing is simple and knowable.

    I think one can only believe this if one commits the injustice, the out and out crime, of a totally passive, a-historical, and blind reading of scripture. “Truth”, if we are bold enough, or ignorant enough to use such an idea, has many uses, and is given many forms by people who have faith that they know what “it is”, but that is not proof of it’s ontological status or our epistemological competence.

    This is not to throw out the notion of truth all together, but I side with Foucault in thinking that we need to always examine truth claims in relation to power, or aspirations to power among other things. Never a simple task.

  3. I think Douglas is right. Truth to me is never a “should be.” It can only be an “is” and sometimes a subjective “is” at that. I tend to prefer “useful” to truth conceptually.

  4. I’m of the opinion that truth is almost never simple or easy to comprehend. How many people understand the general theory of relativity? How about gravity? Are these theories and laws even remotely simple to understand? Does they even represent “truth”? I think many people mistake the observation of neat patterns in phenomena as evidence of the “truth” of something without considering all the environmental variables that may be interacting upon a given phenomenon (including the very act of observation itself). In other words, the “warm feeling” in our hearts, or our “gut feeling” about something tells us more about ourselves than it does about the subject in question, and it certainly doesn’t make something objectively “true” or “false”.

    This is one of the problems I have with theology in the modern, scientific world, which seeks to provide rational, logical explanation for matters of faith, resulting in increasingly daring philosophical acrobatics in light of developments in our understanding of the world around us. Occam’s Razor doesn’t even help here, because even the simplest explanation usually isn’t as simple as we (or our theologies) would like to make it out to be. The Earth isn’t flat, and the heavens do not revolve around it; demons don’t cause congenital mental or physical defects; all life on this planet–including human life–is the result of a process of natural selection; the nature of reality has as much to do with objects in space as it does with sentient beings there to observe them, and depends upon a frame of reference we may know relatively very little about.

    I suspect that the “truth” of the nature of life and our connection to deity is far more complex and profound than anything written in books of scripture or in all the writings of the prophets/theologians/philosophers in the history of the world. As we confront the magnitude of God’s knowledge, power, and creations, and realize the utter inscrutableness of God in proportion to what could be known or comprehended, we begin approach an understanding of the sheer complexity of “truth”. Faced with such overwhelming concepts can lead to what philosophers or spiritualists might term a transcendental or sublime experience. In no way should this experience cause one to exclaim, “Aha! I understand it now! it is so simple!” If we find ourselves thinking thus, it should be an indicator to us to carefully retrace our steps to discover what we’ve missed.

    Without a concept of the sublime, Mormons, I fear, are ill-equipped to face future complexities in ethics, morals, and scientific advances that will inevitably come. Instead, we (as an institution) are seen to dig in our heels against social or scientific progress (ERA, civil rights, Prop 8; DNA and Native Americans, evolution, etc.), capitulating only under extreme pressures, and only when theological workarounds can be devised.

  5. Post

    I will say something in response to Douglas and Hawkgrrrl,

    The question probably should have been something like, “Should truth be *expected* to be simple, easy to comprehend?” Of course, truth is what it is. But in our “pursuit” of such a thing (whatever it is), what should we expect?

  6. Andrew, your question is fair. But if divine truth is absolute, then what we are about is discovering truth. That I may not understand it does not make it less true. That it may not be inherently sensible to me does not make it less true (even if I expected it to be simple).

    My perception of truth may change over time. My understanding of truth may change over time. And even the relative simplicity of that truth to me may change over time, even if the truth itself does not change.

    For that reason, the shelf or the cold case has its place in my search for understanding. Because there are some things I don’t understand, either because I haven’t studied enough for lack of time or interest, or I have not experienced enough yet.

    Fifteen years ago I knew much less about the atonement than I do now simply because of my life experiences that have taught me (in sometimes painful and sometimes glorious ways) about the atonement. But the truth of the atonement has not changed in that time. I have changed.

  7. It may interest you, to compare theological truth with the laws of the universe, specifically physics. The laws of physics are all very simple and short. I can write everything I have learned in graduate level electrodynamics in a single line, called the Hamiltonian. But even this ‘simple’ equation has all sorts of complexities and side-effects that are complicated and involved. The entire world, except for nuclear physics and gravity, comes from that simple little equation; chemistry, biology, civilization, etc.

    Likewise, gravity was mentioned earlier. The basic idea is very simple – gravity is the effect of objects moving in curved space-time. But it goes without saying that simple is not the same as easy. Simple does not mean it can not give rise to complex situations.

    I think we will find that God’s definition of simple is not the same as ours.

  8. In my younger days, the world seemed much more black and white and I “knew” a lot more. As I’ve progressed through life, everything is a different shade of grey, with very few “right” answers. While I have more knowledge, I feel like I “know” even less truth. Maybe by the end of my life, I’ll know nothing about everything.

  9. Since this is a post about the Monte Hall problem, when I was younger, I thought I could calculate all moral decisions. It’s still my preferred mode of attacking any moral issue. But sometimes my calculations are just plain wrong if I don’t have someone to question my hidden assumptions or overlooked variables.

    By the way, it took me two years before I correctly understood the Monte Hall problem, and it took starting with 100 doors and working down before I realized I wasn’t learning any new information about WHETHER I’d chosen the wrong door. I was only learning new information about HOW I’d chosen wrong.

    That’s sort of like life, too.

  10. I’m with #9,10 and 12. The weird thing is I am comfortable with not knowing. As a young person I demanded to “know” and have proof of the church’s authenticity. I wanted irrefutable knowledge so I didn’t have to ponder it. Just check the box – Yes or No.

    Years later, as I live my life and watch others around me, I see that this world is a tenuous place to be. Marriages I thought would last for eternity, didn’t. Jobs went away, along with good health. Every other day I hear of global and personal tragedy, some created by natural events, some by the evilness of others.

    I no longer study church history with the intent of divining truth. I look at past church leaders and members as humans trying to survive and do their best that day. I do not try to assume their intent.

    I wake up each morning, assess my physical state of the moment and make my plan for the day. I don’t ask the bigger questions about unknowable things. I do take comfort in the peace I receive in my heart from prayer, scriptures and the family that surrounds me. That is enough for now.

  11. Andrew S-
    Thanks for bringing up a subject near to my faith crisis. Although there were many things that contributed, this type of thing was ultimately the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

    I agree almost completely with Steve S in #5. But for me, this topic really doesn’t touch on truth as much as it touches on how we decide what we think is true. In other words, my big problem was the method. As an engineer, I know my fair share of math and physics. But I also struggled with the Monte Hall Problem (I’ve seen it before), and there are many others like it. The realization that my intuition was not very good at deciding what was right hit me hard. I didn’t know how to separate my feelings that the church was true, from my feelings that told me the “right” answer on tricky logic puzzles. Since, like many others, I got the logic puzzles wrong sometimes, I started seriously questioning whether or not I could accept my spiritual manifestations as evidences for truth about reality.

    So, for me, this post isn’t so much about truth, but about how we go about discovering truth. I think intuition does have a place in that discovery, but I think in many cases it should take a back seat to more rigorous methods which demonstrate their usefulness in that search. And likewise, there are cases where intuition should be the deciding factor (I’m not a utilitarian).

    Andrew, you seem to be pointing out that there is something significant in the complexity of the truth which we are seeking. I don’t buy this. I do think truths can be, and usually are complex (after all, contrary to what Zen has said, the mathematical laws of physics don’t describe reality perfectly. There is always noise, and error in the system. The laws of physics are exact representation under ideal conditions, which never exist) but to me this doesn’t say anything about whether or not intuition is good or bad for understanding it. The Monte Hall Problem is not complex, or difficult to understand. It’s just that it rubs against our intuition, and we have a hard time, as humans, not trusting our intuition. It’s sort of the way we’re built.

    Re Paul

    But if divine truth is absolute, then what we are about is discovering truth. That I may not understand it does not make it less true. That it may not be inherently sensible to me does not make it less true (even if I expected it to be simple).

    Paul, I think you’ve missed the point. The point isn’t about whether or not there is absolute truth and how well you understand it. The post is about how you think you know what that truth is. You have stated that just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it less true. The question is, how do you know it’s true? My qualm is that the mechanism by which I suspect you know it’s true is not acceptable for me personally to make truth claims.

  12. In physics, even the most firmly-established laws* are almost certainly merely approximations: They explain the observed evidence better than other explanations.

    When we seek scientific “truth,” we are not necessarily seeking perfect understanding: We’re looking for something close enough for government work — something we can use to blow stuff up, make buildings not fall down, “take the initiative in creating the Internet,” and so forth. Depending on the context, the nearness of our understanding to how things actually are may vary: Newtonian mechanics are perfectly adequate to build a bridge, or fire an artillery shell. Relativity is more precisely “true,” but unnecessary for most applications.

    So what’s the comparison to theology? How “true” does an understanding of the gospel have to be, to produce the effects we’re looking for? Are we building a simple bridge (for which we need the spiritual equivalent of basic Newtonian mechanics), or are we trying to split atoms (for which we need something more precisely correct)? Or does “good enough for government work” not even apply in matters of religion, and it’s either 100% perfect comprehension of the literal, absolute truth, or “sorry, thanks for playing”?

    Maybe I’m being simplistic in being more or less satisfied with “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.” I don’t go actively looking for more esoteric knowledge (anymore), because (1) doing so came close to breaking my faith in the simple things; and (2) I observe no greater spiritual effects in those who think they know more of the spiritual details, than in people who simply focus on the spiritual f=mv2.

    Calculating the loading requirements for a bridge using Einsteinian relativity is a waste of your engineer’s expensive time. Is there an analogy to building souls?

  13. Re Thomas
    Yes, this is how I view it as well. And I think that many times in Mormonism the building souls, adequately accomplished with an adherence to Christ’s teachings in the NT, has been supplemented by loads of extraneous appendages, the costs of which are substantial, and which may, in some measure contribute to the building of the soul, but also have a plethora of unintended consequences and side-effects.

    Again, however, I say that the Monty Hall Problem is not about truth. It’s about the fact that most human beings get the wrong answer because our intuition, in many instances, leads us down paths of error rather than truth. It says much more about our “gut” than it does about our brain. The problem I see is that the “gut,” and/or intuition, closely parallel the reasoning for many orthodox Mormons who claim exclusivity of the LDS church. At least it did for me in my TBM stages. I don’t think this is a reason to reject the truth claims, per se, but as Andrew S says “our doubts say meaningful things to us.” If nothing else, to me, these kinds of puzzles should at least cause a dogmatic fundamentalist to take pause and examine the broad brush strokes with which he paints the scene of truth.

    A bat and a ball, together, cost $1.10. If the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

    At day one, a lake has one lily pad. Each day, the number of lily pads doubles. It takes 10 days to cover the lake with lily pads. On which day will the lily pads cover half the lake?

    Perhaps such examples don’t mean anything, but I think they illustrate the point that human intuition is not very good at answering many questions about reality.

  14. Truth should be difficult to understand and it should be elusive.

    It is the pursuit of truth that is rewarding…not just finding the answers. It is the exercise that helps me think that enlarges my soul and fulfills me.

    …unless I have to answer jmb’s math word problems…that’s not so rewarding.

  15. jmb:

    I know we don’t see spiritually well yet. There was a time when the ancestors of a species didn’t see the physical world well either. Those first photo-receptors connected to nerves weren’t all that great, but they were a start.

    Poor spiritual eyes is what we’ve got, but knowing that, I still need some external evidence from other sources before I rely on someone else’s spiritual senses are better than mine.

    Whose prophet do I rely on? Yours? Mine? Nobody’s? Ultimately, I have to decide for myself whom to believe and why.

    The looking inward to understand why we believe what we believe, as I think you are suggesting, is essential.

  16. #16 — Is the lake round or rectangular? And are they Europe9n or African lily pads? 🙂

    Have to admit that the bat & ball question made me look twice.

  17. Post
  18. Interesting post.

    “In fact, there are freakin’ proofs.” very true!

    #17 “Truth should be difficult to understand and it should be elusive” I agree. Things which are free, given away like welfare or the resurrection, aren’t as valued by people as those things earned, or found after much searching.

    Truth should be hard to find and hard to come by in my book, makes the finding much more rewarding.

    So “Should truth be *expected* to be simple, easy to comprehend?” Not for me.

  19. Re Firetag
    I’m still trying to digest your comments. Let me try. I’m really interested in what you have to say.

    I know we don’t see spiritually well yet. There was a time when the ancestors of a species didn’t see the physical world well either. Those first photo-receptors connected to nerves weren’t all that great, but they were a start.

    Okay. I think I can see this. We’re comparing physical eyes with spiritual eyes. Clearly our physical eyes are well developed and, overall, provide us with reasonably reliable information. I suppose someday our spiritual eyes will too? Perhaps this is true. But the development of such spiritual eyes, at least if we’re talking about emotion/intuition/spiritual witnesses isn’t being developed as rigorously because it keeps turning out to be wrong (at least when we’re talking about reality). If we concede that the scientific method is the best mechanism for determining information about reality (and I believe it is) then let’s put things where they belong. This is what led me to reject my position of absolute LDS truth/God/doctrine, and admit a personal one. That is, I’m LDS because it happens to work for me.

    Poor spiritual eyes is what we’ve got, but knowing that, I still need some external evidence from other sources before I rely on someone else’s spiritual senses are better than mine.

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here.

    Whose prophet do I rely on? Yours? Mine? Nobody’s? Ultimately, I have to decide for myself whom to believe and why.

    Indeed. I agree. And I think this is my point. Spiritual truth seems to be a subjective thing, but we treat it, in our society/culture, as an objective thing. Feelings/intuition/etc. are very bad at determining objective truths. They are better at determining subjective truths.

    The looking inward to understand why we believe what we believe, as I think you are suggesting, is essential.

    Yes, but it’s even more than that. The notion of exclusivity, that everyone must be LDS or they won’t make the CK, is an unreasonable position IMO because it implies an objective truth. It subsumes that because my spiritual witness told me that the LDS doctrine is true, it must be true for everyone. I’m not on board with that (and perhaps you aren’t either).

  20. “The notion of exclusivity, that everyone must be LDS or they won’t make the CK, is an unreasonable position IMO because it implies an objective truth.”

    What is unreasonable about allowing for the possibility of objective truth?

    I do believe that “everyone must be LDS or they won’t make the CK” is an unreasonable position — but not because it implies an objective truth. That an objective truth is hard to discover — in fact, so hard to discover, that any given person really has no reasonable chance of finding it — doesn’t mean that it’s unreasonable to believe it may exist. (What happened in Miriam bar Yakov’s kitchen at 9:30 a.m. on September 3, 7 BC is an objective truth — but we have absolutely no way of knowing what it was.) Rather, theological exclusivity — the idea that one must believe a certain thing, or be damned — is impossible to reconcile with any non-predestinarian theology.

    If we take as an article of faith that “God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him,” then we cannot take the position that God does not reward people who diligently seek God, but do not stumble across the LDS gospel in a manner that’s convincing to them.

  21. JMB275:

    Well, the CofChrist gave up exclusivity awhile ago, although it’s just starting to realize the implications of that theological shift, so I passed over that part of your concern without remembering how disconcerting it can be in going from a “one and only true church” to simply “a true church”. Sorry.

    Personally, I take the development of spiritual eyes and the development of physical eyes as a more exact analogue than most people. I don’t think humanity is the end of God’s work. The establishment of creatures in whom the spiritual and physical can be integrated — whenever humanity reached that capability — is a major milestone in creation, but I don’t think God is even warmed up yet.

    IMO, we aren’t created to simply reproduce new generations of humans, either physically or spiritually, but to also develop a different physical/spiritual lifeform of which we will be a part and be directed by — Zion or the Kingdom of God, as you wish.

    The scripture does say “this is My work and My glory, to bring to pass the eternal life of man”, but it does not say “this is my ONLY work and glory…”

    That’s sufficiently wierd for one thread. 😀

  22. This kind of reminds me of the game Truth or Consequences. I think sometimes Knowing certain things are true comes with a double edge sword. Maybe my perception might be skewed from growing up in foster care, but recent events make me question things even more, and not just spiritually.

    I want to know things now, not at a later date when the big joke will come on me after wasting so much time and effort learning about things that we have no real way of knowing will ever really happen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *