Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Schroedinger's Cat in the City of Angels

Los Angeles. The Angels. A brief visit gives the Spinozist a chance to reflect upon them.

Emerging from the elevator on the 18th floor of his Wilshire Boulevard hotel, the Spinozist is greeted with a spectacular view: the temple of Los Angeles, just blocks away, gloriously outshining the lesser city lights spread out in the distance like glittering diamonds scattered across a jewler's balck velvet display cloth. Atop the temple in brilliant gold stands the most remarkable angelic denizen of this City of Angels, standing defiantly with trumpet raised, high above the city streets, in the midst of heaven, so to speak,
having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,

Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.
Musing on the singularity of the scene, and marveling greatly, the Spinozist notes that from this vantage point the herald angel's sound is somewhat muted; the heavenly ministrant faces a different direction, the sound of the trump is crowded out by the bustle of Babylon below.

The fleeting vision dissipates as the Spinozist turns away, when, in the midst of his meditation, the first vision is suddenly replaced by another. The Spinozist's assigned room is on the other side of the building; upon entry, the supplanting panorama greets him, an incarnation of a shopping list of iniquities detailed in the angelic minister's ancient record. Towering, luxurious apartment and office buildings on the other side of Wilshire reach towards heaven, latter-day ziggurats proclaiming man's wealth and power; behind them, a moat of costly Westwood residential real estate surrounds a fortress of humanity's creative and exploratory powers, where muddy bricks of Knowledge and Meaning are assembled into the spiritual Tower of Babel that animates the physical instantiations in the foreground.

This, spreading out in the shadows of the Everlasting Hills Hollywood and Beverly, is the Spinozist's destination: a modern university. On the morrow he will gather with its priestly inhabitants, famously "clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood," bustling about like diligent ants in their hive of learning. Briefly, he thinks also of the enclave's young supplicants, encountering the world of Charlotte Simmons. Tonight, like ancient Lamanite warriors imbibing their bounty before going to battle on the morrow, these apprentices check off their extracurricular shopping lists of iniquity in a bid for strength against the morning's engagement with the curricular requirement lists that will give them their permanent ticket to Babylon.
And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.
Wanderlust of mind and spirit overcomes a tired body's aching for rest. By this time, so deep are the impressions made on the Spinozist's mind, that sleep has fled from his eyes, and he lays overwhelmed in astonishment at what he has both seen and heard; but what is his surprise when another vision presents itself to his mind, borrowed from another young man in another time, a commencement speaker named Alfred Kelley: a vision of another university, set in another valley, beneath another set of everlasting hills. Spreading from the then-bare Temple Hill presiding over a then-empty landscape, "temples of learning" fill the valley in the young man's mind.

It is a vision fulfilled in the Spinozist's day, complete with a temple proper crowned with another (actually, the same) golden messenger---a vision he once found sufficiently inspiring to feature in a commencement address of his own, but which now questions. The Spinozist wonders anew at the bold experiment, the philosophies of men mingled with scripture. He recalls its inhabitants, not ants clothed purely in black, but deseret in its beehive: busybodies with well-separated stripes of academic black and revelatory gold. He wonders at the mingling, and the separation, wondering what the final outcome will be. Engaging with the slow but persistent would-be revelatory solvent, will humanity's proud juggernaut of learning and wealthy competence be revealed as salt---not useless, but nevertheless ultimately to be dissolved and subsumed? Or is it oil, presently mixed in colloidal suspension by intentional shaking, only to rise inexorably to the top as the weight of empirical reality pulls the revelatory water to the bottom?

Seeking an instantaneous solution to this conundrum, and still having angels on his mind, the Spinozist recalls recently spoken words, and hopefully makes an instantaneous pilgirimage across cyberspace to consult the delphic sayings of the oracles. He ponders---weighs---the following:
The spiritual gifts described in the Book of Mormon are present in the Church today—promptings, impressions, revelations, dreams, visions, visitations, miracles. You can be sure that the Lord can, and at times does, manifest Himself with power and great glory. Miracles can occur.

Mormon said: "Has the day of miracles ceased?

"Or have angels ceased to appear unto the children of men? Or has he withheld the power of the Holy Ghost from them? Or will he, so long as time shall last, or the earth shall stand, or there shall be one man upon the face thereof to be saved?

"Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought" (Moroni 7:35–37).

Pray always—alone and with your family. Answers will come in many ways.
He remembers the words recently spoken by another seer, illustrating one of these "many ways"---remembering also his own reflections upon it, and wondering if it's the most that can presently be offered. He next remembers the words recently spoken by The Seer. In spite of Joseph's promise that Jesus would visit from time to time, and even manifest the Father (TPJS p. 150-151, D&C 107:18-19), the Seer reports that Joseph's experience is the latest and greatest---nothing like it since.

The Spinozist remembers Joseph's endorsement of tactile witness, spoken in the context of a sermon on the temple:
No one can truly say he knows God until he has handled something and this can only be in the holiest of holies. (HC 4:608)
He marvels at the fact that we have no record of Joseph testifying of having such an experience. In making such statements, was Joseph looking forward with expectation to the future reception of this blessing in connection with the Fullness of the Priesthood, bestowed---along with the longevity and superhuman powers exhibited by antediluvian patriarchs---in a properly completed temple, which he did not live to see?

Returning full circle to the first seer quoted above, the Spinozist recognizes that promises about the Second Coming require an expansive definition of "this generation," one that effectively must encompass an entire dispensation---and that in spite of the inferences Church members commonly make based on testimony-by-dropped-hints, similar logic may apply to the cited promise of continued visitations: Perhaps the Brethren have an expansive definition of what occurs "today," or "at times"---expansive enough to include our founding generation---so that they may be satisfied with what they think they perceive through the Holy Ghost, and dreams.

The conundrum, therefore, remains unresolved. Even taking the Brethren to be sincere, the ambiguity and lack of detail of their statements preclude definitive, comprehensive evaluation of their intent and meaning.

Dueling cautions now enter the Spinozist's mind, telling him that Satan would try to tempt him to rationalize for the purpose of justifying sin, and that fear of annihilation would tempt him to cling to claims of immortality in a putative spiritual realm. He would fain forbid these motives, hoping he would have no other object in view in seeking truth but the benefit of humanity, and would not be influenced by any other motive than that of building better circumstances for himself and his fellows; otherwise he might not obtain it.

The Spinozist is left to ponder on the strangeness of what he has just experienced; when almost immediately following these concluding thoughts, the cock crows, and he finds that day is approaching, so that his musings must have occupied the whole of the night. Shortly he will arise from his bed, and, as usual, go to the necessary labors of the day.

Doubletree, reads the sign on the Spinozist's place of lodging, along with an image of two interlocked trees. On an upper floor high above the ground below, he feels unnaturally lifted up, precariously suspended between the holy temple on the one hand and secular temples of learning on the other, like an aerial tram terrifyingly stuck midway through its journey across a deep chasm. He imagines these two competing temples as referents of the two interlocked trees, the Tree of Life and and The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Caught between them in a baffling entanglement, he is Schroedinger's Cat, existing in a state of macroscopic quantum superposition, simultaneously and seemingly inconsistently heir to both eternal life and eternal death.

Given the limits of secular knowledge, and the limited nature of revealed testimony, he wonders if the measurement that will collapse this wavefunction will not come until his departure from this world. In one outcome of this definitive measurement, his immortal soul will survive the ordeal of death, and he will know the answer for himself. In the other, his brain and all its synaptic connections will crumble to the dust, never knowing it will wake no more---and never remembering it once thought to wonder.


Christian, what a dense and evocative description of the conditions of doubt. Wish I had something intelligent to say in response--let me think about it for a while.  
Comment by Rosalynde | 5/04/2005 04:47:00 PM  

I guess I didn't expect many comments. I'm almost surprised there's even one! Yes, it is dense, and also longer than most posts---and I suppose it even appears to demand a lot of homework, what with all the links. It's nice to know at least one person read it all the way through to the end. (Well, Rosalynde, I guess you didn't exactly say that, did you? ;-> )

One bit of trivia: I posted this from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where I work typically two days a week during the school year. My sojourn from car to office to gym and back to car makes a sort of triangle that surrounds the Central Library, giving me views of all sides of the building. This library is pictured near the bottom of the Wikipedia "ziggurat" article linked in the post, as an example of the influence of ziggurats in modern-day architecture. (Perhaps they could picture the UCSD library in an article on the influence of alien spacecraft on contemporary architecture!)

Like most people most of the time, I walk around  this library---this temple---much more often than I walk through it. And even when I walk through it, it's usually a brief detour seeking a respite of air conditioning on my cross-campus journey, rather than a pause to plunder its treasures.

Such, I suspect, may also be the fate of this post.
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/05/2005 08:22:00 AM  

Christian: Wow! This seems unbroachable to me. I am afraid that if I said anything about it, I would demean the profound sincerity and honesty and intensity by making trite, redundant comments. I hope to be able to "walk through" the post at some point and contribute something as profound and valuable. 
Comment by Mike Wilson | 5/05/2005 10:25:00 AM  

Mike, thanks for reading.

I'm worried about seeming self-important, and pretentious, and unapproachable, and ... It is a personal piece, but I don't want it to be a museum piece. It makes an argument that is open for discussion.
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/05/2005 08:37:00 PM  


Are you willing to give yourself odds on what the end result will be? That when the lid on your personal Schroedinger's cat situation is lifted whether you will more likely be exalted or non-existent? If your situation continues as at present, what would it take to push you in either direction? I hope these questions aren't too personal, because I think they are important, at least for me as I try to understand where you are.

Comment by Mike Wilson | 5/06/2005 02:44:00 PM  

Mike, an example of something that would make a difference would be a chance to sit down and talk with someone I trust who has handled the resurrected Savior, and would be willing to discuss it.

Does that make me a sign-seeker? Sort of, but not really, because I don't demand that it happen to me personally. I would like there to be evidence of a more empirical and objective nature.
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/06/2005 08:48:00 PM  

Christian -

Great post. Brave as well. There is too much to say so I will limit it to one thing that hunted me - the imagined prose:

"The Spinozist likes his chicken spicy." :) 

Comment by J. Stapley | 5/06/2005 09:33:00 PM  

Thanks, J.

If J. shows up here often enough, I wonder, will I find myself subject to his legendary converting power, migrating to WordPress before I realize what's happening? ;) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/07/2005 09:20:00 PM  

Come, to the dark side... 

Comment by J. Stapley | 5/07/2005 09:48:00 PM  


From your comments it seems that you recognize the importance of exercising some faith, but you only want to be removed from the tangible facts by one degree of separation. This begs the question: How much faith does/can the Lord demand of us?

Many in the Church believe that the Brethren have seen and talked with Christ. Whether they have handled Him or not is less clear (or thought to be less important). For them to testify in plainer terms of what they may have seen or experienced would be international news (if it is as many assume). It would be interesting to speculate about the responses.

I am just trying to understand the difference, other than in degrees, between what you are wanting and what is available. You still must trust this person (and have developed a powerful reason to trust him/her). It seems that the Spirit must still confirm to you that what the person is saying is real and true.

I guess one difference is that in this dispensation there are none who have testified of having touched the Savior, feeling the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet (although Elder McConkie testified that "in a coming day," after having that tactile experience, he would "not know any better than" he knew then about the reality of the Savior).

In this conference address here  is put forth the Still, Small Voice as the source of spiritual knowlege. We are taught to regard this as more powerful than visitations of angels and other heavenly beings. Why is it that these profound, internal, personal spiritual experiences are taught to be more lasting and have greater staying power than visual experiences? Does the same apply to tactile experiences?

P.S. I still would be interested to know what odds you are giving yourself when your wavefuntion collapses. However, if you don't want to go there...that's more than fine.

Comment by Mike Wilson | 5/08/2005 12:58:00 AM  

Mike,  the fact that many in the Church infer that the Brethren see and talk with Christ---based on what I called "testimony by dropped hints"---is a situation that makes me uncomfortable. I am sad that God's more open involvement with humanity would have to be international news. It's fine that we have to be separated from him to learn---we do the same when we leave our parents to go to college---but to learn in college we don't have to have a veil put over our minds, leaving us to wonder if our parents ever really existed.

Yes, I would have to trust a witness, but I don't think that would be so much by the Spirit as by being exposed to the person over some period of time. I have heard and read enough talks over the years by the Brethren that I would feel confident they are earnest and sincere, and would be telling the truth about something like that if I were to speak with them one-on-one. My concern is not with their honesty, but with understanding the basis for their beliefs, and having an opportunity to judge for myself whether their experiences are sufficient to justify their beliefs.

I made some comments on Elder McConkie's last testimony here  and here.

On the Spirit being the most powerful witness: I worry this is the kind of thing we tell ourselves as an excuse when the other hasn't happened. I assume that the Lord would recognize the importance of tactile witness, or there would be no accounts of handling the Savior, plates, etc. What's mystifying to me is why this can't be renewed in every generation, or even be sufficiently common that the world wouldn't have to think someone was mentally ill for claiming such a thing.

I don't know if I could give you a precise number on the odds. It probably varies somewhat, depending on things like the phase of the moon and what I ate for breakfast. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose one way or the other, right now I would say I don't think there's a spiritual realm. Maybe 97-3 against if you must have a number. ;) It has to be pretty strong to "come out" the way I have, coming from the background I do. But I also feel that if Heavenly Father really is there, that he would understand me and know my heart; I don't feel too worried about his judgment. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/09/2005 07:21:00 AM  

I think you are absolutely right not to worry about His judging of you for the situation you are in. I appreciate so much your forthrightness and honesty with regards to the subject. 

Comment by Mike Wilson | 5/09/2005 11:32:00 AM  

Mike, I appreciate the sentiment. I suspect, however, that most Mormons would think I should  be more worried if I haven't come up with the right answer.

Mormons are usually not comfortable with mere belief, or a choosing of loyalty. Certainty---an iron rod to cling to---is a large part of the appeal, and it is openly advertised as such.

Testimony is couched in epistemic terms. For example, in the talk you linked above: "Like Alma of old, each of us, members and sincere investigators alike, can know with surety that these things are true. It is our great privilege to know. It is more than a privilege; it is our responsibility to know." Hence all of us who don't know are failing in a responsibility. By this you recognize that the whole world is groaning in sin, because they don't recognize the truth. Perhaps so.

In that talk, just before the above statement, Alma 5:45-46 was quoted. For many years I have pondered the irony and significance of Alma fasting and praying for many days to know the truth for himself through the Spirit, even though he had already seen an angel and had his remarkable spiritual birth. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/09/2005 10:44:00 PM  


Your comments and insight are very interesting and refreshing. I think that God is much more interested in what we do with what we have (information-wise) than what we say we believe.

I do believe it is our responsibility to know, just as it is our responsibility to care (in a very active and real sense) for our fellow brothers and sisters, be nuturing and long-suffering with those around us, seek truth in all its forms. And just because we aren't good at some of these things and aren't perfect at any of them doesn't mean we are cast out. In the beautiful covenant relationship with Christ, as weak as we are or feel, if we are trying to DO good with where we are, His salvation and mercy are ours to enjoy.

I am very hesitant to condemn anyone who doesn't believe, or know, to the degree that might be expected. Joseph Smith's interesting comment, that if he hadn't experienced  (not felt) the things he experienced he wouldn't believe it himself, gives some insight into how difficult it is to believe and know some things.


Comment by Mike Wilson | 5/10/2005 06:37:00 PM  

Mike, your good feelings are much appreciated. I'm grateful for your friendship.

Comparing the responsibility to know with the responsibility to love---both as attributes that need ongoing development---is intriguing. I will ponder this further. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/11/2005 12:00:00 PM  

Christian - Hi. It would be interesting for me to know what you do for a living. Gary directed me to your "Schroedinger's Cat" essay because of some comments I made about quantum mechanics. It is a masterful piece that gives me a window to you I didn't have, and changes my perspective on your comments I have read here and at "Evolution." One observation I think I can make about you is that you struggle for "proof" that the central ideas in your native "Mormon" culture are valid. You would like as good of proof as scientists offer with theories about the history of life and death on earth. You would like to be able to "handle something," as Joseph said. You would have been contented to be among the 500 who saw Jesus as a resurrected person in Palistine, or among the 2500 plus Nephites who saw and handled. You suspect that the "witnesses" available in your culture, from the "greatest," (i.e., the apostles), to the least, perhaps the primary children who "bear their testimonies," may be, however well "intended" merely culturally "programmed" to one degree or another. I have read one of your reviews of Elder McConkie's final address. In Elder Packer's maiden address, (and at other times) he has "dropped the hint" that, despite his other qualifications, or lack thereof, "I have THAT witness), that, with Peter, James and John, qualifies him to be a "special witness," having been an "eyewittness to majesty." I would just like to say that as an outsider not only to Mormon culture (which I really don't like much), but to modern civilization, (which I also don't care much for) and who didn't believe and wasn't interested the "truth claims" of the Church for the 15 years of my exposure to it, that there is a witness available that is as compelling as "handling something" in the "holy of holies," and that we are not discriminiated against by not being among the 500, or the 2500, or the 3 witnesses. I haven't yet figured out why some people get access to this witness and others do not. I know it comes in different ways, but, when one has it (and I realize that it can be lost), the quantum "incompleteness" that you so eloquently described experiencing as you compared the Temple of your native culture to those of prospective Babylon in the same neighborhood can melt away like hoarfrost confronting the sun. I regularly encounter active Church members who live better lives than I who lack the witness that I possess. One of my favorite Professors at BYU talked a lot like you do now. He had already been a Bishop once, and he was kindly and full of love and compassion. He openly spoke of leaving the Church for "intellectual" reasons. This was in about 1972. In 1987 or so, I was living in St. George, (I have lived mostly in California, where I am for the time being) and had the BYU channel on cable. I seldom watched BYU devotional addresses on the station, but, when I saw that Prof ____________ was speaking at a devotional, I perked up!! I watched the introduction, he had now been a Bishop three times. When he spoke, he was a "new man." He made a guarded referrence to his "intellectual days" that I picked up on, but, it was obvious to me that in the 15 years since I had last heard him, he had received his own version of "that witness" of which I speak. Hang in there, Christian (a name I cannot write without the deepest of feelings, because it is the name of one of my grandsons who lost his daddy and my best friend at age 6 to a very tragic death) and I promise you that - without "seeing and handling" your doubts will one day disappear in a manner that you cannot now understand.  

Comment by Greg | 5/13/2005 11:44:00 AM  

Greg, thanks for your very interesting and kind thoughts. I thought your comparison of the apparent contradiction between GR and QM to the apparent conflict between science and religion was an interesting "take" on the matter.

I'm a physicist, an astrophysicist in particular; perhaps this explains my interest in cosmic questions and the kind of evidence I'm wishing for. As I told Mike above, I don't have to see and handle myself, but I would feel better if I knew it were happening to somebody.  But you may be right, I may yet come around to your conviction of a spritual realm (though I don't think I will about no death before the fall---GR or QM, or both, will have to give, and I think this is one thing that will "give.") 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/14/2005 08:07:00 AM  


The next time you're in my backyard you need to give me a call. I live just north of Santa Monica Boulevard a few blocks West of the temple and just South of Fortress UCLA. I'm intimately familiar with both the literal landmarks you describe here and also much of the spiritual (or not so spiritual) terrain. From my perspective it's not temples of learning that stand opposite the Angel Moroni, but water towers decorated with corporate logos, surrounded by sets and soundstages. So I can offer no advice, but I would say this: next time you're in L.A. don't stay in a hotel room up so high. L.A. is much less inspiring at ground level.

For example, if I look out my bedroom window I see an office building about thirty yards away. If I walk through the alley next to the office building to the gas station on the corner of Sepulveda and Santa Monica I’m more than likely to see a homeless person. If I make it to the corner of the intersection I’ll see a collection of exhausted and poverty-stricken Angelenos waiting for a bus ride home. Whether there’s a spiritual realm or not, I think it’s the Gospel that is the best chance for the people in my vicinity to get help and find solace. That’s how I keep the big, hard questions in abeyance, as anti-intellectual as it may be, I keep my feet on the ground and my view point locked on my local geography.

I guess that sounds a lot like advice. Sorry about that.

My main point was next time you’re in L.A., don’t be a stranger.


Comment by Brian G | 5/17/2005 02:54:00 AM  

Brian, I'm not in LA often---maybe three or four times in the last ten years---but I'll let you know next time.

Your point about things looking different at street level is well-taken. I have sometimes thought about how spoiled one can be, not suffering the kinds of things the less-fortunate do, having the leisure to worry about cosmic trivialities while effortlessly filling one's stomach with good food delivered by room service, instead of having one's capacity for worry saturated by scraping out a basic existence.

I would not doubt that active Church members are more likely to lead orderly and productive lives, and less likely to, say, end up homeless. I wonder what it is about the Church and the Gospel that leads to this. The strong social network with enforced standards and provision of a safety net? The fostering of family ties? A sense of personal and community purpose and mission? Would orderly and productive lives still result even if the doctrine were false? Could orderly and productive lives possibly result from communities built around ideas that did not include God?

Now it's my turn to apologize, for asking so many questions. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 5/17/2005 09:34:00 PM  



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