Why is he talking like a Russian figure skating coach?

See, this is why our theological amateurism is so lamentable. It’s pure zeal without knowledge, to borrow from Nibley’s brilliant observation. I know we take pride in being stupid, but it’s pride all the same. – RJH

When I read this comment by RJH last week on BCC, it immediately resonated.  The Spirit testified of its truthiness. There’s a long-standing tradition of pitting “spiritual” knowledge against “secular” knowledge, (or religion against science) and yet, when our spiritual knowledge is just gut feel mixed with guess work, it frequently contradicts reality. For example, the Onion recently used a Deseret News article as straight up humor, no embellishment required.  When confirmation bias and heuristics are driving the bus, expect shortcuts.  Why are we so proud of being ill-informed?

To go back to Nibley’s excellent essay “Zeal Without Knowledge,” he decries our tendency to dull the mind through repetition:

Underperformance, the job that does not challenge you, can make you sick: work which puts repetition and routine in the place of real work begets a sense of guilt; merely doodling and noodling in committees can give you ulcers, skin rashes, and heart trouble. God is not pleased with us for merely sitting in meetings

The original Hipster. The Nibster?

Then he goes on to talk about the mind’s need for knowledge, a need so great that invented knowledge and folklore will substitute as the junk food for a mind starved of real information:

The penalty we pay for starving our minds is a phenomenon that is only too conspicuous at the BYU: Aristotle pointed out long ago that a shortage of knowledge is an intolerable state and so the mind will do anything to escape it; in particular, it will invent knowledge if it has to. Experimenters have found that “lack of information quickly breeds insecurity in a situation where any information is regarded as better than none.” (11) In that atmosphere, false information flourishes and subjects in tests are “eager to listen to and believe any sort of preposterous nonsense.’ [1]

Nibley turns his sights on church culture in this scathing rebuke:

giving their young people and old awards for zeal alone, zeal without knowledge–for sitting in endless meetings, for dedicated conformity, and unlimited capacity for suffering boredom. We think it more commendable to get up at 5:00 a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one [2]–that is pure zeal that tends to breed a race of insufferable, self-righteous prigs and barren minds. One has only to consider the present outpouring of “inspirational” books in the Church which bring little new in the way of knowledge: truisms, and platitudes, kitsch, and cliches have become our everyday diet.

Ouch!  Deseret Book’s ears are burning.  He mentions two different minds at work:

Plainly, we are dealing with two orders of minds. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are . . . my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9.)  But why this crippling limitation on our thoughts if we are God’s children? It is precisely this limitation which is the essence of our mortal existence.

If you barely skimmed this, you were using System 1.

I’ve noticed this tendency to conflate “gut feelings” with spiritual knowledge in a way that should give us pause.  At times I’ve been suspicious of leaders’ ability to discern–the more confident they are, the more suspicious it seems.  For example, is it discerning someone’s unworthiness in an interview when they appear nervous or is the member simply nervous because they are humble or shy or uncomfortable around that person?  As missionaries, we often made a wild guess about the next thing we should do, and if it worked out, it was the Spirit, and if it didn’t, we could easily dismiss it.  Mormons like to identify the Spirit, but we forget the times that we followed our gut and it didn’t work out (or we believe that it just worked out in some unseen bigger picture way).

And yet, time and time again we hear in church the value of instinctual feelings over logical thinking.  Even Oliver Cowdery took his lumps for this one (D&C 9: 7-8):

Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right

We have this tendency to assume our feelings (the burning in the bosom, even when it is in lieu of studying it out) are the right answer.  And we are quick to associate our feelings (which are often mixed up with our desires, our fears, our hopes) with the Spirit and the will of God.  Acting on gut instinct and feelings without taking the time to think leads to heuristic errors.  And thinking does take time.

When Nibley referred to “two minds,” it reminded me of a book I’ve been reading by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman called Thinking Fast and Slow.  He describes two thinking systems our minds use.

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious
It looks like someone threw up on System 1 here.


Kahneman also talks about the difficulty of using both systems at the same time, which is why when we are doing a simple task, something mentally quick, our ability to do a more thought-provoking task is greatly diminished.  Instead we rely on heuristics.  We look for how new information is like old information, and we use that familiar pattern to conclude the right course of action.  And this is one of the key ways we make mistakes in our decisions or in how we perceive the world.  The book specifically outlines and labels several key problems in our thinking:

  • Anchoring.  We are easily influenced by random numbers.  If we are presented a higher number, we make higher assumptions.  If we are presented with a lower number, we make lower assumptions.  We incorporate these random suggestions into our assessment of the information.
  • Availability.  The easier it is to see the consequences of something, the more likely those consequences seem.  The more complex or indirect or unfamiliar the consequences are, the less we consider them.
  • Substitution.  We substitute a more complex question for a simpler one, which sounds backwards, but it is our lazy way of dealing with more information than we can quickly process.  Rather than cutting through the information to simplify, we lazily incorporate it all into our answer while ignoring the actual question.
  • Optimism and Loss Aversion.  People fear losses more than they value gains, so they have overconfidence about the ability to control their lives and avoid losses. The mind assumes future events will mirror past events.  The mind also assumes it understands the world rather than a small set of contradictory observations about the world.
  • Framing.  Our willingness to choose something is biased by framing.  For example, being told there is a 90% survival rate results in more people choosing surgery than being told there is a 10% mortality rate.  Framing has a significant impact on decision-making.
  • Sunk-cost.  People desire to avoid regret and will continue to throw good resources toward bad projects, to invest in what already has not paid off rather than admit their mistake and deal with the feeling of lost opportunity.

Kahneman further describes the “remembering self” which means that we don’t really conceive of our experiences as they are, but we remember an experience only for its peak feeling and its outcome. We are not capable of being aware of our experiencing self. [3]

“Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”

System 1, lazy-town express. System 2, lonely-ville.


When I think about the two systems, I am also reminded of Pres. Uchtdorf’s caution to “doubt your doubts.”  Doubts can be a byproduct of system 1 (an emotional, automatic response) or a byproduct of system 2 (logical, conscious skepticism).  If it’s the former, doubting your doubts is probably a good idea (as is doubting your beliefs).  If it’s the latter, the doubts are the studied evaluation of your assumptions, so inherently, you should be skeptical of your conclusions.  Both doubt and faith are too simplistic in their natural state.  Both need to be tested by a more rigorous system 2 thinking process.

To summarize these two systems of thinking, Jag Bhalla said:

Feeling is a form of thinking. Both are ways we process information, but feeling is faster.

We talk a lot about “search, ponder and pray” in church, but when it comes right down to it, I see and hear a lot of scriptural illiteracy.  Why is it so hard to take our time when it comes to pondering the paradoxical teachings of Jesus?  Certainly, there’s enough there to create a lifetime of study and thinking.  Hugh Nibley would say “life gets in the way”:

whenever anyone begins to talk about serious matters at the BYU, inevitably someone says, “I would like to spend my time thinking about such things and studying them, but I cannot afford the luxury. I have to think about the really important business of life, which is making a living.”

We often quote the following scripture from 2 Nephi 9: 29:

But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.

Why am I surrounded by question marks?

And yet, the context in which it is often quoted implies that to be learned is in fact not good because it prevents people from hearkening to the counsels of God.  It seems to me that this reading of it is a lazy excuse for criticizing scholars as being unteachable when we have sometimes unqualified people in a leadership role making judgments about things they haven’t spent time to understand. I refer here to issues like leaders who unknowingly mixing personal or political views with doctrine [4], who rely too heavily on correlation or church leaders above them to do the thinking rather than seeking their own knowledge and revelation, or who want to be commanded in all things and seek approval from authority rather than doing good works on their own.  These are all examples of heuristics or lazy thinking.  E. Oaks cautioned against this mistake in his talk about the two lines of communication or revelation (the need for both personal revelation and priesthood revelation):

If personal religious practice relies too much on the personal line, individualism erases the importance of divine authority. If personal religious practice relies too much on the priesthood line, individual growth suffers.

As I’ve said before, being a “yes man” shouldn’t be a qualifier for Godhood.  I don’t want to be living on the planet run by some idiot who can follow orders and cries at touching commercials but can’t do a weighted average.  Call me crazy; the bar should be a bit higher than that.  There may be math on the God test.  I certainly hope there is.  How else are you going to get your firmament to divide your waters from your waters?

Not all system 2 thinking is math, though.  It’s also logic, analysis, and disciplined process; these are things found in the social sciences and humanities, not just in the hard sciences.  Yet, even when our church systems are in place to slow down our thinking [5], to insert a space for pondering and reflection, how often do we still rely on gut instinct and call it the Spirit?  And how often is it really just relying on easier, lazier thinking or substituting emotion for thought and calling it inspiration?


[1] Anybody else love that he calls it “the BYU”?

[2] I’m looking at you, Early Morning Seminary.

[3] I’ll try to remember that one next time I’m at the gym.

[4] Hello, philosophies of men mingled with scripture!

[5] Slowing down to the point of total inertia at times, or so it would seem.