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My Brow-Beating Techniques

So David Axelrod once again insists that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is definitely off limits. Whew! That means we won’t have to suffer through tedious Washington Post articles that try to make a 150-year-old massacre a campaign issue, or listen to Obama’s biggest SuperPAC donor’s claim that Mitt spent two years “trying to brow-beat Frenchmen into joining his cult.”

As one who spent two years in the UK brow-beating Scotsmen to join the same cult, I can honestly say that Mormon missionaries are more often the brow-beaten than the brow-beaters. I shall never forget that dreary morning in Livingston, Scotland, when a three-year-old urchin kicked me in the shins repeatedly and told me to “get a @&$ing job.” Believe me, it’s not as cute as it sounds.

The fact is that our main brow-beating technique was to knock on a door, announce ourselves as representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and smile wanly as the door slammed shut in our face.

In order to avoid this scenario, we spent several months conducting “a survey about religious issues.” It was all very scientific, and it very often got us in the door, only to be kicked out when we hamhandedly segued from opinion polling to proselytizing.

Unfortunately, it was also kind of dishonest.

Many of us would raise that issue in group meetings, only to be told that there was nothing wrong with it, until the Area Presidency got wind of this ploy and told us to cut it out because, yes, it was dishonest.

I wasn’t especially sad to see this particular technique abandoned, because getting access to some of these homes wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Publicly subsidized “council houses” in some of the poorer areas of Scotland were home to some of the most rancid stenches humanity has ever produced, some of which could actually inflict lasting physical damage on the human nostril. Particularly noteworthy was what was later dubbed the “Wall of Stink Incident” in Thurso, Scotland in the autumn of 1988, when a door opened and unleashed an almost tangible barrier of fetid vapors devoid of breathable oxygen particles, instead consisting primarily of gaseous remnants of barbecued dog hair, vinegar, carrion, unwashed gym socks from 1954, and disembodied armpits, all marinated in a vat of used diapers and sour milk. Even thinking about it two decades later causes my nose to start bleeding anew.

Once, when we were conducting our deceptive little questionnaire, nobody answered the door at first. We were driving from farmhouse to farmhouse, so we had gotten in the car to leave, only to be chased down by the homeowner who asked to get into the vehicle in order to complete our survey. When we noticed a swarm of ants climbing from his hand up into his shirt sleeves, we quickly informed him that the Law of Tithing would require him to pay 10% of all of his money to the Mormons. And thus it was that the Scottish Farmer and his Assembly of Ants was warded off from our back seat.

Of course, if the ants had gotten in, we could have taken care of them with a quick game of Spider Yo-Yo, which was a favorite pastime on rainy days inside of Glaswegian tenements, where hordes of big, gnarly arachnids infest the untended hallways. If you take your umbrella and poke any one of the zillions of webs up in the hallway corners, one of the spiders will crawl on to the metal tip, and you can fling the spider downward, watching the creepy thing cast a line to save itself. The spider then crawls back up, but you cast it down again, leading to hours and hours of by-yourself enjoyment. (Yes, sometimes Spider Yo-Yo sessions were interrupted by someone actually trying to talk to you, but not as often as you might think.)

There was also the game where your missionary companion assigned you a random word that you had to work into your door approach – words like “scuba” or “lunchmeat.” My first instinct was to just shout the secret word as the door was opening, but that violated the rules. You had to use it in an appropriate context; make it fit into a natural discussion. “Well, I realize you’re not interested, but just allow me to leave you with one of our pamphlets – oh, wait, not that one, it’s got lunchmeat on it…”

Occasionally, in true brow-beating style, we would have a little bit of fun at the expense of some of our more hapless proselytizing targets. During my mission, Mormon scholar Truman Madsen’s recorded lectures about the life of Joseph Smith were very popular listening material during mealtimes, and missionaries loved to mock Madsen’s rather Shatnerian speech delivery. According to Madsen, Joseph Smith, on one occasion, told someone how much they looked like Adam and Eve’s son, Seth.

“You look more like SETH… thananymanI’veeverseen!”

In moments of frustration and desperation, I’ve told at least a dozen clueless Scotsmen the same thing, in the same style. Madsen quoted Joseph Smith taunting some rough men by saying, “if you do not leave us alone, we will send both you… and your men… to HELL!”  That was probably very powerful when Joseph was facing down an angry mob and defending religious liberty. It was less so when Elder Wilks said the same thing to an Inverness McDonalds clerk who was being pokey about bringing him his Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

I sat next to Truman Madsen at a family banquet in honor of my grandmother’s 90th birthday, just three days after returning home from my mission. I told him all about how missionaries all over Scotland – and probably all over the world – were using his words in vain. He was a good sport about it. And why shouldn’t he be? He looks more like Seth than any man I’ve ever seen.

In my defense, I think there was a point to all this when I started writing it.

1980, Part Deux?
I Hate the Book of Job

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37 Comments

  1. I hated the questionnaire! Once we did the whole ‘members of a local Christian Church’ thing, got into the home, started the questionnaire only to be told by the lady of the house ‘I’m so glad you’re not Mormons, we’d never let them in’. We felt it was appropriate to finish the questionaire, thank lady of the house and leave….

    Never did the obscure word thing. Do you remember Elder Stuy and his Comp, being mentioned in an article in a ladies’ magazine?

  2. «I can honestly say that Mormon missionaries are more off of the brow-beaten than the brow-beaters.»

    Do you mean to say

    I can honestly say that Mormon missionaries are more OFTEN the brow-beaten than the brow-beaters.

    ?

  3. Oh, Stallion, your memories are delightful, but in one of the stories you mentioned, you got a very important detail wrong. Those were most certainly NOT ants crawling on that man’s hand, they were maggots or nits of some sort (probably bed bugs) crawling all over his pants. It was so much more horrific than ants, my friend.
    Sooooooo much. The memory still makes me a tad queasy…

  4. Now, this is serious and not meant to be problematic in any way — I’ve noticed that amongst the Evangelical Christians ( I think we can agree the LDS faith falls under) the believers tend to take a fundamentalists view of the creation of the world. I am not an expert in exactly all of the fundamental positions of LDS beliefs but I would surmise that the book of Genesis still basically holds the general creation myth. Now, I know you have some belief that matter is eternal– so I guess that could mean the Earth is timeless in some sense. However, the physical entity we call the Earth would that not be a relatively new formation of ancient matter? So does your orthodoxy propose a truly young Earth or ancient Earth ( say 4 plus billion years old)? How does Mormonism come down on modern Evolution? And why the hell is Missouri the Garden of Eden?

    • The church has no official position on evolution or the age of the earth. There’s a wide variety of opinions on the subject, including in my own home. I’ve talked about it extensively on the blog – type the word “evolution” in the search function to find my rantings – but my bottom line, at least religiously speaking, is that I don’t think evolution is a theological issue. That is to say, I can’t think of any position on evolutionary processes that would contradict my faith, unless you reach the conclusion that “evolution proves there is no God,” which it doesn’t.

      As for the Garden of Eden, I rant about that, too. Bottom line: if you believe in a Garden of Eden, then why shouldn’t it be in Missouri?

      • Why not Missouri– think about it– for a second. If humans radiated out from central position in Missouri why don’t we find fossil remains of Humans older than 30,000 years in North America? The Garden Of Eden ( I use that figuratively) is clearly in Africa. Just ask the Leekeys Stallion Cornell.

        As for evolution disproving God– Dawkins….

          • Wow– what a counter argument. He is an idoit… I’m starting to see a trend here in your debate style. Sort of like Langy actually.

          • Counterargument to what? All you did was cite the man’s name.

  5. We all know what Dawkins’ argument is for evolution over creation. So simply stating his name in this context implies that you must have a counter for his already very public views on evolution v. creationism. That being stated thus I was implying his argument. You clearly understood it– otherwise you wouldn’t have said “idiot” as a counter. Instead you might reply with something like: “Dawkins, I’m unclear what you mean by simply bringing up his name” or some other such thing along that line. Instead you call him an idiot because you don’t agree with his very public opinion on evolution v. creationism. So I think you made an implicit counter argument– that being that “he is dumb because he finds a lack of evidence for x to be present ” as a means of saying look if you’re looking for a bomb and you don’t find it– the lack of evidence of a bomb proves that no bomb exists in that space or time. So the same is true for Dawkins comments on evolution. I knew that just bringing up his name would be enough to imply his argument because you are well rounded enough to know about it. If brought up other more erudite persons on the topic simply naming them as short hand for their public theories would not be enough in this context. Dawkins given his public profile and prolific writing on the topic is a person you can do this with in this context. Just like if I said as a counter to something in logic– Russell’s Paradox they would know what means without me explicitly explaining the paradox. Or if I said something like The Two Dogmas of Empiricism people in my field would know that I’m bring up counter arguments possible against Empiricism or perhaps refuting Quine thesis depending on the context of the statement. I could also just say two dogmas and someone might know from the context of the conversation what I am going for.

    • Dawkins is an idiot because he makes the same mistake you just made – presuming that evidence for evolution is evidence against God. It isn’t. One can believe in God and also believe the earth wasn’t created in 6 24-hour periods seven thousand years ago.

      • Actually, you can believe anything you want. You could believe for example that what we are living is in fact a giant computer simulation. The problem is do you have the evidence to support it. Having a belief in itself does not confer upon this belief any special status other than it exists at time x and his held by person(s) y. That is all belief does.

        Now, what is that if I’m looking for x and x is not present– then it is logical conclude x has had no effect on on such and such.

        However, evolution does present certain problems for a belief in God. That is unless you believe that God is an absentee land-lord.

          • It can if you happy with deist type solution to God. If you want to a god that has any direct control over the state of human evolution– evolution will not support it— you just don’t see the hand of god tinkering. Unless you want to claim that every major event that created a bottle neck in our genetic code is an act of god. Then you have to prove that all genetic bottle necks provided a maximized potential for all populations. So for example you have to accept that plagues were God’s way of manipulating the genetic code to his master plan.

            So then God could be a mean bastard could he not? Which would basically go against Christian beliefs.

          • “Evolution will not support it” is an absurd statement. Evolution offers no information with regard to its own causality or purpose, or that of the universe around it. Evolution is, instead, an observation of biological processes: how, not why. To slap a “why” on to the thing in biology class is to play God yourself.

  6. Stallion– Evolution most certainly does give very clear understanding of the mechanisms that cause it: genetic mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, and natural selection. And it clearly does give a reason behind the process– fitness. Plain and Simple…

    As for me playing God because I say “Why” evolution happens is truly absurd. Where as I merely answered the person question. If evolution could explain both the causes of change and reasons behind it would not be a very good scientific theory now would it? It would not increase our understanding of the Universe and the beings with in it at all– you must agree with that– right? So yes, it does say why it happens to improve the fitness of the species on a planet who are in competition for the natural resources within their habitats.

    • “Fitness” is a pointless tautology, not an explanation. Which animals survive? Why, the fittest, of course. So which animals are the fittest? Why, the ones that survive! And around and around it goes.

      Your thesis is very narrowly construed and ignores the larger question. It’s a bit like someone explaining that the reason you have to pay another player $2,000 in Monopoly money is because you landed on Boardwalk when it has a hotel on it. That’s correct, but it’s not really the answer. The answer is that the game of Monopoly was designed in a certain way, and if you want to play that particular game, you have to abide by the rules. Could it have been designed differently, maybe even in a way where the player who lands on Boardwalk gets the $2,000 instead of having to pay it? Of course. So why wasn’t it? Well, once you start to examine the premise of the game, the questions can get a lot more interesting.

      So it is with evolution. You can cite me the process, but that’s just like reading the Boardwalk rent off the back of the card. Why does the universe work this way instead of some other way? Is there a purpose for this particular universal structure? Why does anything exist in the first place – i.e. why is there something instead of nothing?

      Science is magnificent, but it is limited. It is not capable of answering such questions.

      • I’m clear here Stallion, do you want to say that tautology is basically a circle argument? That is what you’re describing actually. . Tautologies tend to seem rather trivial like (a V ~a) is always true no matter the value of A itself — it is the law of the excluded middle. The point is that it is not circle like you described: where A–>B–> C—>A again that is what you’re saying. Or at least that is what it appears to me that you are saying.

        Actually, Science is exploring the possibilities of other universes that could exist and they could have radically different rules of operation. The answer might be that you and I just happen to live in this universe at this time by the mere luck that given the present rules of nature (which are really constructs created by us to described regularized patterns of events) the universe could and would only develop in this matter. Change those boundary conditions and all of sudden you see a new and interesting universe pop up.

        You know science is not limited– people just don’t like the implications that it is producing.

          • That’s not what I’ve done at all. I’ve only proven that science is deeper than proving trivialities. It creates deep answers that probe the very nature of existence and the reasons how nature works.

          • Kindly take your science elsewhere. I can learn everything I need to know by reading goat entrails.

          • Because you didn’t reveal from the outset that all your gobbledygook would lead nowhere.

          • Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”

            Quine’s “Two Dogmas” is a concerted attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction. At first this might seem to be a fairly easily dispensable part of the positivist picture. But Quine shows that it is in fact crucial to the positivist view that theoretical sentences are definable in terms of observation sentences, and thus also to their defense of reductionism and foundationalism.
            Criticism of specific accounts of analyticity

            Quine’s attack consists of two main components. There is, first of all, his discussion of various attempts to characterize the distinction precisely. (This occupies sections 2-5 of the article.) Here are a few of the twists and turns of this discussion. Which sentences are analytic? Perhaps:

            (1) those which can be transformed into logical truths by substituting synonyms for synonyms.

            But this simply presupposes the notion of synonymy, which is just as much in need of explanation as the notion of analyticity it is supposed to explain. So we might try:

            (2) those which are true by definition (= those which can be turned into logical truths by substitution of definitions for the terms they define).

            But now we need to know what constitutes a definition. If we want our definitions to accurately reflect actual usage, then we will need to make sure that the definitions only define words in other terms with which they are synonymous: but in that case we are presupposing the notion of synonymy. Gilbert Harman has used an analogy which is useful in understanding this part of Quine’s argument. We may see Quine as arguing that there is no sure-fire way of distinguishing those linguistic regularities that are due to the meanings of our terms and those that are due to our beliefs. We all believe very firmly that cats are animals. But there may be no criterion by means of which to determine whether this is because we think being an animal is part of the meaning of ‘cat’, or whether whether it is just because the fact that cats are animals is a particularly obvious empirical truth. As Harman puts it, there is no distinction between our mental dictionary and our mental encyclopedia: we just have a bunch of beliefs about cats, with no sharp line between those true in virtue of meaning and those true because of the facts. (Gilbert Harman, Thought, Princeton University Press, 1973, p. 97.)

            Of course, we can simply choose to use one expression as an abbreviation for a longer and more cumbersome one, as we use ‘NOW’ to abbreviate ‘The National Organization for Women’. Even Quine might concede that it is analytic that NOW is a national organization, for instance. But (a) we very rarely use expressions explicitly and exclusively as abbreviations, so this phenomenon certainly cannot provide a general account of analyticity; (b) even in such seemingly obvious cases, it is not entirely clear that there are any analytic truths; for instance, NOW might go international, or perhaps shrink to a single state, without changing its name; again, it might decide its goals are to avoid any sort of discriminatory treatment, whether of women, of men, of racial minorities, or whatever; in such a case it would no longer be an organization specifically for women, but for purposes of recognition it might still retain its familiar name. Thus, even in cases where a certain expression begins as a mere abbreviation, it is likely to take on a life of its own.

            Since (1) and (2) both turn out to presuppose that we already understand the concept of synonymy, Quine turns to that concept. What is it for two expressions to be synonymous? Here’s one idea:

            (3) Two expressions are synonymous if they are interchangeable salva veritate.

            “salva veritate” means “saving truth,” and the idea is that e1 is synonymous with e2 if and only if, in every sentence in which e1 occurs, replacing it with e2 would not change the truth value of the sentence.

            Quine’s response: whether this gives a sufficient condition for synonymy depends on the language for which we are trying to define synonymy. In a purely extensional language (for example, a first-order language of the type studied in introductory symbolic logic), the test will not suffice. In such a language, replacing e1 by e2 will never change the truth value of a sentence as long as e1 and e2 have the same extension (i.e. refer to the same things, if they are singular terms, or apply to the same things, if they are general terms). So to make this definition work, we’ll need to specify that we have a language with intensional contexts (such as “It is analytic that _____”). What’s an intensional context? A context in which substituting coextensive but nonsynonymous terms can change the truth value of the sentence. So it looks as though to make (3) work, we already need to understand the notion of synonymy! We have been led in a circle once again.

            Giving up on taking synonymy as basic, Quine returns to the idea of defining analyticity directly. What about:

            (4) A sentence is analytic if and only if it is true by virtue of semantic rules?

            There are two cases to consider.

            One is the case of an artificial language. If we design our own language, we can also specify a set of sentences that count as analytic. Quine claims that this is completely unhelpful. (We could also specify a set of sentences that we will say are “gleebish.” But that doesn’t mean that we have introduced a meaningful property of gleebishness.) This seems to be what Quine has in mind when he says that we could thereby define analytic-in-this-particular-language, but we still wouldn’t have a useful notion of analyticity in general, one that we could apply to different languages.

            A second approach in the case of artificial languages would be simply to specify that certain sentences in the language are true. (This list of truths might be regarded as axioms or postulates.) I think Quine’s objection to this approach is the following. [I’m not completely certain I have this right — I think the following is in the ballpark, but I can’t promise much more than that.] Suppose that we are given a language, and that we have a way of specifying which sentences of the language are true. One way to do this would be to list a set of axioms, and say that a sentence is true if and only if it is either an axiom, or provable from the axioms. Then we could say that the axioms are analytic, while the rest of the true sentences are synthetic. The trouble with this is that there is no unique way to axiomatize a theory. We could have found a different set of axioms that would have determined the same set of true sentences. So it seems that it is arbitrary which sentences we count as axioms. (Not completely arbitrary — some sets of axioms wouldn’t do what we needed — but arbitrary in the sense that there isn’t a unique correct way to do it.)

            In the case of a natural language, the problem is similar. People who understand a natural language believe that many of the sentences of that language are true. But Quine thinks there’s no principled way of specifying which of the sentences they believe to be true are true by virtue of meaning, and which are empirical truths. As far as the speaker is concerned, they’re all just true. We could try to construct a set of semantic rules for the language, and then say that the analytic truths are the ones that follow from the semantic rules. But (I think) Quine thinks there’s no reason to think that there is a unique way to do this, so we have the same arbitrariness problem that we saw for artificial languages.
            General argument against analyticity

            The second component of Quine’s critique, found in sections 5 and 6 of “Two Dogmas,” consists of a general argument against the possibility of analyticity. We may perhaps distinguish in these sections two related lines of argument.

            First, Quine makes the point that evidence confirms or disconfirms not particular sentences, taken by themselves, but rather collections of sentences; to put it another way, evidence confirms or disconfirms not just a specific hypothesis, but a whole theory. It takes a good many sentences together to generate any specific predictions about observations; consequently, if a prediction is not borne out, this may be because the hypothesis is false, but it may also be because one of the auxiliary assumptions needed to generate the prediction is false.

            Now, on the positivist account, meaning is a matter of observational consequences. If sentences do not have observational consequences individually, then they do not have meanings individually either. In that case the notion of an analytic sentence, a sentence true solely by virtue of its meaning, simply does not make sense.
            The second line of thought is this. According to the positivist view, an analytic sentence is one which is confirmed by anything. It is, we might say, vacuously confirmed.

            Now, if we accept Quine’s first point, then we can no longer speak of a particular sentence being confirmed or disconfirmed taken by itself. But we might still understand an analytic sentence as one immune from disconfirmation: we could say that a sentence is analytic if we would continue to regard it as true regardless of the evidence.

            But Quine’s response to this is that there is no special class of sentences which we will hold true come what may. We could hold any sentence to be true regardless of the evidence, if we changed our views about enough other sentences; on the other hand, we do not, or should not, regard any sentence as “immune from revision,” since there may be circumstances in which the best way to revise our overall theory is to give up some sentence which had previously seemed unshakeable–even “definitions.”

            Holism and anti-reductionism

            Quine’s view, like that of the positivists, mingles semantics and epistemology. For Quine, as for the positivists and the classical empiricists, language and the world connect via experience. But, whereas for the classical empiricists simple ideas were linked to experience one by one, and whereas for the positivists observation sentences were linked to experience one by one, for Quine our entire body of theory about the world meets experience as a whole. Experiences are not linked with theoretical sentences by definitions at all; so-called “definitions” are just more bits of theory no more sacrosanct than the rest, equally open to revision if that seems the best way to improve the theory. So Quine in a sense completes the development of a strictly empiricist conception of the relation between language and the world. (At least it is arguable that Quine has made empiricism as holistic as it can get. For an attempt to out-Quine Quine, you might look at Davidson’s “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” (in his Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford, 1984). Davidson argues that what he calls the scheme-content distinction is a “third dogma” of empiricism. Quine doesn’t agree: see his “On the Very Idea of a Third Dogma,” in his book Theories and Things.)

  7. Macaroni is at the bottom of the food chain. Just saying. Unless you’re the most “fit” of all the macaroni.

  8. Let us suppose that you are a person X. As person X you believe that the world has certain observable facts about it we call Y. These facts facts Y seem to correspond with certain senses Z you have as person X. That is to say you can see colors due to the reflection and refraction of specific wave length of light, feel the texture of solid objects (or objects with enough mass to press against your external extremities), sense the relative amount of energy that is being radiated from an object, you can sense vibrations in the atmosphere and differentiate between frequencies, pitch, and volume and you can even determine the relative salinity, acidity, bitterness, sweetness, and umami of an edible substance. You can also sense the molecules emitting from substance and determine the quality of the odor it produces. In short you have some sort of sensory system that is either type-token identical to humans or type-type identical to humans. In type-token we can say that you have some thing similar to our systems in that they provide the same basic functions as our does but is perhaps different on some level. In type-type identity: the object is exactly the same in every respect.

    So this brings us to our question at hand and a really good one for all Religious People. This is that what if our person X ( or who we are pretending to be at the moment) is in a Universe called P1. P1 is type-type identical Universe to ours. So in P1 exists Earth(P1). This planet has the same physical features of the Earth. It has the same rules as the Earth does ( that is physical regularities that can be patterned in such a manner as to produce reliable predictions upon).

    So if you talk about a car called the SAAB 900 in P1 you are talking about the same object as any one in our Universe would be talking about. If you say that shade of color is red in our Universe the same sort of agreement between object-world relationship still holds true in P1.

    Here is the problem with P1– it is a “Welt am Draht” or World On A Wire” if you will let me quote the title and phrase of Fassbinder’s 1973 master piece of Sci-Fi for German Television. That is to say the world is a simulation.

    Yet, if you’re in P1 the rules are all the same. So how do you discern the real world of our Universe from your sense and the simulated world of P1?

    • You ask a native what the answer would be if one were to ask his friend whether the universe was simulated.

      • That is the question is not– if you were in the P1 Universe and had all the same experiences as you do in your Universe which you believe to be real. The answer is you cannot discern the two. Which leads us to an other question: “is your universe in the real world just merely an other form of simulation”? And so you see the argument continues.