Preserving the Veil from Survey Data

February 6, 2007 | 49 comments
By

Suppose I find that being Mormon raises income, makes your children nicer, and does all sorts of wonderful things. In fact, suppose God blessed every person who converted instantly and spectacularly with beautiful hair and perfect teeth. Well then that would seem to really put a damper on the whole “veil” thing. The same would be true if archaeological digging revealed a big old fat stone with the genealogy from Lehi back to Joseph of Egypt and down to Moroni. At that point, really, He might as well have left the plates for us too, because he’s given away a rather chunky part of the faith needed to join the Church. Not that we couldn’t still mess up, but clearly that would be a wildly different world than the one in which we find ourselves. Whatever objective evidence we have of the gospel, God, and the truthfulness of the Church, it appears to be sufficiently ambiguous that one canchoose to believe or not, without requiring that every knee shall bow. That part, we’re told, comes later.

This can wreak havok with statistical studies of Church members. The data I see is the result of a set of decisions made both by God and by the individual. Social scientists spend a lot of time thinking about the way people behave and how that messes with statistical methods, but another real problem is how is God behaving. Is God, who reveals himself only at His pleasure and after long and careful spiritual preparation by us, likely to be uncovered by my shabby little matrix inversion? I don’t think so. God is too smart for that. So to hide Himself from me and my intrusive math, I can think of a couple clear options (outside of destroying me and so forth) He can make it so that on average, there is no observable effect of righteousnesses on whatever outcome I am looking at, or He can make sure that there are other plausible explanations.

And so, yes, Mormons do live longer. But they live about as long as you’d expect somebody with a Word of Wisdom lifestyle to live. Many Mormons are prosperous, but plenty aren’t. And anyway they work hard so it’s not miraculous– just obvious.

Here’s the fun part: To make the averages work out, of course, requires that for every inexplicable blessing God hands a member, owing to their being a member, He turns around and imposes an inexplicable trial (or curse or whatever) on that member or some other member. Of course, this is only a problem as data collection is good enough to make it an issue. If blessings are publicly unobserved, no such averaging is needed. Does that play a role in why miracles are to be kept quiet? Do my public, but inexplicable, trials* allow God to bless others publicly but inexplicably, since the balance is restored? I have no idea, but the questions are interesting.

* hypothetically, or course. All my actual trials are perfectly explicable.

Tags: ,

49 Responses to Preserving the Veil from Survey Data

  1. Ardis Parshall on February 6, 2007 at 4:47 pm

    “Do my public, but inexplicable, trials* allow God to bless others publicly but inexplicably, since the balance is restored?”

    The answer to this is yes. The classic example is offered by missionaries in France, whose hard work, faithfulness, trials, obedience, and general failure allows God to balance the score by blessing lazy, weak, disobedient, and generally lax missionaries elsewhere in the world with umpteen bazillion baptisms.

  2. madera verde on February 6, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    Restoring the balance would still leave gods hands uncovered.
    That is because a statistical analysis in that case would reveal that the distribution of good/bad fortune among Mormons is different than others even if on average it is the same. I.e. the mean would be the same but the standard deviation would be larger. We could then advertise to the world: Live a more interesting life. Become a Mormon!

    I like your point that perhaps this is why we are counseled not to pulicize miracles etc.

  3. madera verde on February 6, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    I would just like to point out the implicit assumption that miracles don’t happen to non-mormons or happen signifigantly less. Do you think that is true?

  4. John Mansfield on February 6, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    Coming from a background in fluid dynamic turbulence, my mind reaches for higher moments and multi-point correlations when averages fail to illuminate. Also, the Catholic Treasury of Merit comes to mind, especially in connection with the fairy tale that Sister Parshall hypothesized in the comment above.

  5. Dave on February 6, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    I’ve got a name for your theory, Frank: “Elohim, the trickster god.” I think the general theory of providential acts is problematic enough without laying intentionally anti-providential acts at God’s feet as well just to hide His actions from clever econometricians. Occam’s razor would cut out both sides of this carefully balanced equation of blessings and curses, and just posit that God watches but does not intervene in human affairs (or does so on only rare occasions so as to not give a statistically significant coefficient to your God variable).

  6. Nate Oman on February 6, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Frank: Should you be able to observe your average-thesis by looking at the distribution, in which case we’ve found God in the numbers after all…

  7. Sterling on February 6, 2007 at 5:23 pm

    I think the educational levels of Mormons provide an interesting way to test these questions. On average, Mormons in the U.S. are more educated than the overall population. How do social scientists account for this? To make it even more complicated, Mormons are the only religious group in the U.S. whose religiosity, as measured by social scientists, increases in proportion to their education. For every other religious group in the U.S., the reverse is true. On average, they become less religious as they gain advanced education.

  8. Last Lemming on February 6, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    If blessings are publicly unobserved, no such averaging is needed.

    One problem is that all blessings are publicly unobserved in that there is no agreed on definition of what constitutes a blessing. How many times, for example, have you heard the parents of handicapped children describe them as a blessing? And how many parents of nonhandicapped children do you think privately agree with that characterization? One could also argue that every blessing carries with it its own offsetting trial (e.g., riches vs. the need to resist pride).

  9. Frank McIntyre on February 6, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    Thanks for the comments!

    madera verde: good point! The variances would certainly be different. This occurred to me as I was writing and then I forgot to put it in. Of course, at some point the evidence on higher moments becomes specialized enough that most people would never understand the proof, which serves the same purpose…

    And no, I am not claiming that miracles don’t happen as much to non-members. I have no idea if they do or not. But my point is that even if we observe them happening at the same rate, we may not know as much as we think.

    John, by higher moments, I’m assuming you are making the point madera did?

    Dave, You are welcome to Occam’s razor, but personally it does not do much for me. often the world really is not as simple as the simplest explanation. Also, that’s boring : )

    Nate, no, the averages could be the same, but as madera and John point out, the variance could still be different.

    Sterling, I think the religion/education stuff is interesting although I actually don’t know the research on it very well. I am not sure how much it speaks to the question of inexplicable occurrences though. If the Church encourages us to get education and we do, well then there’s your easy explanation.

    LL, there you go. We’ll have no probability of uncovering excess blessings as long as we can never define the term. And, of course, this behavior would incline God to send blessings to Saints that, to observers, are indistinguishable from trials. That would be a veil-preserving act.

  10. greenfrog on February 6, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    Curious to think about the ethics of praying for a boon if we know that an offsetting curse is inflicted on someone else whenever the boon is granted.

  11. KyleM on February 6, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    Luckily, we all know there are good Mormons and bad Mormons. Lots of room for curses as well as blessings.

  12. KyleM on February 6, 2007 at 6:30 pm

    I think, much like personal revelation, we keep quiet about miracles because of their sacred nature. Spiritual people don’t want their feelings about their miracle mocked by non-believers.

  13. Brian Duffin on February 6, 2007 at 6:45 pm

    Frank: Should you be able to observe your average-thesis by looking at the distribution, in which case we’ve found God in the numbers after all…

    Well said! Elder Maxwell couldn’t have said it any better!

  14. greenfrog on February 6, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    Spiritual people don’t want their feelings about their miracle mocked by non-believers.

    Or even examined?

  15. Sideshow on February 6, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    Frank,

    Luke 16:19-31 seems to imply that a lack of evidence isn’t really necessary. I think that despite society’s opinion that we believe things only based on scientific principles, almost everyone tends to choose their beliefs regardless of much evidence.

    So there’s no need for God to hide from statistics — the first statistics are only slightly older than the first people who didn’t believe them.

  16. abe on February 6, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    So maybe poor and/or unhappy Mormons don’t really exist. Maybe God tampers with the databases to make it LOOK like they do — just to keep from making the benefits of Mormonism too obvious. Don’t you agree, Frank, that if statistics are the concern, this a kinder way of making the statistics work out than forcing real Mormons to be poor and unhappy? If God is good, and God is tampering with statistics, he must be doing it in the kindest way possible, so I think I can conclude that…

    Mormon poor don’t exist. Except the occasional angle-in-disguise-as-a-poor-Mormon. A little disturbing, perhaps, but I feel better about skimping on my fast offerings. ; )

  17. KyleM on February 7, 2007 at 12:12 am

    14: OK, fear of being mocked is probably not high on the list, but I think a reverence for the sacred is more realistic than God keeping score to make sure the surveys turn out right.

  18. ET on February 7, 2007 at 2:34 am

    Fun discussion. Let me add just three thoughts.

    1. The middle of Mosiah 2 (and elsewhere) suggests we should question casual causality assumptions about blessings (e.g., blessings follow–temporally and otherwise–righteous behavior).

    2. I question the construct validity of “income” or “health status” in the measurement of “blessing.” Even if one puts these measures squarely in the “blessings” camp, we could probably agree such variables only measure one small corner of “blessings.” Alas, the best survey researcher\’s at Dept of Ed or HHS haven’t developed valid, reliable measures of Lehi’s version of “joy.”

    3. My intuition suggests Mormons would/do systematically overreport on some measures of “blessing” and underreport on others. That is, when reporting connection with the Divine, measurement error is liekly non-random across religious groups.

    But alas just like the “hard” sciences, God has a lot to teach us about social science and statistical methods that I’m sure would clear up all the challanges with this problem. Until then we’re stuck following Val Lambson\’s lead: “We do math because we\’re stupid, people who don\’t do math are even stupider.”

  19. Naismith on February 7, 2007 at 8:24 am

    “He can make it so that on average, there is no observable effect of righteousnesses on whatever outcome I am looking at, or He can make sure that there are other plausible explanations.”

    One of the problems with your method is that you are looking for temporal effects of righteousness. There absolutely is an eternal effect of righteousness. That’s what matters to me, and that’s why I make the choices I do.

    But that effect is kinda hard to operationalize, because by the time you have the data to do a study of how folks fared in eternal judgement, you will no longer be able to submit the study to a peer-reviewed journal:)

    Any temporal stuff that we can quantify in this sphere is merely a side effect that is less important, and I’m not even interested in studying it (although I actually do health surveys in my profession) because I think it just distracts from what the gospel is about.

  20. Frank McIntyre on February 7, 2007 at 11:56 am

    Great comments, all! Here are a few thoughts:

    Sideshow, whether or not the rich man’s brothers would have believed, there must be some reason why we currently walk by faith and why the veil exists. So I think that is good enough.

    abe, in theory, God could end all suffering on the part of others by making it imaginary. But I admit to being skeptical :).

    Kyle, certainly keeping thing sacred is a valid reason for keeping things private. On the other hand, I think God keeps things sacred sometimes to avoid condemning the nonbeliever– in which case you are back to the kind of argument I am making here.

    ET and Naismith, blessings do follow righteous behavior, but not always. THe question here is, do they follow on average? And it is true that, if God can make health a blessing and a curse, then it can be difficult to come up with an outcome measure to study.

  21. bbell on February 7, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    Frank,

    See Matthew 5:45.

    The Lord causes rain to fall on both the just and the unjust.

  22. Frank McIntyre on February 7, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Sure, God blesses everyone with life and breath. Are you saying that you think temporal blessings are completely uncorrelated with righteousness? If so, this veil preservation would be one reason why that would be the case. Because we know for a fact that it will not be the case once we pass back through the veil.

  23. bbell on February 7, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    Frank,

    No. I do think that good and righteous living do lead to blessings. I would just caution that good living does not make one immune from the potential heartbreak of living in a fallen world.

    The unrighteous can also be healthy, wealthy, etc. but probably not as frequently.

    I think that in a general sense Matthew 5:45 sums this up.

  24. KyleM on February 7, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    I guess we have to define miracle then. Is a miracle only an event that has no plausible scientific explaination? By this strict definition, I don’t think miracles happen enough to skew the data. If you broaden the defintion, the non-believing observers would not be condemned as they would have an alternate explaination.

  25. Matt Evans on February 7, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    Frank, great questions. I’ve wanted to discuss “prayer studies” for a long time. Is God less likely to bless those we’re praying for if the blessings will be observed and measured by researchers?

    The problem with the veil-protecting theory is that it veils us from disproving astrology and superstitions, too. In my only conversation with an educated astrology-believing Mormon, each time I put a hole in his argument, he backtracked admitting astrology was “a lot more complicated” than that. (While I was right to point out that not _all_Leos are compatible with _all_Geminis, that doesn’t disprove the Zodiac truth that Leos are compatible with all Geminis because I’d forgotten to account for the phase of the moon on the date of the person’s birth. And the site of their birth relative to the moon. And the date of their conception. Etc.) It was my most blatant exposures to the non-falsifiablity problem of a different belief system.

  26. Frank McIntyre on February 7, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Matt, No question, falsifiability is a cool thing. But unfortunately falsifiability is a neither necessary nor sufficient condition for something to be true. The only thing worse than an unfalsifiable theory would be one that you bizarrely restrict in order to make sure it is falsifiable.

  27. MikeInWeHo on February 7, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    I believe there was a recent, large double-blind study that attempted to determine if intercessory prayer improved the outcome of heart surgery patients (or something like that). Anybody have info on that? What interested me about it was the methodology.

  28. Wacky Hermit on February 7, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    What’s the difference between a trial and a blessing?

    No, that’s not the setup for a joke, I’m being serious here. Isn’t it possible for a trial to BE a blessing? You presuppose, in a rather Manichaean dualism, that they are two separate, counterbalancing forces.

  29. Adam S. on February 7, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Your quick dismissal of Dave’s comment (#5) missed one point. Do you really believe God is playing one enormously complex game of hide and seek? Occam’s razor aside, do you really think this is what Elohim spends his time doing?

  30. KyleM on February 7, 2007 at 4:21 pm
  31. Frank McIntyre on February 7, 2007 at 4:27 pm

    “do you really think this is what Elohim spends his time doing?”

    Adam, God does not exist in time– so no :)

    Do I think God has set things up so that people in general do not have a good knowledge of him? Yes and I don’t see why anyone would argue with that. It seems pretty apparent that knowledge of God and truth is hard to come by and that that is by design

    Mike, yes, that would be one of the kinds of studies I had in mind.

    Wacky Hermit, I think getting leukemia would be a trial that sometimes could be made into a blessing. I think having a happy family that gets along is a blessing more than a trial. While I agree that there is overlap, I don’t think the categories are meaningless.

  32. Mark N. on February 7, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    The classic example is offered by missionaries in France, whose hard work, faithfulness, trials, obedience, and general failure allows God to balance the score by blessing lazy, weak, disobedient, and generally lax missionaries elsewhere in the world with umpteen bazillion baptisms.

    As a returned France, Paris missionary, I find that truly funny (in the usual “it would be even more funny if it weren’t so true” way).

  33. KyleM on February 7, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    Something awful happening to my mother-in-law that made her shut up would be a blessing to me. We’re both LDS. You might be on to something.

  34. Paul S on February 8, 2007 at 11:51 am

    I have seen no evidence of anything approaching a consistent correlation between righteousness and temporal blessings. I fall on the Elder Maxwell side of the line and find something approaching a pretty consistent correlation between righteousness and sorrow/trials. From my reading of the scriptures I would tend to hold the belief that the only blessing promised in this life from righteous living is the presence of the Spirit in my life and the power of the Atonement through forgiveness. Faithful tithing payers go into bankruptcy, faithfull word of wisdom adherents die of terrible diseases, or suffer from depression, or chronic fatigue syndrome (and this one at higher the national average). If the blessings from titihing as preached in Malachi and the Word of Wisdom blessings in the Doctrine and Covenants are as literal and temporal as we sometimes interpret them to be every faithful word of wisdom adherent should live long healthy lives (or at least run and not be weary) and every tithing payer should receive that mysterious check in the mail just in the nick of time. And while that miracle certainly does happen, it does not happen with anything near the consistency you would expect after reading Malachi. Perhaps it is an immature desire that we want physical, measuarble rewards for doing what God has commanded instead of being motivated simply by a love of the Savior.

    And Frank, if God is Consistent and Just shouldn\’t we be concerned that blessings are not consistent (even after identical behavior) and that at best they happen on average? That seems to be the work of an inconsistent God. It seems we have an incorrect premise somewhere.

  35. Frank McIntyre on February 8, 2007 at 11:58 am

    Paul,

    First, no correlation between temporal blessings and righteousness is entirely consistent with an attempt to preserve the veil.

    Second, God is consistent and just, but you’ve already said that temporal blessings do not come consistently. My formulation is no different in that regard than what you observe, so I think I’m ok there too.

  36. Paul S on February 8, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    I agree with your first point.

    I’m confused by your second. It would be a malicious God that promises specific rewards for specific actions and then only metes out the rewards on average.

    Perhaps your answer above satisfies: we should redefine blessing. But if that is the case D&C 89 and Malachi 3 sound pretty specific and don’t seem to encompass lukemia as a blessing for following the word of wisdom or poverty as a blessing from paying tithing.

  37. greenfrog on February 8, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    …we know for a fact that it will not be the case once we pass back through the veil.

    In the context of a discussion of what may or may not be determinable from available data sets, this assertion struck me as noteworthy.

  38. Paul S on February 8, 2007 at 12:29 pm

    we do yearn for certainty

  39. Frank McIntyre on February 8, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    “It would be a malicious God that promises specific rewards for specific actions and then only metes out the rewards on average.”

    I’m still a little confused as to where you are coming from. Suppose God provides temporal blessings on average, and spiritual blessings (now or in heaven) to all who are righteous. Then I guess I don’t see why that makes him malicious. And certainly he can up the eternal or spiritual rewards for those that do not get blessings now.

    If, on the other hand, you are complaining that paying tithing does not always make one rich. Then that is certainly true, and one hopes that God will make up for that deficiency in the long run (by which I mean, when we are all dead).

  40. Paul S on February 8, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    “If, on the other hand, you are complaining that paying tithing does not always make one rich. Then that is certainly true, and one hopes that God will make up for that deficiency in the long run (by which I mean, when we are all dead).”

    One only needs to hope that God will make up the deficiency if one believes that the purpose, or at least a purpose, of obeying commandments is to get blessings. I would submit that the only reason to obey the commandments is to demonstrate our love for our Heavenly Father. If we don’t believe that God hands out blessings, as Elder Oaks referred to it, like some heavenly bank account than there is no reason to be upset by the fact that the distribution of apparent blessings does not appear fair. The other route is to believe that all equals itself out in the after-life. I favor the first option. Either way though, your initial thesis of protecting the veil is maintained.

  41. Adam S. on February 8, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    Frank. If this is the view you espouse:

    God rewards righteousness but needs to cover his tracks (presumably by delivering some sort of curse or malady) in order to keep his existence from becoming too obvious.

    I passionately disagree.

  42. Frank McIntyre on February 8, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Paul, indeed. Either one works.

    Adam,

    You disagree that God blesses the righteous or you disagree that God keeps his existence from becoming obvious? I think the second is patently obvious, but if you think God does not reward righteousness then the whole question becomes moot.

    Otherwise I am not sure why you disagree. We live on this miserable planet with all this pain and suffering but out of the presence of God. Why? Those who come to this earth have a veil of forgetfulness imposed over them and remember none of their past life. Why? To maintain the choice between right and wrong? If so, you already accept that God allows suffering in order to preserve this choice.

  43. abe on February 9, 2007 at 12:09 am

    Honor thy father and mother that thy days may be long — but not statistically signifantly longer than the days of those who fail to honor their fathers and mothers.

    More precisely, honor thy father and mother that on safety/health issues (looking both ways before crossing the street, eating vegetables, wearing seatbelts and helmets), for this will extend thy days in a statistically measurable manner that does not require a supernatural explanation, but also honor thy father and mother when they make arbitrary and unreasonable requests, for this will also lengthen thy days, but not by an amount so great that it could be uncovered [and decoupled from culture, ethnicity, or a myriad other possible correlates] by a university researcher with a budget of a few thousand dollars who happened to get the university\’s permission to do a survey on parental obedience and lifestyle…

  44. Frank McIntyre on February 9, 2007 at 10:31 am

    abe,

    I think you’ve got the idea :). With two caveats– university research budgets, if you tap into the NIH or NSF, can be hundreds of thousands or milllions or dollars. Think big!

    Second, disentangling other effects is probably sufficiently difficult that honoring one’s parents is a relatively safe one to give blessings for. For example, suppose I find that those who honor their parents live 5 years longer on average. Well that doesn’t tell me God is doing it, maybe it just is indicative of a kind of person or a way of life that makes one live longer. Maybe it makes your children treat you better when you get old, etc. etc. The veil is preserved.

  45. madera verde on February 9, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    –If every blessing is predicated on obedience to some law is a specefic and not a general principle then you will find nothing that can’t be explained by natural causes. Your question in that case would be what are the blessings of faith in Jesus Christ and of having a love of God. Among others is having the commandments such as the WoW or honoring your parents. If we don’t know the laws how are then are we to qualify for the associated blessing? Ultimately though, I think the direct blessing associated with faith and love of god is oneness with the godhead or communing with the divine. This is also associated, I believe, with true charity.

    –Something else that this made me think of. In the Bom we have the followers of Alma enslaved. Instead of freeing them from their tasks immediately God firsts makes it light. Also while traveling through the wilderness god makes childbirth bearable and the raw meat palapitable. Our reality is subjective first and only secondly objective. It would be easy to intervene on this level w/o god revealing himself to the nonbelievers.

  46. Mark N. on February 9, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    Our reality is subjective first and only secondly objective.

    I find myself at times frustrated by my wife’s tendency to look for some sort of clear and absolute meaning in certain events in our lives. “Because X good thing happened to us, honey, don’t you think it means that this streak of bad luck we’ve seemingly been in for the last 5 years is about to end?” or “… does it mean that God is telling us Y regarding situation X and that He’s waiting for us to make a change regarding situation Z?”

    The authors of the scriptures seem to have a fairly easy time of using the “and thus we see” method of pronouncing that since event X occurred, we learn that God intends for us to learn specific principle Y.

    What she really doesn’t want to hear is “No, honey, I don’t know that event X means that God is trying to teach us principle Y at all, or that event X happened for any particular reason, other than natural, physical explanation Z.” There are a lot of people in this world (my wife included) who can’t see their subjective viewpoint of any given situation as being anything other than purely objective. She wants clarity, and I can’t provide it, unless I’m willing to say something that I believe is a compromise of my honesty.

    And boy, do I dislike being put in that situation. I can only surmise that what it means is that I’m supposed to learn…..

    :-)

  47. Frank McIntyre on February 9, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    “Our reality is subjective first and only secondly objective. It would be easy to intervene on this level w/o god revealing himself to the nonbelievers.”

    Indeed, that would be an excellent way to preserve the veil — non-publicly observable blessings.

  48. Seth R. on February 10, 2007 at 9:46 am

    Just to comment on the original post only.

    Sure a ancient artifact with a geneology all the way back to Lehi would change the equation. But it wouldn’t eliminate doubt. The debate over Joseph Smith would simply shift. People would still have room to challenge whether he was a true prophet and whether what he wrote was inspired or whether he made up entire parts of the Book of Mormon, whether he borrowed from contemporaries, etc.

    As far as the idea of keeping miracles hidden… Well it runs into the rather problematic example of Christ himself, who often performed miracles that were both sensational and extremely public. Same goes for Peter who came after. What about Elijah? So I don’t buy the argument that outright manifestations of spiritual power fundamentally change the faith equation.

  49. Bev P on February 22, 2007 at 4:51 am

    A little late in coming to this thread, but I’m left, even as a social scientist myself, wondering why we are so obsessed with keeping score. All that time spent in measuring ourselves and comparing ourselves with others, sometimes, it seems to me, with fairly naive and slightly dodgy instruments, with rationalizing God’s role in things as if we had a hope of reasoning in His fashion, is time we’re not spending that others might be better off in ways that they’ll recognize, for our having been here. Sometimes our hands might actually be more useful in fulfilling the measure of our creation than our minds, however much we enjoy the exercise thereof.

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.