Hermetically Sealed Systems in LDS Thought
[This document is still being edited. In the meantime, please see this PDF for an early draft.]
A hermetic seal is one which is entirely airtight. A hermetically sealed system of thought is, by analogy, one which is cutoff from, or virtually impervious to, outside ways of thinking.
Generally, a hermetically sealed system of thought may be created when a person accepts one or more assumptions (sometimes unawares) which then prevent them from ever arriving at conclusions outside the resulting system of thought. From within the system it appears that the full range of choices and possibilities are available, but the thought structure makes some conclusions difficult to access.[^inaccessible]
Hermetically sealed systems of thought may be viewed as a subset of the greater socializing influence of the LDS Church and its culture which in some part discourages members from exploring alternatives. Alternatively, these systems may be viewed as a yet unprobed/untested variant of psychological phenomena that might influence a person’s choices, such as framing effects.
Structure and Veracity
These diagrams say nothing (directly) about how well these systems of thought coincide with reality. However, examining the systems of thought in this form may make it easier for the reader to determine if the systems are veridical (i.e., coincide with reality).
Structure and Agency
Regardless of whether these systems of thought are veridical, their structure may demonstrate aspects of LDS thought which may inhibit members and investigators from exploring the full latitude of thought as they consider alternative models in approaching LDS truth claims.
Hermetically sealed systems in LDS thought
Figure 1: Do not seek revelation on that which contradicts the Brethren
Figure 1: Do not seek revelation on that which contradicts the Brethren
Appendix - potential criticisms
Examples from other groups
if such an approach be
useful is usually easier to spot hermetically sealed systems of thought in groups of which a person is not a member. Here are two simple examples from the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization.
Example 1: avoid criticism
Assumed: To love God means to entirely avoid communication with a former Jehovah’s Witness.
Innaccessible: Exposure to criticism from former Jehovah’s Witnesses.
…should we listen to apostates, read their literature, or examine their Web sites on the Internet? If we love God and the truth, we will not do so. We should not allow apostates into our homes or even greet them, for such actions would make us ‘sharers in their wicked works.’ (2 John 9-11) (source)
Assumed: You will miss the good and only see bad if you focus on the flaws of the organization or leaders.
Innaccessible: Aspects of the organization or the actions or teachings of some leaders may be ethically deficient but may be un-observable if one only focuses on the good.
Every person in this organization–every one of Jehovah’s Witnesses including the governing body–we’re all imperfect and thus we are subject to making mistakes. Which means that if you look hard enough, all you will see instead of seeing these amazing things that Jehovah is accomplishing and our tremendous privilege of being part of it, all we are going to see is the errors of men. But when we focus on the good, on the guidance and loving support that we’ve received, aren’t we moved with appreciation to cleave to this body of fellow worshipers. And just look at what Jehovah is accomplishing by means of his imperfect servants. There is no other organization on earth providing spiritual food like the one that we belong to. When we look at all of this, how could we possibly let the failings of just a few people undermine this overwhelming proof of Jehova’s backing? (From the 2016 “Remain Loyal To Jehovah” regional convention)
I have encountered some criticism of this work in public discussion and can imagine other potentially valid criticism. I will present the criticism and then some thoughts on its validity.
The diagrams are too reductive.
One might argue that LDS thought allows for the contemplation of the inaccessible thoughts in other ways or contained in other leader statements not represented here.
Response: There is some validity to this concern. A more complete analysis might assemble every statement (or some large sampling) made by leaders or in lesson manuals on a topic and examine the frequency of a particular logical path in all the relevant statements. A single example cannot demonstrate the predominance of such a thought-pattern, only that such a routing exists and has been employed in official LDS material in at least one instance. I have made an effort to include patterns that seem dominant (or frequent) to my mind, but without demonstration a person may easily argue that it does not represent the sum of the data or of their personal experience.1
No guarantee of inaccessibility
The explicit enumeration of choices by itself does not guarantee the inaccessibility of the outside conclusion.
Response: Because LDS thought extends beyond any individual statement and the realm of philosophical thought broadly construed can be viewed as superseding LDS theology or doctrine narrowly defined, that will always be true. Still, when the explicit enumeration of choices does not include a particular possibility, it seems reasonable that a member is then required to shoulder the burden of injecting, mentally constructing, or borrowing such a possibility on their own, and this may not reliably occur and arguably requires more effort to summon. In any case, it seems reasonable to assume that a person is likely to spontaneously produce alternatives less frequently in instances where the alternative is not enumerated.
Every system of thought is hermetically sealed
It may be argued that all systems of thought are hermetically sealed in some fashion.2
Response: In 1931 Kurt Gödel demonstrated that to some extent, all logical systems contain one or more true statements which are inaccessible from within that system and the system itself cannot demonstrate its own consistency. Such is the case, for instance, with the scientific method (e.g., the scientific method is incapable of demonstrating that the method itself is valid—demonstrations of that kind lie outside the scientific method). Further, many domains which we typically acknowledge as conveying intrinsic value still suffer from foundational instabilities.3 In some sense, then, demonstrating which statements are inaccessible from within a system of thought does not, by itself, demonstrate the system invalid. Regardless, it still seems reasonable to think that examination of inaccessible (or at least difficult to access) statements may be a fruitful exercise and differences in topology between systems may mean some are indeed more or less open to scrutiny or more or less prone to circularities than alternatives.
“Brainwashing” is not scientific
One might argue that discussing thought patterns in this form is similar to counter-cult research seeking to demonstrate “mind-control” (which ultimately has been of dubious value), and most of these ideas have a tenuous relationship (at best) with mainstream psychological research.
Response: Significant endeavors that seems somewhat similar to cataloging hermetically sealed systems generally include Robert J. Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, the DIMPAC report (which was dismissed by the American Psychological Association), Steven Hassan’s BITE model (outlined in his dissertation and applied in one peer reviewed article) and more generally the idea of the thought-terminating cliche, indoctrination (or socialization), and linguistic relativity. Some of these ideas have been rejected by mainstream scientists (e.g., the DIMPAC report) and many others are under-developed academically (e.g., indoctrination, thought-terminating cliche), or lack widespread academic adoption (e.g., the BITE model).4 I am aware of some of the controversies with the work and frameworks listed above and have argued in favor of academically mainstream approaches (e.g., my argument against using the BITE model to label the LDS Church a “cult” and dismissal of the idea of “brainwashing” in favor of a social learning framework).
Regardless, exploration of hermetically sealed systems of thought seems to be at home among legitimate psychological research demonstrating, for instance, the human propensity to be swayed by framing effects.
Thomas Riskas in Deconstructing Mormonism: An Analysis and Assessment of the Mormon Faith examines various circularities and deficiencies within LDS theology and practice from a more philosophical perspective, likening believers to being trapped in a box with instructions for exit on the outside. A full review of Riskas’s work is outside the scope of this short essay, but in his review of Riskas, Kevin Christensen basically argues that Riskas is guilty of leaning too heavily on logical positivism without acknowledging its inherent circularities. I have tried to steer clear of insinuating the supremacy of alternative systems of thought and freely acknowledge intrinsic limitations of all frames of reference. ↩
An example of a useful discipline that has been dogged with foundational instability is the field of psychology as discussed by Yurevich in 2009. ↩
Within the realm of LDS thought, Luna Lindsey Corbden explores modes of influence and persuasion from a psychological perspective in Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control. In public discussions of the book (for example) she tends to acknowledge deficiencies of the counter-cult frameworks, but it is not clear if Corbden fully transcends those concerns within the book itself, which tends to lean on the frameworks of Lifton and Hassan. ↩