I believe I have one brain

Geology is the study of the earth – what it’s composed of, the pressure different parts of the earth put on each other, and how the earths’ composition changes over time.

Geologists have determined that the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. It’s hard for our minds to even comprehend how old that is. In the grand scheme of things, the length of our lives is less than a blink of an eye.

When we look at places like the Grand Canyon, we are looking at something that has been created millions of years ago.

I have a friend named Mark who is a geologist. As long as I’ve known him, Mark has always believed in the church.

When my beliefs started changing about the church, one of the things I was having a hard time reconciling was the age of the earth compared to what I read in D&C 77:6 where it says that the earth has a 7,000 year temporal existence. Temporal means “physical” or “material.” Saying the earth has a temporal existence of 7,000 is like saying the materials that make up earth are 7,000 years old. Even if this means 7,000 years since the Fall of Adam and doesn’t include how long it took the earth to be created, the Bible Dictionary says there was no death before the Fall of Adam and there are countless fossils of dead animals and humans that are more than 7,000 years old. Also, I wondered a lot about the Flood and if a global flood was supported by geologic evidence.

When I thought about these things, I naturally thought of my friend Mark who believed in the church and was a geologist. So I called him. When I talked to Mark, I asked him specifically whether the things he learned at church were compatible with the things he learned studying geology.

I’m paraphrasing, but this is what he told me, “When I was in college there were some things I learned about geology that didn’t seem compatible with the gospel. I had a Mormon geology professor and I decided to ask him about it. He said to me ‘There is part of my brain that I use for church, and part of my brain that I use for geology. I keep these two parts of my brain separate so there is no incompatibility.’”

Mark said that this idea of having two brains worked for him and he no longer bothered himself with trying to reconcile what he learned at church with what he learned about geology. One brain for church. One brain for geology.

This way of thinking is called compartmentalizing. When people compartmentalize, they suppress thoughts or feelings that conflict with other thoughts or feelings in their brain. Rather than dealing with conflicting thoughts, the brain sends each thought to a separate compartment and does not let the compartments talk to each other.

The reason people compartmentalize is to avoid cognitive dissonance. The word cognitive relates to thinking, and the word dissonance means inconsistent.  So essentially cognitive dissonance means “inconsistent thinking.” The term is also used to described the feeling someone gets when they are confronted with ideas that conflict with ideas they have in their head. Often, it’s like your brain short circuits because it can’t process both thoughts because they contradict each other. Your brain has has to pick one.

Why do people want to avoid cognitive dissonance? Because cognitive dissonance doesn’t feel good. Confronting cognitive dissonance requires admitting that something you think is wrong, and people typically don’t like to be wrong. Often, they’d rather be incompatibly right. When strongly held beliefs are involved, cognitive dissonance can be very painful. I’ve experienced it.

People react differently to cognitive dissonance. Some people pick the thought they like best and don’t consider the other one at all, some people compartmentalize so they can keep both thoughts in their head, and some people try to figure out which idea is right and which is wrong.

For my friend Mark and his Mormon geology professor, they held in their heads two opposing ideas about the age of the earth and the Flood. One set of ideas they learned at church. The other set they learned through the study of geology. These ideas were incompatible with each other. But rather than analyzing which set of ideas were correct, they kept these two sets of ideas separate from each other in their brains to avoid having to choose one over the other.

When figuring out what I believe is true, it only makes sense to me to have one brain. I can’t have one brain to study science and one brain to study the church. The church makes claims that are testable with science. These claims include the age of the earth, a global flood, the existence of the Book of Mormon civilizations, the ability to heal people with a Priesthood blessings, and more.

The church also makes historical claims which can be evaluated the same as any other historical claim.

When I study the historical and scientific claims the church makes, I have to use the same tools I use to determine the truthfulness of any other scientific or historical claim. It makes no sense to me to use one brain to think about church-related historical and scientific claims, and use another brain when I think about everything else. Having two brains would lead to more error. I realize I will never be free from error, but as much as I can, I’d like to be less wrong. If I had different brains to study different things, I would be wrong more often.

Everyone compartmentalizes in one way or another. We are all human and everyone’s brain plays tricks on them without them realizing it. I’m not immune. I’m sure I have opposing ideas in my head that I unconsciously compartmentalize so I don’t have to deal with figuring out which one is right.

Some forms of compartmentalizing make sense and are healthy. When I was in college, I helped one of my college professors on a documentary film about the training of prison guards. We closely followed a group of future prison guards through their 8 week training course. One thing I noticed was that they were trained to act as if everything a prisoner told them was a lie. When they were at work, they were never to trust a prisoner. Think about what it must be like to spend every day at work not trusting almost all the people around you.

In a situation like this, it would be good for the prison guard to have one mindset for his relationships with all the prisoners at work and another mindset for his family and friends at home. This is a form of compartmentalizing. It’s good for a prison guard to compartmentalize in this way so they don’t act like a prison guard towards their family and friends.

But it’s a very different thing to compartmentalize in order to avoid asking the question: which one of these two contradictory beliefs in my head is wrong?

It is this latter type of compartmentalizing that I am talking about when I say that I have one brain.

I’m not a scientist. I’m not an historian. But I can use my brain. It’s surely not the best nor the worst brain in the world, but it’s the only one I’ve got to work with. This blog is not intended to be academic or scientific papers, but rather a summary of things I’ve learned and thought about.

If the church is supposed to be for all people, then it cannot be something that can only be understood by scientists or historians. It must be able to be tested and understood by anyone of average intelligence whether or not they have any historical or scientific training. I believe that it can be.

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