The Conspiracy of Nature: Are We Set-up for Failure?
by H. Wallace Goddard
Nature conspires against us in many ways. In physics the conspiracy of nature means that there are limits to our ability to fully know and control nature and her doings. The law of entropy suggests that everything runs down. In biology, we are stuck with the problem of aging with its aches, pains and death. In psychology there is the struggle for meaning and, even more fundamental, the problem of memory. We live in a world where everything seems to work against us.
Does this world conspire to blind and thwart us? Is mortality a senseless decline into death and oblivion? Are we set-up for failure by our biology? Or is there some meaning and purpose to it all?
As with many big questions, we don’t have all the answers yet. But there are several tantalizing hints—places areas where the conspiracy of nature can be seen as a blessing from heaven. In fact, when we learn to filter the perplexities of life through the lens of faith, we see God busily blessing us in every part of mortality.
“Habits hold us hostage.”
All of us have thrashed against one bad habit or another. It might be anger, lust, impatience or any of a myriad of bad habits. After decades of resisting habits, we find that we seem to be held hostage to unhelpful ways of thinking and acting.
Yet most habits are just strong enough to make most actions automatic. An experienced driver doesn’t have to fret about every movement. Getting dressed can happen almost automatically. Eating takes almost no thought.
At the other end of habit strength, most habits are just weak enough that they yield to persistent effort. Almost all habits can be changed with the application of earnest and wise effort. Ultimately we will be what we choose to be.
Perhaps habit strength is not some biological accident. Perhaps it was carefully calibrated by a perfect Designer. Rather than being victims of biology, we are fruits of agency. (Of course changing our nature is a different task. It cannot be accomplished by mortal means alone but requires Divine intervention.)
“When something doesn’t work, do more of it.”
When our automatic and unwise ways don’t advance our purpose, we do more of what doesn’t work. When anger doesn’t work, we move to rage. When yelling doesn’t work, we yell louder. When rationalization doesn’t work, we rationalize more creatively. As humans we tend to act automatically more than sensibly. We do what comes naturally even when it hurts us.
From the spiritual perspective, “the natural man is an enemy to God.” God invites us to notice when we are acting unwisely. If we strive to change our ways, we will discover over the course of a lifetime that we have many persistent and annoying tendencies. This could be a biological limit on our growth. Or it could be a reminder that we can only be fundamentally changed by Him. It is not necessary to say, “That’s just the way I am.” Instead we can say, “God—and only God—-can make me into something Divine.”
“Human mortality is short.”
Many biologists who study aging scratch their heads over the fact that, unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, humans do not mature to reproductive prime and then quickly decline. Humans have extended adulthoods. Why?
The Lord gives a clear answer: “And the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh” (2 Nephi 2:21). The Lord has perfectly designed the human experience to give us extended opportunities to learn from mistakes and to develop our character.
“Entropy is the norm. Everything falls apart.”
It seems that change and decay is a part of everything around us. The house decays. The car falls apart. Arthritis cripples. Cholesterol clogs. The mythical fountain of youth mocks our earthly experience.
Yet every new life that enters mortality is a tribute to the One who sustains us from moment to moment by lending us breath and supporting all the functions of living (Mosiah 2:21 and 4:21). Scientists do not have a tidy theory to explain aging. Their best efforts employ a hodgepodge of multiple theories that leave large gaps in understanding the aging process.
Even so, the research by Carol Ryff, a scholar on well-being in later life, shows that there are significant gains in later life. In my view, the only way to make sense of aging is to understand it as God’s classroom. He sustains us through a rich and diverse education. Later life is not senseless decline. Aging is advanced training for immortality, teaching us great lessons in patience and humility. One day, when we understand all that God has done to provide this mortal education to us, our knees will bow and our tongues confess in stunned and grateful astonishment.
“Humans are basically bad, we are at odds with each other, and must keep up our defenses.”
In order to navigate the social world, we all develop implicit personality theories: Why do people do what they do? Tainted by the poisons of mortality, we put what we know of people’s histories together with assumptions about their inner workings and come up with ways of explaining their behavior that are typically quite bleak. We interpret people’s self-serving actions and predict their futures. We evaluate their achievements and scowl at their failings.
If we understand heaven’s purposes, we factor into our formulations the charity factor. We know that each person is much more than the caricatures we create based on mortal data. If we can see past the mortal crust, we know that there is a noble creature inside. In fact one of the challenges for sociobiology is explaining altruism: If self-preservation is the governing principle of human behavior, why do people sacrifice in behalf of others who are not members of their clan? Those who believe that God oversees the doings of mortality know that self-preservation is not the ultimate law in eternity.
So we soften our assessments of others knowing that we see only partially. The most important part of every human is hidden from our view. Because of that, God invites us to avoid the judging that is so automatic for humans: “Man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also” (Mormon 8:20). He enjoins us to love and support each other. “Succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5).
Since we do not know the souls of our fellow travelers, God invites us to leave judgment in His hands. Rather than fretting about defending ourselves against an enemy world, we are free to encourage and support each other.
“I can’t do it all.”
Most of us have the frustrating experience of being unable to do all we want to do—even all we think we must do. Is that a personal failing? Is it a biological limitation? In my view it is neither. It is a carefully designed reality that assures that we must make choices. If there were no competition for our time and energy, we would never learn to cherish the best and selectively neglect some good.
“Human memory is flawed and weak.”
It is very popular to bemoan our imperfect memories. We find ourselves quite unable to remember where we put the keys or put a name to that person at the party. It seems that our memories conspire to humiliate us.
But perhaps our partial memories are a blessing. Do we really need to remember where we parked the car when we went shopping two years ago? Do we want the obscenities of passersby to remain bright and present in our memories for years to come? Do we want to retain the recollection of every toenail clipping? Who needs such a jumble of meaningless memory!
The fact is that most of us remember most of what is important enough to rehearse. Most forgotten ideas are forgotten because we did not attend to them or establish them in our memories. Most remembered ideas are those that got planted deeply.
It is true that people can cultivate false memories. People can construct and rehearse fragments of events and feelings and create specific (if false) memories. When combined with malice, this can lead to vilification. When combined with charity, this can lead to appreciation.
We all rewrite our histories by the choices we make about what to remember. If we assume the worst, we see ourselves surrounded by foul and selfish people. If we assume the best, we know that God is at work among us. Even memory is the servant of our agency.
“Pleasure-seeking is the only way to have any fun in life.”
The spiritually nave hope to enjoy life through hedonistic pursuits. They chase vanity, wealth, and pleasure. But, at best, these are only distractions. The path of pleasure leaves one with wilted and dried memories but no meaning. Some of the world’s best scholars decry the death march into narrow individualism (See, for example, Cherlin, Baumeister.).
The Lord teaches us that wickedness never was happiness. The only way to be happy is to follow His path. It is not that He has hidden happiness from us in a remote place and laughs at our searching. The truth is that happiness is the object and design of our existence and will be the end thereof if we follow His treasure map (See TPJS, pp. 255-256). He knows how to get us there. But there is no other way. He conspires to make us happy. All we must do is follow His instructions which include large doses of self-forgetfulness.
There are ample reasons to fret in this life. But we have the hints of peace and purpose in our souls that can be tended until they become the core of our lives.
A purposeful conspiracy
When I examine the evidence, I conclude that there is indeed an active conspiracy in nature. Carefully crafted by God, nature conspires to teach us, remind us, challenge us, and measure us. Will we plod along making a cosmic shrug or will we call down the powers of Heaven to give meaning and direction to our mortal experiences? Nature conspires against us if we travel alone. Nature conspires to bless us if we travel with God.
Life can be legitimately seen as a painful tragedy or a purposeful triumph. Each of us must choose. I choose to see God at work blessing His children in wise and loving ways. The very fact that God has created a world in which everything can be seen in gloomy or glorious ways seems to be evidence that He honors our agency.
For those who believe, “the heaven declare the glory of God and the firmament is packed with testimonies of His perfectly redemptive purposes” (Paraphrase of Psalms 19:1). In far more ways than we know, God is busily at work preparing us to return to be Home with Him.