Sunday, July 26, 2015

My search for truth

I was the kid who read encyclopedias for fun. I still am, although my status as a kid is up for debate. Encyclopedias offered a wealth of information on virtually any subject I could think of. I loved school (well, I loved the parts of school that had to do with learning). To me, the world was full of wonder and books and school allowed me to explore that world.

I was always excited to learn something new but my enthusiasm would overflow when I found a way to use the things I'd learned. Cooking became much more interesting when my father explained it in terms of principles of chemistry. And it was always a good day when we used something in class that I had learned from my ingenious elementary school biking buddy as we went to or from school (such as the decimal representation of 1/7, which I still remember to this day).

During high school, I attended an early morning class at my church (we call it seminary, although it isn't clerical training in the same sense as it's used in other denominations). In addition to my homework for school, I read assignments for seminary. As I read, I did a lot of thinking. I knew pretty well what my church taught; I soaked it up in church classes and my parents taught the same things at home. A part of me believed and a part of me didn't. The latter part of me recognized how seriously inconvenient it would be if my church's teachings were true, as that truth would impose an immense moral onus on me.

Up to this point in my life, I'd been a "good kid", but much of my motivation for being good had to do with fear of repercussions for disobedience. At some point during the first couple of years of this study, I made the decision that I needed to experiment. I needed to obey not because I feared punishment but because I was choosing to obey. So I not only attended church and seminary and did the reading assignments and lived as they taught me to live, I was choosing to do it independent of the external forces trying to influence me in either direction.

My religion teaches that it's possible to know the truthfulness of the doctrine (see John 7:17 or the Introduction to the Book of Mormon) by experimentation, so it's natural that I would try it to find out. I imagined that, much like the descriptions I'd found in scriptural stories and personal anecdotes, that I would eventually get a powerful, undeniable answer. I didn't expect an angel but I did expect something impressive.

What actually happened was much subtler and much simpler. It was during my sophomore year of high school. I'd been doing this experiment for around a year by then. It was a pleasant, sunny afternoon and I was seated on a small hill across the street from the school as I waited for a bus to come to take me home. I looked across the sunlit grass and the parking lot at my school and I thought about my life. I realized that I was happy in a way I never had been before. My attitude had changed. It was clear to me in that moment that my experiment had worked; changing the way I lived and thought and treated people had allowed me to become happy. Gone were the days of the kid with the bad attitude, trying to find a way to disobey to assert independence or control. I had tasted the fruit and I knew that it was good (see 1 Nephi 8, especially verse 12).

In the intervening years, I have had many more spiritual experiences when I felt that I was being taught directly from on high. Despite these many events, I find that my belief is not, in a sense, knowledge. It is still based on evidence. There is quite a bit of evidence and it is compelling. Furthermore, I have studied and studied and have found that the gospel provides a wholly consistent and remarkably complete set of answers to the questions of the soul. But I still wonder sometimes if it is true.

In contrast, I do not doubt if gravity is a real phenomenon. No part of me lives in fear that gravity will cease to function and the world will disintegrate, the atmosphere will disperse, and we'll all float away and asphyxiate. To many, it is perfectly natural that I would have doubts about my religion but not about science. After all, science is dependable and solid.

But my confidence in gravity is based in the fact that it faithfully explains the phenomena I have observed that pertain to it, that it is consistent, and that I have evidence from years of life experience to corroborate it. That is, my basis for trusting gravity is essentially the same as my basis for believing my religion.

I find it interesting that so many people dismiss religion as either rooted in a lack of education or as intellectually inconsistent with education. And yet my education and intellectual honesty oblige me to believe in my religion. There are those who believe that religion and science are opposed; to me, religion and science are complimentary. They ask different questions but both are part of a quest for more truth.

We know there are things we don't know about gravity. And it could be that our conception of it will have to change when we come across new evidence. Science does not claim omniscience; it claims to progress as it incorporates new knowledge. The fact that we've changed from the epicycles to elliptical orbits hardly invalidates science; rather, it proves that science works.

The fact that our understanding can change does not mean it could become anything; the idea that matter repels other matter would be inconsistent with the evidence we've already collected. As a result, such an idea could never be accepted by science (when the science is done right). And a change in our understanding of gravity does not mean that gravity has changed; it means that we have come closer to an understanding of the truth that has been there all along.

In the same way, our understanding of religious doctrine can change. We may come across new information that will further illuminate our understanding. It may answer some of the many questions that remain. It will not, of course, change the truths that undergird our understanding. And it will not be inconsistent with the evidence we have gathered so far. And just as advancements in physics validate science, advancements in doctrine validate religion. Joseph Smith worded this idea powerfully (from a letter to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, Liberty, Missouri, published in Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, pp. 53‐54; spelling and grammar modernized):

The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men … when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.

This life is fraught with uncertainty. We rely on things we cannot prove. We can't prove that gravity will continue to work but we might as well press on. We can't prove that God exists, but trusting in Him brings peace and joy. I will continue to be both a scientist and a religious man. I will continue to study what others have learned and I will continue to experiment, incorporating and applying new truths as I come across them.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Privacy made easy

A friend recently pointed me to a list of privacy tools. It's well organized and explains why it makes the recommendations it does. It has a strong bias towards free (as in open source) solutions because they can be subjected to scrutiny that simply can't be applied to proprietary products. And the quote at the top about privacy is fantastic, as is the explanation for why you're better off looking for providers from outside the United States and the UK for your services than inside.

I've assembled a few of my thoughts on the various tools recommended here. I won't even bother commenting on tools that require ongoing effort to use or that take more than a few minutes to set up.

Firefox extensions

I highly recommend the Firefox extensions. I'm particularly loving Self-Destructing Cookies, which deletes cookies automatically. Cookies get (ab)used all the time to tell others about your browsing habits. This makes it impossible, for the most part. Chrome has something built-in that's reasonably close to it (look at the answer with screenshots).

Keep in mind that Self-Destructing Cookies will log you out of everything the first time you install it. If you want to stay logged in, you can use the "undelete and suspend" function as described in the survival guide (which opens when you install the add-on). You can set up exceptions for sites you want to stay logged into. For example, my bank only lets computers with special cookies log in - unfamiliar computers have to go through additional steps. So I set an exception for my bank and it works just fine.

It's also well worth mentioning HTTPS everywhere, which makes sure that you use secure sessions all the time; Disconnect, which prevents sites from tracking you; and uBlock Origin, which prevents advertisements from loading or displaying in your browser. It's worth noting that ads are not just annoying; the advertising industry has a terrible track record of respecting user privacy.

Secure text and voice

There are also apps for secure chat and text and voice and video. For those with smartphones, I highly recommend Signal (iOS) or TextSecure and RedPhone (Android). I haven't had occasion to use RedPhone because so few people use it (it's installed - call me to try it out!) but TextSecure works seamlessly with those who do use it and those who don't. In fact, I think it's a better messaging client than Hangouts (the default on Android). There is one catch: If you start using it and then stop, you have to unregister your phone number so other users will stop sending you encrypted messages (which you will no longer be able to read).

Other tools

You may also notice that KeePass (which I have recommended before) is listed further down on the page. I haven't used Claws Mail or Whiteout Mail but I'll probably try them out at some point.

There are lots of other tools mentioned here that may interest my readers. I'm excited; I don't know that there has been a time since the creation of the Internet when it was so easy for users to protect themselves. Go forth with privacy!