Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Because On this Ship, I Don’t Have to Decide Everything

There has been a lot of fur flying around lately regarding changes to the Liturgy and a new version of the Missal. Webster has written a lot on this subject recently, and the comments have been rolling in here at YIM Catholic. Let me be frank and say that none of these issues answer the question, or even remotely buttress the statement that concerns me most: Why I Am Catholic. Let me explain why, in my humble opinion, they shouldn't concern you either.

When I was a student at UCLA, I had a professor who introduced a concept that flew right over the heads of many of his students, but which made all the sense in the world to me: the concept of bounded rationality by economist, and Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon. Let's call it BR, shall we? The shorthand answer of what BR means is: human rationality is limited. As such, when making a decision, you don't have complete information but you still must decide. Here is the text book definition (bold highlights are mine):

In game theory, bounded rationality is a concept based on the fact that rationality of individuals is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make decisions. This contrasts with the concept of rationality as optimization. Another way to look at bounded rationality is that, because decision-makers lack the ability and resources to arrive at the optimal solution, they instead apply their rationality only after having greatly simplified the choices available.

So what this boils down to is, there are two types of decision makers out there: (a) the optimizer, who wants to weigh everything and make the optimal choice to the best of their ability; and (b) the satisficer, who chooses that which might not be optimal but which will be “good enough.” Furthermore, the goal of decision making is utility or happiness. Madison Avenue types appeal to your internal optimizer when they make their pitch to you. You never see an advertising pitch done to appeal to your “that's just good enough” or satisficing side.

Why did this concept fit so well with me? Well, I was a former Marine by the time I hit the campus, and stuff that may seem fuzzy to average undergraduates, like making important decisions in chaotic conditions with incomplete data, was just another day on the job for me back in the Corps. Marines and fluid situations are made for one another. And even if they aren’t compatible to you personally, they are the real world that anyone in an organization, especially in the military, faces.

So what the heck does this have to do with Why I Am Catholic? Everything, actually. If you have been following my conversion story, you know that I first started studying Catholicism in order to prove that it was in error. But when everything that I picked up, from Pascal's Pensees, The Imitation of Christ, The Seven Storey Mountain, and the Desert Fathers, coupled with close reading of the Bible, proved to me beyond a reasonable doubt that Catholicism was True, I made a satisficing decision to join her ranks. Notice I did not say proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. That is impossible to do with certainty.

So I let all the other questions that were preventing me from making the optimal decision to be Catholic, fall to the wayside. Questions like, What about all the miracles that seem to happen to only Catholics? Like visions of Our Lady appearing in Lourdes, Fatima, and Mexico—or St. Francis and Padre Pio showing the Stigmata, for example. Right up to doctrinal questions that were way above my pay grade, like the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, Purgatory, etc.

I didn't have all the answers to these mysteries, but I believe that the Catholic Church does. And the wonderful thing is that I now have learned a multitude of things about the Church, and so far, the more I learn about these big questions and the answers our Church has for them, the greater my joy. As I wrote to Webster the other day, the Church has admittedly strayed at times from staying focused on the “signal” by pandering to and falling prey to those who love “the noise.” And still She survives, like the unsinkable warship in the portrait below, because she always gets back on course. She stays the course because her navigator is the Holy Spirit, God who on earth works wonders through fallible mankind, as He has since he created us.

The decision I made to become Catholic was ultimately one based on Faith. Faith and the optimal decision making model don't go together nearly as well as Faith and the concept of Bounded Rationality. How do children make decisions to befriend someone? Do they carefully and methodically weigh every single piece of information about that person before making a decision to play with them? Not in my household they don’t. But usually they have made pretty good choices regarding who they like to play with, because the most important thing to them is the playing. Our Lord said,

Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.These verses are ultimately what helped me decide to forget my objections to becoming Catholic and join her ranks. Unless you turn are the operative words here. I put aside my inner optimizer and made the satisficing decision, as I would have done as a child making a new friend. Like I would have done in a chaotic situation that demanded supreme focus and a quick decision as a Marine. Like I did when deciding to join the Marines in the first place. I made the decision based on faith and the limited amount of information I needed to decide, knowing full well that I alone would not be in control of my destiny as a result.

I continue on this voyage with faith in my God, my Ship (the Church), and her captain, the Vicar of Christ, my Pope. No decisions he has made thus far have given me pause to question whether following him is a good idea. The painting above depicts a vision that St. John (Don) Bosco had in 1862. In the dream, he saw a terrible sea battle with thousands of crafts, big and small, launched against a single stately warship symbolizing the Church. The ship had been hit several times, but was still proudly afloat. Directed by the Pope, it was able to anchor itself securely between two pillars rising out of the sea. On top of the first pillar was a large Host and the words Salus credentium or Salvation of believers. The second pillar was smaller and there was a statue of Mary Immaculate on it with the words Auxilium Christianorum or Help of Christians. We can’t ask for better allies than these.

And note this as well: this isn't a cruise ship, where we are just passengers waited on hand and foot, sipping mai-tai's and getting tans. This is a warship! We are the crew 24/7, and we all have a job to do. And as every good captain knows, a hard working and active crew, focused on the mission, is a happy crew. So quitcherbellyachin' and snap to, ya lubbers!