Tuesday, March 31, 2009

the objective observer

At the Sunstone West conference in Cupertino on Saturday, I felt like a bit of an outsider. 

It was my first time attending a Sunstone event, and unlike any number of the other people there, I am neither a scholar of church history nor a Mormon artist nor a particularly vocal dissident nor a visible participant in the Bloggernacle. While FoxyJ and Th. happily got to meet the people behind some of the big names in the Mormon blogosphere (who were in turn delighted to meet them), I watched from the sidelines.

That's not to say that I felt out of place. I felt comfortable in the company of intelligent and inquisitive people representing a wide range of wavelengths on the spectrum of Mormon-ness. I walked away from the conference with the sense that there is room in the church for heterodoxy in an infinite number of iterations: there is a place for everyone.

While I was a bit disheartened by the fact that many participants are no longer active Mormons (some never were but are just interested in the curiosities of Mormon history & doctrine), I was however put at ease by the fact that I witnessed no hostility. As far as I could tell, everyone there was very respectful, there for no malicious purpose but rather for personal enrichment and to exchange ideas and connect with other people (which, if you've been here before, you'll know is a pet theme of mine): unique individuals with beautiful minds, sharing and comparing the elements mined from our common ground. And then I was all the more encouraged to find active Mormons who have not only successfully reconciled their membership in the church with unconventional views and interests in other traditions, but have managed to integrate them in sort of spectacular ways.

When I briefed my mom on the conference, she said she imagined that talks by non-Mormons would probably be more interesting because the presenters ought to be disinterested personally. I think what she meant is that their views would likely be more objective than those of people formally affiliated with the church, which may or may not be true. I'm inclined to say that a purely objective point of view does not exist. Anyway, I've found that the more obviously "subjective" presentations are indeed more interesting precisely because they have personal implications. Theory and history and math and science are necessary, but as far as I'm/we're concerned, they are missing something until they are applied and understood in the context of the human condition.

Highlights from the day include a panel on personal spiritual journeys (away from, back to, parallel to, and interweaving with Mormonism), Th.'s "Saturday's Werewolf" paper (which I thoroughly enjoyed even though I've neither read the Twilight books nor watched Saturday's Warrior), House of Falafel falafel, a series of NPR-inspired "This I Believe" segments, and the excellent documentary film The Constant Process (read here the article that appeared in February on the front page of the LA Times).

In Saturday morning's discussion of neuroplasticity and quantum dynamics (with the intention being to explain how people can change their behavior), the presenters cited the observer effect as it relates to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Don't ask me to explain it (at least not at 4 a.m.), but their point was that the observer's desire can determine the outcome of the experiment—he will find what he wants to observe. I think it's not really as simple and mystifying as they made it sound, and in that sense I don't really buy it (i.e., it may have more to do with measurement technique than anything else, and I'm not a quantum physicist so I don't really get it). But still, it raises the question: is it possible to remove that desire for a particular outcome, becoming a truly objective observer? When I go to church with a bad attitude (though not so bad that it kept me at home altogether), does that become self-fulfilling prophecy, my experience confirming my doubts and sending me off after sacrament meeting because I "wasn't really feeling it" (from the moment I arrived, or even before)? Can I ever be entirely stripped of self-interest in my interactions with the world and the people around me? 

Yesterday I rode my bike to church and sat alone in the corner. Some days I might be more willing to break out of my shell and participate more actively, but yesterday was one of those when I wanted only to watch and listen, to observe unobserved. Also, to render a sketch inspired by a scene from the previous night/morning's dreams.

On my way home, my skirt got caught in the spokes of my back wheel. My white skirt. Lessons learned: (1) flowy fabrics and spinning wheels should be mingled with great care, (2) stain remover is my friend, (3) bike shorts may be a smart addition to my wardrobe, and (4) had I actually crashed, I'd be grateful to find several friendly Palo Altans out for a two-wheeled spin on a sunny-Sunday afternoon who, far from being cold objective observers, would, I believe, be happy to help me up, ask me if I were okay, call a medic, and/or laugh with me at my humiliating stupidity, as appropriate. 


FoxyJ said...

I'd never heard of the Cupertino effect. Thought maybe it would have something to do with the complete absence of fast food restaurants :)

I do think that you are correct in assuming that it is nearly impossible to be a disinterested observer. How exactly that works and what effects it has on our lives are somewhat debatable.

I'm glad you had a good time--thanks again for letting me come crash at your house.

Th. said...


I had a similar experience at Sunstone, having, like you, no previous experience. I consider myself quite orthodox (though not conservative) but I didn't feel particularly put upon. Although my brain was functioning at a slower speed Saturday so I was never able to work out my comments before time was up, so who knows?

I was just trying to talk about the observer effect and the anthropic principle last week with my AP kids. They rejected it. So's you know.

Em said...

I REALLY love your summary/observations on Sunstone. I've always wanted to go...I think you painted a nice picture. And It sounds like you and FoxyJ had a great time. Which is a good thing for both of you! :-)

Petra said...

Oh, man, now I'm even MORE sad that I was out of town that weekend.