On sin and cybernetics


You can’t hit the target without “negative feedback…”

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In his 1969 book Psycho-cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz compared the human subconscious mind to a goal-striving guidance system.  That is, the human subconscious is like a self-guided missile aimed (metaphorically) “at an enemy ship or plane.”

Maltz said such “missiles” need information to process positive and negative feedback.  If the missile is on the right course it gets positive feedback, and makes no change and stays on the the proper course.  But if it strays, it needs negative feedback to get back on course.

He said any goal-striving mechanism – e.g. the human subconscious – needs a corrective, so if the missile is too far to the right, it compensates by moving to the left.  If the device overcompensates (too far to the left), the device moves the missile back to the right.  As Maltz said, “The torpedo accomplishes its goal by going forward, making errors, and continually correcting them.  By a series of zigzags, it literally ‘gropes’ its way to the goal.”

(Wouldn’t it be nice if a Christian felt equally free to “go forward and make errors,” on the way to his or her objective, without “feeling guilty?”)

Maltz said the more visible corrections in humans can be seen in the way a baby learns to walk or pick up toys, or (at a later stage) in a teenager learning how to drive.  And hopefully, that kind of “self correction” goes on throughout our lives

We also seem to do just that whenever we try to improve or do something we “should do.”

Take dieting, “please.” We start with good intentions but usually try to lose too much weight too soon.  Then we lose heart (feel guilty) because we couldn’t stick to our diet through “will power.” Then “we” go off on an eating binge that puts back most of the weight we lost in the first place.  Then we start feeling really guilty, and go back on the diet.  Thus we literally grope our way toward the goal (target) of losing weight.

Which is another way of saying that most people don’t diet successfully the first time.  They succeed by getting a little better each time.  In time, they eat less when they binge and get a bit more realistic when they return to the diet.  With both positive and negative feedback, the good dieter gropes his way forward.

Which raises a question.  To paraphrase Maltz, what would happen if a missile didn’t get any negative feedback?  Would the missile or arrow ever hit the target if it never knew when it “strayed?”  The answer:  Without negative feedback, it wouldn’t.

Maybe the same thing applies to “sin,” and those who think the whole idea is too troublesome to worry about.  (Maybe the same kind of people who think those who go to church every week are too negative – and hypocrites to boot – because they’ve visibly failed to get better.) And maybe there’s something positive about the negative idea of “sin.”  Maybe we – like “guided missiles” – need to know when and where we “stray off course.”

Maybe that’s what this whole business of confession and sin is all about.  When we “sin” we simply fall short of our goals.  We “miss the target.”  And when we “confess,” we simply admit to ourselves how far short of the target we were, rather than blithely ignoring the problem or acting as if we need no improvement.

But those who realize their mistakes – and make corrections – will get that much closer to the target next time.  And maybe the purpose of all this is not to make people feel guilty, as some who-call-themselves-Christians seem to imply.

Maybe the concepts of sin, repentance and confession are simply tools to help us get closer to the target next time out, even if we never become “perfect.”

Maybe the concepts of sin, repentance and confession are simply tools to help us realize the purpose Jesus had for us, to wit:  to “live life in all its abundance.” (See John 10:10)

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The “arrow” image is courtesy of http://www.releasetheape.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/arrow-target1-890×556.png.

On Maltz and his book, see Psycho-Cybernetics – Wikipedia.  

On that note – and perhaps anticipating the protests of religious conservatives – Maltz hastened to add that he was not saying “’You’ are a machine,” but rather that each person possesses a machine, in the form of the subconscious mind, in much the same way a person’s physical body can be viewed as a “machine.”  In his or her subconscious mind, each person has a tool, “put there by the Creator,” to achieve success in everyday life.  

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