Monday, March 20, 2006

The Spinozist Has Moved

The Spinozist is now hosted here. Please update your links and bookmarks!

In the end, the allure of WordPress proved irresistible.


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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Aaron Eckhart on BYU and Mormonism

Required to be in the car around midday, I had the good fortune to notice two Mormon connections on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. Audio available here.

(Image: Katie Holmes as a reporter, left, and Aaron Eckhart as super-lobbyist Nick Naylor in the upcoming Thank You for Smoking.)

The first half hour was an interview BYU alumnus Aaron Eckhart, who has been in a number of films, including four directed and/or written by fellow BYU alumnus Neil LaBute. LaBute was a graduate student in, what, I guess Theater and Film or whatever they would call it, and Eckhart was an undergrad in the same department. I’m a fan of Eckhart’s; his relatively brief performance in LaBute’s Nurse Betty was particularly riotous.

(I also like LaBute’s work, though I’m not sure how to read his In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, both of which he wrote as well as directed. The two films explore similar dark and twisted emotional territory, with the emotional sociopath ending up with the sweet girl in both cases. What I can’t tell is whether these are intended as tragedies/dark comedies, intended as cathartic depictions of unusual pathological cases; or as realistic depictions of the typical state of human relations. The title Your Friends and Neighbors seems to suggest the latter, but if so I have a bit of a hard time relating to it. But then, I often find depictions of human interactions in literature or movies unrealistic or unconvincing—“What is this? People aren’t that petty and mean in real life,” I often find myself thinking. Perhaps I have simply lived a sheltered existence.)

Anyway, in today’s interview (occasioned by his new film Thank You for Smoking), there is some discussion of how LaBute’s work didn’t fit in well at BYU, how they were locked out of the theater and had performances cancelled, how they did single unauthorized performances at like 8am, how he took a film ethics class from LaBute, how neither he nor LaBute—the department’s two most famous alumni, at least before Napoleon Dynamite came along—have ever been invited back. He did express warm feelings towards his Mormon upbringing, saying that it taught him certain values he appreciates, and something along the lines of ‘once a Mormon, always a Mormon, something that’s always a part of you that you can’t get away from’ and so on. Oh, and sisters, he said he’s 38 and childless, and joked about not getting too old to have children (whether or not he’s single did not come up).

The second half hour had an interview with journalist Elizabeth Weil, who recently wrote about the issue of ‘wrongful birth’ in The New York Times Magazine. Weil spoke of spontaneously answering her daughter’s question about where she was before birth with an answer like, ‘floating up in the sky,’ together with her sister—which seemed to be a great comfort to her daughter, but it was also an answer that distressed Weil in connection with her abortion of a fetus expected to have severe disabilities. Anyway, I found it interesting that the notion that a pre-mortal life may be as naturally imagined and desired as a post-mortal life, and I wondered why it doesn’t come up more often.


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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Do the prophets deny they lead by revelation, or encourage dissent?

[UPDATE: In response to RoastedTomatoes’ charge of unfairness, I changed the original title (The prophets speak: ‘We have no revelation, so we encourage dissent’), and made modifications marked with strikethroughs (old) and boldface (new) to the first and fourth paragraphs.]

In a couple of interesting posts (here and here), RoastedTomatoes uses responses of President Joseph F. Smith to a Senate committee, and of President Hinckley to the media, to argue two conclusions float for thought and discussion two propositions that many believing Saints would find startling. While I am interested in the relationship of such sources to doctrine, the particular arguments are interesting in their own right, and here I recycle and extend my own take on how the prophets understand these two points.

One startling proposition is that
Judging on the basis of President Joseph F. Smith’s sworn testimony from the beginning of the twentieth century, it would seem that the church has in fact survived through periods of years without revelation to its president. Furthermore, if President Hinckley’s statements at the end of the twentieth century may be taken seriously, it would seem that the church currently survives for significant stretches without revelation or inspiration.
I agree with RoastedTomatoes that there aren’t any indications that spectacular manifestations occur frequently, but I don’t think the prophets understand this as an absence of revelation.

RoastedTomatoes’ quotation of President Woodruff, cited the current Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society manual—published with the Church’s logo, copyrighted by Intellectual Reserve, Inc., and including an approval date (presumably by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve)—are a better indication of what the prophets think than pressured Senate testimony. President Woodruff’s reference to the necessity of daily revelation is closely related to the common view of having the ‘constant companionship’ commonly associated with the gift of the Holy Ghost, God’s fulfillment of his promise in the sacrament to “always have his Spirit to be with you.” In the context of the guidance of the Church by revelation, this means that the leading quorums have enormous faith in the process of unanimity in councils (D&C 107). In exercising their legitimate stewardship, when 15 people with the gift of the Holy Ghost start a discussion from 15 different points of view and come to unanimity, they understand this as the Lord having guided their decisions (or at least it not being grossly against his will).

The other unusual proposition, derived from using President Joseph F. Smith’s mention of hundreds who did not accept plural marriage while remaining in good fellowship as a specific example, an acquaintance who didn’t believe in plural marriage is that
…diverse systems of belief and even disbelief are compatible with full fellowship in our church. …even people who flatly reject important doctrines taught by church leadership are allowed to remain in full fellowship and good standing,
an assertion parlayed into putative prophetic endorsement of “legitimate dissent, which is apparently okay or even encouraged…,” based a media interview by President Hinckley.

However, the observed fact that people are not automatically kicked out of the Church for having some different beliefs than the authorities does not imply that the prophets have ever thought there was such a thing as “legitimate dissent” within the kingdom of God, outside of one’s stewardship. (Here, distinctions must be drawn between questions/doubts/criticisms, and the publication thereof.) Rather, their messages to the Church—as opposed to the outside media, including Joseph’s famous ‘they govern themselves’ quote—seem pretty consistent in considering dissent with the united voice of the leading quorums a shortcoming, and spiritually perilous. All Church members have all manner of ‘shortcomings’ (in the leaders’ view) for which they are not kicked out, but this does not mean the prophets think such things are “legitimate” or “encouraged.”

In the media exchange quoted in a comment to RoastedTomatoes’ post, President Hinckley acknowledges that “People think in a very critical way”—when?—“before they come into this Church. When they come into this Church they’re expected to conform” (emphasis added). The reporter then presses President Hinckley about questioning within the Church, at which point he makes an artful dodge by referring to all the thinking going on at ‘the largest private university in America’—BYU. But translating the homage he renders to ‘thinking for themselves’ into ‘encouraged dissent’ within the Church is an unjustified leap, given what we know about BYU: there are serious limitations on academic freedom and dissent on subjects related to the Church. There may be all kinds of questioning and thinking and dissent going on at BYU—of worldly philosophies! But the debates and dissent and questioning at BYU are not about, say, the First Vision, or Book of Mormon historicity.

While the specifics of these propositions are interesting, I hope to discuss an overarching issue in a separate post: whether Church members should make serious doctrinal conclusions based on statements made in the face of secular questioning that ranges from hostile, to unsympathetic, to shallowly curious.
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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Justin Butterfield, Mormon Wasp and Nauvoo Neighbor

Q: How does Justin Butterfield, proprietor and editor of Mormon Wasp, know so much about Mormon history? A: As anyone who has read Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling knows, he lived it firsthand as the U.S. Attorney for Illinois during the era of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo.

Butterfield, then and now, seems to be a straight-shooting, just-the-facts ma’am sort of guy, whose occasional presence on both ‘sides’ suggests an aversion to overtly ideological or partisan agendas. Back in the day, he could on the one hand relentlessly dissect Joseph’s opaquely byzantine financial arrangements in an attempt to recover a debt Joseph incurred in the purchase of a steamboat that wrecked only weeks after its purchase, while simultaneously saving Joseph’s hide in an unrelated case, by successfully convincing both governor Thomas Ford and the Illinois Supreme Court that the extradition of Joseph to Missouri was unconstitutional. In the modern era, Butterfield holds the Church’s feet to the fire with contexts and differentials highlighted by juxtapositions with original documents, while also calling demagogues on the carpet as they grind their axes and deploy them in hatchet jobs against Mormonism.

What are we to make of this superannuated lawyer/historian, who can be both Wasp to the Mormons and Neighbor of Nauvoo? (Butterfield’s blog has used both names. Original readings are available for both of these Nauvoo newspapers—The Wasp, and its successor, The Nauvoo Neighbor. Their mottoes, reflective of Butterfield’s two modes: “Truth Crushed to Earth Will Rise Again,” and “The Saints’ Singularity—Is Unity, Liberty, Charity.”) Some might think the name a bizarre coincidence, or a clever pseudonym (of who? Jed Woodworth, young Mormon scholar and prominently-named assistant for Rough Stone Rolling?). I prefer to think he’s one of the Three Nephites, called ensure the long-term viability of God’s work by both keeping it honest and defending it from unfair critics. (To cite another motto of more recent vintage, The Truth is Out There.)


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Monday, March 06, 2006

Blogger Comment Feeds

A ‘newsreader’ is an application or website that allows users to ‘subscribe’ to any website with a ‘feed.’ This allows them to keep abreast of many websites—blogs, for instance—without having to check them individually, by providing a single location at which they are automatically notified of new content at any and all of the websites to which they subscribe. Blogger provides feeds for posts, but not for comments to posts, which means that users may be automatically notified of posts in their newsreaders, but must manually check at each individual site for new comments. I have a trick for generating a comment feed with Blogger, but it has a couple of important limitations.

The trick is to set up an auxiliary blog in your Blogger account—whose feed will become your comment feed—and use Blogger’s capabilities for interactions via email to automatically route comments from your ‘real’ blog to your new auxiliary ‘comment’ blog. For example, if your main blog is ‘myblog.blogspot.com,’ you can create an auxiliary blog called ‘myblogcomments.blogspot.com.’ You will also need to create a dedicated email account, for example ‘myblog.comments@gmail.com,’ at an email host capable of automatic forwarding.

Here’s how to tie it all together. At myblog.blogspot.com, under the Settings tab and Comments subtab, at the bottom of the page put myblog.comments@gmail.com in the blank labeled “Comment Notification Address.” At myblogcomments.blogspot.com, under the Settings tab and Email subtab, in “Mail-to-Blogger Address” fill in something of your choice, such as “myblogcomments,” to make an address ’[Blogger username].myblogcomments@blogger.com’—and be sure to check the ‘Publish’ box next to this address. Finally, set up the email account myblogcomments@gmail.com to automatically forward to [Blogger username].myblogcomments@blogger.com, and voila, ‘http://myblogcomments.blogspot.com/atom.xml’ is your new comment feed! (The intermediate email account is necessary because Blogger will not allow a Mail-to-Blogger Address to be used as a Comment Notification Address.) As a final touch, you can add a line of HTML to the template of myblogcomments.blogspot.com—to which users may arrive from their newsreaders—that will automatically redirect them to your main blog.

I was initially quite pleased to have come up with this trick, but there are two serious limitations that are among the reasons I will be moving to WordPress in the near future. First, it does not seem to be completely robust: after 483 comments it crapped out for some mysterious reason, with all subsequent comments arriving as posts with ‘Draft’ status at myblogcomments.blogspot.com, instead of being automatically published. (So my comments feed is currently broken!) I don’t know why this happened—perhaps space or frequency limitations of some kind were exceeded—but I haven’t bothered to go to the effort to figure out the problem. The second serious limitation is that the form of the comment feed is not one that Mormon Archipelago and LDSelect can automatically use in their comment aggregations, unless the proprietors of these sites could be prevailed upon to write a special parser for these ad hoc Blogger comment feeds. I haven’t tried to persuade them; perhaps if enough people used this approach they might be willing to look into it. (Unfortunately Blogger comment email notifications only contain a link to the main post and not the individual comment, so even with special parsing the aggregators could not provide a direct link to the comment.)


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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Back in Black: Clearing Out the Muddled Middle

After referring RoastedTomatoes to two previous posts of mine, his response made me wonder if isolated readings of various of my posts might give conflicting ideas about what I ‘really think,’ or incorrect or at least incomplete ideas about how I see the big picture. In part this is a reflection of genuine internal disarray on my part, but that’s not the whole story. As suggested by my opening post, I have rather skeptical inclinations these days. But perhaps impertinently, that doesn’t stop me—as can be observed in scattered threads and comments—from opining on what Mormonism really is, as opposed to what some might wish it to be or become. In doing so I have often asserted a conservative version of Mormonism—almost always, I think, with regard to behavior and practice, though I have expressed a variety of views on the relationship of freedom of thought and expression to doctrine.

So in the aggregate, there’s a sort of good cop / bad cop thing going on in my posts, reflecting a natural inclination on my part to see and clarify things in relatively black and white terms. The good cop in me tends toward challenging those who would like a ‘grey,’ pick-and-choose form of Mormonism they can more easily live with—a challenge that takes the form of trying to understand and explicate Mormonism on its own terms (i.e. how its prophetic leaders understand it). But also, the bad cop in me explores whether the epistemological underpinnings of Mormonism can be relied upon at all (as in the two older posts I referred RoastedTomatoes to).

The overall project is sort of consistent: to question and probe both ‘white’ and ‘grey’ forms of Mormonism, and to ask whether the ‘black’ of a secular worldview makes more sense, and if it could possibly make a fulfilling and more realistic life. (My intention was to reflect this not only in my opening post, but in the blog description at the top of the page.) I recognize that aficionados of ‘grey’ will see this as pushing the ‘grey’ into a ‘white’ straw man that the ‘black’ can more easily overcome. I don’t know what to say about that, except, let’s have the discussion.

I should also say that in the process I have come to appreciate a rare handful of people who are willing to thoughtfully consider the full range of issues, perhaps ‘grey’ to some extent, but who also seem to retain a clear understanding that a Mormonism without real top-down textual and/or institutional authority—authority with ‘teeth’—is simply incoherent. I appreciate being able to try and understand their ways as a possible alternative to both secular ‘black’ and what I see as unworkable versions of ‘grey’: the untenable notion that a cafeteria, pick-and-choose sort of Mormonism is viable, or the quixotic wish that a bottom-up, grassroots reformable Mormonism is in the cards.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Get off the speculation train

I know this title is unoriginal, but I decided to hijack it for my present snarky purpose of busting Geoff J’s chops. (Geoff, sorry dude! This is probably ill-advised, but I’m just gonna get it off my chest anyway. To put a positive spin on it, take the individual treatment as a back-handed compliment. ;-> Though I should clarify up front that some of what I say below ended up slanted to cover no only Geoff’s brand of speculation, but also more material (i.e. relevant to real life) pickings and choosings among statements of varying authority that I would not attribute to Geoff—a subject I planned to post on separately, but that also ended up getting entangled with this one.)

I haven’t been a regular participant in Geoff’s threads, but I interactively test-drove a couple in the last week or so. In the end I found the immersion in speculation to be a frustrating wrestle with a Tar Baby. (And I suppose this briar patch of a post is my way of trying to make a self-styled Br’er Rabbit escape.) I’m not sure what Geoff is trying to do: serious pursuit of truth, or admittedly personal and unverifiable expressions and explorations of what he happens to feel is an æsthetically pleasing metaphysics, or just mental gymnastics for the sake of pure intellectual diversion. To make a parallel analogy with another oft-expressed faculty in our world, are we talking a serious attempt at procreation; a mutual and loving but heavily æsthetically-motivated non-procreative encounter; or purely recreational habitual auto-eroticism? Perhaps my frustration derives from an incorrect assumption that the first of these options—serious pursuit of truth, the siring of actual knowledge—is the goal.

What restrains our speculations? Geoff seems to just want to know if what he suggests is absurd or impossible. However, there is little that is absurd or impossible as a matter of logical or semantic necessity. A few more things are ‘impossible,’ or at least incomprehensible, according to known physical law and the more plausible interpretations of historical data; but believers accept some such ‘long shots’ on the basis of trusted prophetic experience and revelation, hoping for revisions and extensions of current scientific and historical understandings. Beyond physical law and history (physical, geological, biological, cultural, …), the only thing one has to suggest anything about eternal realities is revelation—if, of course, one accepts prophetic authority.

In this context, it is the manner of handling the revelations in the process of dealing with subject matter that can only be known by revelation that gets my goat, raises my hackles, blows my stack (and here I begin to speak beyond Geoff alone). I am sympathetic to, even persuaded by, the notion that scripture may be heavily human-mediated (or worse); but I think one is really at sea—or lost in space, to anticipate a comparison I will make momentarily—once one’s cosmic scenarios require the throwing of various pieces of scripture to the wind while retaining others, without some sort of method or specified basis for doing so beyond intuition, idiosyncratic preferences, desired alignment with particular modern social mores, or even personal revelation. Uncoupled now not only from physical law and history, but freed from the constraints of canonized revelation and authoritative statements as well, the cosmic discussion enters a kind of fantasy realm in which the reliability of the relation to eternal realities is about the same as that of science fiction novels and blockbusters—but without the mythic relevance and entertainment value (and possibilities for eye candy) of engaging sci-fi plots (and characters) of epic proportions.

Which is not to say that revelatory speculation might not be a fun hobby, or more seriously for some (not Geoff), even a compelling need in order to believe and act in accordance with what simply must be so without facing the pain of a material break with one’s socio-religious milieu. Maybe I’m reading intentions incorrectly, but I just don’t think we should kid ourselves that it ultimately amounts to anything beyond the expression of personal preference among the unlimited range of imaginative scenarios—anything that can be convincing, or be taken seriously in a public way as a kind of eternal worldview.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Proposed Taxonomy of Bloggernacle Pathologies

In the spirit of communal self-deprecation, I offer the following conjecture. Every participant in the Bloggernacle suffers from one—or, usually, more—of the following: (1) compared with your typical practicing Mormon, above-average discomfort with some aspect of Church doctrine, history, and/or practice; (2) compared with your typical practicing Mormon, above-average emotional, intellectual, and/or spiritual loneliness; (3) compared with a typical practicing Mormon’s desire to share truth, a messiah complex.

With some trepidation I leave this post open for comments, subject to the following rule, which I imagine will suppress a large volume of potentially tempting applications: You may not affirm or deny the applicability of this conjecture to any specific person but yourself. Exception: If someone claims that the conjecture does not apply to they themselves, everyone is welcome to pile on and show them how it does in fact apply to them!

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Mormon Topos Amongst the Political Quadrants

I am no political scientist, but it seems to me that to a large extent politics consists of arguments about where policies should fall along a ‘control continuum’ ranging from paternalistic government compulsion to personal discretion, judgment, and responsibility. In a comment, Robert C. says it is hard to reconcile what he calls Ezra Taft Benson’s “libertarian” views with President Hinckley’s expressed willingness to legislate morality. But I think Robert’s dilemma is somewhat alleviated by conceptualizing two orthogonal axes of control continua, which off the top of my head I will call ‘economics’ (taxation, welfare, and so on) and ‘pleasures’ (sexuality, gambling, and so forth).

This results in four quadrants, to which I give the following impromptu labels:
  • Republican: Personal responsibility over economics, government control of pleasures
  • Democrat: Government control of economics, personal responsibility over pleasures
  • Libertarian: Personal responsibility over both economics and pleasures
  • Totalitarian: Government control over both economics and pleasures
I have named two quadrants after the two dominant contemporary political parties, whose current philosophies roughly fall within the given descriptions. Libertarianism is also a recognized but not currently ascendant political philosophy (and political party). ‘Totalitarian’ requires more explanation, as I am using it idiosyncratically: I do not mean the autocratic rule of a dictator or oligarchy, but a government that, in controlling both ‘economics’ and ‘pleasures,’ regulates the ‘totality’ of life to a greater extent than the philosophies of the other quadrants—a totality of regulation which can, however, be brought about in a democracy, imposed on a minority by the electoral will of the majority.

Now, back to Robert’s dilemma: I think the 20th century Church has been consistently willing to endorse legislation along the ‘pleasures’ axis. In this, there is likely no distinction or inconsistency between Ezra Taft Benson and Gordon B. Hinckley. However, things get a little more messy along the economics axis.

In recent decades at least, the Church as a whole has been rather neutral along the economics axis, which, when combined with a preference for government control of pleasures, means that official Mormonism today straddles the line between the Totalitarian and Republican quadrants.

However, some past individual official voices (Heber J. Grant and Ezra Taft Benson come to mind) and most individual Church members seem to absorb ‘work ethic’ together with ‘pleasures’ under a rubric of ‘individual worthiness,’ and seem to prefer its ‘schizophrenic’ implementation in the Republican quadrant, rather than one of the ‘consistent’ Libertarian or Totalitarian quadrants. (Weird! My guess is that this is a legacy of Heber J. Grant’s underappreciated transformative and lasting imprint on the Church, which among other things included a combination of willingness to endorse Prohibition with his revulsion at ‘the dole.’)

Those less common Mormons for whom social justice is seen as a government imperative tend in practice to go Democrat rather than Totalitarian, probably both to be in a party that actually has some power, and also to avoid the despised ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’ labels. (These are so despised that pseudonyms seem required. Cases in point: RoastedTomatoes of LDS Liberation Front and Watt Mahoun of MormAnarchy. I’m not sure where these guys fall, but if in addition to their social justice concerns they agree with the Church’s support of legislating the pleasures axis, their placement in the Totalitarian quadrant would make their title concepts of Liberation and Anarchy highly ironic!)

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Are government welfare programs Satanic?

Drawing upon uniquely Mormon resources provided in Alma and the Book of Moses, J. Nelson-Seawright (a.k.a. RoastedTomatoes) has cobbled together a nifty liberation-theology-style argument about poverty being Satanic that Catholics could only dream of. I’m no fan of poverty, and I am definitely a fan of JNS/RT’s fine blog; but I wonder, could similar logic be used to arrive at a result expressly repugnant to what I would guess this Latter-day Left-winger’s political predilections might be?

Money quote:
Within Mormon theology, the concept of being compelled to make a spiritually desirable choice — and therefore losing agency and blessings with respect to that choice — is associated with Satan. Indeed, some program or other built around these ideas is typically presented as having been Satan’s plan in the preexistence. This discussion has argued that poverty plays a partially coercive role in people’s moral and spiritual lives to the extent that, as Alma says, it compels humility and acceptance of the gospel. Hence, there is some reason to believe that poverty is, in Mormon theological categories, a Satanic force in our world.
So here’s my question: If coercion is the key diagnostic of Satanic forces, are government welfare programs—in which a spiritually desirable choice (helping the poor) is enforced by involuntary contributions in the form of taxes—also Satanic?

I suppose it might be argued that taxes are levied by democratically elected officials, and are therefore voluntary in some corporate sense; but in terms of morality and spirituality, it is individual motives that matter, and any individual who chooses not to pay taxes for any length of time will soon find out how voluntary they really are.

[Note: I didn’t take the time to read the comments on JNS/RT’s post. I hope someone already didn’t come up with this question, or I will look really foolish.]

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Become a blog reader with the baddest newsreader

I used to use Bloglines to subscribe to feeds of blogs I wanted to keep up with, but I switched to Google reader. (Google is starting to rule the world, rightly so, with its variety of fine resources and services.)

The thing about Bloglines that can get overwhelming is that if you have a lot of subscriptions you sort of feel obligated to check them all out, clear every unread item.

In contrast, Google reader’s default mode is “relevance.” The way it works is there is a “lens” you scan over unread items and click on something when you want to read it. (There is also a mechanism for “saving” things by marking them with a “star.”) As time goes by it learns what you’re most interested in—presumably which blogs, which authors, which subject matter, etc.—based on what you actually click on to read. Whenever you refresh the reading list it takes the unread items from all your subscriptions and sorts them with some mysterious algorithm involving both how recently posts were published and your interests based on past reading selections.

This way the new and interesting (to you) stuff tends to automatically show up near the top of your list, and you can just let the stuff lower down the list slough off without the guilt of seeing all these “unread” indicators in Bloglines.

So join Google juggernaut on its rise to world domination. Use the Google reader—with, of course, your first subscriptions being the posts and comments here at The Spinozist Mormon:
http://feeds.feedburner.com/TheSpinozistMormon

http://feeds.feedburner.com/TheSpinozistMormonComments
Let me know if you’re interested in subscribing but need a little more help to get started.

(P.S. As this post neared completion I noticed its unintentional chiastic structure, born not of conscious literary design but its natural ‘in and out’ logical structure...)

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Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Abstaining Your Way to Athletic Prowess

If you noticed this old post of mine, or the inordinate intellectual effort I expended on an embarrassingly large number of comments on this thread, you may have guessed that I am not a fan of abstinence. Gold star! You have divined correctly. Hence an article on the front page—above the fold, no less—in today’s Wall Street Journal caught my eye: in honor of the approaching Olympics, a discussion on the use of abstinence to improve athletic performance. (The connection to economics, or political and foreign affairs affecting economics—the W$J’s usual bread and butter—remains obscure.) There is a dispute between tradition and science about abstinence’s effectiveness, and the Book of Mormon even weighs in on the issue.

The article begins with a history lesson: Plato informs us of Ikkos of Tarentum, whose preparations for his Pentathlon win in 444 B.C. included the consumption of “large quantities of wild boar, cheese, and goat meat,” and coating himself “in olive oil to make his rippled body gleam.” But he also “believed that abstinence before competition was essential for preserving athletic vigor.”

The article goes on to mention several modern Olympians who employ abstinence, including “a married ice dancing pair on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team [who] will be ‘saving their energy for the ice’ in Turin,” and a U.S. Olympic triathlete who “says he went 233 days without sex before the 2004 Athens Olympics.” (I’m thanking my lucky stars I did not marry an ice dancer, and that I was able to resist the overpowering allure of devoting my life to triathlons.) One U.S. swimmer who won three gold medals in 1996 blames his failure to qualify for the 2004 games on his blissful encounter with his wife only hours before the trials. Oh, the lifelong regret stemming from a moment of weakness: “I wish I’d planned a little better.”

But abstinence is not only for Olympians. “The abstinence tradition is particularly strong in such sports as boxing and football, where the theory holds that sexual frustration leads to increased aggression.” One boxer “typically goes without sex for 11 weeks [Where does that number come from?] before a major fight. ‘If you have sex, you’re in a very good mood,’ Mr. Corrales says. ‘That’s a problem when you get into the ring.’ ” Several NFL teams require their players to check into hotels, even before home games; the Steelers coaches conduct room checks. (Hence the Super Bowl victory, no doubt.)

However,
Several scientists have looked for physiological evidence about the effects of sex, in an eclectic collection of small and sketchy studies. They offer no support for the ritual of abstinence—and some even suggest sex could help an athlete. [Now we’re talking!]

In 2000, the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine published a comprehensive review of the topic titled “Does Sex the Night Before Competition Decrease Performance?” [your government research dollars hard at work.] … According to the article, normal sexual intercourse between married partners expends only 25 to 50 calories—the energy equivalent of walking up two flights of stairs. [Is this a definitive result in real-world conditions, or a commentary on the stagnant routinization of married love?] In addition, the article dismisses the notion that sex leads to muscle weakness, citing several studies involving hand-grip strength tests. [Sweet!]

A study published in 2000 in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness … concluded that sex had ‘no detrimental influence on the maximal workload achieved, or on the athletes’ mental concentration.’ (As part of the study, the athletes were given a math quiz shortly after having sex.) [Note: unlike the other parenthetical asides in square brackets in this extended quote, the preceding parenthetical is a genuine part of the article.]
Some beneficial athletic effects cited included a finding that “sexual stimulation has a powerful analgesic effect in women, and can markedly increase a woman’s tolerance for pain.” Also found were increased testosterone levels that enhance muscle development, and a reduction of the stress and anxiety that accompany competition, “crucial in sports that require fine motor coordination, such as archery, golf, diving, pool, and pistol shooting.” (Perhaps this is why Minnesota Fats never won a major billiards tournament.)

Which is right, tradition or modern research? Abinadi came down on the side of tradition, asking the same question of the priests of Noah that modern NFL coaches ask today: “Why do ye commit whoredoms and spend your strength with harlots?” (As I recall this comes through even more vividly in the Spanish translation as ‘dissipating your vigor.’) But perhaps the physiological findings and coaches’ experience can be reconciled by that perennial American source of higher wisdom: old baseball hands. “Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player,” notes legendary former Yankees manager Casey Stengel. “It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Spinozist Karma in Super Bowl XL

[UPDATE: Post-game comment below.]

I don’t watch sports hardly at all—they're more fun to play than to watch. But I do try to watch the championship games in most sports.

I usually don’t have strong feelings for either team. I do have a general sympathy for the underdog (mostly in hopes of an exciting game), and also a mild prejudice for teams from the west since I grew up in California. Both of these factors point to the Seahawks, but what really puts the gods on their side is their sweet uni’s: can’t beat the Spinozist monochrome color scheme. If they win I may even add fluorescent green accents.

UPDATE: Well, Seattle couldn’t get it done; in the end an interception and a successful gimmick play by the Steelers did them in. Imagine how bad it would’ve been without the Spinozist color scheme karma.


The silver lining of the loss is that I don’t feel any obligation to add fluorescent green accents to the template. And that, win or lose, the color scheme still looks good on the Sea Gals.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Masterpiece? Alma 36

A recent comment in which John F. playfully proclaimed himself “the chiasmus Nazi” renewed my curiosity about the subject. Some, like John F., are unapologetic (forgive the anti-pun) about chiasmus as evidence for ancient origins; other interested students are more nuanced in their claims. (The brilliant doggerel in the first link of the preceding sentence, so apropos to the thread in which it appeared, is not to be missed. I wish I knew the identity of its true author so I could offer well-deserved recognition.) John’s comment provoked me to read both “Critique of Alma 36 as an Extended Chiasm” by Earl M. Wunderli in the latest issue of Dialogue, and “A Masterpiece: Alma 36” by John W. Welch in the FARMS compilation Rediscovering the Book of Mormon. Here, in addition to mentioning some questions raised by Wunderli, I offer my own half-baked speculation as to how inverted parallel structure with significant ties to the meaning of the text could arise without an author’s conscious intent.

A number of considerations may induce doubt as to whether Alma 36 is an objectively verifiable, purposeful, carefully crafted masterwork of chiasmus. Differences in Welch’s chiastic parsings over time and differences between the chiastic structurings perceived by different authors undermine the objectivity of its alleged presence. In a couple of instances the chiastic structure is imperfect, with no apparent subsidiary purpose for the deviations; this is implicitly admitted in Welch’s graphical constructions, but goes uncommented in his brief accompanying commentary. Some claimed pairings exhibit nontrivial imbalance. Selectivity seems to be an important question: some words designated as key to the chiastic structure occur in other places, but are not given much weight as evidence against a tight chiastic construction. Another manifestation of potential selectivity is that some important ideas seem not play a role in the chiastic structure—a structure that relies in part on seemingly less-significant words.

Having noted these cautions against the manifest presence of tight crafting, there nevertheless seems to be an overall sense of inverse parallel structure—more than Wunderli seems to credit—but I’m not sure it’s obviously purposeful. John F.’s elite Oxford breeding leads him to believe that
…intricate literary forms that combine both substance and form into the structure of a passage so that because of the substance the form conveys its meaning even more strongly simply do not happen unconsciously.
I don’t know how John’s Oxford colleagues feel about Alma 36, but I offer two suggestions as to how this very thing could happen unconsciously—one specific to Alma 36, and the second more generally applicable.

For one thing, Welch seems to think that Alma made an astutely appropriate æsthetic choice in selecting the chiastic form for a conversion story centered on the Savior, but this argument can be turned on its head: the spontaneous narration of pre-conversion conditions, a conversion to Christ, and the contrasting post-conversion aftermath could quite naturally take on an unconsciously inverse parallel form like that in Alma 36.

More generally, and by way of explaining some detailed features, in laying out a linked chain of ideas it could be somewhat natural for the human mind to ‘drill down’ into the argument in one direction, and then follow the same logical chain back out again. This may be particularly so for (originally) oral texts, where I get the sense most chiasms originate. (Note in particular the oral origin of Alma 36, either with Alma talking with his son or Joseph dictating his imagination of this scene. Are we to think that Alma carefully crafted a written masterpiece for the occasion of parting counsel to his sons? And moreover, that he then read it to his first son, but not to his other two sons?) To begin and end with the same logical point is of course naturally pleasing, and may even be the explicit intent of the orator/author. However, the overall inverse parallel structure might not necessarily represent artistic purpose, but instead constitute a window into the orator’s mind working its way back on the fly—not by fixed memorization or deliberate composition, but by active (and sometimes meandering and imprecise) real-time logical processing back to the starting point. (N.B.: work on this post last night was interrupted by putting our girls to bed, during which our three-year-old uttered a spontaneous elementary inverse parallelism: “Tuck me in, mommy, tuck me in!”)

The possibility of ambiguity and selectivity in the attempted extraction of a tight and precise chiastic masterpiece, together with a possible cognitive explanation of the spontaneous generation of an inverse parallel structure, constitute sufficient reasons to not consider Alma 36 as incontrovertible objective evidence for the Book of Mormon’s historicity; but the content, as opposed to the form, of this very chapter yields an even more important reason for believers to not lean on it heavily:
And I would not that ye think that I know of myself—not of the temporal but of the spiritual, not of the carnal mind but of God. Now, behold, I say unto you, if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things.
This suggests a scriptural claim that should give us pause: no objective evidence—the kind demonstrable by secular arguments, and available even to carnal minds—could ever yield conviction of the truths important to Alma and other believers. When presented with claims to the contrary, beware: if Alma’s assertion about the nature of his knowledge is to be believed, such ‘evidences’ are almost certainly not as incontrovertible as they are occasionally made out to be.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Apologetics: Place and Purposes

Encountering some concerns of mine about apologetics (here and here), David J is moved to ask if I think “there’s a place for apologetics at all”. At the risk of repeating myself, let me clarify: I do think there are uses for the engagement of Mormonism with secular evidence and styles of argumentation. But I think that from within a believing Mormon perspective, the places and purposes for it are rather circumscribed.

I think that almost always the appropriate place for such engagement is ‘unofficial discourse,’ which is conveniently defined as everything that falls outside of ‘official discourse.’ (This of course places the definitional onus on ‘official discourse,’ which for me includes that which occurs in formal Church meetings, and anything published under the Church’s name—today, that which is copyrighted by Intellectual Reserve, Inc.) I’m glad that FAIR and FARMS and alternative publications and blogs exist to populate this realm of unofficial discourse, since I believe that secular evidence and arguments can occasionally be useful probes of religious doctrine and claims of authority. (Only occasionally, because religious claims tend to be otherworldly, and the evidence for and fruits of these claims difficult to objectively assess—all of which tends to preclude secular approaches. Sometimes the rare opening for secular analysis is on foundational matters of great moment, however, such as the Book of Mormon.)

For someone working from within a believing and committed Mormon perspective, I think appropriate purposes for engaging secular evidence and styles of argumentation would be (1) to refute demonstrable falsehoods propagated by detractors, and battle skeptical arguments back towards neutral ground by offering possible alternative interpretations of inconvenient data, thereby providing room for faith for investigators, and serving as a safety net for those who waver for intellectual reasons; and (2) to improve one’s understanding of the meaning of scriptural texts through knowledge of their cultural background. I think it would be very rare for (1) to be a good idea in official discourse, since it unnecessarily exposes members spanning the complete ranges of experience and interest to potential difficulties they might never otherwise encounter. But (2) may sometimes be suitable for official discourse, if any differences from scholarly consensus can be honestly presented—rather than elided—without distracting from official discourse’s core aims (which, I suspect, will very often be a problem).

In either official or unofficial discourse, I think going beyond these valid purposes—with attempts at secularly accessible ‘proofs’ of the Restoration, or presentation of affirmative publicly assessable evidence to induce faith—would be misguided for two reasons.

First, the secular evidence is probably never sufficiently clear-cut, so that attempts to make strong affirmative arguments—especially with the degree of simple clarity required by the imperatives of official discourse—lead either to intellectual dishonesty (in the forms of shading arguments or omitting evidence) or eventual egg on the face, thereby undermining the cause in the long run.

Second, and more important, is what we might call ’the intellectual Tower of Babel problem.’ Use of secular evidence and argumentation is not the way the scriptures have outlined for acquiring faith. From a believing perspective, such would constitute an end run around the appointed means—means that are alleged to result in the acquisition of godly attributes, and not mere cognitive assent.

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