Friday, April 29, 2005

NDBF Unvailed, and a Poll

[UPDATE, 2 May 2005: After Gary's comments, I have changed the wording of this post in a few places in the "disagreement" paragraph, crossing out old wording and placing new wording in brackets.]

Justin is our winner! He deciphered the acronym NDBF. (Actually, it's an initialism, as Silus informed us.) Well done, Justin.

The initialism appears in the address,, of a website put together by one Gary Shapiro. Can you believe anyone would set up an entire website devoted to the notion of No Death Before the Fall? Sheesh, it's almost as bad as devoting an entire site to a reconciliation between Mormons and Evolution.

The NDBF site contains ideas I agree with, ideas I disagree with, and one statement that made me curious enough to try a poll.

What I agree with: Most of the material is devoted to clarifying what the discussion was about that led to a 1931 decision by the First Presidency, a brief part of which is quoted in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism's article on Evolution. I agree with Gary that the spin often put upon it by scientists---that it is a directive to General Authorities to refrain from contradicting the conclusions of "geology, biology, anthropology and archaeology"---is wishful thinking. Instead, it seems to be a directive to General Authorities to not, at least as part of their public ministry, attempt overt reconciliations of the theories of these scientific fields with scriptural accounts of the creation.

What I disagree with: For one thing, obviously, the idea that there was no death of any organism on Earth before about 4000 B.C. But I also disagree with Gary's claim that this idea is now official [settled] doctrine. (Not that it particularly matters; I think one can reasonably and respectfully disagree, in unofficial venues, even with "official [settled] doctrine.") His claim is that while the 1931 decisions did not settle questions about death before the fall, a Melchizedek Priesthood manual from the early 1970s published by the First Presidency under President Joseph Fielding Smith did settle the issue. The manual is described as quoting at length [recommending numerous passages] from previously published teachings of President Smith in Man, His Origin and Destiny and Doctrines of Salvation; the selection and republication of these by the First Presidency puts an official imprimatur upon them, Gary argues. My sense is that just as official doctrine is not settled by private letter, it is not settled in Melchizedek Priesthood manuals either. Surely a more formal method would be chosen if officially settling a controversy were the intent; after all, we don't consider Nibley's Melchizedek Priesthood manual An Approach to the Book of Mormon to be official doctrine. Or, maybe both of these are official [settled] doctrine---but only to the brethren of the Church. Rejoice, sisters, you are free to believe in death before the fall! And as a bonus, the sisters don't have to wade through Nibley. (I myself enjoy reading Nibley.)

What made me curious was this statement of Gary's: "In our day, the doctrine of no death before the fall clearly is accepted as doctrine." I wonder, how many denizens of the Bloggernaccle "accept" this? Leave your input in the poll on the sidebar.

[Did anyone catch the allusion intended by the intentional misspelling of Unvailed? I would expect Justin, at least, to get this one too!]

Thursday, April 28, 2005


I despise acronyms. They are bearable if fashioned into an actual word, but if not, they are simply inhuman.

I came across the acronym NDBF today, and upon finding out what it stood for, I was amused someone would bother to make it into an acronym. Can you guess what it stands for?

(Hint: The context is Mormon, but if you come up with something funny that has nothing to do with Mormonism, please share anyway. If you recognize where I got this, don't give it away!)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

An Ambiguous Ecclesiastical Constitution: The Authority of the President

In a previous post I mentioned that "the leading councils of the Church have the right to establish doctrine," but deliberately avoided specifics. This is because my main point was that we should not get too hung up on "doctrine" in thinking about factual matters subject to scientific investigation (such as evolution), as "doctrine" may primarily represent the community's need for bounds on official discourse, and may not correspond precisely with ontological reality.

Still, the issue of how the leading councils of the Church establish doctrine is an interesting and nontrivial one. A major textual resource---an ecclesiastical constitution, essentially---is Section 107 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which will be considered here in isolation. This section defines the leading councils and describes their relationships to one another. To put it gently, this section contains several subtleties, or complexities, or ambiguities. (No need to gratuitously unnerve anyone with the word "contradictions"!) This post examines one of these ambiguities: Does the President of the Church have ultimate authority?

The authority conferred upon the "President of the High Priesthood of the Church; Or, in other words, the Presiding High Priest over the High Priesthood of the Church" (D&C 107:65-66) is extensive, as described in two passages.

The first description of the President's authority concerns the administration of ordinances. "From the same comes the administering of ordinances and blessings upon the church, by the laying on of the hands" (D&C 107:67). Perhaps this is the source of the notion that the President of the Church holds all the keys, usually described as the authority to direct how the priesthood is exercised---that is, when and by whom ordinances are performed. As indicated, he may delegate these keys to others.

The second description of the President's authority is more broad:
And again, the duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to preside over the whole church, and to be like unto Moses—--

Behold, here is wisdom; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church. (D&C 107:65-66)
It is a comprehensive description, in both scope of authority ("over the whole church") and access to divine power and knowledge ("all the gifts of God").

As it so happens, there are also two passages suggesting limitations on the President's authority.

The first "limitation" passage comes in a description of the First Presidency, before the office of President is even specifically mentioned. The First Presidency's decisions
must be by the unanimous voice of the same...

Unless this is the case, their decisions are not entitled to the same blessings which the decisions of a quorum of three presidents were anciently, who were ordained after the order of Melchizedek, and were righteous and holy men. (D&C 107:27,29)
This seems to be a clear indication that the united voice of the First Presidency carries greater weight than the President acting alone.

The second limitation on the President's authority arises out of a discussion of a bishop's authority as a "judge in Israel," which includes authority "to sit in judgment upon transgressors" (see D&C 107:68-84). The "most difficult cases...shall be handed over and carried up unto the council of the church, before the Presidency of the High Priesthood" [that is, the First Presidency], who "shall have power to call other high priests, even twelve, to assist as counselors" (D&C 107:78-79). It is specifically noted that
There is not any person belonging to the church who is exempt from this council of the church.

And inasmuch as a President of the High Priesthood shall transgress, he shall be had in remembrance before the common council of the church, who shall be assisted by twelve counselors of the High Priesthood;

And their decision upon his head shall be an end of controversy concerning him.

Thus, none shall be exempted from the justice and the laws of God, that all things may be done in order and in solemnity before him, according to truth and righteousness. (D&C 107:81-84)
Hence the President's authority does not extend to preventing judgment upon him by a council consisting of the other members of the First Presidency and twelve counselors chosen by them.

There is a sense among members of the Church of supreme authority vested in the President of the Church. In D&C 107 there is some language that might be invoked to support this idea, but there also seem to be clear limitations. Implications for the establishment of doctrine will be deferred to a later post, after other ambiguities in this constitutional document have been explored.

[This is cross-posted from Mormon Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Please go to the original post to comment.]

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Two Big Problems in Church Doctrine

In comments on the post On Doctrine, Nate has identified two big problems in understanding Church doctrine, and judged that I have been mired in the elementary issue of fallibility of prophets that we all should have understood before leaving kindergarten. (Well, those weren't exactly his words!) I would like to get past the trivia, and understand the more important issues: "1. How do I identify what [church doctrine] is; and, 2. How do I understand its authority."

Trying to tune in to Nate's wavelength, I'll take as a starting point these two big questions. As a demonstration of good faith I have gone back and found that two of his posts are conveniently entitled What is Church Doctrine? and On Authority, and read them both, though not the comments that followed. (Reading these posts, along with On Doctrine and the comments that follow, may be advisable to make sense of this post. Even then I make no guarantees that it will make sense; in addition to the fact that I'm none too bright, it's late, and I'm tired.)

On What is Church Doctrine?: The knee-jerk response of a scientist is to be a positivist. Nate's post's dismissal of a positivist view of church doctrine consists of a single simple sentence, the assertion that we have no rule of recognition. How about the following rule of recognition: "That which is presently on offer from Correlation." What deficiencies does this have? (In suggesting this I am not demanding much of "church doctrine," only what Nate calls the "coordinating function" in response to On Doctrine.)

It seems the second question is much harder, how to understand and identify epistemic authority. Nate offers several approaches in On Authority, but no obvious winner. I suppose my present Spinozist leanings (strong skepticism, at least, of epistemic authority) can be traced to a lack of a clear solution to this question.

Again, my instincts are to require at least a positivist foothold, with the rule of recognition (of generalized authority, though not of the truth of specific statements) being simple "infallible proofs," to use Luke's phrase: clear demonstrations of power over nature (the list of signs following them that believe), handling the resurrected Savior, etc. Given these, I could be sympathetic to the Revelation Portfolio and Presumption of Correctness approaches as workaday solutions. But not convinced the postivist foothold is there, for me these last two approaches are worthless.

I agree that the Truth as the Standard approach does not work all or even most of the time, but it does work sometimes---when empirical evidence is available---and should be applied when possible. My sense is that in the rare cases it can be fruitfully applied, the prophetic track record is a history of retreat and reintrepretation rather than vindication (creation accounts, Book of Mormon historicity).

The Personal Revelation approach has a lot going for it: It has strong (almost decisive) support in restoration scripture, and makes some sense with respect to the putative purposes of mortal probation. For many it is an adequate substitute for a positivist foothold, enough of a basis to adopt Presumption of Correctness or at least Revelation Portfolio. For me it is insufficient: taken in isolation, I worry it is plausibly explainable by socialization, and psychological phenomena we know are unrelated to prophetic authority (e.g. being emotionally moved by a movie with a message contrary to the gospel, or experiencing goosebumps listening to a Van Halen song with inappropriate lyrics and a beat and style that "drive away the Spirit," or "sudden flashes of intelligence" that are indistinguishable from inherent human faculties).

Nate seems most sympathetic in both posts to the Dworkin legal philosophy/Coherence Solution, something about trying to tell a never-ending story in which each new chapter is written with an eye toward making the overall product as sensible as possible. But frankly it comes off as a last resort, what remains after all other options are eliminated, "I'll hope this works because nothing else seems to." It comes across this way because no plausible guidelines are offered for how to construct the story, how to judge what makes it "best," and what basis we have for thinking this construction of narrative is anything more than human invention. And, it doesn't seem any stories are actually offered. In fairness, I suppose this is still an unsolved problem. Any progress since these posts?


Friday, April 22, 2005


The proliferation of priests on television the past couple of weeks reminds me of a joke I often heard missionaries tell in Catholic-dominated Chile.
A Catholic priest invites a mormon Bishop over to discuss issues of mutual concern in their community. The priest is a good host, but not past needling his ecclesiastical colleague: "May I offer you a cup of coffee?"

"You're very kind," replies the Mormon bishop, "but no, thank you, we don't drink coffee."

"Why, Bishop, you don't know what you're missing! How about some tea?"

"Very gracious, Father, but again I must decline. We don't drink tea either."

"Ah, you don't know what you're missing. Well, perhaps we could ease into our discussion with a glass of bourbon and a fine cigar?"

"Father, I appreciate the gesture, but we don't smoke or drink."

"Well, you don't know what you're missing! On to the business at hand, then."

Their business is dispatched smoothly. Turning back as he makes his way out, the Bishop issues a final farewell: "Give my best to your wife."

"Why, Bishop, you know we don't marry."

The Bishop shakes his head: "Father, you don't know what you're missing!"

It may be utterly juvenile on my part, but while watching the priests "pontificate" on television, for some reason the celibacy thing distracts me to the point that I can hardly hear what they're saying. In the two worldviews I've taken seriously, sexuality and reproduction play a central role: In Mormon theology, it is practically the defining characteristic of godhood; in evolution, it defines "survival of the fittest." From these perspectives, to be without family or expectations of it is to practically not exist. (In Mormonism, even those who must do without look forward to receiving in eternity all blessings they were denied in mortality.) To choose celibacy willingly seems so abnormal, so out of sync with reality, that it makes it hard for me to lend credibility to anything they say.

There is a strong emotional response on my part here. Seeing sexuality as an integral part of manhood, and unwilling to conceive of anything different for myself, it is perhaps hard for me to think of them as "real men." The revulsion is similar to that evoked by the punishment Odysseus meted out to the wicked suitors, who had their privy parts ripped off and fed to the dogs. (As I recall, for some reason the epic insists on repeating this over and over.)

But there is an intellectual component too. Now, I may have a lot to learn about the fine points of theology (even Mormon theology---I haven't read Blake Ostler's book). But I can't help thinking that for all the much-vaunted "intellectual consistency" of the Catholic "culture of life," the wheels must have come off the logic wagon in a major way when it came to celibacy. Artificial birth control is banned; how ironic, then, to bestow the title of Father upon those whose elective unnatural lifestyle amounts to the most severe method of artificial contraception imaginable! Unlike other methods, this one appears to be waning in popularity---a reality that might, someday, bring someone to their senses.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

On Doctrine

Greg is one of our frequent commenters, a thoughtful lawyer with an intense interest in what constitutes "doctrine," and what its significance is. His insightful questions and comments often irrupt into threads on various doctrinal concepts related to evolution. One of my comments in response became so long, I decided to promote it to a post in order to provide a place for more focused discussion of this question. This appears somewhat midstream in a series of exchanges across several threads, but I don't know that I can easily find or summarize what has gone before. Hence I simply begin here by meeting Greg on his own turf, trying an analogy with the law. (For more competent discussions along these lines by a real lawyer, explore the posts by Nate Oman at Times and Seasons.) Greg, eat your heart out!

I recognize that the leading councils of the Church have the right to establish doctrine, but I also believe that what is "official," or "canonized," or bound in leather at any given time is not pristine, perfected, glistening and crystalline Truth, but only a community's best collective judgment and perception of it, based on many complex factors I will not get into. I don't dispute that there has to be some sort of order, some mechanism for settling things (at least provisionally) for a community to cohere. I suspect, however, that the fact that it does not always represent the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth is historically demonstrable.

Where does this leave me, operationally, with notions of keys and authority and doctrine? Trying to play in your pond, here is my analogy with the law.

The Supreme Court settles "doctrine" and creates precedents that other courts must respect, for the sake of order. But this does not mean these are immune to refinement or utterly irreversible. There are law schools and think tanks where discussions rage and new ideas form. Either vertically, "up the chain of command" through appellate proceedings; or horizontally, through direct influence by way of law review articles, amicus briefs, or informal consultations, such discussions may end up influencing extensions, revisions, and (rarely) reversals by the Supreme Court of their own "doctrine."

Now, to "cash out" the analogy's application to the Church: the leading councils are like the Supreme Court. Their settled positions are accepted for the purposes of official Church discourse (and, for behavioral standards, Church membership). This means that in Sacrament Meeting talks, Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society discussions, and other "official" venues, I stick to the accepted positions (similar to courts respecting established precedent). But we know historically that "settled" on a time scale of years may still be "provisional" on longer time scales of decades and centuries. Moreover, experience with the real world sometimes suggests that Doctrine is not equivalent to Truth. Hence around the dinner table, and at other unofficial venues formal (e.g. magazines) and otherwise (e.g. blogs), discussion proceeds, in analogy to law schools, think tanks, etc. Some of the results of such discussions influence doctrine through vertical channels, either directly via private discussions between leaders at different levels of the hierarchy, or (probably more often in the Church) through promotion of leaders carrying their private views into office. There is probably some horizontal influence as well (though not as much as in the case of law reviews and amicus briefs in the legal setting), through consideration of the work of trusted and faithful scholars (I'll avoid the radioactive word "intellectuals" here).

A glaring omission here is the role of revelation. I don't know if any of the classical muses were associated with jurisprudence, but perhaps the notion of "revelation" might be accommodated in the legal analogy by creative legal genius divining a "right to privacy" from whole cloth, or deriving Brown v. Board of Education from a footnote in a case on the interstate commerce of milk (as I recall Nate Oman's description). Even with this omission, however, I think the description above captures something of the workaday realities of doctrinal "evolution." (My apologies for the pun---or, maybe not!)

[This is cross-posted from Mormon Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Because the subject of this post is of wider relevance, I am going to leave this post open for comments here as well. I do this with some trepidation, mindful of the confusion that such "polygblogy" on my part may lead to. For comments on this post as it relates to evolution, please go to the original post to comment. Otherwise, you are welcome to comment here.]

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Mormons and Evolution

I contribute to a group blog entitled Mormons and Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. The subject addressed by this blog involves ongoing, multipart discussions. To maximize distribution, keep my blogging corpus together in one place, and help maintain an illusion of ongoing activity at this site, I cross-post these contributions here (while pointing to the other site for comments---my house is a house of order!). This post, linked permanently on the sidebar and updated as appropriate, serves as a roadmap to my contributions---in their reverse video instantiations, for your reading pleasure.

A reconciliation of Mormonism with evolution would require an appreciation of the issues at stake for believers.
  • A Place at the Table: There must be assurance that evolution does not preclude God's existence.
  • A Redeeming Place at the Table: There must be assurance that evolution does not preclude God's miraculous intervention in the world, and his ability to give us life beyond this world.

A reconciliation of Mormonism with evolution would require coming to grips with our understanding of Church doctrine---what the very notion of "doctrine" is, what it isn't, and how various doctrines touch on evolution.
  • On Doctrine: For purposes of communal coherence, the leading councils of the Church have the right to establish doctrine that defines standards of behavior and the boundaries of official discourse; but what is "official," or "canonized," or bound in leather at any given time is not pristine, perfected, glistening and crystalline Truth, but only a community's best collective contemporary judgment and perception of it.
  • An Ambiguous Ecclesiastical Constitution: The Authority of the President: D&C 107 describes the authority of the President of the Church as comprehensive, but not unlimited.
  • A Rollback of the Classical Mormon Perspective on Humanity's Origin and Destiny?: Some statements by President Hinckley suggest he may be open to the idea that God is only the designer of Adam's physical body, and not its literal father, as the traditional Mormon perspective would have it.

In making a reconciliation with evolution, what should Mormons think of arguments from design? What should their attitude be towards the teaching in public schools of so-called Intelligent Design?
  • Do all things denote there is a God? Is Alma’s teleological argument consistent with Joseph Smith’s mature views on the nature of God, and also with the ancient Hebrew worldview from which Nephite culture sprang?
  • Two Classes of Argument from Design, Which Both Fail: Problems with the view of ‘God as First Cause’ are largely avoided by Joseph’s mature anthropomorphic view of God; but the resulting perspective of ‘God as Engineer’ does not make for a good teleological argument either, because of known examples of ‘specialness amidst randomness’ and ‘specialness from randomness.’
  • Response to God and science: Because the role of God in creation is not testable, it does not belong in scientific theories; hence if Intelligent Design is taught at all it ought not be in science class, but in other areas of the curriculum, or in other venues.

What attempts at reconciling Mormonism with evolution have been made in the past?
  • What Did Nibley Think of Evolution? Nibley goes further than most Mormons in taking the findings of science seriously in thinking about the meaning of scriptural creation accounts, but in the end his engaging and bold approach fails on scientific grounds, right where it matters most: the origin of man.

How are ideas related to reconciliation of Mormonism with evolution received among our readers? Informal polls (collected here) provide feedback that, while less than statistically representative of Church membership, is nevertheless interesting.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

A Redeeming Place at the Table

Why is the connection between evolution and God's existence so emotionally charged? In a previous post I argued that evolution is unpalatable to some believers because it seems to remove what is, for some, a primary evidence of God's existence: "the testimony of His creations." I pointed out that this is the zeroth-order answer the Church offers to outsiders in answer to the question, How can I know God exists? At the risk of pedantically elaborating the obvious, in this post and a subsequent one I will discuss two reasons why debates about evolution---and perceived implications for the existence of God---take on a stature much larger than our insignificant intramural Mormon debate, and rise to the level of culture war.

A reconciliation between believers and evolution must give God a place at the table, but it cannot be just any place: It must be a powerful one. Consider the following from Joseph Fielding Smith (with shouting subject heading provided by editor Bruce R. McConkie):
DILEMMA OF THE THEISTIC EVOLUTIONISTS. It is true that the school of evolutionists is divided into the two great classes, the Theistic and the Atheistic branches.

But the Theistic evolutionist is a weak-kneed and unbelieving religionist, who is constantly apologizing for the miracles of the scriptures, and who does not believe in the divine mission of Jesus Christ. (DS 1:142-143)
Does this summary judgment represent a devastating, dead-on double tap, or an ineffective would-be marksman's display of scattershot non-sequiturs? The whirlwind transition from evolution to miracles to the atonement may seem abrupt, but there is a connecting thread: authority, which derives from authorship. Following logically from God's authorship of creation is his control and dominion over creation, with attendant ability to intervene miraculously on our behalf. The power of the words Peace, be still to calm our souls derives from the fact that they were first uttered to Galilean winds and waves stilled in response to the Creator's fiat. This is the authority we rely upon to prosper, heal, and ultimately resurrect us.

The emotional depth of this dependence is on vivid display in the heart-wrenching account, in last week's Priesthood/Relief Society lesson, of the death of David O. McKay's very young son. So deep is President McKay's need that in a move tantamount to a denial of death's reality, he appropriates the scriptural conceptualization of Lazarus, a leap possible only because of his faith in the Creator's power: "‘He is not dead but sleepeth’ was never more applicable to any soul, for he truly went to sleep. He did not die."

Evolution is problematic in this connection because it raises the possibility that God's connection to creation is merely pseudepigraphic (a false attribution of authorship, in order to lend undeserved credibility). The skeptic's take on the connection between God and creation, mentioned in the previous post---that gods were invented to explain forces of nature beyond humanity's comprehension---then takes on a more ominous, personal, and taunting cast. Having invented the gods to explain forces of nature, says the skeptic, propitiations to the gods are first offered as a hedge against the arbitrary destructive force of what we still (even in legal insurance contracts) call Acts of God, and in hopes of being favored with bounteous hunts and harvests. As time goes by, the expectations from divine power are elaborated to individual healing, peace, and immortality---concepts missing from the earliest Biblical views, which focused on the temporal corporate prosperity of God's people. The skeptic likens such expectations to a patient remaining addicted to painkillers long after recovery from surgery is complete: Even after the forces of nature that motivated the invention of gods are understood scientifically, the habit of reliance upon a powerful God ready and willing to save you is hard to break.

Instinctively recoiling from this line of argument, some believers prefer that God's authorship of creation be complete, exclusive, and undisputed, in order that his power to save may also be considered reliably undisputed. In order to overcome this tendency, those interested in making evolution acceptable to such believers will need to provide demonstrations of God's power other than the generation of biodiversity.

[This is cross-posted from Mormon Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Please go to the original post to comment.]

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Erratum: Visitor Count

I noticed this morning that my visitor counter was actually set to display page loads, not unique visitors, as advertised on the sidebar and in an earlier post. My apologies. It is now corrected, and the number is cut roughly in half.

I feel badly for propagating false data, even if it was inadvertent. But I feel worse that my numbers take such a hit! Just kidding, attention from the multitudes is not really why I'm here, and doesn't drive my content. Or at least that's what I tell myself.

(Historically, for astronomers, believe it or not, accuracy to within a factor of two has been pretty darn good. Getting something within an order of magnitude, i.e. a factor of ten, was often the norm. But lately, with a vast array of observational satellites, we're in an era of "precision cosmology", in which astronomical measurements are approaching the few percent level. Accordingly, I'm glad to be more precise in reckoning this blog's reading universe.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Philosophical Barn Stuff

Physicists inherit an aversion to philosophy, but a bestselling book by a Princeton philosopher has me thinking that philosophy might be pretty cool after all.

The physicist's aversion is a legacy of luminaries. "It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher." So quoth Einstein. And Richard Feynman, legendary hero to many physicists, thought that philosophy, as an exercise in pure thought, is fatally flawed: lacking the empirical constraints featured in experimental and observational sciences, it is hopelessly consigned to endless rounds of verbiage and hair-splitting that go in circles and advance nowhere. In other words, it's all BS (Barn Stuff---not unlike blog discussions!). Ironically, Feynman's son chose to study philosophy.

But I think even Feynman would be pleased with this philosophical work. Unlike philosophers (or lawyers or mathematicians, for that matter), physicists are supposed to be comfortable---when occasion warrants---hacking through a problem by using physical intuition (a.k.a. flying by the seat of one's pants), with a casual disregard for airtight logic that brings tears to the eyes of mathematicians. (For example, I think calculus was fruitfully exploited for a couple hundred years after it was invented by Newton and Leibniz before mathematicians put it on a rigorous logical footing.) The lack of rigor and horrifyingly cavalier dismissal of potential loopholes is justified by the fact that, being an experimental enterprise, the data can be relied upon in the end to highlight any mistakes. Hence one of the outcomes of a physicist's training should be a sense of intuition, a nose for the general direction towards which the data are pointing, especially at the margins where the data are still incomplete. As part of this, a physicist tends to develop a finely honed BS detector. Feynman exemplified this in all aspects of life, not just his science; he was uncompromisingly opposed to phoniness in all its manifestations.

The book is short; it's actually only an essay, reworked into a book with liberal use of big margins and large typefaces. But if you don't want to actually buy and read the work itself (I haven't either, I'm BSing my way through this post!), you can read a newspaper article, or watch a segment on Comedy Central's Daily Show with Jon Stewart---which should be enough to allow you, too, to BS your way through a conversation about it around the water cooler, or over the dinner table.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Color Scheme Psychoanalysis

Rather than adopt one of the Blogger templates out-of-the-box, I spent a nontrivial amount of time developing a color scheme and overall look-and-feel that was to my liking. Why did I spend so much time at this? Does it say something about my personality, in the way handwriting analysis might? Perhaps such issues can be illuminated through that classic, penetrating tool of the analyst---the Top Ten List. What are the top ten reasons my template looks the way it does?

10. It's got that "monochrome chic" thing goin' on---very sexy.

9. It's the perfect gender complement to this color scheme.

8. The "reverse video" (light font on dark background) is an embodiment of "perspectives unfamiliar": this doesn't look like other Mormon blogs, and may say things the others don't, either.

7. Even the comments box is in reverse video. Hence commenters are reminded, even as their words appear in this unfamiliar way, that this is a place to stretch their thinking. (What would really be cool is to have their words appear not inside the comment box as they type, but outside the the comment box---as an explicit reminder to think outside the box!)

6. Nostalgia for simpler times: reverse video is the way monitors always looked when I was first exposed to computers (Apple ][+, Apple //e) in Junior High School.

5. Reverse video is the naturist way God intended. The screen is beatifully and naturally dark; no need to clothe it to excess, wastefully and obnoxiously lighting up excess pixels.

4. Sans serif fonts, and the absence of extraneous icons, bullets, lines, and other baroque flourishes. contribute to a sleek, minimalist, modern feel---sort of like Scandinavian furniture, or brushed metal finishes. Occam's razor, let's get down to fundamentals. No framing of excess hypotheses around here.

3. Geek Chic: All true Geeks set their terminal windows to reverse video. Canvass the Geeks you respect---those who actually use unix/linux---and see if this ain't so!

2. Welcome to the dark side, baby.

1. If I can't have an Audi A8 L W12 in Night Blue Pearl, with Platinum leather interior, 20" alloy wheels, adaptive cruise control, solar sunroof, satellite radio, and personal refrigerator (MSRP $128,120), at least I can make my blog look like one (if not perform like one---Blogger has its limitations!).

0. I had to come up with a color scheme to match the only digital picture I had readily available to use in my Blogger profile: my classic deer-in-the-headlights security badge picture from work.

So, it turned out to be a top-eleven list in the end. Good thing the Arabs invented zero!

Another analytic tool, one my parents taught me, is the pro/con list. Anything you don't like about this template? Suggestions for improvement?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Face the Music

I experienced two instinctive, opposing reactions last week to groups or people I am more or less affiliated with, concerning protection of the weak. I will simply describe these reactions, without much by way of reasoned postprocessing. (That can be done in comments, if necessary.)

I have been "pro-life" and Republican for as long as I can remember, but I was viscerally repulsed by the interest groups and politicians that made a circus of what ought to have been a private, sacred family time---Terry Schiavo's last days. She is the new face of the "pro-life" movement, we are told. Here are the crowds around a hospice center, complete with chants, prententious signage, ridiculous stunts of pseudo-heroism, and kleig lights. Here is what's-his-name, Senator Rick Sanctimonisorum or something (R-Pennsylvania), who "just happened" to have been previously scheduled ten minutes away from the family, how could he not show his support? Here is Congressman Tom DaLame Duck (R-Texas), hopefully-soon-to-be-ex-Majority Whip, vociferously waving the banner of the righteous in hopes of diverting attention from his own mounting ethical troubles. Here is the Congress, falling all over itself to get a piece of the spotlight by inserting themselves in the most ad hoc fashion, only to find, to their horror, the revulsion induced in the electorate. Against all these, the ringing dissonant chords of William Walton's masterpiece for choir and orchestra---Belshazzar's Feast---render stern judgment, invoking the original writing on the wall: "Thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting!"

In welcome contrast, I am made aware of quiet, nameless, selfless goodness towards recently orphaned youth: two young teenagers, recent converts of barely a year, whose mother passed away unexpectedly. Protected from Father by restraining order, sleeping on the floor in a house crowded with relatives indifferent to their faith, their continued presence with Uncle becomes untenable. In their small ward---a somewhat rural one, really more branch than ward, unwealthy, with little in the way of excess resources---not one, not two, but three families of modest means vie for the opportunity of taking them in; not as a stopgap measure, but to become their legal guardians. Told of these more-than-Samaritans who, outside the view of their fellow congregants, let alone the world at large, fast privately with their Bishop to determine the best course, unbidden tears spring to my eyes. Grateful for the latent goodness in the heritage that formed me, I hear the words once famously sung by a noble ancestor, directed this time towards these selfless people: "These deeds shall thy memorial be; fear not, thou didst them unto me."

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The (Almost) Instant Spinozist Take from Conference, Day 2

A new post, to get the dateline right. Sorry this comes at the onset of the next (and final) session; we watched the first with friends, and just got back from dinner with them.

Sunday Morning

President Faust: Stand ye in holy places...

Elder Ballard: ...especially if you plan on being a missionary. The Raising of the Bar has reduced the number of missionaries, so now we're Razing the Bar. Just kidding! We need to work harder to prepare them, that's all. Bishops, find an additional candidate; with sufficient effort, and with well-timed coordinated swinging, you, your youth leaders, and the parents just might be able to heave him over said Bar on the count of three.

Elder Sorensen: To do well does not always mean everything will turn out well. Resulting from doing right is not necessarily a peace free of conflict, but a peace full of meaning.

Sister Hughes: People perceive God's love in the hands of those who serve them. Friendship allows for differences; in fact, it embraces them.

Elder Eyring: Converts, it's not enough that we've captivated you. We want your family, and not even death can keep them from us.

President Hinckley: First Vision; Book of Mormon; Restoration of the Priesthood; Eternal Sealings; Innocence of Little Children; Premortal Birth to Heavenly Parents, Mortal Probation, Quasi-universal Salvation by Degrees; Modern Revelation. Praise to the Man!

(The phrase "noble counselors" has been repeated at least three times in talks or prayers. Is this construction becoming de rigeur? I hope it doesn't mean that counselors are expected to be less than noble unless otherwise specified...)

Sunday Afternoon

Elder Perry: Memo from central Europe---secular societies, with emphasis on individual freedom, lead to selfishness and a decline in public and private morality.

Elder Oaks: Pornography has made accelerating inroads. Very. Serious. Problem.

Elder Whetten: Feed my sheep.

Elder Damiani: Be of good cheer.

Elder Oveson: All prophets testify of Christ.

Elder Bednar: The tender mercies of the Lord do not occur randomly, or merely by coincidence. Faithfulness and obedience enable us to receive them, and they are recognizable by their timing.

President Hinckley: We can be good neighbors. Through the generosity of our people, we are relieving the distressed.

[The following was sung to music composed by my g-g-g-grandfather, Ebenezer Beesley, improved by an arrangement that sounded like it had Mack Wilberg's fingerprints all over it. I retract my statement yesterday about the superfluity of female voices.]

Sing we now at parting,
One more strain of praise,
To our Heavenly Father,
Sweetest songs we'll raise...

Save us, Lord, from error.
Watch us day by day.
Help us now to serve thee
In a pleasing way.


Saturday, April 02, 2005

The (Almost) Instant Spinozist Take from Conference

I was determined to take a Breather from the Blogosphere, and I expected a Bloggernacle Blackout. Brethren at Big Ed's---our Melchizedek Priesthood Quorums' traditional gathering before Priesthood Session at a local pizzeria & bar (complete with smoke and neon beer signs), where our ward's seminary teacher is a waitress and can get us a discount (and maybe free beer, of the Root variety)---was going to be my only extrafamilial distraction this weekend. But my wife went on a Church visit with our two oldest daughters between sessions, instructing me to stay home with the youngest. So here I am, fallen off the wagon, and noticing that all the major hubs have open threads on Conference. So I may as well chip in one- or two-sentence first impressions, to be updated after each session.

Saturday Morning

President Hinckley: Happy Birthday to Us! (I knew I learned that impulse from somewhere. But he carries it off with considerably greater aplomb and gravitas than I can muster.)

Elder Packer: Joseph Smith needs no defense beyond the Book of Mormon; nevertheless, wo unto those who defame him. Dreams, visions, visitations, the Lord revealing himself, and ministrations by angels occur. This is a highlight, something of great interest to those with Spinozist predilections. They are gratified, but not yet mollified; they want to hear more, and more detail.

Bishop Eldredge: Listen to the still, small voice, and your heart throbbing the truth within you.

Sister Menlove: Teach your children well; it is more important to them than whatever a natural disaster might do.

Elder Nelson: Obviously, very moving. Our condolences. This day is the time! Carpe diem!

President Monson: Carpe diem redux---appreciate the fleeting time with your children. And, another sobering story; for heaven's sake, be kind.

Saturday Afternoon

Business: As predicted, all was handled well financially, "in all material respects". No such qualifiers were offered as options in the sustainings. One of my former mission presidents, Gustavo Barrios, was released as an Area Authority Seventy. The Church passed 12 million members this year (to be precise, 12,275,822).

Elder Wirthlin: Kindness extolled---amen, amen, and amen. A virtue I value and aspire to, for all my failures to exhibit it. Elder Talmage: not just another bright guy.

Elder Scott: The new resource Preach My Gospel---now, for the first time, a missionary resource available to members as well as missionaries---will allow missionaries to teach in the own words, as guided by the Spirit. (I thought that's what we were doing back in the day... Whatever.) Get yours today! (Sorry I couldn't give a more precise link---the server wasn't responding, apparently deluged with orders after Elder Scott sent us to the distribution center.)

Elder Hillam: What greater legacy can anyone leave their posterity than their honest take on The Truth?

Elder Robbins: Sacrifice---an equal opportunity principle.

Elder Uchtdorf: Because of manifestations to prophets like Moses, Paul, and Joseph Smith, he is blessed with a testimony of the Savior through the Holy Ghost.

Elder Hales: Seniors, do something useful for a change.

Just one session after President Monson warns against saying (this is a verbatim quote from scripture) "All is well," the choir closes singing---"All is well!"

Off to Big Ed's!...

...which was all-you-can eat buffet pizza; the counsel of the speaker earlier in the day (can't remember who it was) who warned about controlling bodily appetites was flagrantly violated by all.

Priesthood Session

Elder Holland: What is the single distinguishing feature of this Church, he asks? A gender divide of Grand Canyon proportions, characterized by a Relief Society that condemns the Simpsons as an example of the world going to hell, at the precise moment Homer is quoted as a source of wisdom down the hall in Elders' Quorum? No, it's not all about gender. Or, maybe it is... The distinguishing feature is the authority; through it he has seen evil rebuked, the elements rebuked, and mountains of difficulty moved.

Elder Andersen: Beware of the evil behind the Spinozist smiling eyes.

Elder R. Oaks: Where are those AWOL in the battle against Satan? We've had specific warnings of the Second Coming, and those were even before the latest hurricane in the Caribbean, and the tsunami.

President Faust: A woman---and a physicist, to boot---is held up as an example of perseverance to the priesthood: Marie Curie. How long will you have to persevere as a home teacher? Until you're 101 years old, or until you die, whichever comes first.

President Monson: Correction, President Faust, not whichever comes first, not even whichever comes last: There will be home teaching in the next life, and he's confident the numbers there will improve. Get started, by doing your duty here and now.

President Hinckley: He reluctantly speaks to a practice which appears innocent, but can lead to an addiction... Wives and children robbed of what is rightfully theirs... People cannot leave it alone... Causing a revolution on campuses... a proliferation of websites... Blogging?! No, dodged that bullet---this time. It's gambling, including $5 stakes poker, the latest rage among the youth.

The men's choir from BYU was fantastic---diction, vowels, intonation---they were as one. Fire from heaven. I do wish they had done something a little more rousing; this group could've shook the rafters. Sisters, no disrespect intended, but sometimes it seems like the sweet blending harmonies of men's voices could only diluted by female additives. This choir alone is worth the price of the conference CDs (or DVDs, sisters, if you want to not just hear, but see all the handsome BYU men!)


Friday, April 01, 2005

Junk at Times and Seasons

April Fool's! Well, sort of. I'd never want to poke a serious finger in the eye of Times and Seasons---the Colussus that bestrides the Bloggernacle as no other (see also footnote below)---but I'm not past parasitically invoking it in a provocative title, in order to catch the eye.

There is junk at Times and Seasons, but I'm not referring to any of the main posts---which are reliably excellent---and, more importantly, my use of the term "junk" in this context is not derogatory.

Biologist Sydney Brenner, in an interesting perspective on "junk DNA" I can't get into here, offers this useful insight on "junk":
Some years ago I noticed that there are two kinds of rubbish in the world and that most languages have different words to distinguish them. There is the rubbish we keep, which is junk, and the rubbish we throw away, which is garbage.

The junk at Times and Seasons I'm referring to is some of my own comments. An accomplished blogger once referred to the "noble tradition of literary hacks who never miss an opportunity to recycle old material". Calling myself "literary" would be presumptively grandiose, but the "hack" shoe fits; so in a puny effort along those lines, from time to time I'll probably exhume some of my old comments, dust them off, and give them a shower and shave (did you know fingernails and facial hair continue growing after death?) to presentably resurrect them as "original" posts here.

But today I'm going to be even lazier than that. I mentioned in my previous post that I commented prodigiously last week. To be more sane this week, and in a (probably futile) attempt to convince myself and others that I can manage a blogging addiction, in lieu of new posts here for several days I'm going to point out some of my blathering output from last week, and let it be digested for awhile by those who may care.

This post got me thinking, here and here, about how we apply our religious doctrines, sayings, and stories to our lives' vexations.

Related to the idea of the importance of narratives, a discussion arising from this post led me to speculate on the origin of Stories of Mythic Proportions (some of the preceding and following comments give useful context).

A powerful Updike poem induced me to offer this reading.

A post responding to The Elusory Breath of Life led to several comments and questions by me; this was my most direct response, and this was my take on the relationship of charity to rules which can sometimes be annoyingly specific.

Finally, two posts on Mormon art---here and here---led me to comment on the nature of art, here and here, notwithstanding my ignorance on this subject.

This was an atypical week, and I hope the unusual effort was justified by the need to generate some interest in my new little blog here. But assembling this material from last week (and this is the longer, somewhat-thought-out stuff; did I forget anything major?) scares me into stepping back, letting go, and taking a breather; but even if I don't post here anew for awhile (or comment much elsewhere), I'll try to check in here regularly to respond to comments.

[Footnote: Kaimi, here's a version suitable for framing on your "What people are saying" wall: "Times and Seasons is the veritable Colussus that bestrides the Bloggernacle as no other. Even in the larger ecosystem of the blogosphere at large, the undeniable, objective "bear truth" is that it rates as a Marauding Marsupial."]