Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Open Thread on Julie’s Closed Thread; or, How should we interact with authority?

[UPDATE: Julie revised the verbiage explaining her decision to turn off comments. My references to 200 comments and the babysitting she didn’t want to take on allude to the original version.]

If Julie doesn’t want 200 comments on her post on women’s authority, I'll take them. (Actually, since the T&S readership is about 200 times the readership of this blog, we might expect this post to garner of order 1 comment.) As for the babysitting she didn’t want to take on, I won’t bother; I trust you to behave as the courteous adults you are. I’ll kick things off with two observations, one specific, and the second more general.

First, regarding Paul’s parallel Christ:God :: woman:man, Julie argues that “The relationship of woman to man–as paralleled to Christ and God–is not eternal. …since Christ ultimately inherits all that the Father has, it implies that the heirarchical aspect of the male-female relationship is temporary.” I don’t think Joseph’s teachings support this. I quote from Bushman, who quotes the King Follett discourse:
“I saw the father work out a kingdom with fear & trembling & I can do the same & when I get my K[ingdom] work[ed out] I will present [it] to the father & it will exalt his glory and Jesus steps into his tracks to inherit what God did before.”

The words evoked a hierarchy [!] of gods, succeeding to higher stations of greater glory as kingdoms are presented to them and as rising souls below them ascend to godhood.
So while Jesus becomes like the Father and gains all that he hath, there remains an eternal hierarchy.

Second, in a couple of places where she cannot obtain a satisfactory reading, she seems to feel free to disregard it, saying “Paul is making an argument from nature/culture that probably won’t persuade many modern readers.” Why not apply that to the entirety of Paul’s teachings on women—or, if “cultural baggage” is pervasive, to all of scripture? What are the criteria used to separate the wheat from the chaff? If it is ‘that which is not persuasive to modern readers,’ we may as well treat all of scripture not as if it has normative authority, but ‘only’ with the same seriousness we take any other great literature worthy of our attention and consideration, but not necessarily our obedience (a result, I confess, to which I am rather tempted).

Jim F. provides more questions than answers in his lessons, so I can’t know for sure; I don’t get the fundamentalist inerrancy vibe, or a drive for harmonization, but I get the sense that he would rather leave questions unanswered than presume to dismiss any canonized text. I still don’t quite get what he’s doing, and I don’t know if I can be persuaded do the same; but there seems to be something special in his approach (‘patience’ and ‘gravitas’ come to mind). There seems to be querying, even respectful probing; but then simply listening, sometimes, perhaps often, for answers that do not come; but in no case does there seem to be an impatient need to force resolutions.

It is, I suppose, a remarkably mature trust in and patience with the word, and those granted custody over its canonization status—neither of which is expected to be perfect, but is also not to be transcended. Again, for myself I am not sure it is a trust I can muster, but his posture is one I can respect. I can see either taking the whole ball of wax with a grain of salt—a kind of passive leave-taking—or, alternatively, thinking and waiting patiently; but when the issue is a text (or Church) claiming legitimate authority from God, a kind of pushy activism aimed at change is a stance I am not sure makes much sense.

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Use and Abuse of Hidden Biases

Recently published:
Studies presented at the conference, for example, produced evidence that emotions and implicit assumptions often influence why people choose their [fill-in-the-blank], and that [fill-in-the-blank] stubbornly discount any information that challenges their preexisting beliefs.
What would you guess goes in the blanks?

As you can read in today’s Washington Post, the terms in the two blanks above are not ‘religion’ and ‘believers’ as you might have feared, but “political affiliations” and “partisans.” Perhaps there is still reason for concern, however: it’s no accident that politics and religion are proverbially linked as subjects to be avoided in social situations calling for decorous avoidance of conflict. The following phenomenon, for example, surely rings true for religious as well as political partisans:
Emory University psychologist Drew Westen put self-identified Democratic and Republican partisans in brain scanners and asked them to evaluate negative information about various candidates. Both groups were quick to spot inconsistency and hypocrisy—but only in candidates they opposed.
So what do the brain scans have to do with this? This is where it gets interesting:
When presented with negative information about the candidates they liked, partisans of all stripes found ways to discount it, Westen said. When the unpalatable information was rejected, furthermore, the brain scans showed that volunteers gave themselves feel-good pats—the scans showed that “reward centers” in volunteers’ brains were activated. The psychologist observed that the way these subjects dealt with unwelcome information had curious parallels with drug addiction as addicts also reward themselves for wrong-headed behavior.
Ah, the sweet rewards—or should we say guilty pleasures?—of uncritical loyalty and devotion.

It seems reasonable to guess that a biologically measurable tendency like this has an evolutionary basis: aside from the fact that the tendency to follow the leader of the pack surely preceded the ability to rationally question him, in terms of survival (and happiness) value Social Coherence probably gives Truth a serious run for its money.

Perhaps we can be grateful that the human brain’s primal addiction to filtered information, its natural capacity for cognitive dissonance, prevents valuable bonds from unraveling unnecessarily or prematurely; but as with any evolved tendency—whose very existence at least hints that it ‘works,’ or at least used to, at some level, for something—there are reasons to not allow it unchecked sway. (Cases in point: sex and violence.) We rightly value valiant fidelity and half-blind, long-suffering charity. But it is also written that some wrenching conversions are necessary, even if they divide families, and promise not peace but the sword.

Listening—giving new and scary views fair consideration—doesn’t seem to have a lot to recommend it, since it may cost you your life, or at least your life as you know it. And yet, depending on party affiliation, we cannot help admiring and hoping to emulate the likes of Joseph and Jesus, or Spinoza and Socrates—all men who found unexamined religious and even physical lives not worth living, and preferred the truth that made them lonely but free to the loyalty that would have made them happy and prosperous.

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Ensign Apologetics After All

I recently said that “there may have been a trend towards leaving the sort of work FARMS does out of official Church discourse—magazines, lesson manuals, conference talks.” Unfortunately for my predictive credibility, the very next issue of the Ensign happens to contain an article on the Dead Sea Scrolls by Andrew C. Skinner that strikes some distinctly apologetic chords. More unfortunately, however, examples of bad argumentation and bad arguments in this article illustrate my larger point: including apologetics in the Ensign and other vehicles of official Church discourse may not be the best idea.

A discussion of ancient scriptural media wraps an accomodating archaeological fact in a mantle of overblown argumentation that saps this fact’s impact for the thoughtful reader. After explaining that in ancient times scriptures were usually recorded on scrolls rather than ‘books’ bound from individual pages, Skinner remarks that “Metal plates are an important exception.” Because he is discussing archaeology, the fact that he does not specify any examples of these metallic books leaves the mistaken impression that this is an archaeological conclusion, when in reality he can only be thinking of the stacks of plates mentioned in the Book of Mormon. He goes on to say that “The Prophet Joseph Smith’s claim to have translated the Book of Mormon from metal plates was given significant credibility” by the discovery of the Copper Scroll among the discoveries at Qumran. If out of the enormous numbers of scrolls from the ancient Near East we have only a single example of a metallic scroll (not book!), can we in good conscience declare that “the use of metal as an important scribal material in the Holy Land is now beyond question”?

Note that in two separate cases here he claims how “important” metallic records were—a conclusion that cannot be sustained on the basis of a single isolated example of a metallic scroll. Metallic records are “important” to believers in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but this is (or ought to be) of no moment in an archaeological argument. The conclusions of an archaeological argument ought to rest on the publicly verifiable physical evidence; but because in official Church discourse the historical reality of widespread ancient use of metallic media is a foregone revealed conclusion, a more evenhanded presentation of the physical evidence seems impossible. Such manifestly unbalanced presentations are an indication that evidentiary discussions of this kind simply do not belong in a dogmatic venue like the Ensign, which is understandably and rightfully overtly partisan.

The article goes on to mention many features of the Qumran community with resonance for Latter-day Saints: records buried to come forth in a future day, an expanded canon, apostasy and restoration, priesthood hierarchy, consecration, separation of a holy community from the world, interest in the temple and associated requirements of worthiness and purity, and so on.

But other features contrary to the faith of the Latter-day Saints make it clear they were not ancient Mormons. They had no Melchizedek Priesthood, or any temple ordinances like ours, and some of Jesus’ teachings seem like direct rebuttals to some of their ideas. Skinner describes them as having good intentions and doing the best they could. “They accomplished much, but without the Melchizedek Priesthood and authorized prophets they erred in many things.”

In the end, Skinner’s attempted apologetic summary based on these considerations backfires, potentially detracting from rather than supporting Joseph's claims. His conclusion is that
…we can certainly see how some of the theological ideas found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could have been perfectly at home in an authentic ancient setting. [Big surprise, since Mormonism is after all a Biblical religion!]

It is important to remember, though, that LDS doctrines and practices paralleling some of the ideas found in the Dead Sea Scrolls were in fact brought forth by Joseph Smith long before the discovery of those ancient documents. … Joseph Smith was not a lucky forecaster. He was the Lord’s prophet of the Restoration…
Why is this an unwise argument to make? Note the implication of the fact that all these ideas resonant for Latter-day Saints could be generated from an Old Testament legacy by the well-meaning but uninspired and unauthorized Qumran community: a modern group in possession of the same rich Biblical legacy—led by Joseph Smith, in our particular case—also facing the problem of a fragmenting religious tradition showing symptoms of worldly corruption, could also have generated similar ideas without divine aid. If we view the Qumran community as being well-intentioned but mistaken about having a divine commission, we must ask if the same is true of us as well.

This is an interesting and informative article, unfortunately marred by the apologetic flourishes. Of course, it’s the apologetic conclusions that make it relevant for the Ensign. Maybe it confirms the convictions of the masses, but I think we have here an example in which for those able to step back from foregone conclusions and read between the lines, it potentially detracts from rather than confirms faith.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Relevance to Evolution of Brigham’s Science-friendly Statements

Jared has a nice post on the changing publication history of a very interesting quote from Brigham Young, and Jeffrey and Clark give some other interesting statements of Brigham’s. No question it’s gratifying to perceive support for one’s own sympathies for science in general, and interpretational flexibility of Genesis in particular, from someone of Brigham's stature; but there are some reasons for enthusiasts of naturalistic evolution to not to get too excited.

First, Clark italicizes a statement that, taken out of the context of the totality of Brigham’s thought, seems open to evolution; but Brigham surely did not intend it as such. In saying “Our spirits are His: He begot them. We are His children; He set the machine in motion to produce our tabernacles,” the ‘setting in motion’ Brigham had in mind could only have been the initial procreation by divine beings of the first parents of the human race, and not the initiation of naturalistic evolution by the creation of rudimentary single-celled (or even sub-cellular) life.

Second, the full statement Clark cited has potentially conflicting ideas on God being subject to natural law and God decreeing natural law, and also gives some ammunition to Intelligent Design advocates. Says Brigham,
But it is hard to get the people to believe that God is a scientific character, that He lives by science or strict law, that by this He is, and by law he was made what He is; and will remain to all eternity because of His faithful adherence to law.
So far, so good; sounds like God as Engineer. But then he immediately says
It is a most difficult thing to make the people believe that every art and science and all wisdom comes from Him, and that He is their Author. … It is strange that scientific men do not realize that, all they know is derived from Him; to suppose, or to foster the idea for one moment, that they are the originators of the wisdom they possess is folly in the highest!
Here Brigham is either not recognizing a distinction between God as Engineer and God as First Cause, or is at least denying man’s ability to discover the regularities of nature through the scientific method without divine inspiration. Finally, a general teleological argument:
As for ignoring the principle of the existence of a Supreme Being, I would as soon ignore the idea that this house came into existence without the agency of intelligent beings.
For more on the distinction between God as First Cause and God as Engineer, and the styles of arguments from design they respectively inspire, see this post.

Finally, with regard to the ultimate relevance of Jared’s well-done and much-appreciated detective work: when it comes to what people and organizations take as religious doctrine, older and original are not always deemed more true. In fact, the opposite may be true. (This is contrary—not inappropriately, for science of course, and perhaps also for a religion with acknowledged infallible authorities and an open canon—to the usual values historians deploy in plying their craft.) We applaud Brigham for applying this principle in recognizing the limitations of the creation account in Genesis, by taking account of what we ‘know’ today—either by science or revelation/inspiration—that previous prophets did not. However, this freedom to set aside older statements is a two-edged sword: we may be less excited about the contemporary Church availing itself of this principle in selecting for current consumption only the portions of Brigham’s statements that are today considered good doctrine by the current presiding authorities.

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

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Poisoned Fruit, Interstate Commerce, and so-called ‘Domestic Spying’

This week the Bush administration executes a blitz aimed at turning a political liability into a club with which to beat those wimpy Democrats over the head yet again on issues of national security. If you are an active Mormon, not only will you be a patriot; statistically you’re overwhelmingly likely to also be a political conservative, who will therefore want to support this righteous cause. The playbook: (1) Explain the ‘fruit of the poisoned tree’ problem when liberals whine that we already have the FISA court, and (2) Insist on the adjective ‘transnational’ instead of ‘domestic,’ and for good measure throw an analogy with the commerce clause in their face.

You see, Bush’s mere redefinition from “domestic spying” to “terrorist surveillance”—which may be sufficiently effective with the public at large—will not cut it with your smarty-pants friends around the water cooler. In the comfortable complacency that goes with taking one of the great blessings of this free nation for granted—abundant supplies of chilled water in workplaces everywhere—your American-self-loathing friends will dismiss the manifest imperative to ‘get the terrorists’ with a casual (and limp-wristed) wave of the hand, and hold forth instead with high-minded indignation, using eloquent (but nasal-toned) phrases like ‘infringing our liberties.’

You can’t compete with their fancy words, but you know they’re wrong, and that if it wouldn't mean losing your job you could take a page from the CIA’s playbook and get them to admit their self-deceptive errors with a modicum of waterboarding. (How do you like that chilled water now?! Ready for some domestic survellience yet? No? Have some more then!)

Since this option is sadly unavailable, read on and prepare yourself to administer crushing blows on the amateur intellectual battlefield, armed with armchair legal arguments. Depending on how much actual legal knowledge your pencil-necked friends have, you will either impress them greatly or embarrass yourself horribly. But at least you’ll have something to say.

The first argument in Bush’s favor has to do with why even the FISA allowance for 72-hour backdated warrants in the case of emergencies are insufficient. Having watched Law and Order episodes since you were a babe on your mother’s knee, you know that such warrants still must be obtained without any ‘fruit of the poisoned tree.’ That is to say, suppose the only thing I have on American citizen Abu is an intercepted international call—selected only on the basis of automated data mining—saying “Abu, Osama says you should execute the plan next week.” I could not use this evidence to justify a back-dated warrant to obtain this same evidence. And yet it seems like a reasonable piece of evidence to obtain and act upon.

The second point is that a key legal element seems to be the international nature of the communications. Seize on this as a conservative revenge on the commerce clause. (School desegregation was of course a good thing, but just to show the slenderness of the legal threads upon which such weighty conclusions are hung, I am told that Brown v. Board of Education relied on an obscure footnote in a case on interstate shipments of milk.) Just as the commerce clause gives the federal government the right to regulate essentially anything—from abortion to guns—with the most remote or tangential interstate connection, so transactions traversing the nation’s borders give the Commander-in-Chief considerable leeway in making use of them for national defense. So there!

Go forth, conservatives, and spread the good word: not only is Bush pushing the religious right’s agenda of moral purity we Mormons crave, he’s kicking terrorist arse wherever he finds it. Not only does he assure us that “I'm mindful of your civil liberties and so I had all kinds of lawyers review the process”—he’s got quality legal backing from the Spinozist as well.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Chapel Hill, NC: Young Rock and Religious Studies

An unfortunate and unprecedented pair of back-to-back trips: on the (Tar)heels of last week’s travel, this week I spend a few days in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home of the University of North Carolina.

It’s perhaps not surprising that there aren’t many movies relating to Chapel Hill. In fact the only thing I could find to continue my recent tradition of movie images commemorating my travel destinations was Chapel Hill: Young Rock, a documentary of this university town’s music scene during it’s peak of the early 90’s.

UNC also boasts Professor Charlesworth, famous expert on the Pseudepigrapha with occasional connections to FARMS. I seem to recall an account of John Welch showing him the chiasmus in Alma 36. Was he persuaded it constituted evidence of antiquity? As I recall his response was something along the lines of, ‘Mormons are fortunate. Their book is very beautiful.’

Another thought on religious studies at UNC: A few weeks ago I heard part of an interview with Bart Ehrman, the chair of the UNC religious studies department on the NPR show Fresh Air, who is, oxymoronically, agnostic. Is this common in religious studies departments? I may not be remembering this exactly right, but it seems he had gone from something like Episcopalian to fundamentalist Evangelical to agnostic, based on the fact that the words and message of the New Testament could not be recovered with sufficient accuracy to be relied upon.

On the radio show he spoke of how the four gospels had different theological agendas and that harmonization of them ought not be imposed. As I recall he said Mark depicted a suffering, bewildered Jesus, while Luke portrayed a more transcendent, powerful Christ (for example, compare the Mark’s plaintive ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ to Luke’s Christ confident of arriving in paradise declaring, ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit.’) He argued that Jesus’ suffering in Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood, is not in the earliest manuscripts of Luke, and that it was likely added by a later scribe in an attempt at harmonization with, say, Mark’s theology of the suffering Christ. This would seem to be an interesting question for Latter-day Saints, since King Benjamin speaks of the drops of blood. Any insight out there from all you LDS Bible scholars out there? In any case, Ehrman’s many works on the New Testament look interesting.

Perhaps what I need to know more urgently, however, is whether the music scene in Chapel Hill remains sufficiently vibrant that I might be able to catch a decent act on a Tuesday or Wednesday night (tonight is out, as I’d like to watch the continuing season opening of 24!).

One final connection: Aaron Fenton, the Duke lacrosse player whose stolen image represented Aaron B. Cox, gives rival UNC headaches!

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Two Classes of Argument from Design, Which Both Fail

In a recent post that took Alma’s encounter with Korihor as a springboard, my discussion of the possible evolution of Joseph’s views on the nature of God turned on the assumption that Alma’s argument from design points to a kind of God—which for convenience I will call God as First Cause—who is somehow outside the universe, and logically prior to its natural laws, and therefore the ultimate potentiator of the universe’s observed order. I mentioned parenthetically that it was debatable whether Alma’s argument took this form, and invited commenters to call me on it, but no one did. Hence I take it upon myself to clarify the matter by pointing out that there is a second type of teleological argument, and that it is not clear which Alma had in mind. Then I do that effort at clarification the dubious honor of rendering it moot on the larger issue: while it might make some difference for how we interpret the evolution of Joseph’s theology, when it comes to evidence for God it doesn’t really matter which type of argument Alma (or Joseph writing Alma) had in mind (or if he even thought carefully enough to distinguish them), because they both fail—leaving us, in the end, with the testimony of direct experience as the only potential evidence for God’s existence.

The version with God as First Cause takes the apparent messiness of nature as a starting point, and proceeds to the uncovering of simple laws that give rise to these complicated phenomena. It is then the simple underlying universal laws—rather than the complicated phenomena—that are taken to be the hidden manifestation of God’s wisdom. A possible example of this might be Kepler’s faith-shaking discovery that—horror of horrors!—planetary orbits are ugly ellipses with varying speed, rather than uniform circular motion pure and undefiled. Perhaps this result was rendered more palatable to some—which is to say, more consonant with alleged divine æsthetic sensibilities—by Newton’s derivation of a single set of beautiful laws to unify not only different kinds of orbits, but also terrestrial gravitational and projectile phenomena. Here, underlying the bewildering diversity of phenomena, was the hidden simplicity worthy of divine wisdom.

This argument is turned on its head in the other class of argument from design. In this version, simplicity is not the hallmark of God’s handiwork, but marvelous complexity. Simple laws are not the manifestation of the mind of God, since these alone can lead to meaninglessly messy behavior; the real genius is in the use of these laws—whether by setting up special initial conditions, or through more prolonged regulating interventions—to bring about his purposes. In this more organizational version of creation, instead of God as First Cause we have God as Engineer. (If it were not so unwieldy and inflammatory, we might also say God as Most Excellent Advanced Alien Technologist.)

This perspective of God as First Cause has a grave difficulty. What does it mean to say something outside the universe interacts with it? Considering God outside the universe seems to be nonsensical; the right thing to do is expand one’s definition of the universe to include everything that interacts with us, including God. Similar comments apply to alleged non-material entities like souls (or God himself): if it interacts with our physical bodies, it too ought to be defined as material. Moreover, on what basis could this God’s actions be judged good, or even be orderly, except by fidelity to some set of principles external to himself?

Mormons who believe in God as Engineer—a finite and embodied God within the universe, the nature of whose existence depends on laws and order bigger than him and beyond his control—can be justifiably proud of escaping the above-mentioned (and other) dilemmas presented by God as First Cause. They can also avoid a problem facing religionists who, in accepting something like Intelligent Design, believe in both God as First Cause and God as Engineer: If complex things like human bodies must be designed, and the designer is also a complex thing, then who designed the Designer? Even those Mormons disinclined to attribute the origin of humanity’s physical body to an infinite regression of physically procreating Gods can nevertheless hijack the basic concept and renovate it as an infinite regression of designers.

But God as Engineer faces another problem that not even Mormons can avoid: the reality that we have both theoretical and empirical examples of systems in which random initial conditions can give rise, without intelligent intervention, to ‘special’ outcomes that are both orderly and complicated. There are multiple mechanisms for this; I will mention two examples.

One class of order without intelligent intervention might be called ‘specialness amidst randomness,’ arising from the presence of a statistical ensemble with variations in properties. An example here is planetary systems, of which 150 or so have been detected since the first discovery about a decade ago. None of these systems have conditions similar to Earth suitable for life. It is almost certain that this results from a known observational selection effect, but observing the degree of variety we have so far, it is clear that fundamental natural laws are not sufficient to ensure that all planetary systems have suitable conditions like those of our solar system. But the point nevertheless remains that there are billions and billions of planetary systems out there, and given observationally plausible ranges of conditions, it would be surprising indeed if none of them had suitable conditions. Hence regardless of whether Alma means that divinely ordained fundamental laws on the one hand (God as First Cause) or divinely arranged initial conditions on the other (God as Engineer) are responsible for the “regular form” of our planetary system’s motions, he is dead wrong in asserting to Korihor that it constitutes an evidence of God’s existence.

A second class of order without intelligent intervention—which might be called ‘specialness from randomness’—is exemplified by nonlinear dynamical systems with ‘attractors,’ that is to say, systems that deterministically drive arbitrary initial conditions to one of a few special ‘final’ conditions (manifolds of bounded volume with smaller dimensionality than the entire dynamical phase space). Philosophically similar to this—if less mathematically clean—may be evolution, which in Darwin’s view involves the channeling and ratcheting, via natural selection, of arbitrary variations in species characteristics into certain obviously useful features: eyes, for instance, which I gather have been shown by genetic evidence to have independently evolved several times, by different paths from different initial conditions, to functionally similar ‘attracting’ final states.

Does Alma’s argument from design refer to God as First Cause or God as Engineer? The fact that it is more offhand reference than sustained argument means that it’s difficult to say—and difficult even to tell if Alma (or his creator) had thought carefully about it at the time the statement was authored. Alma’s statement has two parts: a general reference to “all things,” and a more specific reference to the regular motion of our planets. Each part could arguably be motivated by either of the two styles, though I tend to think the first reference to “all things” sounds more like God as First Cause, and the second to planets in their “regular form” like God as Engineer. (Note that in arguing for an evolution of Joseph’s conception of God I deftly combined the two parts to slant interpretation of the combined argument towards “God as First Cause.”)

However the conclusion is that neither style of teleological argument from design for God’s existence holds water. To make an analogy admittedly more poetic than strictly accurate, the fact that certain texts are attributed to, say, Aaron B. Cox is not sufficient to establish Mr. Cox's existence. And works alleged by some to depend on God’s intervention—like the creation of Earth and life upon it, or the Book of Mormon—may be similarly pseudepigraphic. (The analogy is deficient because, having observed that most texts arise from human authors, it is most likely that texts attributed to Mr. Cox were also written by some human. But since we have no clear examples of intelligent minds creating either individual organisms or large-scale biospheres, no ‘watchmaker’ argument can be made remotely rigorous, and every example of ‘specialness from randomness’ renders such less necessary—and perhaps, in combination with observations of biological deficiencies and exaptations, less plausible as well.)

Hence scriptural statements connecting God with creation cannot be understood as arguments for his existence. Given other reasons to believe in him—presumably, direct experience with him or his heavenly messengers—such scriptural statements then, and only then, may tell us something about the nature of our relationship to him, and perhaps also something about his and our natures. To the extent Joseph is responsible for the content of the Lectures on Faith, he deserves credit for reflecting this perspective. And to Alma’s credit, his rebuttal to Korihor started off well, with reference to the testimonies of the prophets and other saints; it’s just that that’s where he should’ve stopped!

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

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Mr. Spinozist Goes to Washington

I arrived in our nation’s capital yesterday evening.

Unlike the iconic Mr. Smith, I didn’t here to clean the place up; when it comes to corruption I am content to express sardonic ridicule. Nor am I here to see the confirmation hearings of Samuel Alito, though it would interest me greatly; if I had sufficient time or insomnia I’d be interested to watch the whole thing live or in late-night C-SPAN rebroadcasts. Nominally, I am here for something greater than Politics: Science, specifically the 207th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

In fact, however, like many pilgrims to this place where levers of power are pulled, the attraction is something even greater than Science: Mammon. Or, as a minor character in my secular holy book puts it, “the spondulicks the cash the moolah the bread the bread.”

In fact, perhaps a more extended playful likening of this passage unto ourselves is warranted. In the quote below the minor character Hawthorne Crossley is broadcasting rock music, in the days of its adolescence, from a rusty tin can of a ship off the coast of England because of the illegality of such broadcasts on the mainland. In the wee hours of the night he reaches out over the air to his mother, who was shamefully abandoned by his father to follow unnatural proclivities (and has since degenerated into unnaturalness of her own). Hawthorne is caught in the middle, between loyalty to his mother who dutifully raised him under difficult circumstances, and the financial support of his depraved father needed to support his righteous work:
If you’re listening, Antionette Corinth, you witchy insomniac, and I know you’re listening because you always are, then this one’s for you. This comes to you from Hawthorne with love… This one is to honor your genius, O queen of the black arts, princess of the pentangle, Baroness Samedi, priestess of Wicca, adept of the secrets of the Great Pyramid, dispenser of all good things, dressmaker extraordinaire, O Mother who gave us suck. We took your name and you at once let it go, espousing, instead, the noble Corinthian tradition. Mother forgive us for we are royally arseholed. Forgive us Mother for we have taken the shilling of him what done you wrong. As you have surmounted your bitterness towards him, as you have found it in your mighty soul to transcend your most righteous anger, so also let us not come into your bad books, if that’s at all possible, because we really needed the spondulicks the cash the moolah the bread the bread. Forgive us Mother for we are soldiers of the Queen our Father and this is wonderful 199, Radio Freddie, and for all you night owls and our own dear Mum here’s Manfred Mann to promise us that god is on our side.
In the present application of this passage, the mother is likened to all you dutiful taxpayers, who may wonder why your hard-earned money is being spent on work like ours; the father is likened to our unnaturally corrupt government; and Hawthorne is likened to research groups like ours doing righteous work eminently worthy of government funding.

You see, a recompetition of the program under which our collaboration’s work is funded will be occurring over the next few months, so our fearless leader is leveraging this AAS meeting’s fortuitous location in Washington by arranging for a special poster session showcasing our collaboration’s most glorious work. The idea is to present an overwhelming united phalanx (facilitated by matching mandatory Microsoft PowerPoint poster templates imposed upon all collaboration members) designed to impress not so much our fellow scientists—we’ve never done anything like this for any other conference—but specially invited representatives from the relevant funding agencies.

Anyway, the bottom line: tell me what you like or recommend in Washington, D.C.!

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

FARMS Harm?

I wonder, might FARMS in some instances do more harm than good? I mention two potential areas of concern. (I’m even less familiar with FAIR than I am with FARMS, but perhaps much of this applies to them as well.)

One potential problem is that in addressing arguments against Mormonism, FARMS makes Church members aware of potential problems they never knew existed. A personal example of this can be found in this recent thread. During a discussion of a particular feature of the Book of Mormon narrative, I speculated whether this feature might be explainable in connection with the possible reflection in the text of some nineteenth century concerns. I was subsequently chastised for having “bought Vogel’s argument.”

What’s ironic about this charge is that I have never read any Vogel, or either of the volumes edited by Metcalfe, for that matter; what I know of their arguments I know from a couple of FARMS articles railing against them. But even without reading the original arguments, being only dimly aware of their ideas from reading FARMS critiques thereof, in subsequent readings of the Book of Mormon the passages that might be used as a basis for the anti-historicist ideas pop out with at least a superficial plausibility. Moreover, the relatively few less-than-sanitized books on Mormonism I have read are ones of which I was made aware through the FARMS Review.

A second potential problem with FARMS intellectual sword-crossing is that the confrontations with detractors and anti-Christs in the Book of Mormon raise the question of whether this is even an appropriate way to address critics. In these encounters, it does not seem they are ever beat at their own game; they are never convincingly defeated by argument. Time and again it is the prophets’ personal revelatory experiences that fortify them as individuals, and open demonstrations of divine power—to either the destruction or miraculous conversion of the detractors—that end up convincing the entire community.

The moral of these stories seems to be that one should trust in the power of God and in prophetic and personal revelation even when—as may always be the case—the naysayers’ arguments cannot be otherwise answered convincingly. Individual members could follow this lead, refusing to engage the critics on an intellectual basis at all, but relying only on personal revelation and attacks on critics’ worthiness as license (or indeed a moral imperative) to ignore them. (Come to think of it, perhaps some FARMS authors do some of this reasonably well!) And on a public basis, perhaps it is not FARMS that is needed against the likes of Vogel and Metcalfe, but President Hinckley striking them dumb. It’d be nice if our dispensation had its share of spectacular public showdowns.

Now don’t get me wrong; I personally am glad FARMS exists. To me, a failure to intellectually examine and evaluate available evidence and ideas would be both unthinkable and unconscionable—a betrayal of a legacy of independent pursuit of truth exemplified by, for example, John Taylor (not to mention Brigham Young and Joseph himself). I tend to think that only by knowing as much as possible about the scriptures and their background can it possible to appreciate them for what they truly are, whatever that may turn out to be.

But given the two concerns above, I can see how some might think otherwise, and why there may have been a trend towards leaving the sort of work FARMS does out of official Church discourse—magazines, lesson manuals, conference talks. I get the sense that voices like Nibley’s or B. H. Roberts’ used to be welcome in the first two of these official channels, and of course Roberts spoke in conference, but I don’t know the extent to which his intellectual bent penetrated his conference talks. But nowadays I can imagine the leaders saying, ‘Okay, let FARMS be out there as a safety net for those unfortunate souls infected with the intellectual bug, but let’s bring it under the ægis of BYU to ensure that in some future day it doesn’t end up taking strength unto itself. Moreover, let the intellectualism in the Church be quarantined there. In official channels let’s avoid engagement with an intellectual mode of discourse, but instead stick with material that brings the Spirit, helps for practical gospel living, and affirms our unique identity as Saints; and let any doctrinal material be largely restricted to past authoritative statements (let’s start the Gospel Classics series!) and summary articles written by reliable authors willing to steer clear of controversy.’

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Kickback Mountain

[UPDATE: Note the Mormon connection in the first comment.]

While I’m a Republican, I’m not a big fan of corruption. Nor, as I have previously stated, am I fond of Tom DeLay or the religious right (Ralph Reed is also apparently caught up in Washington’s latest paroxysm). So even as a Republican I got a chuckle out of this:

So glad some people have too much time on their hands.

In case you’re familiar with Jack Abramoff and his current relevance for happenings in our nation’s capital, but have no idea what this image is supposed to be about—it’s hijacked from this movie. If you have no idea who Jack Abramoff is, go read a newspaper.

(Hat tip: Wonkette)

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Do all things denote there is a God?

Suggesting a resonance with the Intelligent Design approach to biology, Matt Evans mentions Alma’s teleological argument to Korihor in Alma 30: the observed order, or “regular form,” of “all things” shows there is a God. There are questions, however, as to whether Alma’s argument is consistent with Joseph Smith’s mature views on the nature of God, and also with the ancient Hebrew worldview from which Nephite culture sprang.

Is God (a) somehow outside the universe and responsible for its laws and its order, or (b) a finite and embodied being within the universe, the nature of whose existence depends on laws and order bigger than him and beyond his control?

I think most Mormons would say Joseph believed (b) during the Nauvoo era. But an early (I think the 1832) account of the First Vision, in which he marveled at the heavens in language somewhat like Alma’s—and also language in D&C 88—may suggest he believed something more like (a) in his earlier years. It would not be surprising if Joseph had been exposed to teleological arguments in, for example, the youth debating club he participated in, mentioned by Richard Bushman in his books on Joseph.

To the extent Alma’s statement represents (a) (this may be debatable—I leave it for commenters to explain why), how to account for its difference from and possible incompatibility, or at least tension, with (b)? One possibility is that Alma did not know as much as Joseph Smith about the nature of God and eternity. This seems plausible; we know from Alma’s teachings to Corianton that Alma did not know as much about the afterlife as Joseph came to know. But a second possibility is that Joseph is the true author of Alma’s argument, and that it therefore reflects Joseph’s early beliefs rather than those of ancient prophet. (Similarly, in this scenario Alma’s hazy picture of the afterlife could be a reflection of Joseph’s haziness on the matter prior to the reception of D&C 76.)

A reason to prefer the theory that Joseph is the source of the Alma’s teleological argument can be derived from a recent post by Jim F. by way of background on the Old Testament. (The responsibility for this use of Jim’s post is mine; he may well not endorse the argument I make here.) Jim describes the very different way ancient Hebrews wrote history: the existence of God and his action in the world was a universal assumption brought to both the writing and the reading of literature, to the extent that to write a meaningful history was to describe God’s involvement in the events of the world. An argument like Alma’s seems completely out of place in such a narrative tradition, in which God’s existence is not something to be argued for, but instead is an unconscicous necessity before a text can even be meaningful. Alma’s argument is much more comfortably situated as a typical believing response, characteristic of Joseph Smith’s era, to issues raised by the Enlightenment.

As a parting comment, I note that Joseph’s mature Mormonism, embracing (b), seems in important ways to be philosophically much closer to atheism than traditional Christianity, which embraces (a). This may be a reason why Mormons imbued with (b) who leave Mormonism tend to become atheist or agnostic rather than active in a denomination of traditional Christianity.

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