Saturday, December 19, 2015

After the test of life

I remember wondering how the Millennium could include all the just of the earth--both those destined for celestial glory and those for terrestrial glory--and everyone wouldn't simply convert to Mormonism? For years I satisfied myself with the answer that the spirit world and the Millennium must look enough like other religions' conceptions of the afterlife that there would still be room for confusion. And maybe lots of people simply won't want to be as good as is required to become celestial beings. They will be happy with stunted potential. But I don't get that anymore. If you could become a God, why would you choose less--especially if eternity is involved? Maybe you aren't in a rush to become a God, but would you honestly refuse the possibility--forever?

So what are the differences among the kingdoms of glory? From a naturalistic perspective that rejects arbitrary or authoritarian definitions of justice or punishment, and also rejects the arbitrary power of God to bring everyone to heaven and celestial glory simply through His grace and love, what distinguishes a God from a servant of God?

Let's get out of the way some ground rules. Three degrees of glory is simply a convenient grouping, not a walled reality. Beings are as diverse as we see on earth--or more. What makes a God is only based on the power to create worlds and new Gods--any other characteristics must be justified. Now I've already shared my reasons for hoping that Gods are compassionate, empathetic, and willing to contribute to a creative and loving society. Now I want to share why I think atonement is so miraculously hard.

As Mormons we have two stories we love to tell. The much more prominent one is that Jesus's suffering in the Garden far surpassed anything he suffered after. That time in the Garden of Gethsemane was when he took on himself all our sins. All the sins of all who lived or would live on this earth. All the sins of all who would live on other earths. We often add that he suffered so we don't have to suffer. I'm not exactly sure I believe that anymore.

The second story we tell less often, but still love. This is the story of God weeping when the great flood killed so many of His children. It's hard for me to imagine this was like my 4 year-old melting down because I accidentally stepped on the bug we had been looking at--"You killed my bug! Now I can't see it!" I'm glad at my 4 year-old's valuing life, even of insects, but that isn't how I picture God's compassion. I see a Father--and a Mother--weeping at the pain, loss, and suffering of their children. Weeping because of what their children were experiencing and losing. I see Them weeping sometimes at the pain of any God or proto-God, and there are a lot of those.

But our Heavenly Parents go on, enduring to the end. But remember, there is no end. They watch children grow and succeed, grow and fail, experience joy, sorrow, love, loss, good, evil, learning, languishing, and the list goes on. And on. In this cosmos it doesn't stop. It doesn't stop for us. It doesn't stop for the Gods. The form changes. I trust that we will one day overcome disease and death. The lamb will one day lie down with the lion. The child will play on the hole of the asp. Not all of eternity will be the hell of mortal life. But when we are free of mortality, we will not be free of suffering for others.

Remember the one, unavoidable job of the Gods. They must make world upon world. They must raise up God after God. If they slow down for any reason, they cease to be Gods. Other beings will surpass them, and after few generations all the new Gods born in the cosmos will be the children of these other Gods. Countless lives brought into being and living under the rules and in the society of these other beings. Whether bad or good, that is a mathematical certainty. So even without killing off ineffective reproducers, evolution can exert pressures to make them inconsequential for most every living being.

What does that mean in the words of Mormon thought? The rest of God is not a freedom from work. It is not even freedom from sorrow or pain, even if we have overcome death, because we cannot overcome emotion. We cannot lose the empathy that would free us from sorrow, because we need that empathy to be reproductively fit. We need it to work as a society. We need it to cease destroying the work of others. We need it to desire children.

But what happens to those who are just, who have empathy, who overcome death and the impulses to harm others, and yet somehow choose not to be Gods? What do they do? Why might they choose irrelevance or servitude over godhood?

I think the answers are likely as simple and complex as several of my friends shared when I asked this question. One more way my Gods are in our image. Why do people choose to not become parents? But remember, the group we are looking at is the just men and women of the earth. It isn't the murderers, thieves, and others who have proven themselves motivated first by selfishness. This life weeded those out and left them to their kingdom of selfishness until they figure out how to be happier. Why would just beings reject parenthood? What are the good reasons?

For one, it will cause pain. There is no path to godhood except through a life like this one. There is no path to godhood without bringing beings into self-awareness and empathy and watching them lose their brothers and sisters. You are inviting the most empathetic and loving to become Gods, and those are the ones who will watch a Lucifer lead away a third of their brothers and sisters. Those are the ones who will watch more suffer through mortal life. Those are the ones who will watch more choose selfishness and give up their chance at godhood. Those are the ones who will watch even more turn away from godhood when it was in their grasp. They will watch some just and loving brothers and sisters choose other paths because they don't want the work and uncertainty of Godhood. Those will choose paths of greater certainty, but less evolutionary fitness. But these loving Gods will watch others walk away, not because they were too evil, or selfish, or averse to uncertainty for godhood. These last will choose other paths because they feel too strongly the pain and suffering of other beings and they are not willing to bring others into a cosmos of sorrow. Because sorrow doesn't go away when you are God. These may even serve the Gods because they want to alleviate sorrow. They may feel both pain and joy more intensely than the Gods--for eternity.

What is the rest of God? It must be a peace in the midst of joy and sorrow. It must be something we can learn. It must be something we can find even as we navigate existence in a society of Gods, where different needs and desires forever conflict, and where we continue to hurt one another, even if it is only through the inevitable unfairness of making conflicting choices.

So what is the miracle of atonement? It is the Gods choosing to be, and act, together despite their different desires. Despite the pain they will cause each other, again and again, throughout eternity. It is the Gods choosing the joys of relationships, and choosing to rejoice in the success of others, even if it is sometimes at their own expense. It is the Gods choosing to lift other beings up to godhood, knowing that those beings--Their children--must suffer through pain, death, separation, and uncertainty. Knowing that even after the pains of mortality suffering will not be all gone, because only those who love can become Gods. It is choosing to continue in the society of Gods knowing that life will be forever uncertain. This, for me, is the miraculous atonement. It is why Jesus had to suffer the pains of all creation, and why we will have to choose the same. It is why we all must partake of the atonement. It is why, if we are not one, we are not God's. It is our joy and our song.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

SURT notes I.2.1 p.46

I love the erudite blasting of string theory and the multiverse hypotheses:
Rather than acknowledging such underdetermination as a limit or a failure of insight, it has tried to turn a detriment into a benefit by describing the former as the latter.
 String theory is almost totally untestable:
The large preponderance of equations, or of their admissible parameters, refer to circumstances that we have never found and may never, even in principle, find.
A temptation is to equate mathematical space of theories with physically possible space and then with actually realized space:
The distinctions between the mathematically conceivable and the physically possible, and then between the physically possible and the physically actual, are attenuated or even effaced [by believing the MWI or multiverse hypotheses].
A difficult to test theory is very different from an impossible to test theory. [The same is true with cenceptions of God. Evolved Gods are testable, at least in pieces, or at least through emulation.]

String theory is derailing science because it is not observable or testable (it isn't really one theory, and inherently includes theoretically unobservable components):
Any assumptions that threaten to derail science from this course [proceeding based on observation], by weakening the disciplines that chasten and guide it, deserve to be reconsidered.
Whether laws are deterministic or statistical, the laws as currently formulated (and assumed in most models) are still unchanging.

You can't get outside the universe (what I typically call the cosmos). If it affects the universe, it is part of the universe by definition. If it doesn't affect the universe, it is irrelevant. [A God who is outside of nature is irrelevant. If God affects nature, God is part of the cosmos. If not, it's irrelevant.]

The world isn't timeless, but time is timeless. We and god will end, unless we evolve.
No sooner do we begin to subvert the distinction between initial conditions and laws applicable to particular configuration spaces, by generalizing the terrain of its application to the whole of the universe, than we are forced to question the idea of timeless laws governing a world the elementary structure of which is also timeless.
Evolutionary mechanisms change with both environment and the tools of the evolving beings to respond to the environment: bacteria follow different rules than yeast than sexual reproducers. Contextual truth is the pattern in biology, history, social science, geology. Is cosmology the exception to this? [Is theology?]

Entropy holds time real in ways quantum mechanics doesn't. Quantum mechanics fails to model reality in this regard [it is time agnostic].

The microscopic can only be understood in light of the macroscopic--history and thermodynamics.

Unifying all the current laws isn't enough. You need to explain their history, too.
And the elusive final unification of theory is a fool's errand if we advance it only by putting ideas that analyze how the forces and phenomena of nature work in place of theories that explain how they came to be what they are.
Physics can survive without timeless, transcendent laws. How deep into physics does evolution extend? [How deep into theology?]

Strong reductionism fails because the cosmos has a history that can't be reduced.

Some things are easily explained by law. Other processes require more, path dependent, historical information to effectively explain them.

Most things are very stable, especially in cosmology, but none are immutable. Even atoms can change, and even subatomic particles.

Evolution is only derivatively biological. It comes from cosmology.
The principle of the mutability of types is thus not confined to life and to the life sciences. It is a general feature of what I earlier called the first state of nature (the second in order of time [the cooled down universe]). In this state, nature is differentiated but no aspect of its differentiation, expressed in a set of types or natural kinds, is essential or eternal. The principle of the mutability of types is only derivatively a biological principle. It is in the first instance a cosmological principle. It requires us to import into cosmology some of the ways of thinking that we associate with natural history.
It contradicts the project of classical ontology, which sought to provide an account of the abiding varieties of being. It conflicts as well with any practice of science that treats a permanent structure of being as one of its presuppositions.
Differences between things co-evolve.

Reality is context dependent.
Not only does the universe lack a stable and permanent repertory of natural kinds but the way in which the natural kinds differ from one another is also subject to change. If nature in its first and normal state presents itself as a structured and differentiable manifold, the character of its divisions is as impermanent as their content.
Laws are regularities. More general laws express further reaching regularities. Current laws emerged with current phenomena. They didn't exist before, but they are compatible with earlier laws.

Not only is moral law contextual, physical law is contextual.
To represent these regularities as part of the eternal and timeless framework of the universe is a philosophical move with no operational meaning or justification. [Ouch!]
. . . change changes discontinuously and repeatedly.
The methods of change change, too.
The methods of change, which we express as explanatory laws, shift with the appearance of life. They change again with the emergence of multicellular organisms. And then again with sexual reproduction and the Mendelian mechanisms. They change with the emergence of consciousness and its equipment by language. These are not just changes in the kinds of beings--in this instance, living beings--that exist. They are also changes in the way in which phenomena change as well as in the distinctions between them. . . .
Co-evolution of phenomena and laws can be applied to the universe without fallacy, but it introduces the meta-law conundrum [that meta-laws evolve, too?].

[In tearing down the walls between the living and non-living, many biologists have thought they were introducing determinist philosophy into biology. Instead they were taking away from physics and opening the door to a broader understanding of agency and of life. Agency is constrained choice.]

Unpredictable life:
. . . the biosphere . . . has so many [distinctive features] that its emergence in unpredictable and unaccountable on the basis of the laws of nature prior to the beginnings of life.
[What does purpose even mean? Intention? Conscious intention? Is purpose emergent, like consciousness? Are there hierarchies of purpose, like hierarchies of agency? Why can organisms "literally have no purpose but act as if it were purpose dirven"?]

Biology doesn't solve cosmological problems, but shows they can be examined fruitfully without timeless laws. But some big problems have to be worked out first.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Blinding Sun

I recently published this poem on Rational Faiths under the title "Growing Doubt". I need to publish it here, and I just encountered a famous sonnet that uses the same imagery. The messages are both the same and contrary. I will let you enjoy and judge them as you wish.
I was once told. . .


I was once told there’s danger in a question—
Faith and doubt cannot live in one mind,
And doubt leads men to shun the truth and fight
Their God—so I was told. I also learned
Truth shines eternal in the Son, and that is
All the light we need—straight from the source—

But I’ve seen mortal eyes fixed on the sun
Now following his brightness filtered through
Closed eyelids, doing good and seeing the world
As this light tells them it must look. Then when
Night comes they work to morning, filling their call
And telling those who stand in darkness what
The sun is like—the joys of fixing on his light.

They have forgotten that the child of night
Is not the child of darkness. There is truth
At night. The moon and wandering stars reflect
That same sun closed eyes preach, but no closed eyes
Will find these lights; and stars we cannot see
Give still more light than the sun that leads the blind.

I was told I’d built a tower to see the heavens,
And the Lord would cast it down and show
The foolishness of men. Maybe it is so,
But truth is good and light, and I will love it.
And from Joseph Blanco White (1775-1841)
To Night

Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew
Thee from report divine, and heard thy name,
Did he not tremble for this lovely frame,
This glorious canopy of light and blue?
Yet 'neath a curtain of translucent dew,
Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame,
Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
And lo! Creation widened in man's view.
Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
Whilst fly and leaf and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind!
Why do we then shun Death with anxious strife?
If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?

A Mathematician's Apology -- notes and quotes

After listening to The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of Ramanujan, I was inspired to read A Mathematician's Apology by G. H. Hardy. I remember my dad mentioning it many years ago. It's only 90 short pages, and here are a few highlights, for me. It's worth noting, I think, that this was written in 1940 by a man who had spent his entire life at the most prestigious university in England and almost literally without women, except for his sister. If you can enjoy it despite his elitism and sexism, it's a fun read.
Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.
Did I just hear someone say my name? ;)
I write about mathematics because, like any other mathematician who has passed sixty, I have no longer the freshness of mind, the energy, or the patience to carry on effectively with my proper job.
Good work is not done by 'humble' men. . . . He must shut his eyes a little and think a little more of his subject and himself than they deserve. This is not too difficult: it is harder not to make his subject and himself ridiculous by shutting his eyes too tightly.
'I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well.'
most people can do nothing at all well. . . . perhaps five or even ten per cent of men can do something rather well. It is a tiny minority who can do anything really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible. If a man has any genuine talent, he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full.
Thankfully, I lack the genius to require that kind of sacrifice. (I think the gifted teacher must be the counterexample to Hardy's 'second-rate minds' barb.) Or perhaps instead of doing math because you are good at it, you do it because it came your way and you might as well:
'There is nothing that I can do particularly well. . . ' . . . most people can do nothing well . . . it matters very little what career they choose.
Approximately what Hardy is going to argue:
  • Math is worthwhile even though it isn't practical (despite his recognizing practical applications of some math).
  • People who are better at math than anything else should do it even if it ends up being a waste of time.
  • Doing something of permanent value, even if it is small, is worthwhile and unusual. Most people don't do anything of permanent value.
The ambition to leave something permanent behind is the greatest ambition, and his target audience is those who agree with this. I once would have. Now I view it as one admirable thing, when balanced with other ethical considerations.

Three driving motivations for research:
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Professional pride
  • Desire for reputation, power, and/or money
I encountered a recent news article that cited research claiming that science is a reputation economy. Scientists are more interested in reputation than money or power (on average), and I can believe that. Of course, it's a sliding scale.

Math is perhaps the most permanent achievement, since languages die, but math remains. And math is pretty good about giving credit to the people who really did it.

Now for Hardy on art:
A painting may embody an 'idea', but the idea is usually commonplace and unimportant. . . . the importance of ideas in poetry is habitually exaggerated. . . . The poverty of the ideas seems hardly to affect the beauty. . . .
Math lasts longer, but
there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.
Chess problems are the hymn-tunes of mathematics. [low level of beauty]
As regards applied math:
The 'seriousness' of a mathematical theorem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible. . .
Serious math connects many, complex mathematical ideas. Other traits that make math meaningful are depth, beauty, generality, unexpectedness, inevitablity, and economy.

Most useful math is boring, small, and mathematically unimportant. I can concur with this, since my field uses quite a lot of math, but it really is mostly boring, small, specific applications of ideas with much broader mathematical richness. Unexpected pieces of "pure" math do at times become useful, at times, but they are still small pieces.

Hardy closes equating the value of math with the value of art:
The case for my life, then, or for that of any one else who has been a mathematician in the same sense in which I have been one, is this: that I have added something to knowledge, and helped others to add more; and that these somethings have a value which differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or of any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.
I had expected to resonate with Hardy's apology more than I did, but some parts of it rang very true to me. I do aspire to leave something behind. I do hope that it will be unique and beautiful in its sphere. And I feel like I have had only one idea that even approaches the category of mathematical thought. It was the question I asked when I imagined, what if Gods evolved? It's an idea so inevitable that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris admit the possibility, but reject it's importance and miss its implications. Yet it is an idea that ties together Mormonism and Transhumanism, religion and science, faith and the future of humanity. It accepts that Gods are limited, but goes beyond to reveal what some limits are. It answers the problem of evil--maybe not as anyone would wish, but very cleanly. It claims an empathetic middle ground between arbitrary universalism and eternal damnation. It leaves a place for God to act and to be hidden. It brings atonement into the realms of nature, and makes salvation about relationships, not satisfying unchanging justice. It creates Gods in our own image, but not falsely idealized. It may come to nothing--there's no eternity for bad philosophy--but it is surprising and beautiful to me.

Monday, October 12, 2015

SURT notes I.1.3 p.30

The Singular Universe, Roberto Unger 

Ch 1 p.30+

The two cosmological fallacies are closely connected. They reinforce each other. They make each other seem to be unavoidable conceptions--indispensable to the practice of scientific inquiry--rather than the contestable options that they in fact are.
Your certainties are disposable options.
The second cosmological fallacy limits our understanding of the variations of nature.
Artificial limit.
The first cosmological fallacy presupposes a view of the workings of nature that makes any other conception of how nature works seem to be incompatible with the requirements of science.
Another artificial limit. Hiding in the unknowable infinite instead of seeking deeper explanations. This is the same false hiding place of the theology of unknowable Gods.
The first cosmological fallacy commits a mistake of method, with empirical assumptions and implications. The second cosmological fallacy amounts to a mistake about the facts of the matter, with wide consequence for the practice of science. The matter that it mistakes is the most important in science: the nature and history of the universe.
. . . there is already more . . . in what science has discovered about the universe than our established natural philosophy . . . is willing to countenance.
There is more. As Unger says we need a science that can proceed without absolute, timeless laws to rely on, we need theology and salvation that can proceed without an omnipotent, transcendent God and infallible revelation. Mormonism has them if we Mormons will accept them.

If cause and effect is an illusion, it can be represented by timeless natural law (and thus math). If time is real, we have to work harder to explain the connection between math and nature.
Causal connections . . . form a real feature of nature.
Previous events actually matter for current events, not simply initial conditions and timeless laws. We can't simply decide that nature obeys laws. We have to measure what happens and only generalize as far as is justified. Laws will vary over time.

Relationships shape subsequent events in law-like ways, despite there being no eternal laws. Relationships govern the cosmos. Many are predictable.
The preceding contrasts show that the reality of causal connection is closely or internally related to the reality of time.
Time and causation are both real. This differs from the deterministic, block universe models of string theory.

Time and relationships are eternal. Laws exist because of regularities in relationships, not vice versa.
[The reality of laws], however, is a derivative reality by contrast to the primitive and fundamental reality of causal connections.
Laws are derivative from agency (that defines relationships) from the bottom to the top (since elementary particles have aency).
These [timebound] ideas do their work at the cost of attacking the foundations on which much of our thinking about causes and laws has wrongly come to rest.
Can't make an omelette . . . 

Emergent phenomena can be truly novel. Not just rare, novel, quantum entangled states that Smolin proposes searching for to prove the principle of precedence. I think this supports my view that human choice is incompletely predictable. It's mostly predictable because relationships behave in predictable ways, but when there are emerging problems with unprecedented solutions, there is incompletely predictable agency at play. Otherwise, we are observing predictable agency, but it's all agency.
Cosmology affirms its ambition to be the most comprehensive natural science when it understands itself as a historical science first, and as a structural science only second.
This strikes right at the core of arrogant, deterministic certainty.
. . . we allow a historical explanation to count as a causal account in cosmology and physics . . .
Historical explanations are real science, and emergent phenomena can't always be predicted.
. . . a state of affairs is the way it is because of the influence of an earlier state of affairs, not because it conforms to timeless and invariant regularities. We shall not always be able to account for the influence of the earlier on the later by invoking such regularities. . . . [we must] pay the price of a practice of historical explanation that is not subordinate to structural explanation.
Law is subordinate to cause, and that comes at a price.
Time . . . is not emergent.
Time goes all the way back.
. . . we have reason to resist accepting either that change of laws of nature is governed by higher-order laws or that it is not.
It's a false dichotomy to require a choice between nature governed by laws or lawless nature. Neither one is the best model, but something in between. I think he is saying that discarding the idea of transcendent law is not the same as saying that anything goes.

SURT notes I.1.2 p.18

The Singular Universe, Roberto Unger

The First Cosmological Fallacy

[in the Newtonian paradigm] The observer stands, both in principle and in fact, outside the configuration space. Conceptually, his relation to it resembles the relation of God to the world, in the Semitic monotheisms . . . : not as creator but as observer. He looks upon it, to use an astronomical metaphor, from the vantage point of the stars. The laws go together with this ideal observer. They govern what happens inside the configuration space. They have, however, no history of their own within that space--or anywhere else.
This is the understanding of science that has led people of my acquaintance to see God as equivalent to the laws of nature. It is also the understanding of science that leads Alvin Plantinga and others to claim that mysteries of science are evidence of God. The failure of cosmologists to truly explain things like fine tuning (instead of explaining they create unobservable values and universes) is easily co-opted as support for the kinds of Gods that are outside of time. All this confirms my long held prejudices against believing in such a God.
Deaf to Newton's warning no to feign hypotheses, we may appeal to the idea of multiple, parallel universes in an effort to rescue the cosmological uses of the Newtonian paradigm. . . . this conjecture will amount to no more than a vain metaphysical fantasy disguised as science.
Unger really isn't nice to multiverse interpretations of cosmology.

[in real time] The observer can no longer stand outside the configuration space, and claim to adopt the godlike view from the stars; all the stars, and everything around them, are dragged down into the field of explanation.
Transcendent science and religion both set arbitrary limits beyond which humanity may not pass without departing from nature. While I believe in an (at least effectively) infinitely complex nature, I don't like the imposition of untested limits.
Thus, every feature of the Newtonian paradigm fails when its subject matter ceases to be a region of the universe and becomes the entire universe. The denial of this failure . . . corrupt[s] the practice of scientific inquiry and prevent cosmology from remaining faithful to its vocation to be a master science rather than a sideshow.

It is as if the jump from the finite to the infinite provided a generic license for the ideas that, in the absence of such license, would readily be dismissed as untenable.
I'm pretty sure he is referring specifically to infinite energy density--the mathematical singularity we know as the Big Bang, or as black holes. He later claims no beginning to time, so some quantities may be infinite without creating the logical license he says others have taken. I need to check this and see if my arguments using infinities hold up or can be replaced with large and growing quantities.

The Second Cosmological Fallacy

Presentism is a problem in cosmology, not just history. Pastism is a problem in assessing the progress of evolution as influenced by humans. Assuming that technology cannot or should not influence evolution at rates beyond what was effected by nature in the past is misguided.
The discovery that the universe has a history, and so therefore must everything within it be historical, has implications for the practice of science. We have so far failed to acknowledge them.
The same is true of theology. Joseph Smith started us (in modern times) with thinking about God as being historical, but we've largely lost it even in Mormonism. It is a big deal.

Accepting singularities as real (the Big Bang had infinite energy density, as do black holes) makes them beyond exploration or explanation (at least in some important ways). Believing these energy densities are large but finite implies "no insuperable obstacle of principle exists to investigating and explaining" the Big Bang or black holes. A singular God (omnipotent, omniscient, etc.) is closed to exploration. A large but finite God we may be able to understand.
The second cosmological fallacy is the disposition to take account of only the [current] state of nature while disregarding the [big bang], and to do so in our methods as well as in our theories. When we succumb to this fallacy, our conception of how to practice science, as well as our view of the workings of nature, allows itself to be shaped by an intellectual engagement with only one set of the variations of nature. It becomes in a sense the science of a special case. It consequently remains limited in the reach of its insight even into that special case. The deepest enigmas of nature escape it.
I am placing Gods into a broader state of nature than our current one, and even into a state beyond our (currently) observable universe, but not beyond nature.
everything is emergent--everything comes and goes--except time.
Gods are emergent. From what? How?
[In] many of the most influential cosmological theories . . . the alternative traits of nature remain hidden under the veil of the infinite.
An infinite God is unknowable unless we are infinite in the same way god is.
Such a science--the science that we in fact have--will be bereft of the cosmological equivalent of the physics of phase transitions: an account of the transitions from one state of nature to another.
Special case science with assumed transcendent laws is incapable of speaking to the reproduction of universes.

Friday, October 9, 2015

SURT notes I.1.1 p.5

The Singular Universe notes and quotes, Unger and Smolin 2015

The science of the one universe in time

In this book we argue that the evidence of science--the deliverances of the science of today, viewed in the light of its recent history--does not entitle us to circumscribe the reality or the reach of time. Our causal judgments cannot indeed be anchored in immutable laws and symmetries.
However predictable, life simply isn't certain.
. . . [laws] may derive from [causal connections] rather than the other way around.
Laws depend on relationships and not the other way around. Corollary: God's laws depend on relationships, not the other way around. Thus, grace and atonement are the features that define law, not repairs to fix broken laws.
It is one thing to respect the inability of science to show that the universe must be what it is. It is another thing to reduce science to a body of precise laws, symmetries, and constants that are unable to account either for themselves or for the initial conditions of the universe.
Real limits vs. self-imposed limitations.
An initial objection to this approach is at once methodological and moral. It invents imaginary entities--all the other unobserved and unobservable universes (in cosmology) or states of affairs (in particle physics)--to save itself from having to confront, in either particle physics or cosmology, the failure of its theoretical conceptions to account for nature as we encounter it. In this way, it wastes the treasure of science, its enigmas.
Enigmas aren't wasted by answering them, they are wasted by saying that they can never be answered. This is the same moral sin engaged in by those who would claim that God is ultimately unknowable, or that a doctrine is an inexplicable mystery. In pretending to embrace the mystery, they waste it, while those who seek to demystify the mysterious, who seek to know God, are the truest lovers of the mystery.
At the end of the day this approach evades the work of explanation. It subsumes the unexplained laws and initial conditions under a vast framework of possible variations of nature, all but a tiny number attributed to unobservable universes and unknown states of affairs.
All possibilities exist as unobserved actualities. Unger and Smolin reject this, and in doing so support an open, evolving, and undetermined cosmos.
Structure results from history more than history derives from structure.
Natural laws are consequences of regularities resulting from cosmic history, not the other way round.
[while there are limits to it, this inverted approach] vastly enlarges the field of causal inquiry. As a result, it suggests an agenda of empirical research that communicates with the major discoveries that cosmology has made over the last hundred years and continues to make now.
Putting the Gods into the cosmos, rather than as the transcendent causes of it, does the same for theology and religious experience. Questions defined as untestable and unanswerable by a transcendent view of God are made tangible, hopeful, and fruitful.
The relations between mathematical and logical propositions are, however, timeless: the conclusion of a syllogism is simultaneous with its premise. They are timeless, even though we reason them through in time, and use them in the analysis of events in time.
Logic and math hold true independent of evolving natural law. So when they are appropriately applied, they do describe nature even if we reject that they define nature.
. . . effacement of particularity goes together with denial of time.
One reason math fails to perfectly describe the world.
However, its selectivity--its disregard for time and particularity--is the source of its usefulness.
This power perennially tempts us to succumb to two connected illusions. The first illusion is that we have in mathematics a shortcut to indubitable and eternal truth, somehow superior to the rest of our fallible knowledge. The second illusion is that, as the relations among mathematical propositions are timeless, the world itself must somehow participate in the timelessness of mathematics.
Mathematics, however, is smaller, not greater, than nature. It achieves its force through a simplification that we can easily persuade ourselves to mistake for a revelation and a liberation.
I know no greater feeling of revelation than what comes with math. The only problem is when we mistake the import of the revelation. This is the same problem of revelation that those who seek to follow the Holy Spirit face every time the seek revelation--the reality of revelation is not in question, but the interpretation is hard.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Singular Universe and the Reality of Time (SURT) notes part 1

Notes and quotes from The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time by Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin, 2015

The nature and scope of this work

To think of the universe as a whole . . . we soon reach the limits of what we know and even of what we can ever hope to know. We press science to the point at which it passes into philosophy and philosophy to the point at which it easily deceives itsolf into claiming powers that it lacks.
Yet we cannot cast this topic aside. . . . we should not seek to escape it because no one can develop and defend ideas about parts of natural reality without making assumptions, even if they remain inexplicit, about nature as a whole. . . . Part of the task is to determine what science has actually found out about the world from the metaphysical commitments for which the findings of science are often mistaken.
I certainly get tired of interacting with critics of God and religion who are expert at pointing out the mistaken metaphysical commitments of religious people (usually incorrectly as applied to me), but view their own understanding as assumption free, or as nearly so as to not matter. I find some glee in the barbs of Unger and Smolin toward these people from the perspective of physics and philosophy.
[regarding the reality of time] By implying the mutability of the laws of nature, the idea of the inclusive reality of time contradicts a dominant interpretation of what the physics and cosmology of the last hundred years teach us about the workings of nature.
Physics and cosmology have assumed an invariant background of time (even if it is somewhat relative), but this is about to go. We're about to see any simple kind of determinism disappear. That makes me happy.
[This work] seeks to distinguish what we in fact know--the hard empirical residue of scientific discovery--from the lens of assumptions through which we are accustomed to see the larger significance of these factual findings.
Smolin and others have been inspiring me to do this with my religion for several years now. It's quite the journey.
It will sometimes happen that no fundamental progress can be achieved in science without dissolving this marriage between the empirical residue and the philosophical gloss. Once the marriage is dissolved, it becomes possible to see the discoveries of science with new eyes. It is never possible, however, to do so without changing some of our beliefs about how nature works.
I'm attempting to separate the experience of God and of the world from the theological gloss. As noted, it can't be done without changing some of our beliefs about how God works.

There are two philosophies followed by Unger and Smolin:
. . . the relational approach to nature and the priority of being over becoming. . . . The case for them here lies in the insights that they together make possible.
In theology, following these philosophies has led me to a new conception of God that I think gives insights on Gods, the meaning of life, the nature and purpose of revelation, free will, universalism and exclusivism, and other significant theological topics. Yet it is a battle to have the ideas heard after more than a century of an unchanging God being the dominant view in Mormon thought. Notwithstanding a changing God seeming to have been the view of Brigham and Joseph.
Timeless versions of relational space-time leave inexplicable basic features of nature such as the choice of laws and of initial conditions. . . . The result may be to substitute a mystical notion for a scientific program by invoking an external force or entity that produces becoming in an otherwise passive universe.
The timeless God of the gaps can live in these features forever without fear of being disturbed or deposed. There will always be room for the First Great Cause, the Prime Mover. But such a being is both protected and curtailed by this position.

They propose a new natural philosophy, "temporal naturalism". Natural philosophy is needed to inspire and enhance normal science to engender revolutionary science.
It is an effort that can succeed because the mind is what it is. We can always see and discover more than any set of methods and presuppositions, in any discipline, can prospectively. Vision exceeds method, and reshapes the practice and discourse, according to its needs.
I want visionary religion in a church that has largely been practicing normal religion for more than a century.
Cosmology is not just one more specialized science. It is the study of the universe as a whole, beyond which, for science [and for Mormonism], there lies nothing.
All our ideas about parts of nature will be influenced, whether knowingly or not, by our assumptions about the whole universe.
I'm trying hard to make the influence of my assumptions knowing.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Seeking Answers by the Spirit

I was strongly influenced by my Mission President, Halvor Clegg, in my understanding of how the Holy Ghost speaks to humans. Here is an edited list of instructions he gave us about getting answers to questions we had as missionaries.

  1. Pray for Inspiration
    1. Continue with the duties of the day, but meditate on the question.
    2. Make a list of the things that come to mind. They can come from many different sources. [You have to do your homework.]
    3. Follow every impression. [Try to overcome your assumptions about what the answer will be.]
  2. Confirm what you receive.
    1. Choose the most logical decision.
    2. Create a relevant yes or no question based on that decision. [Simple, binary answers are the easiest to understand. Remember, this answer is only to the specific question you asked as you asked it. You can’t assume it is generalizable.]
    3. Ask the question: “Is this the answer to my original question?”
  3. This method works for almost all applications
    1. Talks
    2. Lessons
    3. Missionary Discussions
    4. Presentations
    5. Conversations
  4. Don’t forget Free Agency
    1. When another person is involved, remember the Principle of Three.
    2. There must be agreement between you, the other person, and God to get a correct answer. [If all parties aren’t edified, the Spirit isn’t working.]
  5. Develop the Gift of Discernment
    1. It is a gift of the Holy Ghost.
    2. It permits one to understand the truth of what others say and also their motivations. [The homework here requires really paying attention to the other person.]
    3. Knowing the truth and other’s motivations, one can respond correctly.
  6. Be Careful with the Spirit
    1. You must stay focused when you ask a question. If your mind wanders, you may receive an answer, but to whatever you are thinking about in that moment--not your original question.

This list was primarily a reminder of things he taught us both repeatedly in meetings and by example, so I'd like to fill in some of the stories that emphasized what these instructions meant to him.

Every transfer President Clegg prayed about every single assignment. He learned what he could about the missionaries and the places they were needed. He arranged them the best way he could. He prayed about every single one. He didn't get yeses to his prayers on several assignments. He tried again. He did this for three full days before he felt the confirmation that the missionaries were assigned as God wanted. As time went on he got to where he could get answers for missionary assignments in a couple of hours, most times, but he had to learn. He had to do his homework, and it wasn't easy.

This was a common theme of President Clegg's messages. You have to do your homework. If you don't do your homework, you won't get the best answer. You are even likely to mistake a different answer for the one you were seeking. To illustrate this he told us about selecting the missionary who would give the surprise talk at zone conferences. We all had a topic, but no one knew who would speak. As we came in, President Clegg would pray to ask who should speak. As he looked at each of us he would ask, should this missionary speak? He did this until he got a yes. If he let his mind wander and thought, Elder Cannon is a really good missionary, the Spirit might (on a good day) tell him, YES! But that wasn't the answer to his question. Confusing answers was easy. Getting clear answers was hard.

Getting answers was even harder when multiple people were involved. God respects agency. Answers to prayers will not violate agency. An answer from God will fail if it violates someone's choice. I don't remember the stories that went with this, but he talked more than once about promising things in blessings in this context.

Personal revelation trumps instructions from leaders in guiding one's own actions. I'll rename it the Overbearing Relative Rule. When someone comes to you, especially someone who is just passing through your life and not really involved day to day, and presumes to tell you what you should do, you nod, smile, and do what's right. Doing what's right may mean doing what they say, or it might not. One Seventy came and told all the missionaries: You need to stop doing all these different things to try and meet people to teach and just go door to door all the time until you find people. He also said they shouldn't give out so many Books of Mormon. After he left, President Clegg said: Keep doing what you are doing. Tracting isn't effective. We will find money for more Books of Mormon. I've sought and received very specific instructions about the things you should be doing as missionaries, and the Spirit still tells me you should be doing that. Furthermore, the instructions of the Seventy go against the general instructions to missionaries to share the gospel in many ways (most of them more effective than door to door), and to flood the earth with the Book of Mormon. So carry on.

Later on President Clegg reacted very differently to another Seventy. When Elder Gene R. Cook came, President Clegg recorded his instructions and repeated them to us almost every mission conference for the rest of his time as mission president: 1. Humble yourself, 2. Repent, and 3. Pray for the Spirit. He modeled for us how Elder Cook put that in practice in everyday interactions. He taught us skills to help us be humble. He taught us the meaning of repentance as an attitude of change more than a list of dos and don'ts. He taught us that the Spirit didn't wait around for a period of penance, but would come guide us the moment we turned away from sin and toward God.

This is just a taste of what I learned from President Clegg's words and example. I've gone on to interpret and apply his teachings in my own ways, but his stories are enough for now.

Monday, September 14, 2015

To Friendship: Three Sonnets

Here are three sonnets written for three friends. Perhaps you can see something of the different relationships I had with each, of course revealing more about me than them. Two are still friends today, although we see each other little. The third was more a mentor, and likely doesn't remember me, but I remember many things from the senior religion seminar for science majors that he taught. One group of students looked at the frequency of major earthquakes throughout the world over a historical span to see if there really were more natural disasters within the last 20 years. There weren't. I heard John Hilton speak about stylometry. I heard the story of the cold fusion fiasco from one of the principles. We discussed evolution and religion and things like the Drake equation. One thing I remember most was his lecture about the transformative power of charity (love) in fostering mental health. It was neither sappy nor intellectually shallow, and inspired and lifted me for some time as I made baby steps toward managing depression. Now on to the poems.
Too unfamiliar. . .
Too unfamiliar is the ebb and flow
of oceans, or the warm rainfall, or break-
ers on the rocks. I’ve never seen the glow
of lava lighting night dark seas and mak-
ing boiling plumes of steam that rise and blow
around the world to fall on mountain lake.
But rain on mountain lakes I’ve seen, and trees
that send plumes skyward out of sight. No few
white snowflakes have I caught that flew on breez-
es thrown by winter, spreading light on moon-
lit nights. And I have watched the roll of sea-
sons, every year the same, yet always new.
Your foreign world is far, but it is mine;
We’ve only one, and mine is yours to find.


Since submarines are not my line, I should-
n’t be surprised you haven’t dedicat-
ed all your life to see man recreate,
with biochemistry, the world God would
have made if he had known.  Your car takes you
most everywhere, and me too, ‘cause I won’t
drive—it’s immoral.  Somehow your books don’t
make sense to me, and I can’t say that you’d
enjoy mine much.  The languages we read
don’t match.  Not even English.  You don’t dance,
and I doze off when you tell of the chance
some general had if he’d known how to lead.
But we sense truth is truth, a friend’s a friend,
and I think truth and friends must make true friends.

Brother Jones

My friend is quiet, his voice is mild, his smiles
are soft, and when we talk it never lasts
too long.  He’s never touched me, and our pasts
have only met, our futures spread out miles
and miles apart.  My life is mine to live;
he’ll not intrude.  Yet he has listened to
the Spirit whisper what I need, and through
His stillness knew just how to give.
He listened, taught, lived, and loved to show
me how to live in peace and grow beyond
the fears of man by taking up the trials
of humankind one thought, one step, one mo-
ment at a time.  Now we must hope this bond
of friendship might help others on our trails.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Reading Translated Scripture

"Orth . . . has a completely different vocabulary, so the words for anthem, anathema, and anathem are altogether different and yet linked by a similar pattern of associations. Rather than use the Orth word, which would be devoid of meaning and connotations to Earth listeners, I have tried to devise an Earth word that serves as its rough equivalent while preserving some flavor of the Orth term. . . . These characters may speak of carrots, potatoes, dogs, cats, etc. This doesn't mean Arb has exactly the same species. Naturally, Arb has its own plants and animals. The names of those species rough Earth equivalents have been swapped in here to obviate digressions in which, for example, the phenotype of the Arb equivalent of a carrot must be explained in detail." Chapter 1, Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
I may have misspelled the names, since I am listening rather than reading the book, but it seems to me that upwards of 90% of people's problems with accepting the Book of Mormon as having a historical foundation arise from assuming it was translated in some way substantially different from that described by Stephenson in writing his speculative fiction about a world that doesn't exist. Add to that
  • a translator who likely doesn't fully understand the terms and ideas presented in the original work (unlike Stephenson who understands it all because he made it up), and is thus making some flawed approximations, 
  • the likelihood that not only some of the physical objects didn't exist in the translator's experience, but also some of the ways of thinking were incomprehensible to him, 
  • and original authors who had their own physically and ideologically limited perspectives, 
and the Book of Mormon doesn't look like a freakish, composite mish-mash of 19th century ideas that must have been created by an inspiring genius sponge fraud. Instead it looks like a perfectly ordinary translation. The miracle is exactly where Joseph put it--in the visitations of heavenly beings and translation by the gift and power of God--even if we don't know or understand the details. The miracle is in the soft touch of Heavenly Parents who work with people where we are, inspiring us toward creative acts of love despite the pressures to tear down and exclude.

I understand why people reject this view of translation. Most people I know do, both believers and unbelievers. Even when thinking they accept it, they don't embrace the consequences of it. There are implications of this belief that call into question many things said by prophets both ancient and modern. There are implications that make the Parents who gave us the book either less, or more involved in human life than different groups claim as reality. There is a subjection of the Book of Mormon to scholarship, and a rejection of aspects of scholarship that deny the divine. There is a hidden universalism that rejects the notion of "one true church," yet a retained exclusivity that say Gods acted here with this one man and this small group of people. There is a tangible, physical hope for Zion, yet a grave precedent for how people have gotten there in the past, and a denial of the idea that we can build Zion as Mormons alone.

I haven't explained these connections here, but I see each of these tensions logically tied to belief in the Book of Mormon as an inspired, but ordinary translation. Since these tensions inspire me, I'm happy to live with them. I can often see why others aren't.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Sacred Genius

I recently finished The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of S. Ramanujan, but really also a partial biography of G. H. Hardy--two early 20th century mathematicians who changed the world of mathematics, and less directly the world we live in, through their groundbreaking work. Hardy lived a full life of involvement with mathematics, politics, sports, but not romance that there is record of. Ramanujan lived a life nearly consumed by mathematics--at least when he could keep himself and his family fed enough for him to take the leisure of mathematics. He lived a spartan life because he seemed to desire no more.

A friend brought to my attention (via The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt) an analysis of 19th century, American communal movements. The conclusion drawn was that movements survived proportionately to the amount of sacrifice required by the movement. It didn't work for secular movements, though. Without the 'sacra' of sacrifice, the deprivations didn't have the motivating power to help people work together over extended time.

I have grown up around mathematicians. Specifically serious researchers into pure mathematics. No fiddling around with the minutiae of applied mathematics to make beautiful theorems fit real world numbers. They are an odd bunch. I don't mean odd as in socially awkward or standoffish. They have a whole spectrum of personalities and inclinations. But when you get a glimpse of their working lives, of what goes on in their minds in their spare time, it is something unusual. Have you ever watched three men spending an evening working together by sitting around the living room, pad and pencil in hand, each staring at different sets of line drawings on their papers, not talking to each other for minutes at a time? The whole room silent, but if you say hello only two of them will notice and the third might not register the new sound? That's not typical even of the mathematicians I know, but it's also not unheard of.

Like most kids, I wanted to grow up to be a Nobel Prize winning scientist, or a sports star, or president, or something. I'm pretty sure scientist was most often top of the list, but definitely a scientist who discovered great things. That's not what I have become. I've become a teacher, a dabbler in many things, a consultant on modest research, and a father who spends a lot of time at home. I entertain myself with ordinary things and I'm good at wasting time and energy. But I get stuff done. I do some things very well.

I have no idea what my IQ is. I honestly don't see how it matters what anyone's IQ is if you aren't a researcher trying to understand trends in human development or societal development. I'm sure there are people with higher IQs than our great discoverers who have never done anything worth mention in a history book. Smart is good, but only one element in genius. Maybe I'm smart enough to be a genius. Maybe my kids are smart enough to be geniuses. But do I want to be? Do I want them to be?

From what I have seen of genius, it requires great sacrifice. Whether an atheist like Hardy or a devout Hindu like Ramanujan, both treated mathematics like a holy calling. It inspired them to forsake other pursuits, just as it has to some degree in all the mathematical researchers I have known. Yet both missed out on a depth of family life that I love. Genius seems to require living within a world that separates you from others, sets you apart, makes your life holy. But being apart comes at a cost. I love the fruits of the geniuses that have blessed my life. I enjoy those fruits daily, nearly constantly. Yet I don't know if I feel any calling strongly enough to make the sacrifices of genius, and I don't know if I want to. I don't know if I want my kids to. I just don't know.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

To Friendship: Part 1

It's time for poems to, for, and about my friends. Some are about specific people. Some are about groups or imagined friends, but I need to share these thoughts and feelings, and hope others can enjoy them, too. So to begin, from Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (via The Best Loved Poems of the American People), I give you

Oh, the comfort--the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words--but pouring them
All right out--just as they are--
Chaff and grain together--
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them--
Keep what is worth keeping--
And with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.

And from my life shortly after returning from two years of life in Italy, these thoughts about friendship and memory:

No One Will Ever Know

I lost my mind.
Or more truly, the world did.
How I loved, how I hoped,
How I prayed, how I groped for truth
in a foreign world.
How I lived the strangeness of every day.
How the clock ticked,
My heart beat,
My friends breathed,
And the city moved around us.
How in a place most will never hear of,
I did a work most will never know.
How I loved people
that will never make the news.
How our names will only be remembered
to our children,
But we don’t care because,
For one moment,
We knew we had a friend,
And knew that life was good
and God was love.
But no one will ever know
Because the world has lost our minds
That died with us,
Still inside our heads.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Responses to the CES Letter

Edit: I have posted a slightly updated version of this at Rational Faiths

“If the CES Letter has added value to your life, please pay it forward.
Your support will allow us to continue to help the honest in heart seekers.”

Such loaded language from the CES letter website gets my hackles up, but I’ll suppress them long enough to respond to some friends’ queries of “Have you read the entire CES Letter?”. I am finally going to write my responses to the “Letter to a CES director.” I’m going to expect no one to agree with me. I’m going to treat no one’s feelings or thoughts gently. If you love the letter and think it’s perfect, don’t read my response. If you expect detailed responses to every item in the letter, go someplace else. If you are my friend and what you really want is validation of your pain caused at the hands of the LDS church and its members, give me a phone call. Chances are I will agree with you, and I will do my best to show my love. I will acknowledge up front that I think there are valid criticisms of the LDS church and its leaders and scriptures, both past and present. But for sake of my time and sanity I’m going to be appropriately brief. I’m going to cite or link to other sources. I’m going to define what I view as a rational and honest perspective, and I will not consider myself bound by your, or anyone else’s, view of Mormonism. I am Mormon. My perspective is Mormon. You can seek to understand it or not. You can claim it is irrational, or seek to understand the logic. You can say I’m splitting hairs or avoiding issues, or not. You can try to understand and enter into a different paradigm, or not. I am limited by many factors in my choice of how to respond to this letter. So with this disclaimer out of the way, I will begin. Read at your own discretion.

The Paradigm

My initial reaction to the CES letter was that it views the world and Mormonism from a particular, black and white perspective that I don’t hold to. Whether such a perspective is held by some other Mormons or not doesn’t matter for my belief--whoever those others are. If I hold to such a belief, either by embracing it or by rebelling against it, I am not truly taking responsibility for my own moral life. Most of the “problems” highlighted in the letter appeared to be more problems with assumptions about God or prophets or human nature than anything else. So now as I reexamine the CES letter, I will take this approach:

  • If God exists, He interacts with humans in a way that is completely mediated by humans and the laws of nature. I believe this is the Mormon God, whatever selected LDS authorities have said to the contrary. I also believe in a limited God, and not the omni-God of certain theologies. So I will refer to the evolved God that I believe is most likely from science and Mormon theology of theosis. How many of the problems of the CES letter vanish by simply accepting this type of God?
  • Prophets are human. They have human failings, human biases, human tendencies to create meaning through stories, and human limitations with memory, perception, and understanding. How many of the problems vanish by simply accepting this view of prophets?

Now here comes the flood, one topic at a time.

The Book of Mormon

  • Problems 1-3: the KJV in the Book of Mormon. These objections are easily addressed with a “functional equivalence” method of translation. Brant Gardner has addressed this ably and thoroughly in his book The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. I expect further improvements on his work as scholars take advantage of the work by Colby Townsend in identifying the intertextuality of the Book of Mormon on the Bible (for example this paper), but I expect no substantive improvements on the functionally equivalent translation hypothesis.
  • Problem 4: DNA analysis. Mr. Runnells and anyone else who thinks that DNA says anything about the Book of Mormon--even with a hemispheric model of Book of Mormon geography, simply doesn’t understand DNA evidence. This talk by Ugo Perego, an expert in Native American genetics, addresses the topic in detail accessible to the non-expert. DNA is a non-issue that arises from sloppy attention to the Book of Mormon text and ignorance of, or misapplied understanding of, DNA analysis.
  • Probelm 5: Anachronisms. Continued research in cultural history has reduced the numbers of both physical and cultural anachronisms claimed to be present in the Book of Mormon. In addition, functionally equivalent translation (what most people do when they translate) predicts the insertion of some anachronisms, as do natural changes in language. Absolute claims like the one made here are at best problematic, and at worst disingenuous or intentionally ignorant. There are so many flavors of responses to this. I have my favorite. You can find many of my past thoughts on the Book of Mormon in posts linked towards the bottom of this page. I’m not going to pretend that my perceptions of the Book of Mormon can be encapsulated in a few paragraphs.
  • Problem 6: Hemispheric vs. Limited Geography. A limited geography model comes from careful reading of the Book of Mormon text. No other model is sustainable. Hemispheric models are the result of inattentive reading, and I do not feel bound by them, whatever Joseph Smith said at other times. Remember, human prophet. Mr. Runnells’s analysis of what “should be found” shows to me an ignorance of archaeology and an impatience to conclude what he wants to conclude. To cherry pick a counter-example to his Roman occupation of Britain, the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066 at a known location. We even know how many people died in it. But not a single metal artifact has been uncovered from it, and only a handful of bones. These problems from faulty expectations fail to excite me. His reference to an LDS archaeologist is just another appeal to authority, which the entire letter decries. Not interested.
  • Problem 7: Book of Mormon geography and names. Despite the apparently large list of similarities between Book of Mormon geography and names and Great Lakes geography and names, I see it as a case of imposing a pattern where there mostly isn’t one. Where the pattern may be real (names--the geography is forced, sloppy, and inconsistent with the hemispheric model touted previously), biblical connections can explain many of them, and the Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project takes a much more careful and thorough approach to the issue of names. The Onomasticon Project also provides some insight into names that didn’t exist in Joseph’s world--an issue not covered by the superficial comparisons made in the CES Letter. The Hill Cumorah problems vanish when Joseph and his contemporaries are viewed as humans with human understanding and inattentional biases. There are several possible responses, and none of them are provable. This just isn’t a problem worth considering.
  • Problem 8: View of the Hebrews. Connections with this book are historically tenuous and topically superficial. I don’t believe that belief in a connection can be maintained with detailed study. The differences far exceed the similarities, and are far more substantial.
  • Problem 9: The Late War. Parallels with this book are embarrassingly superficial. I have addressed my view of these claims in a previous blog post, and in an improved version yet to be published.
  • Problem 10: The First Book of Napoleon. This is as bad as The Late War (maybe worse). See the blog post above. Why hasn’t he included the 1823 Koran and the 1830 Book of Nullification? These are tenuous attempts to justify a superficial, naturalistic explanation of the Book of Mormon. A substantial naturalistic explanation requires a lot more work, and is much better supported by viewing the Book of Mormon as a translation (work through my mostly finished stylometry series, and this review of Brant Gardner’s book).
  • Problem 11: Conception of the Godhead. I believe in an evolving understanding of God, both within Joseph’s lifetime and over the centuries that humanity has been seeking God (follow my series at Rational Faiths). This simply isn’t an issue from my understanding of God. It also isn’t an issue to me if Joseph changes his translation. If I viewed the process as a word for word dictation from the mouth of God, or even from the pen of Mormon, unfiltered by the translator’s understanding, language, and experience, then this might be a problem--but it isn’t.

Book of Mormon Translation

  • We have told and perpetuated an image of the translation that doesn’t match reality. I agree. Let’s fix it. My faith has never been based on how the Book of Mormon was translated, but on its content. Both the how and the content have problems, but those are separate issues. Also, the perpetuation of an incorrect story is a problem to be fixed when prophets are viewed as mostly ordinary humans, not an earth shattering, faith crushing deception. People tell stories. The earliest written accounts, second or third hand from 1832, about translation already have Joseph looking at stones in spectacles, so I understand how people for whom it wasn’t an important issue perpetuated a story that made sense to them, whether it matched reality or not. Is this an issue for me? Yes (I’ve written about it--a lot). But not the way it is for Mr. Runnells.
  • How is it ok that the church is not being honest about this? There is no response to this kind of loaded question. He has decided the church is being dishonest in a way he disapproves of. To respond seriously is a deep philosophical, social, and scientific question regarding the nature of honesty, history, social forces, and speculation about the knowledge and power of various individuals. There is no answer. I’m not dodging the issue. We could have fruitful discussions about the realities and value of all of these topics and still come to different conclusions regarding the honesty of “the church”. But such a question is not really asking for an answer. It is rhetorical. It presupposes guilt. It is not “honest at heart seeking”.
  • The best, non-accusatory response to translation problems that I have read is the first part of Brant Gardner’s book The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. I’m not going to try to rehash his well constructed work in a poor summary, but it is my answer to these problems with the Book of Mormon.

Multiple First Vision Accounts

  • This problem amounts to, “Do I believe Joseph is a credible reporter of his vision that may or may not have occurred?” Runnells concludes there are significant reasons to doubt Joseph’s veracity. I see, instead, very human tendencies to tell stories that create meaning, and very human tendencies to shape memory according to the meaning of our stories. Neither of these speaks to the reality of Joseph’s experience. They may speak to the certainty with which we know the content of Joseph’s experience, but they are far from evidence of deception. I find these multiple reports a fascinating window into Joseph’s thought and development, but that they speak little to the reality or unreality of the event. That President Hinckley and others feel that the reality of a particular version of the first vision story is central to the truth of Mormonism (and I’m not even sure he would agree that one particular version is central), does not bind me to the same belief. Other prophets clearly didn’t concern themselves much about Joseph’s vision, and I am not troubled by the idea that all our prophets could have faulty understanding about certain topics. So again, believing in human prophets makes this a non-issue.

Book of Abraham

  • Problem 1: Scholars have translated the papyrus that it was on and it isn’t there, and it’s from the wrong time. Yes, the papyri are from later. So is every copy of the Bible that we have today. How is this a problem?
  • Problem 2: The papyri have a funerary text, not the Book of Abraham. Wrong papyri. We don’t have the ones it was on.
  • John Gee’s and Brian Hauglid’s (among others) work on the papyri and the Book of Abraham is not simply apologetic circumlocutions. The simplistic view presented by Mr. Runnells, whatever experts have made cursory forays into the translation of the papyri, just doesn’t cut it. It probably is an apocryphal text written by a 1st or 2nd century BCE jew, but Joseph’s revelation is not consistent with simply being a modern creation. A modern adaptation or translation, yes, but not simply a modern text. Numerous of the “errors” Runnells reports probably aren’t, and many others are explicable through application of Gardner’s understanding of translation. There might be a few that remain after a closer look, but it’s nothing like the seemingly extensive and damning list that Mr. Runnells and others have compiled.
  • You are welcome to find the Book of Abraham problematic. I have more unanswered questions about it than about any other book of scripture, so I sympathize. However, I will not admit that this is a vast, logical difficulty. I believe it’s ok to admit that we don’t have the papyrus Joseph translated from. I believe it’s ok to acknowledge that facsimiles like those we have had a variety of meanings in different contexts, and that Joseph’s interpretations had more correct than the superficial criticisms posed by scholars who only treated them superficially. I believe it’s ok to acknowledge the 19th century influence on the text from a human revelator, with all his limitations of understanding, language, and prejudice. I don’t have to view the whole thing in the forced, black and white way it is presented in the CES letter.

Polygamy and Polyandry

  • I’ve written my thoughts on it before. There was some ugly stuff. We’ve moved past it, mostly, in practice. Let’s move past it completely in practice and be frank about our history.
  • I don’t agree that this shows past or present leaders to be evil or unworthy people. I have studied their lives and teachings too broadly to define them by their actions in one or a few small areas. I can even condemn those actions. But again, viewing prophets as human, and God as acting mediated through deeply flawed individuals, takes away much of the sting of learning this history.
  • I feel sadness as I hear the stories of abused or manipulated women (and men), and I speak out as a Feminist to correct such ills in our day, but I mostly see in it ordinary, human, biologically fostered Patriarchy. Time to overcome the natural man, but that’s a Mormon problem and a human problem. There are few places free from it.


  • Adam-God, Blood Atonement, Polygamy, Black Temple Ban, Mark Hoffman. All problems. All problems that are readily explained with a human understanding of prophets and of revelation. These are only problems for those who hold some degree of infallibility for our prophets, or for those who feel that Mormons must believe in prophetic infallibility. I don’t. I’m a Mormon. I learn from prophets. I respect prophets. I don’t currently idolize them. I know many Mormons who take them very seriously but don’t idolize them. Idolatry is human, but it should be done away. It should be done away in the Mormon church, too, but it will probably never happen in this life. This is a problem for me, but a human problem. One we have to face every day in the LDS church, so let’s face it. But these are not problems for my faith because my faith is not based in this prophetic infallibility.
  • Kinderhook Plates. I think this is one of the strongest reasons to doubt Joseph as a revelator. I personally find it insignificant put in the perspective of his entire life’s work, but that’s a judgment call.

Testimony & Spiritual Witness

  • I’ve written about My Testimony vs. Science, and published my father’s response to it. Take it as you will. I have many of the same concerns as Mr. Runnells, but don’t feel that they compel me to the same conclusions. Again, this list of problems is one I’ve dealt with over years, and I find Mr. Runnells’s conclusions and implications only one set among many possibilities, and not the most convincing.

Priesthood Restoration

  • More problems with the telling of history and its uses in the modern church. Both sets of problems fit well within the ordinary when prophets and leaders are viewed as human with a touch of inspiration. I just can’t get worked up about this, although I find Greg Prince’s thoughts on it very interesting.
  • Ask me if I think Priesthood should keep changing, and I’ll give a resounding YES! Just check out my Ordain Women Profile and my name on the Agitating Faithfully petition.

Witnesses to the Book of Mormon

  • This seems like yet another set of problems with interpreting history. We read the same facts and see different things. I mostly don’t worry about it, since the facts can be fit to my story (and several others), and my testimony of the Book of Mormon is built on different reasons and experiences. I’ve written a lot about it.
  • I’ve finally been convinced that the magic world view is a significant part of Mormon history. I just don’t think it’s as significant, or significant in the ways, some critics claim or imply. It’s much like looking for the 19th century in the Book of Mormon. You can find it in abundance, but it doesn’t come close to painting a complete picture. There is much more to Joseph’s history than the magical influences, despite a significant presence of that view in shaping his stories and actions. People live in a culture and don’t ever completely escape it--not even prophets.
  • Mr. Runnells uses reports of the witnesses to infer things about their experiences, their honesty, and Joseph’s experiences and honesty. Even if I could be convinced his interpretation were logically sound (I’m not sure of that), logical extrapolation is still extrapolation. I find it poor grounds for either confirming or rejecting faith, and I try to only use it when there is no alternative.
  • Once again, Mr. Runnells uses analogies to draw his conclusions. Sometimes it is a necessary approach. I find it informative, but once again fail to find serious reasons to be troubled by this long list of suppositions based on an interpreted list of limited historical facts.

Temples and Free Masonry

  • There are connections between the two. There are more differences between the two. Humans create using already existing elements. So does God, according to Mormon theology.
  • Religion evolves. Changes are only a problem for those who expect otherwise. I don’t. What I do hope is that changes will be for the better, and I believe they predominantly have been in the temple ceremonies.
  • Joseph didn’t understand everything. He didn’t even understand everything he thought was revealed to him. Oh well.


  • I’m not a scriptural literalist. I do believe that some elements of most scriptures were literal, but that it often doesn’t matter, and that it requires careful winnowing to draw historical or scientific conclusions from scripture.
  • This is another list of problems that just aren’t problems from my world view. I dealt with scriptural literalism in the LDS church from the time I was 14 until I was about 30. Some stories aren’t literal whatever any LDS authority has said or believed about them. Prophets are human.
  • God is interpreted through human experience and understanding and language in ALL of scripture. Humans get it wrong and say wrong things about God even when they think they are inspired, sometimes. That’s reality. Saying it isn’t or shouldn’t be speaks more to an individual’s acceptance of reality than to the nature of God.

LDS Church’s Dishonesty and Whitewashing of History

  • I freely admit errors and falsehoods in our presentation of history, past and present. Again, human. If you want to argue some conspiracy of deception that goes beyond what people of good will may do in error, I will say you are looking at the lives of these people too narrowly and at the power of institutional forces too unrealistically. These are problems for me, but they speak to the nature of humanity and of organizations, not threats to my faith or understanding of Mormonism.

Church Finances

  • I wish the church were more transparent. I don’t know if I would agree with every expenditure. I probably wouldn’t. Here is my perspective on church finances. I find implications or claims of gross dishonesty or negligence of stewardship unlikely. There are too many honest people working for the LDS church for me to believe that truly gross abuses wouldn’t be uncovered in time. But if financial secrecy bothers you, I can’t fault you for that. It bothers me, too. I will validate you if it bothers you more--but not if you look for dishonesty, irresponsibility, or negligence by implication.
  • If you don’t like how the church spends its money, that is a real problem you must face. I can’t resolve it for you. I see the LDS church and its leaders trying to solve a big, complicated optimization problem, and I’m not sure there is a best solution. If you think their choices don’t represent what God wants, I’ll partially agree with you (we only ever imperfectly represent God), and partially say you are expecting the church and its leaders to be something they are not--divine.

Names of the Church

  • You are expecting a static gospel. That’s not what I believe in. No problem here, for me.


  • “Some things that are true are not very useful + It is wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true + Spying and monitoring on members + Intellectuals are dangerous + When the prophet speaks the debate is over + Obedience is the First Law of Heaven = Policies and practices you’d expect to find in a totalitarian system such as North Korea or George Orwell’s 1984; not from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • If that were all there were to the LDS church and its culture, it would be the end of my Mormonism. These are problems. But for me they are the teachings and actions of humans, and they are a very small part of the LDS experience. They are predictable happenings in large organizations. They are predicted by our own scriptures, and condemned by them, as well. If you are one of the people for whom these facts are the dominant reality, I have said elsewhere that I consider harm to the individual to be good reason for protecting oneself or one’s family or friends from the organization. The rest of us should seek to correct and repair wrongs. But although I have heard all these teachings for years, and they have even caused me pain, the Mormonism I have lived and loved is as open to intellectual pursuits as any large organization I have encountered. In some ways less, and in others more. You should free yourself from this intellectual bondage, but rebelling and going to the opposite pole is only the first step.


I was fine with Mr. Runnells’s letter when it was his story. He has a right to it. It is a real, lived experience. He came by it honestly. Many others have had similar experiences. I feel for their pain. I have cried with some. People close to me have been lost to the church because we have been unable or unwilling to correct some of these real wrongs. But out of eighty pages of criticisms and problems, the vast majority are problems created by hanging onto a black and white worldview that doesn’t match either my understanding of God or of how he acts among men. There are not dozens of serious issues. There are very few, and all of them are questions of practical action. Or they are Mr. Runnell’s and others’ assumptions about God and prophets. What God do you believe in? How does he act among men? Believe in inerrantly mediated action from an omnipotent and controlling God whose goal is to make everyone behave perfectly, the kind of God so frequently implied in Mr. Runnells letter, and I will say you have described the Lucifer of the Book of Abraham. Quote LDS authorities who have espoused portions of belief in such a God, and I will say you’ve come by your belief honestly, but now it’s time to move on. Believe in the God of agency, justice, and mercy whose goal is to turn us into creators and peers, who works within the reality of human biology, psychology, and sociology, and the limits of nature, and nearly all of these serious problems become ordinary problems of living in a human world. To come where I am, you will have to give up the expectation that the LDS church is far beyond--or far below--other earthly organizations. You will have to experience the real pain that errors of prophets have caused. You may have to rebuild a connection to God as your previous beliefs are torn from you. But the CES letter is only half of an honest seeking of truth. It is still bound by the same paradigms that caused the distress in the first place. If this letter is the end of your journey with Mormonism, I understand to a degree. I won’t fault you for moving on. I’ll wish you the best as you seek a new spiritual home. If you are my friend, I hope we can still journey through life together. But I won’t adopt your problems with Mormonism. I’ll stick with my own.