Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"The Family" Part 2

"All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose. (The Family: A Proclamation to the World, The Family: A Proclamation to the World)"

These are some of the weirdest and most wonderful doctrines of Mormonism. We have a mother in heaven! Who else teaches this? We go so far beyond the typical, weak anthropomorphism religious people are so often criticized for. We don't claim a God who looks like us, we claim Gods who look like men AND women, who are literally our parents, and who want us to 'grow up' to be Gods like them. Far from disavowing this doctrine (despite some downplaying in the media), this is right at the beginning of the document defining our church's stand on the importance of family. We claim that gender isn't some accident of birth to be transcended after the resurrection, but important now, important in the future, and important in our pasts. There are all sorts of things that could be said to ridicule or condemn these teachings. They are in many ways more reminiscent of the Greek Gods we learn about in children's stories than like any contemporary concept of God. Alternatively, one can take the ideas seriously and possibly conclude that this is what you should expect Gods to be like if one is to take religion and evolution both seriously (Natural Gods, Existential Assumptions).

On top of these positive claims made in "The Family", there are a lot of cultural assumptions we make. So, to explain my Mormonism and why I could accept this part of "The Family" as scripture, I share another list of rhetorical and real questions highlighting what I see as omissions and implications that help "The Family" transcend our current culture and provide potential value for future generations:

  • Which aspects of us are in his image? We don't have his glory. What else is left out?
  • Is that image all there is to God's body? (Is God more than the image of our bodies?)
  • Is it implied that women are more in Mother's image?
  • Does image include sexual orientation? Really?
  • Are there only two eternal sexual orientations?
  • Do we really believe that every individual is created in God's image, or are individuals who are not clearly male or female not created in God's image? Created in a faulty image? Created in the image of a God we haven't seen (just like this proclamation implies women are)? If you have a clear answer to this, which scripture or president of the church or general proclamation did you get it from (seriously, please share. I will edit my post accordingly)?
  • Exactly how does gender relate to sexual orientation? 
  • Is gender is really an essential characteristic of EVERY person in mortality? I believe this, but if it's true, exactly how is it essential? For some is it essential in its brokenness, and not in its enduringness? Or are the essential parts of gender something not exactly like binary, male-female sexuality? 
  • What essential role does gender play in our eternal identity? For example, does it mean that if you are a righteous man you will get to be a benevolent heavenly father, beget children, and be worshipped in the worlds you make? If you are a righteous woman does it mean you will get to bear children for eternity and be protected from blasphemy by not being talked about much? If you are something else you will get to be happy in a subordinate role of some kind, or will you be fixed and then get to be a God or a mother? Are you sure this is what Mormon scripture and modern prophets teach?

Once again scripture, examined, not only allows for greater richness of interpretation than our cultural assumptions suggest, but requires we reexamine those assumptions to see if we really know they are from God.

I'm getting excited to see what future parts will make me ask myself. Comments are welcome to help me avoid errors in reasoning as I proceed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why I Can Support "The Family: A Proclamation to the World"; Part 1

I remember when the LDS Church published "The Family: A Proclamation to the World". It was inspiring. It was beautiful. It affirmed some of the grandest ideas in Mormonism. It was also the first time in my life I could remember the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles publishing such an official, doctrinal statement (I was three when the revelation on the priesthood was given). I wondered when it would be voted on by the church as canonized scripture. Since then, life experiences have changed me, and I've met people hurt by others who accept and enforce the surface meanings of this proclamation. I feel glad that it has not been accepted as binding, and hope that it won't be until our understanding as a church has changed and we can see it in new light. Still, I hesitated to reject outright the feelings of inspiration to do good and be better that I remembered. Further, I think I could vote yes if I were asked, today, to canonize this proclamation as part of LDS scripture.

I decided to study "The Family" again and see if I could still feel as I did that it is an inspired document. Over the course of a number of blog posts, I will share my current thoughts and feelings about "The Family." If you will be offended by reading of my continued belief in God and in modern prophets and continuing scripture, I'll take no offense at your skipping these posts. If you will be offended by my twisting conventional readings and accusing them of being nonsensical, unexamined, and unreasoned, I'll take no offense at your skipping these posts. If you want to hear my story of eternal families, God speaking to men, and all the ambiguities of unanswered questions that I live with and find beauty in, then read on. Argue with me. Agree with me. Tell me you think my thoughts are important or a waste of time. Explore what truth I may have found, and help me see more that I have missed.

Having set the stage, I'll jump in--quoting from the proclamation and sharing thoughts, rhetorical questions, and a few real questions.

"We, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children."

I have many reasons to believe this statement. The God I worship values marriage. He has taught it to men and women through prophets through all history. Everyone I know who has lived in a supportive, committed family has found great personal benefits from it. Societies benefit from strong families. I aspire to maintaining the ideal of family to the blessing of all humanity. It makes sense to me that family is part of an eternal plan and that we are literally a part of God's family--He wants us to grow up to be parents like He is. It's wonderful to me. 

My next question is, how do I fulfill this destiny?  This leads to more detailed questions about what eternal family means. What do we really know of eternal families and how they are organized?
1. We have a father and a mother, brothers and sisters.
2. We know that all eternal families in the eternities of Gods are like this. Really? What's our evidence?
3. All eternal families are defined in the way of the modern family unit. Are we sure?
4. Sex and gestation in a mother is how spirit children are created. Wow! Where did that idea come from?

I guess we don't really know as much as we assume, so let's look at some specific relationships that we can identify more clearly:

5. Think about your relationship in your eternal family to your earthly wife or husband. . .
6. Think about the family relationship that resulted in the birth of our Savior. . . (really a bit disturbing if you reject the immaculate conception as Mormonism does)
7. Think about how you are related to your earthly parents and children. . .

It appears to me that the rules of family organization are pretty complex and not very clear when it comes to our eternal families. So exactly how does the earthly family unit play a role in our eternal destiny? It's difficult for me to maintain that it is through modeling how eternal families are organized in any strict sense.

Superficial readings unsurprisingly support current LDS cultural biases, but examination leaves many more questions than are answered. How do our earthly families improve our eternal destiny? What evidence do we really have that the most common earthly family structure is the ONLY family structure approved by God in heaven OR on earth? I believe marriage as we most often think of it is ordained of God, but the reason I could accept this paragraph as scripture is that it is not limited in possible understandings. Its authors affirmed a positive ideal. They did not condemn other family organizations, however they may have felt personally about "alternative lifestyles". That feels like scripture to me. God speaks to us within our culture and language, but leaves us with hints that much more is still to come when we are ready for it. What that more is, I don't honestly know (even if I make statements as if I do), but the God I love appears to once again have left the door open to ever more knowledge. He has affirmed truth without limiting it.

I've gotten ahead of myself with some of the questions and speculations, but we are following a thought process. We've learned a very little, and begun to ask questions and make hypotheses about more. We may have to revise them with more data as you follow me through this process, but spelling them out shows my preconceptions--an important step in true learning. We have to identify our prior "knowledge" in order to be able to unlearn any misconceptions we may have brought to the classroom. In my experience this is at least as hard a part of learning as acquiring the new knowledge. We'll have to see if future parts allow me to continue rationalizing my personal pre-judgements. . .

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Traditional, True Believing Mormon

I've begun to sympathize with others who feel unfairly judged by stereotypes. Admittedly, my persecution consists of nothing worse than exasperated disparagement of mine or my friends' intelligence or morality, and not any active harm, but it has had the benefit of making me a little more sensitive to stereotypes, at least. Along side this bit of added empathy, I want to embrace and reclaim the label that is sometimes used disparagingly to describe people who uncritically follow an obviously flawed religious narrative. I am a True Believing Mormon. I am a Traditional Mormon. So to the stereotyper of TBMs:

I'm not denying that the majority of Mormons never critically examine their faith narrative. If my understanding of James Fowler's findings in articulating his stages of faith is correct, then anyone who expects more than 40% of adults in any faith tradition to ever critically evaluate their narrative is not living in reality. What I take issue with is the implication that no one can critically and honestly examine their faith tradition and remain a true believer. Further, within Mormonism, some of us take to heart Joseph Smith's assertion that we must seek out all truth, whatever its source if we want to come out true Mormons. We take to heart the claim that no one can be saved in ignorance. We take to heart that the glory of God is intelligence. We believe the Gospel encompasses ALL truth, and that we should seek out ANYTHING that is virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy. If the search for ever more light and knowledge is not a core principle of Mormonism, then I probably shouldn't try to claim the label of True Believing. If it is part of Mormonism, then please stop using True Believing to describe people who you claim reject the search for truth. Find some other label. Call them whatever you want--it will show more about you than them--but please quit implying that true believers in truth cannot be true believers in Mormonism.

No, we don't have all truth, whatever a literalistic, narrow reading of some verse of scripture may say. Yes, we claim to know things that will probably be shown to be false. But seeking ever more truth is one of our teachings. However much, and however many, Latter-day Saints may rebel at giving up dearly held "truths" when they are proven false, you cannot be a Latter-day Saint and avoid the message that you have to learn more, that you have to find out for yourself, or that more will be revealed. You can't be a Latter-day Saint and not hear the message that God reveals things to others outside of the LDS church--scientists, great leaders, great humanitarians. However much we may at times try to keep uncomfortable changes under wraps by saying--"You got the wrong answer to your prayer," or "That is the philosophy of men," or "That person is a sinner, so you shouldn't listen to him," or "Homosexuals, Feminists, and Intellectuals are evil," or by limiting what gets discussed in our Sunday School meetings--our history is too well documented, and too many prophets have told us to go out and seek learning for these reactionary forces to ever win in the end. True Believing Mormons will hear the commands to learn, and the LDS church will continue to grow in goodness because of it. I'm a true believer in this. I embrace it. I think it's time I just ignore the stereotype and say, Yes, I'm a TBM. Yes, several generations into the culture, I'm a traditional Mormon. Then maybe, when you get to know me, you'll discover that your stereotype is about as true as any other--and limits your own understanding, just like any other.

Monday, November 12, 2012


I spend a fair amount of time and energy (mostly online) around people who are questioning or disaffected from the LDS church. I do it for a few reasons. I like questions, and these are forums where people can ask complicated questions and get serious answers (sometimes). I sympathize with those who feel hurt by the LDS church or something that happened in it, and I want to offer them my support as they deal with separation or isolation from the culture that they once treasured--I don't want them to feel cast off. I want to be an example of one way of being thoughtful and staying LDS. That's potentially a very prideful reason, but it does motivate me at times. Having said all this, I frequently feel like I have to bite my tongue on these forums, and I want to let it out someplace equally public (even if no one reads this, anyone COULD read it). So, I'm going to start with the Book of Mormon. Please, give me a truly thoughtful criticism of the Book of Mormon in its entirety or shut up about it! Go ahead and criticize my actions or the actions of particular church leaders if you feel you must, but don't pretend you are being rational when you criticize the Book of Mormon.

There, I said it. I'm tired of the lack of archaeological evidence being trumpeted as a proof of falsehood. The record is ambiguous, and there are circumstantial evidences in favor, as well. If you'd care to make a side by side list with me, I'll put in my share of the work. We can see which side currently comes off better. Otherwise, get off your pseudo-scientific high horse.

I'm tired of genetic evidence of Asian ancestry for Native Americans being touted as proof of falsehood. At best, it is proof that a commonly held, superficial, LDS genetic hypothesis is false. I understand enough genetics to comprehend the claims, but I have also read the Book of Mormon closely enough to see that there is no clear genetic hypothesis regarding the ancestry of Native Americans to even do a good study. You can't even formulate a clear, testable hypothesis that is supported by the text. If the text falsifies your hypothesis to start with, why would you expect anything but a negative answer? False assumption, arbitrary conclusion.

I'm tired of tired arguments about authorship. There is a thoroughly controlled, objective study of authorship (http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/jbms/?vol=6&num=1&id=136) that convincingly shows that Alma and Nephi are different authors, and that they are not Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, or Solomon Spaulding. You can quibble about subjective textual analyses, about the exact process of translation and why the King James Version is quoted so extensively all day long. Explain to me how Joseph Smith created at least two completely independent authors according to non-contextual word print analysis--a feat not matched by great authors attempting to appear to be multiple authors--and I will then discuss your subjective, circumstantial complaints. Forget the fact that Joseph Smith really did have gold plates, as attested to by witnesses that many have tried to discredit for years. We have a text. It has multiple authors. The authors are not Joseph Smith. This is not circumstantial or derived from ambiguous historical accounts. Deal with it, and then I will believe that you are serious about examining all the evidence available to you.

I'm tired of hearing about 2nd Isaiah based on circumstantial textual criticism of ambiguous, incomplete ancient records for which we know we don't have the original (or even a claimed translation straight from the original). Give me a clear argument, if this is really an issue. I don't think Bible scholars have an agenda against the Book of Mormon, but I also don't think an appeal to their authority is sufficient proof. I do think no one has explained to me why 2nd Isaiah should bother me in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon doesn't talk about Cyrus. It does talk about coming out of Babylon. Cyrus could be a problem requiring some mental gymnastics, but it isn't there. Explain to me why coming out of Babylon is unambiguous or insuperable. Show me that Isaiah wouldn't have heard of Babylon, or at least show me that he would have more likely identified some other country as the worldly place that Israel should spiritually separate itself from. Then I might take the criticism as more than a possibility that is interesting to consider. (And then address my last point to show why I shouldn't consider the Book of Mormon as evidence that 2nd Isaiah was 1st Isaiah edited by post-exilic editors.)

Then show me why I shouldn't agree with my ancestor, George Cannon, who is reported to have said upon reading the Book of Mormon: An evil-minded man could not have written this book, and a good man would not have written it with the intent to deceive.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

True and Living Church

Shortly before moving away from North Carolina, I was invited to give a talk in church on any subject I chose. I chose to speak about what it means to me to belong to a true and living church. What I'm posting here is my edited version based on my notes. It isn't exactly what I said, because I didn't edit it until the last couple of weeks. I did my best to capture the messages I gave that day.

We belong to a true and living church. I want to talk to you today about what that means to me. Joseph smith said, "One of the grand principles of “Mormonism” is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may." (–Joseph Smith, History of the Church 5:498-5) He also said, "Have the Presbyterians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, etc., any truth? Yes. . . . We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true “Mormons.”" (--Joseph Smith, HotC 5:516-18)

We aspire to embrace all truth--Christ's life and love, continuing revelation, science, and truths already known by other good people. This is what it means to me to belong to a true church. We don't have all truth. We are going to learn more truth, and as we learn more truth the church will change. This is what it means to me to belong to a living church. Sometimes we will even discover that we have to give up doctrines we held dear.

One of my favorite stories from the New Testament is of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius learned of the Gospel and wanted to be baptized. He was a Gentile, and the Gospel was not being preached to the Gentiles. In the meantime, Peter received a vision. The Lord sent him a cloth filled with unclean animals, and told Peter to eat. Peter said, I have never eaten unclean things! God said, if I call it clean, you shouldn't call it unclean. He sent Peter this vision two more times. Peter had the answer, but he didn't know the question, yet. Then, Cornelius's servant asked for Peter to come and teach Cornelius's household. Peter didn't know the question until Cornelius asked. Then Peter knew the Gospel was to be preached to the Gentiles. The church had to give up their previously held belief that the Gospel should only go to the Jews. We may not see why this would be so hard, but Peter and the other Christian Jews had grown up in a culture where they were taught it was against God's law to welcome unclean Gentiles into the covenants of Israel. And weren't they following Christ's example in only teaching the Jews? It wasn't trivial for them to give up these beliefs they had accepted as revealed doctrine. It hurts to learn that we have been wrong, and even more to learn that the whole church has been wrong, but it has happened more than once and is a danger of belonging to a living church.

So the church changes, and prophets receive revelation to guide it. I'd like to suggest an exercise--look at Joseph Smith's revelations. How many of them came without someone asking a question first? How many of the questions were asked by people other than the prophet?

I want to share one of my stories about a struggle to understand truth. When I first learned a little about evolution, I thought it was really cool. A little later, for my high school biology class, we were sent home with a note asking our parents if we could be taught evolution. My parents signed, and my mom, who doesn't have that much invested in science, tried to help me see how a person could be an honest Latter-day Saint and believe in evolution. Over the next years, I was taught in seminary that I was a heretic and unfaithful for believing in evolution. This hurt, to have seminary and institute teachers, that I knew to be good men, and an apostle that I believed in, like Elder Packer, tell me that I was either a fool or a heretic. I didn't feel like either. I felt like someone honestly trying to learn all the truth I could, from every source available to me. I had a hard time listening to Elder Packer without getting upset. I didn't give up on listening to Elder Packer, and as a missionary I learned more from his teachings about recognizing the Spirit than perhaps any other single person. It took many years for me to get comfortable with this tension--that a leader could be inspired and also get some things wrong. (Years later, I learned apostles James E. Talmage and John A. Widtsoe, and President David O. McKay believed in evolution.)

Changes have happened throughout the history of the church. When we are ready, the changes can be wonderful and for the better. Many changes came during the restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith. It was a great day when the priesthood was extended to all worthy men. Over the last several years we have seen a relinquishing of control over many decisions from the General Authorities to the stake and ward levels. And we can expect to see changes throughout our lives. Questioning is a wonderful and beautiful part of Mormonism. At a recent Worldwide Leadership Meeting, President Uchtdorf taught: "Brothers and sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?"

Now the teacher part of me comes out. How do humans learn best? We learn best by constructing our own knowledge and discussing with our peers. Talking with an expert doesn't help us as much. An expert telling us doesn't work. Some of my students hate it when I teach this way. They say "you're not doing your job. You're not teaching us." But have you ever experienced the joy of figuring out a new truth? You really own it and can use it. You are free to do with it what you can, not just what your teacher showed you. This is how God teaches us. We have to prepare and ask the right question at the right time. Then the Spirit gives us beautiful insights. God wants us to become gods, not encyclopedias or automatons. Sometimes we might think God isn't doing his job, but he knows we have to do the work to learn, even though every understanding we gain is truly a gift.

In conclusion, I want to share some of the reasons I love Mormonism. It teaches us to question. It teaches us to embrace ALL truth. It's a living church with living prophets and living revelation. It teaches that the two great commandments are to love God and love my neighbor. I don't have to fear questions. I don't have to fear change, or learning that I believed something wrong. These are a beautiful part of the process of becoming gods. I can embrace those who question and doubt, and those who believe differently from me if they, too, desire to become one in the body of Christ. I hope I can do my part to value every member of this true and living body of Christ.

My Personal Creed

When George Albert Smith was 34, he wrote 11 ideals that he committed to live by. I have adapted them for me, and wanted to share them. I found this list in the first chapter of _Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith_. Two of my inspirations in the ways I worded my adaptations are writings of Hugh Nibley about accusation, and of Terry Warner about HOW to serve others selflessly.

 I would be a friend to the friendless and find joy in ministering to the needs of the poor and repressed.

I would invite others to see the hand of God in our everyday lives, and to seek and trust in His blessings in times of need.

I would teach the truth to the understanding and blessing of all mankind.

I would accept and love truth, whatever its source.

I would not be an accuser, and I would seek the best motives in people's words and actions.

I would help others find happiness according to their own best understanding and desires.

I would not seek to force people to live up to my ideals but rather use persuasion, meekness, long suffering, patience, kindness, generosity, and love to arrive with them at practices that will most benefit intelligences.

I would live with those who differ from me to help them achieve their righteous desires that their earth life may be happy.

I would not knowingly wound the feelings of any, not even one who may have wronged me, but would seek to do him good and make him my friend.

I would overcome the tendency to selfishness and jealousy and rejoice in the successes of all the children of my Heavenly Father.

I would not be an enemy to any living soul.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Assuming Too Much

“That is probably the worst case for God I've ever seen. At least when a creationist first cause argument shoots itself in the foot, it only does it once. Plus this argument begs the question when it claims that our world is such a state of affairs that is evident of goodness and benevolence when there is absolutely no proof of that nor what goodness and badness precisely are. We only have our human-centered valuing system. As Xenophanes said: if horses had gods, they would look like horses. Classic egotistical rhetorical fluff.”

Various criticisms I have received recently have made it clear to me that the number and presentation of the assumptions made in my speculations on the nature and probability of evolved Gods are off-putting to some readers. The criticism above is a colorful illustration of this fact. In my initial presentations, I left out many justifications of my assumptions for the sake of brevity. Now, I am attempting to evaluate just how many times I really have shot myself in the foot. I may need help to do this, but to begin I will state my foundational assumptions and attempt to compare them with all alternative assumptions. If my assumptions are implausible, this implies that there are more plausible assumptions. As you will see, there are cases where I think there are equally plausible assumptions which I reject for aesthetic reasons, but fail to see how the alternatives are more provable or rational. I would particularly welcome comments explaining alternative assumptions that I have overlooked, and explanations of why they are preferable to the assumptions I have made.

Here is a summary of several objections to my speculations:

  1. There is no scientific evidence of a benevolent, personal, intervening God that cannot be explained by reference to observable natural law, therefore, the simplest explanation which explains all observable data is that no such God exists. It is important to note here that these atheists are not making the claim that no God exists. They are making the claim, however, that atheism is the most reasonable conclusion given the known data.
  2. The claim that a benevolent, intervening God created our universe is an extraordinary claim and requires extraordinary proof.
  3. My views involve so many assumptions that are unlikely that they aren't worth the time to think about. With so many ifs, one is bound to be false, and it has long been known that after accepting one wrong assumption you can prove anything to be true.
  4. Life is meaningful without believing there is anything outside of this observable life.

To the first two objections, my response is that these claims actually imply a number of assumptions about the nature of existence that have not been carefully articulated. I attempt to highlight some of them below. To the third objection, I can only ask for patience if you are truly interested in understanding my viewpoint. To the fourth objection, I can only concede. Life is meaningful. I know it may be egocentric, but I hope for a uniqueness and lastingness to the meaning of my life that is not satisfied by more limited forms of meaning, and unique, eternal significance is what I consider truly significant. Everything else is fleeting or not meaningful by virtue of being common or inevitable.

The first point to understand is not an assumption. It is a mathematical property of infinite and/or growing systems. To state it simply, one infinite thing can be so much bigger than another infinite thing that, for all practical purposes, only the bigger thing exists. Below is a more formal statement of the principle:

  1. If two processes converge to infinity, and a random observer observes a single result from one of these processes, if the observation is made approaching infinity, the probability is 1 that the observer will see the result of the process that converges to infinity at a higher rate.
This is not an assumption. It is not really a string of ifs. It is a statement of mathematical fact that must be understood to rationally discuss many of my assumptions. Take the time to convince yourself of this before criticizing subsequent assumptions.
My first assumptions deal with the physical limits of existence. Is the observable universe all there is? This seems unlikely given the history of the expansion of human knowledge. What are the consequences of assuming that existence is finite, infinite, or a combination of the two?

  1. The size of existence
    1. Time, space, matter, and energy are finite in every sense
      1. There is no eternal significance to existence, since existence is not eternal in any sense (there can still be local significance).
    2. Time, space, matter, and energy are infinite in some sense(s) but finite in their possible combinations (this could be infinite in time but finite in the others, finite in the spacial boundaries of each universe, but with infinite branching of universes within universes, or other combinations I haven't thought of)
      1. Every possible combination of these things can and will be attempted by random motions within the laws of existence. If there are a finite number of fundamental particles, there are a finite number of arrangements of these particles, and infinite time and/or space will attempt all of them. So:
        1. Every type of God and no God will exist
        2. Every possible set of physical laws will exist
        3. Every possible choice I could make will be made by someone exactly like me in every regard—none of us are even remotely unique on a cosmic scale because we are copied exactly down to electron spins in infinitely many copies throughout existence.
      2. There is no eternal significance to any particular part of existence because nothing is unique or undetermined, and everything arises from random chance that repeats itself at random, but globally predictable, intervals. (Again, local significance is possible, but it is necessarily only perceived significance, which could be all that matters.)
    3. Time, space, matter, and energy are infinite, and their possible number of combinations converges to infinity at exactly the same rate
      1. This is possible, but is the least likely scenario. If someone can justify its further consideration, I will do so, but the numerical improbability of this scenario compared to the other three is astronomical.
    4. Time, space, matter, and energy are infinite
      1. The possible combinations of matter and energy are finite on any possible scale of the influence of intelligent beings.
        1. This leads to the same conclusions as point 2.2.
      2. The possible number of combinations of time, space, matter, and energy converges to infinity at a greater rate than the infinities of time, space, matter, and energy.
        1. This is the scenario in which my argument is made. This is the first assumption that must be addressed before dismissing my arguments.
    5. I believe 1-4 cover all imaginable naturalistic existences. There is a good chance my imagination is too limited, so I welcome the discussion of other proposals.

Scenario 2.1 I reject based on the apparently eternal nature of matter and energy—if I accept the first law thermodynamics, I can't believe that matter and energy cease to exist, so existence must be infinite in at least some senses. I could reject the first law of thermodynamics, but I doubt this is an objection of any naturalist who may read my arguments.

Scenarios 2.2 and 2.4.1 seem the most defensible based on current scientific observations and theories. One of them might be reality, and I may have to accept it if I really value truth. So far I am unconvinced. I reject these scenarios for two reasons. The first is that I can see no reason why our universe exists as it does, with the laws that it has and the universal constants that it has. If it came about this way based on random events, why couldn't a universe with intelligent life exist with a gravitational constant that differed from ours by 0.001%? Sure, other constants might have to be adjusted, also, but what reason do we have to believe they couldn't be? And if existence is infinite enough, we should expect that the gravitational constant will be different, somewhere and/or somewhen. And if the constants can be adjusted continuously, even over a finite range of values, then there are infinitely many universes with intelligent life possible, each of which is strictly unique. And that assumes that we maintain our current set of natural laws and make only quantitative changes, not qualitative ones. This last statement is again a mathematical reality, the only assumption being continuous adjustability of physical constants.

The second reason I reject scenarios 2.2 and 2.4.1 is aesthetic—the search for eternal meaning. In these scenarios, everything will happen—infinitely many times. Existence is one eternal round of computers being programmed to run every combination of ones and zeros that their processors can handle. A few of them will be cool, and some may be self-propagating, giving some eternal continuity, but only local existential significance. This is a typical context for discussion of Gods, or the lack thereof, and leads to a variety of possible conclusions. None preserve the uniqueness that appeals to me or fits with my concept of eternal significance. If this is reality, those who claim we should look for significance only in the microcosm are probably right. Fortunately, it is clear that meaning and hope can be found in this microcosm. Many transhumanists think within this context and still believe in a form of eternal significance. It is just an eternal significance that is shared exactly, in every regard, by infinitely many beings exactly like us—all the way down to our quantum particles. If this is your view, and you are unwilling to think outside of it, then now is a good time to again dismiss my speculations, although you may not yet have established their implausibility or irrationality, just your aesthetic preferences.

Scenario 2.3 I reject because of its mathematical improbability. I haven't even considered the fine points of this scenario.

Scenario 2.4.2 is the required scenario for my arguments, as a whole, to have any weight. If you are willing to consider this scenario, read on. If not, I believe the burden of proof rests with you to defend one of the others. To defend the first, you must reject thermodynamics. To defend the third, you must defend an extreme improbability. To defend the second, you must argue that physical constants can be adjusted neither over an infinite range of finite steps nor continuously over a finite range, and that only a finite set of physical laws (fundamental forces and fundamental particles) govern all possible manifestations of existence. Or you have to establish that what we can currently observe is all there is—a proposition that has a long history of being wrong. I'm not claiming that arbitrary laws are possible, just that there are infinitely many possible. There are likely an even larger infinitely many fundamental forces and particles that are impossible. From my perspective, the extraordinary claims lie with scenarios 1, 2, 3, and 4.1 so these scenarios require extraordinary evidence. It's not a simple, nor undoubtedly correct conclusion, but I think I managed to miss my foot on this one.

If you haven't dismissed my arguments as irrational by this point, then I invite you to explore with me assumptions about how naturalistic Gods might fit into scenario 2.4.2.

  1. How Gods might fit in a naturalistic existence
    1. The possible existence of Gods
      1. The laws of existence do not allow for the existence of anything resembling a God that can create universes.
      2. The laws of existence allow for beings that can create other universes, but they do not interact with their creation
        1. there is no evidence of their having created our universe
        2. there is no evidence of their being benevolent
        3. there is no evidence of their intervening in our universe
      3. There can be universe creators that interact with their creation but do not leave hard evidence of it.
      4. Creator Gods are evident in our universe
  2. Competition among Gods
    1. Intelligent beings able to manipulate their environment (create and/or destroy) will flourish to fill all of the infinities of time and space (at least locally in a way that necessitates competition).
    2. There will always be more time, space, matter, and energy than all the intelligent, manipulative beings that will ever exist can occupy, so competition is unnecessary.

In weaker, more agnostic versions of atheism, it is not typically argued that a being capable of creating a universe could not exist, only that it is unlikely that we live in such a universe. Thus, I will assume that I can rule out scenario 3.1.1, although it may be true. It just seems easy for our imaginations to believe in humans eventually being able to make worlds, and to extrapolate to eventually making universes. I agree this may be wishful thinking, but if you want to stick on this point you will say I'm not a realist, and I will say you lack imagination, and we can live our lives not discussing the topic of God with each other. I will readily concede that 3.1.4 does not describe reality. A comparison of scenarios 3.1.2 and 3.1.3 is what my arguments were originally designed to address, so further discussion must wait until the foundational assumptions have been completed. Scenario 3.2.1 is the most likely scenario if scenario 2.2 holds, and may be possible in 2.4.1. However, in the context of scenario 2.4.2, I would assert that 3.2.2 is at least as likely as 3.2.1. In fact, subsequent (or previous, if you've read my other writings) arguments lead to the conclusion that if creator beings capable of breaking out of scenario 3.2.1 can exist, they will be the most likely to exist.

So what assumptions have I made so far?
  1. Existence is infinite
  2. Possible universes converge to infinity faster than the number of real universes (there are more possible universes than can ever be tried)
  3. Beings capable of creating universes can exist
  4. Competition is not inherent to creation
  5. Beings capable of creating universes sometimes come into existence

Five assumptions. Problematic? Sure. Impossible? I don't think so, but I'm open to proof otherwise. Implausible? That implies that some alternative is more plausible. The remainder of my arguments are an exploration of the nature of Gods that are most likely to exist within this context of existence. They are probabilistic speculations based on what I know and think about reproductive rates and what traits will serve best to propagate a species of Gods. If you place these reproductive rate arguments in a different context of existence than that presented above, some of them do not make sense, but before they can be rationally discussed, some framework regarding the nature of existence must be established. I invite you to show me a better one, and show me why it's better. Otherwise, join my discussion and we can see if there is hope for our eternal significance and uniqueness, hope for benevolent Gods, and the possibility to maintain this hope without rejecting science or reason.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Small Suffering

John Lithgow wrote a wonderful introduction to W. H. Auden in his book The Poets' Corner. It begins: "W. H. Auden was the furthest thing from the sensitive poet holed up in a garret. . . ." It's a fun read if you choose to look it up. The poem reproduced in this book is famous, and justly so. I hope you enjoy.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I previously posted "No One Will Ever Know," my poem which most closely relates to this idea of suffering--and joy--being of personal, not global, importance. So I have to choose another. A retired Indian Pastor I met on the metro in Baltimore shared a proverb with me: A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved, and a joy shared is a joy doubled. Maybe personal, passing suffering can be something we choose to make significant, as well as personal, passing joys.

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, fought, and loved to show
me how to fight 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 friends across the miles.

This was about Stephen Jones, the BYU physicist who taught my Senior Religion Seminar for science majors. It was a wonderful course. One of the most memorable days was when he shared his personal thoughts and experiences on how Charity can help us deal with mental illness. Every year I learn a little more how right he was when it comes to enduring change.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Unpredictable God, Unpredictable Me

I was discussing free-will and determinism with some friends. I have a lot to learn about what others have written on the subject. It has been suggested I look into Compatiblism, in particular, but I put down some thoughts while they are fresh.

We were viewing free-will and determinism in the context of our observable environment, and some interesting ideas were brought out. I'm inclined to believe that if everything we are is determined by completely predictable natural laws, then all we have is the illusion of free-will. A friend argued that if our actions are ultimately governed by random events (such as quantum events) then our choices are even less free, in that they are not really our choices at all. We just flipped a coin and did what it said. I still struggle to see true freedom in either case. If our choices can be predicted in every detail in any practical sense, then we are not choosing, but only following a predetermined course. This still seems an inevitable conclusion to me from total predictability. At the same time, I'm unwilling to claim that God exists outside of natural laws (even though I readily admit I don't come close to understanding all of those laws), so I don't like my previous proposal that free-will is some super-natural control over the interface between random events (quantum events?) and apparently deterministic, macroscale events.

Continued discussion brought out thoughts from another friend that have given me hope of finding a solution that satisfies me. I'll quote, without permission, some parts of the exchange:

CB: "That is (to put this in more prescriptive terms), if non-determinism can beget determinism [e.g. random behavior of individual photons resulting in predictable behavior of many photons], can determinism beget non-determinism?"

JLC: “We call that chaos theory, and the brain certainly qualifies. But it appears that determinism can't beget non-determinism, it can only beget EFFECTIVE non-determinism. Something that is effectively non-deterministic is deterministic, but its behavior is so complex, that the best way to figure out what it will do is often just to let it do it and see. So this is a type of non-determinism in the sense of 'predictability' but it is still deterministic in the sense of whether it would do the exact same thing if placed in the exact same situation.”

CB: “. . . would you agree that taking a descriptive rather than prescriptive position on (non-)determinism allows for non-determinism to emerge from determinism? And if so, what are the objections to a descriptive approach?”

JLC: “Yes, I do agree that you can create SEEMING non-determinism from determinism. Pseudo random number generators in most programming languages do exactly that.

“My only objection is that such seeming non-determinism doesn't provide the type of freedom that Jonathan and others like him seem to want. If I seed the number generator with the same seed, I get the same result every time I run it. It SEEMS non-deterministic, until I start playing with re-running the program and playing with the seed.

“This doesn't bother me for my definition of freedom, but it would bother a Libertarianist. Because ultimately there IS something fundamentally different between true non-determinism, and apparent non-determinism. Just because it is CURRENTLY undetectable, does not mean that it would remain undetectable. If I can create a simulation of your brain, that always does the same thing on the same input, given the same seed, then suddenly the determinism becomes apparent, and the apparent non-determinism vanishes, even for a radical empiricist.

“I guess you can summarize that last criticism by saying that apparent non-determinism can vanish when we learn more, even for a radical empiricist.”

JGC: “Does it change something if you can prove that, while possible in theory, it will never be possible in practice to learn enough to perfectly simulate a sufficiently complex system? In that case could apparent non-determinism become effective non-determinism? Would that allow us to live in a world that is fundamentally deterministic but effectively non-deterministic from the point of view of conscious will?”

JLC: “Perhaps, but I don't see how you prove that about the human brain. It appears to me that you will be able to effectively simulate the brain in the next 20 years or so.”

So I've given up, for the time, my view of free-will that requires supernatural influence. I don't like that view. I am left to ask if free will might be found in effective non-determinism? Can the human brain, or the human being, be simulated to the point that a person's every choice can be predetermined? I'm inclined to think not. Some years ago I gave up the idea that I am in control of every choice I feel I should be able to control. Most, almost all, of my motivations and subsequent actions are determined by emotions and habits that, in a given moment, are out of my control. What I like to think remains in my control is the ability to shape my habits and emotions over time. I can make small choices that result in a happier, more productive me a year, or 10 years from now. Experience forced me to give up the belief that I am capable of making any choice I want at any given moment in time. I'm highly predictable, but I cling to the notion that I am not totally predictable.

So what happens in 20 years when my brain can be mapped so that any input given it will show with 100% accuracy what outputs will result? Either I give up my illusion of will, or I conclude that my brain cannot be perfectly simulated. I may live in a deterministic reality, but my brain is effectively non-deterministic—the only way to know absolutely what it will do is to start it going and watch. How can this happen if I concede that my brain can be duplicated? If I allow that chemistry and engineering can advance to the point that my brain could be simulated down to the atom, and that every neural impulse that determines what I do can be copied perfectly to respond to every input in exactly the way I would? How can I maintain a belief in effective non-determinism? I want a cosmology that strictly obeys natural laws, but I want to be me. I don't want to be predetermined. I concede that I'm highly predictable, but I want to be at least effectively unpredictable—at least a little bit.

The start of my hope is hidden in the very claim that we will be able to effectively simulate the brain. Simulating the brain itself is not really sufficient. My brain—a physically finite object that takes in measurable inputs and produces measurable outputs—isn't really the system we're interested in. We want to know how I will interact with the world. My brain is a open system that can assimilate a huge variety of inputs. To effectively simulate my brain and my future choices, you must be able to effectively simulate all of the future inputs to my brain. This very quickly becomes a computationally intractable system as you try to simulate more and more inputs, possibly requiring more computing power than could be harnessed by turning all matter in our universe to the function of computing the possible inputs and outcomes. Maybe the best way to see what my brain will do is to make my brain and let it run?

I can see one strong objection to my proposal. There are bound to be many irrelevant inputs to predicting my behavior. In fact, almost all inputs are irrelevant—most are too far away or otherwise undetectable to my brain, and many that my brain does detect it ignores. This leads me to conclude that almost every action I will take will be predictable by other humans in the not too distant future. What chance remains that it won't be every action? Is there some real hope that I am at least a tiny bit unpredictable? I invoke the web of human relations to maintain my unpredictability. Not only must my brain be simulated, but every other brain that is going to give me inputs, and every brain that is going to give them inputs that will influence the inputs they give me. The only practical approach might be to make our brains and see what they do. Or maybe we can posit a day where we can simulate using more power than is in our known universe? Maybe God can perfectly predict all my actions, and my free-will is limited to my finite perspective, and is predetermined in God's eyes?

I venture out into the realm of the unmeasurable. I believe God and spirit are physical. They are made of matter and energy like everything else that exists. For reasons given elsewhere, I believe that we are in a stage of development where we are unable to detect this type of matter or energy except by its consequences on some of our complex, subjective, measurement devices—our minds, hearts, and actions. Here is a set of inputs my brain simulators can only simulate by random guesses. They can trigger all of the religious inputs of my simulated brain and record every action that might result, but they have no way to predict what inputs God and the angels will send me. This still only pushes the predictability back a level. When we become gods and angels we will be able to measure and predict these inputs. 

I'm not convinced it is true in any practical sense that even God and the angels can predict all of the inputs. To predict the inputs into my human brain, you must predict the inputs into the brains of God and the angels that will influence me. To predict those inputs, you must predict an ever expanding web of relationships in an ever expanding web of universes. Does God know what I'm going to do? Pretty much. Does God know everything He will do in the future? I like to think He still has choices. If He might do something unpredictable, until He does it, He doesn't know with absolute certainty what I will do. Do I know what God will do? Sometimes. He's pretty predictable. But no more than I am.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What God Is Like . . . Possibly

I don't much like views that place religion at odds with measurable fact. I don't much like views that assert the irrelevance of everything that is not physically measurable, either. So I attempt to construct for myself the simplest view of existence that explains all the facts as experienced in my life. I don't think I can prove God's existence, or prove Latter-day Saint theology. I only intended to rationally support an expansive view of science, technology, and religion and to justify an honest seeker of truth (hopefully that is me) in attempting to integrate all three. I'm sure my Biophysical perspective will be apparent in the arguments. They draw heavily on thoughts inspired by the New God Argument (http://www.new-god-argument.com/) and discussions on Mormon Transhumanist Association forums. I prefer to think in terms of biology and experiments rather than technology and simulations. Effectively, there is no difference in the essential implications. I think the computational simulation perspective makes some people imagine a more rigid set of assumptions about physical laws than I suspect is correct. (Many Biologists are more deterministic in their conception of causation than Physicists, but the inherent error built into biological computation (genetics) seems normal to most people.) So I ask myself,

What is God like . . . probably?

(Here's my shortest summary. I'll post links to my longer arguments and tangential thoughts.)

  1. There are different orders of infinity
  2. Time, space, and matter are a large order of infinity
  3. The possible universes with all of their possible laws that can exist are a larger infinity than the infinity of time, space, and matter (but possibly of the same order)
  4. Genealogies of creators will have different orders of reproductive rates
    1. Random creation will have the lowest order reproductive rate
    2. Planned creation will have higher order reproductive rates
  5. Ask the question, which group of creators probably created me?
    1. After a long time, the probability of having been created by the creators with the highest order reproductive rates approaches 1.
    2. Therefore, I was probably created by the creators with the highest order reproductive rates.
  6. What characteristics will favor the highest order reproductive rates in this cosmos made of infinite space and matter?
    1. Long life
    2. Creative power
    3. Creative desire
    4. Desire for independent, creator-offspring
    5. Love, compassion, benevolence, and altruism
    6. Independent will and the ability to innovate
    7. Peacefulness and the wisdom to prevent destruction (on an eternal scale)
    8. Wisdom and desire to intervene personally in the most effective ways
  7. I was probably created by a creator with all of these characteristics.
  8. I can probably interact with this creator.
  9. I can probably become a creator with all of these characteristics.

    Here is a Long Version with more of my thoughts and reasons.

    Here are some of my thoughts on how this cosmology fits with various LDS teachings