Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How the Universe Got Its Spots--Final Installment

Has quantum mechanics abandoned us to a terrifying abyss where observers create reality? If so, why are we so limited in the reality we can create? I might be able to make an electron appear in a given location, but I can't easily produce an elephant on my city block. Why are experiments still reproducible? Why are there still rules, like the Schroedinger equation? To a person who believes that nature is purely a human construction (as opposed to the more moderate view that the scientific practice is intrinsically tainted by culture and the human context), the role of the observer in quantum mechanics may come as a source of vindication. I don't think it is. I think the distinction between observer and observed is a profound and poorly understood issue. I don't know the answers, but it does give us some divine questions to ask. p. 57
I love the mix of confidence and humility that Janna Levin reveals through sharing her diary of letters that are the core of How the Universe Got Its Spots. I like her list of rhetorical questions. I sometimes ask my own, like when my brother recently asked me why I believe in God. (He wasn't asserting atheism, he just wanted to know why believe.) I think the fundamental answer for me is because my emotions and interpretation of personal experience tell me there is a God, but I hope I have some substantial reasons supporting my beliefs. I'm likely slaughtering the intent of Ms. Levin, but I do find myself wondering:
Have psychology and anthropology abandoned us to a terrifying abyss where observers create God? If so, why are we so limited in the Gods we can create? I might be able to induce religious experiences of various types, but I can't easily produce a Book of Mormon. Why is it hard to make someone believe that the God they worship is a hateful God? To a person who believes that God is a purely human construction (as opposed to the more moderate view that religion is intrinsically tainted by culture and the human context), the role of society and biology in religion may come as a source of vindication. I don't think it is. I think the distinction between God and our perceptions of God is a profound and poorly understood issue. I don't know the answers, but it does give us some divine questions to ask. [This was me, not Janna.]
I don't have a coherent theme for this post, so I'll just jump from quote to quote and share my thoughts.
We never perceive quantum peculiarities in our ordinary life because the blurriness of the quantum world is so tiny that we cannot resolve these effects easily. We don't spontaneously pass through our chairs to find ourselves on the floor. Refrigerators don't spontaneously come into existence and then disappear. The world appears solid, knowable, deterministic. p. 60
There seems to be something fundamentally random about reality, yet the world appears deterministic. I can think of a couple of possible interpretations of this. Maybe there are laws deeper than quantum mechanics that would explain all of the uncertainties in predictable, understandable, knowable ways. Maybe everything is fundamentally random. Maybe the laws of nature have ways of constraining the random to make it predictable. In biology, random mutation is essential all our wondrous diversity, but environmental factors constrain which random effects survive. Could similar constraints be acting on universes? Could universes and their laws be random underneath and still result in nearly deterministic universes? I think this is a distinct possibility. Universes randomly come into existence with random laws. Universes with laws that lead to the creation of more universes rapidly outnumber other kinds of universes. If laws that generate universe creators within a universe speed up the process of universe creation even more, then suddenly we have rudimentary gods making universes of their own. So randomness generates its own constraints just by chance, but the constraints are self reproducing. I hope physicists keep looking and discovering things I've never imagined, but I don't think it will bother me to find out it is all "random chance" at the foundation.
If the universe had a beginning, it will have an end. If the universe had a birth, it will have a death. Our origins and our terminus can both be predicted from Einstein's theory. p. 82
I think I believe this. I believe there is something more to us, although I don't know what form it takes or how it is propagated, that lived before this universe had its birth and that will continue long after it has its death.

What if this isn't just fantasy fuelled by math? It is possible that Cambridge, London, the earth, the observable universe are just three-dimensional projections in a higher-dimensional space. Access to a fourth dimension would be as mystifying and unimaginable to us as a third dimension would be to a denizen of two dimensions. If there is a fourth dimension, the fourth dimension is everywhere. A citizen of the fourth dimension would have seemingly supernatural powers and could poke into our insides without invasive surgery. They could access our brains and hearts and leave our skin unscarred. They could see into our three-dimensional houses, our sealed bottles, our bodies. p. 110
I find it a little amusing when people refuse to even imagine that there might be Gods doing unnatural miracles by completely natural means. I don't think it's as trivial or arbitrary as some things we might imagine a fourth dimensional being might do, but to believe there is something so beyond our observation as to be currently inconceivable seems as obviously true to me as it is to some other people that this is not the case. I'm inclined to think there will continue to be inconceivable frontiers to explore even when we become Gods. That's the trend of this life, and it just makes sense to me. Even if I am infinite and eternal, what's stopping anything else from being more infinite?

There are Darwinian reasons for why humans are the size they are relative to the curve of the earth. . .
Could there be Darwinian explanations for our size in the cosmos? Some reason why we evolved to be able to just barely see the curve of space? There could, and these explanations range from anthropic principles to ideas of Lee Smolin's on natural selection. I think Lee would argue against the former and on behalf of the latter.
The anthropic principle argues that we live in a universe with these conditions because they are the only conditions that could support life. . . . p. 159
Some models of inflation tie in with the anthropic principle. . . . It has been suggested that the values of the fundamental constants are different in different [universes]. The strength of gravity is different, the mass of the proton is different, the values of the charges, the things that organize the world as it is. In another patch, with different fundamental constants, the world would be organized utterly differently. If things weren't so tuned, there would be no primordial nuclear fusion to synthesize the common elements, no formation of galactic structures, no organic matter. There'd be no life, no us to even ask the questions. . . . We frankly aren't good enough at physical cosmology to truly predict what kind of universe would be generated by different values of the fundamental constants. There could be unforeseen structures, unforeseen life. But fair enough, not us. pp. 159-160

Lee Smolin suggests a cosmic natural selection in his book The Life of the Cosmos. He hypothesizes that in the centre of each black hole could be a new universe separated from our own by the black hole's horizon. In each universe the cosmic conditions may be slightly different from our own; different geometries, different particle masses, different interaction strengths. Slight differences in these elementary properties will change the world as we know it. Most importantly, he argues, the production of stars and their demise will be altered. The elementary properties are like cosmic genetic information that will get passed on to the next generation of black holes and the subsequent universes ballooning from their centers. Nature will statistically select the conditions most favorable to the production of black holes, since the more black holes there are, the more universes are born and so on until it becomes extremely likely that we live in a universe with precisely the optimal cosmic genetic information to produce black holes. If we were better at physical cosmology, we could test Smolin's hypothesis by determining if in fact the universe we live in has optimal conditions for the production of black holes. Too many factors are at play for us to be able to predict which conditions optimize black hole production, and Lee's idea is likely to remain untested for a long time. p. 160
Why does life have to be like us to matter? I prefer a different formulation--how much does life have to be like us to matter? I think it matters if life creates new life. I think it matters if life is conscious. I think it matters if life learns to create new universes. It matters because those things make themselves matter. So I think it matters if God is like us. I think it matters if God is a creator, if God is loving and compassionate, and if God is a scientist. I don't think it matters much what God looks like. I believe in Gods that look like humans--but it seems almost a certainty that that isn't the end of what God is or what God looks like. Is it plastic surgery that is going to place Christ's image in our countenances? Maybe everyone just needs my beard and hair and then we'll be ready for the Second Coming. Or maybe we need love, compassion, joy, and sorrow in their fulness. Maybe we need knowledge and patience to make kingdoms flow unto us without compulsory means. Maybe this is what God "looks" like. So while I think our bodies matter, and that LDS theology celebrates life in making these assertions, it's not going to bother me if I one day find out that God has six arms, or that my cousin gods look more like cockroaches than primates. I might have to overcome some more prejudices, but there should be time for that--even if it isn't our universe's time.

The reductionist believes that every event, no matter how complicated the experience, has as its conductor the one ultimate law of nature. String theory is one contender for the TOE [Theory Of Everything]. We are playing out the notes and vibrations, the symphony of that inevitable score. Complexity and chaos emerge not as new laws of nature but as merely the remarkable collection of harmonics of fundamental strings.
In many ways I agree that this must be true if there is an ultimate law of physics. But I can't help but wonder if there isn't a much more radical and deeper role for chaos in theoretical physics. Maybe there are no symmetries, no firm laws, no rigorous order. Maybe our experience of order and the laws of physics is the order that precipitates from complexity. Maybe there isn't an ultimate law, one fundamental symmetry, but instead many, a proliferation of possible laws, and the seeming symmetries that guide our perception of the forces emerge from the collusion of a democracy of quantum theories. Neil Cornish once remarked to me over cocktails at a bar on Haight Street in San Francisco that he thought symmetries might just be a manifestation of self-organized criticality. Maybe he also had something like this in mind.
One of the disturbing developments in string theory is that there is more than one string theory. String theory is not unique. . . . Maybe this is a hint as to why quantum mechanics seems so contradictory--why waves can be particles and probability reigns. There would be no one truth, not even layers of truth but a complex organization of competing truths. pp. 187-188
I'm happy with any ray of hope that I might find a notion of free will I could believe in without lying to myself. Despite the fear that it strikes in my heart, I still live my life with the persistent illusion of not only free will but also responsibility. I still hold myself accountable, and others. But I don't believe it intellectually. Nor to I not believe it. I'm agnostic on the issue of human will and freedom. p. 191
I suppose I'm agnostic, too, if you mean I don't think I can prove human will and freedom are not determined by outside (or even inside) forces and preexisting conditions. I wonder if agency might not be a law of nature. I don't imagine that human action is free of constraints. In fact, I think that much of what we view as choice is constrained immensely, and we don't even realize it. But I'm happy believing I can choose, and just maybe my choices can make universes.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Dead and the Living: Alternative Perspectives

I requested feedback on my original post from my parents and a couple of friends who I suspected held a different view of LDS church finances than I. I'm very glad I did, as it enriched my understanding and reminded me of many other elements that play into our analysis. This post at times assumes some belief in selected LDS doctrines, and I make no attempt to argue strictly from a this-world-only rational perspective. With that warning, let's dive right in:

Limiting ourselves to comparing spending on temples and proselyting to spending on the poor, I think it is useful to list the groups and benefits being examined. In my last post, I hopefully gave reasons a critic might pause and examine the complex dynamics of individuals and institutions before concluding that the LDS church is wasteful and uncaring. So even from a this-life-only perspective, it isn't so obvious that the LDS church has not chosen an approach that maximizes the good it can do in relieving the suffering of the poor and needy. But as Latter-day Saints who are choosing to participate in this institution, and who want it to do the most possible good it can, we need to look more closely at what we are claiming when we say we can't justify the billions spent on temples when there are so many poor who could be helped with so relatively little. When I count the variables I find this:

Groups Affected:
  1. God
  2. Spirits in the spirit world
  3. Patrons in the temples
  4. Non-temple attending LDSs
  5. Poor people
Benefits weighed:
  1. Length of mortal life
  2. Quality of mortal life for the poor
  3. Quality of mortal life for temple patrons
  4. Quality of life for spirits in the spirit world
  5. Quality of eternal life for each of the groups
If you don't believe in a post-mortal life, or you don't believe that what we do here matters as regards that life, then I refer you back to my previous post, and suggest that you still have to do some legwork to conclude the LDS church is not using its resources in a way that optimally helps the poor. If you do believe in a post-mortal life that is affected by this one, then look with me at some assumptions we might be making when we assert that the LDS church should spend money currently dedicated to temples, temple building, and missionary work towards helping the poor.

Here are a couple I made. I allowed that volunteer hours on "religious" activities don't help anyone's "social needs". The authors of the study were not clear in defining the differences between the religious and social needs, but I assume social needs include the relatively easily quantifiable benefits that people outside of the LDS church would admit have value--food, shelter, employment, and healthcare. I assume everything else is excluded, whether accurately or no. It seems like a reasonable decision for the purposes of the study. I also assumed that the only benefit (or only important benefit) of temple work and proselyting is in giving us a sense of authenticity. I do not believe this. I'm a true blue Mormon in believing that saving ordinances really matter, even if I'm not as worried as I used to be about getting everybody baptized LDS in this life. But even if I didn't believe proselyting and temple work were of direct and immediate benefit to people, I would still need to consider seriously that they might have tangible, social needs value in this life that goes beyond making Latter-day Saints feel good. As my Dad brought up, when the benefits of "religious" activities were questioned, there are likely many social benefits from these practices where the division between "social needs" and "religious activities" is very gray, and possibly non-existent:
How about teaching children to live moral, upright, concerned lives?
How about parents assisting one another in the rearing of their children?
How about teaching members that they need to care for the poor? and giving them direct outlets to help: fast offerings, humanitarian funds, bishops' storehouses, Deseret Industries, employment services, service missions, perpetual education funds, really serious service projects?
How about teaching members to live providently, to get an education, to live healthy lives, to care for the aged, to give of their time and talents?
How about teaching love for ancestors, family, descendants? a constant reminder that others are truly important?
How about giving people a supportive center from which they can reach out to others?
How about the myriads of hours spent in care for the emotionally needy, widows, orphans, single parents? Bishops spend more like the time of a full-time job, not only in planning, but in direct aid to others. . . . My patriarchal blessings says that I will be blessed "with plenty AND TO SHARE," and so I'd better share.
In addition to the problematic division between religious and social needs, here is a list of some other assumptions my respondents helped me see or remember:
  • God's house doesn't need to be as well built as we are making it
  • The length and quality of life of a poor person, here and now, is worth more than the quality of life of a spirit. Or possibly, the ordinances we do here don't really do anything for the dead spirits.
  • Temples and temple attendance don't improve the quantity and quality of work that Latter-day Saints do for the poor.
  • Religious and temple service are not effective at teaching and supporting highly moral lifestyles which bless the individuals and those around them, or the benefits of the religious teaching and service are not of sufficient value to merit the time and resources spent on them.
  • The benefits to the individual of being free of poverty are greater than the benefits of being LDS.
  • LDS leaders are unaware, mistaken, powerless, glory hungry, or greedy in their allocation of church resources.
Maybe we don't need to build God's house so well. Maybe it isn't even His house. That could be true, but we have to realize we are making this claim when we criticize temple building practices.

Maybe a poor person's well-being in the here and now really is more valuable than the benefits of baptism to a soul in the spirit world, but we have to recognize we are making that judgment. We are deciding that one person is more worthy of our help than another. I believe that each of us must make this choice, and that we shouldn't turn our choice over to anyone else, but I do not imagine that the choice is as trivial as those who only believe in this life would make it.

How much do temple patrons give in money and service to the social needs of others? How does this compare with other groups, in and out of the LDS church? How about less tangible benefits to individual well-being? What assumptions are we making about the relative values of these things?

Religious and temple service obviously have benefits in volunteer hours for those involved in them. Maybe they aren't perfectly optimized benefits, but have we weighed the societal benefits provided by the moral teachings of Latter-day Saints? That's really hard to do, and I know many who have concluded the benefits aren't worth the costs or the harms, but it's easy to criticize, and really hard to make a concrete proposal that is provably better.

Do we really believe that LDS leaders are making qualitatively wrong choices about how to allocate the resources of this church? It's quite different to claim that they should tweak things to do incrementally better than to say that they should completely revamp their goals. Are we making specific, measurable, achievable suggestions for improvement?

I don't mean these questions purely rhetorically. I'm sure some of you have answers to these that are different from mine, and that you have pretty clear answers to some of them. But there are a lot of assumptions here, and it's important we face up to them.

I'd like to end with a couple of quotes. First from my Mom:
The LDS concept of "giving to the poor" seems to me different from what society generally has in mind. Our view spans pre-earth and post-earth existence. The goal is more than donating: it is to assist individuals in helping themselves in that eternal setting. We are a network. We have much to learn to mature as gods. What would you do to help your children learn attitudes and skills necessary for that maturation process?
After reading Paul's post, specifically because he asks what we think God would have us do, I had a thought like this somewhat blunt one my Dad shared:
For people who don't believe in the afterlife, the actuality of work for the dead, or the fact that the temple is the House of the Lord, and therefore worthy of our most serious and careful work, they, like Judas Iscariot who objected to the money spent on the balm with which Jesus was anointed, think that the money is best spent on taking care of the poor. This we ought to do, and not omit the other. [emphasis added]
We have different perspectives, and if we have humility in the things we do and don't know, we will recognize that others can choose differently than we do and still be rational and good people. So one more quote from my Mom:
Perhaps we can choose to describe [the process of increasing the good we do as members of the LDS church] as Exploration together, critics and complacents. Since the organization won’t debate, why try to engage it (them/[ourselves])? If we are sincere in our efforts to effect change, we should be smart and honest. If it sticks in our craw that the church doesn’t do it our way, we should be honest about that. Rancor doesn’t win friends. The best change happens when we link arms and walk forward. Getting people to link arms is tricky. It happens best when we’re feeling friendly.
I think the questions of how we use our time, talents, and all that the Lord has given us are intensely hard questions to answer. I think they are extremely important questions to ask. If you imagine the answers are easy, or easier than I think they are as regards LDS church finances, it's possible we don't live in the same world. It's likely we don't live in the same worldview. But as I said at the end of last post, can we build Zion, together? Can we be authentically Mormon and live all the things that will lead to the immortality and eternal life of humankind? I'd like to join with anyone trying to get there, and I hope you'll take me along.

The Dead and the Living

A response to criticisms of LDS church finances as regards temple work, proselyting missionary work, and care for the poor

I've heard and read criticisms of LDS church finances since I first started reading any materials beyond the Sunday School and Missionary approved lists. I never felt able to take the criticisms very seriously. They typically implied some level of greed or misconduct among the general authorities who decide on the administration of the funds, and I completely fail to see the evidence for such insinuations or accusations. But recently I read a critical blog post that moved me.

On the Rational Faiths blog, Paul Barker wrote compassionately about the good we, as a church, could do if we diverted resources from temple work and proselyting missionary work to care for the poor and the needy. Paul's voice represents many scattered Latter-day Saints who love the LDS church and want it to become an even better, more compassionate institution. His feelings reflect one reason some Latter-day Saints give for leaving the LDS church. I felt, as often happens to me, very inadequate in how little I give to the millions in extreme need. I felt again the discomfort of my comfortable life, and how much more I could do if I would live more simply and frugally. And I really felt that my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, could do more if it changed its priorities from possibly ineffective and unnecessary aspects of temple work and proselyting to supporting projects designed to bless and save the poor of this world. The changes wouldn't obviously even hurt proselyting or temple work. We could just be less extravagant in those efforts.

With Paul I hope, and ask, that the LDS church will once again be open with its finances and that it will make more financial decisions openly. I hope it will give more financial power and discretion to women. But there was one sentiment expressed by Paul that particularly troubled me. He felt that he could not justify the expensive building of temples when there are so many poor in the world that could have their lives changed drastically with just a small portion of the money that goes toward temple building. I took his question seriously, and asked myself if I could justify it. I want to offer the fruits of my reflection in the hopes that they might be helpful to compassionate people, like Paul, who wish we did more as a church.

First, in offering a this-world-only justification, I want to tell a story of service. It might seem a bit like a "story problem" to some of you, but if it helps anyone love statistics and math more, I'll view that as a positive side effect (one of my personal articles of faith is that the world would be a better place if more people had more practice at quantitative reasoning). In a second post, I want to offer other justifications shared with me by my believing parents, and some thoughts inspired by their feedback.

This topic will be treated in two posts. Both posts are aimed at an audience who values membership in the LDS church. The first addresses the topic of LDS church finances--particularly as regards helping the poor--from a pragmatic, this-life-only perspective. The second draws heavily from comments solicited from my parents and a couple of friends, and examines many assumptions made, either explicitly or implicitly, by those of us who criticize LDS church finances. I believe the things I have written in both, and accept full responsibility for my words, although I'll happily give credit for anything good I write to the individuals who offered me their thoughts.

Our story of service

Mormons spend a lot of time at church. In the United States, "Active Mormons", as we call those who attend church regularly, spend about 35 hours a month volunteering for stuff, and over half of it (57%) is for religious purposes in the church. That's 242 hours annually from 95% of Latter-day Saints spent on religious activities that have no tangible benefit to society. That leaves only 187 hours a year for "church-affiliated volunteering to meet the social needs of members, church-affiliated volunteering to meet the social needs of people in the community regardless of LDS membership, and volunteering outside the church to assist people in the community." Imagine the social good they could do if they got rid of all the hours spent proselyting, teaching boring lessons, giving interviews, taking an hour to make 5 minute decisions on what needs to happen next sacrament meeting or next ward party, going to the temple to baptize dead people that could do it themselves after the resurrection, and visiting people in their homes to exchange pleasantries and lessons they could read themselves, that they've heard before, and that their kids will be itching to run out on.

Let's try a thought experiment. Let's get rid of most of the meetings, interviews, weekly activities, temple work, lessons for Home and Visiting Teaching, and other stuff that doesn't meet social needs--either in or out of the church. Seems like we'd be a lot more like the average American, and have loads of time freed up to fill more social needs of people in our communities. We'd have the 15 hours a month we already spend on people's social needs, plus most of an extra 20 hours a month. And America is one of the most volunteer oriented countries in the world, I've heard. Americans certainly do a lot more that the Italians I met. It wasn't part of Italian culture. I even heard people say things like, if I did that for free it would be taking somebody's job away. So we Latter-day Saints could be like Super Americans, volunteering so much more than the average . . . wait for it . . . four point something hours a month to anything at all! Oops. We are already Super Americans.

My Inductive Leap

I'm going to bring up a subject I don't know much about, although I'd wondered about this before in vague ways. At the Mormon Transhumanist Association 2013 Conference, Joseph West spoke about authenticity and resource mobilization. He made what seemed an uncontroversial claim, that to mobilize vast resources a movement must give its members a sense of authenticity. If the LDS church is going to ask me for so much of my time and money, I have to feel like I am authentically Mormon and that being Mormon has authentic value.

I don't know exactly how this works out with finances in the LDS context. The same study I cited on volunteer hours found that the average U.S. Latter-day Saint donates $1,821 annually to social needs of others, partly through the church and partly not. I don't know how this compares to the average American (they didn't say, and I haven't searched), and it doesn't include tithing (as best I can tell). Maybe we could do a lot more for the poor, financially, if we spent more of our tithing money on the poor and less on proselyting and temples. That is a real possibility, but think with me a little longer.


In second semester calculus classes you have to solve optimization problems. You have multiple variables, and you want to maximize your output. If you increase variable X, say the percentage of money that goes to social needs, you give more and more to the poor. But you have another important variable Y, say the number of people that are giving some percentage to the poor. If you increase X but it causes Y to decrease a lot, then you end up giving less to the poor. In an organization as complex as the LDS church, there are myriad variables and many goals competing for resources. Let's go back to the question of giving our time. It would be great if we spent less time on inefficient religious activities and more on social needs of people in and out of our communities. But it is important to remember that with all the religious service we require of active members, the LDS church is somehow getting us to give nearly four times as much service to social needs as the average U.S. citizen gives. To the critics of LDS finances, I have a challenge--how do you propose we might increase our total financial giving to the poor and the needy while maintaining the sense of authenticity that allows for the mobilization of vast resources? The sense of authenticity created through missionary work, temples, and the financial sacrifice required by tithing?

Of course, you can't answer the question. I wish you could, and hope our books will open up soon so we all can answer it better (if still not fully, since the number of variables is likely too great). I do understand the criticism about the billions spent on temples and a mall, but maybe these are variables that maximize spending for the poor. Maybe downtown Salt Lake City and Temples are things that give Mormonism authenticity. Maybe without them there wouldn't be so many people giving as much, or as little, as we do to the poor.

Closing Thoughts

I guess that sounds like a hand-waving defense of the status quo. It is a recognition of my own limitations of knowledge and judgment. I like to think of it as hope and trust in the goodness and wisdom of God and my church leaders, and also as a starting point for an alternative critical approach. I would like to see changes in church finances. I think all Latter-day Saints would like to do more for the poor. Some aren't willing to do it at the expense of the work for the dead. They really care about the billions of dead that Mormonism promises to bless. Others are ready to walk away from the LDS church because we don't do more for the poor. Here's the question I hope we can answer: How can we make the fourth mission of the church a bigger part of our LDS identity? How can we make caring for the poor and the needy a bigger part of what it means to be authentically Mormon? The church won't change overnight, but maybe we can figure out how to shape what it means to be Mormon?

I looked at some of the details of the study referenced in the news article at the top. There are a couple of things we could do better. We ask our most educated members to do a lot of purely religious service. Maybe if you are one of those members, you need to set limits. You need to say, yes, I will teach this class, but I will only spend this much time preparing, because I'm trying to figure out how to serve the poor and needy more. I'm not very good at it, yet, but I need time and space to figure it out, so I'm not going to put in much time on this calling. If you feel you need to call someone else, or to call someone to share the load with me, I will understand.

I'll make a personal confession. I loved my mission, and I love the temple, but I haven't donated to those funds in 10 years. When I give extra, it goes to fast offerings, the perpetual education fund, and the humanitarian aid fund. I won't cut back on my tithing (I've offered to let my wife choose what to do with her half, separately--we do this with non-tithing donations), but I'm going to give the money I have stewardship and discretion over to what I value most (I don't really consider tithing as mine, so I'm trusting the leaders on this).

An Invitation

I'd like to make an invitation: to those like me who claim Mormonism as our authentic home, let's change the emphasis. Let's give the fourth mission of the church the attention and support it deserves. Let's give more airtime to the teachings of Brigham Young when he says we have to save people temporally if we want to save them spiritually. Let's talk about building Zion, with no rich and no poor among us, every chance we can. Maybe let's start a new holiday when we celebrate this mission? I never followed through on celebrating Consecration Day like a few of us on a Facebook post talked about, but maybe we could try again? Anyone interested?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How the Universe Got Its Spots--Father's Day Edition

Our Father, by whose name all fatherhood is known,
Who dost in love proclaim each family thine own,

Bless thou all parents, guarding well,

With constant love as sentinel,

The homes in which thy people dwell. (Hymn 296)
I've heard the certainty, and often the scorn, with which religious people like myself are criticized at times. Our God is simply an anthropomorphic being that can't possibly be real. He is just exactly what we want to justify and explain our choices, or the inevitable result of our communal brain chemistry. All this is perfectly clear from the history, anthropology, and psychology of religion, and there really is no other reasonable possibility. I've heard it, and I still think there is something greater. So I say:

I do not believe in an Anthropomorphic God. I believe there are aspects of God that are greater than I can imagine, even when I apply to him vague and grandiose superlatives like infinite and eternal. But I don't believe in a God who is unknowable.

I believe in Theomorphic Humans. All fatherhood partakes of a tiny piece of Godhood, and as we guard and guide our children with constant love, we honor the seed of God within us. We realize a tiny piece of our potential, and we feel for our children and our parents before us a taste of the love that binds our Father and Mother in Heaven to us.

So as I seek to know and understand the Gods that are before me, I feel a little like Janna Levin as she seeks to understand the universe of which she is a part:
[It] might seem limited, imposing our human perception to try to deduce the grandest cosmic code. But we are the product of this universe and I think it can be argued that the entire cosmic code is imprinted in us. Just as our genes carry the memory of our biological ancestors, our logic carries the memory of our cosmological ancestry. We are not just imposing human-centric notions on a cosmos independent of us. We are progeny of this cosmos and our ability to understand it is an inheritance. pp. 48-49 How the Universe Got Its Spots

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How the Universe Got Its Spots, Part 1

I heard a story on The Moth podcast by Janna Levin. (I don't link directly to it, because it will be gone from their archives, soon.) It made me realize that at least one cosmologist shares some of my discomfort with the idea of living in an infinite universe with infinitely many exact copies of myself. Of course, it is possible this is true. We can't prove it one way or another, yet, but Dr. Levin said, mostly as a structural element to her story, that the universe might be finite. I got curious, and was able to check out one of her books from my local library system. How the Universe Got Its Spots is half an introductory course in cosmology--definitely for the layperson (I'd learned most of the stuff in a modern physics class, already)--and half diary. It is liberally sprinkled with Janna's (I can't decide how to refer to her, since the book makes you feel like first name is appropriate, but I've never met her) philosophical musings about what different universes would mean for our existence. I've excerpted a number of passages that speak to my own aesthetic prejudices about the universe.

Before I begin this long series of quotes and comments, I need to make a distinction. When Janna talks about the universe, she is referring, usually, to the contiguous (connected) domain of spacetime that arose from the Big Bang that eventually made us. She is not discussing whatever might be "outside" our universe, or whatever realities might not be connected to our spacetime (at least not in ways we yet understand or observe--there is always that caveat with science). I guess now I'll just start . . .
The universe had a beginning. There was once nothing and now there is something. What sways me even more, if an ultimate theory of everything is found, a theory beyond Einstein's, then gravity and matter and energy are all ultimately different expressions of the same thing. We're all intrinsically of the same substance. The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space, and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.  p. 4
In some sense, the Big Bang really was a beginning of our universe from nothing. There were none of the elements that we are used to thinking of as making up our bodies. There weren't even the subatomic particles that quantum mechanics describes. The law of conservation of matter doesn't obviously apply at this singularity in any way we are used to thinking about it. I remember reading a speech where Joseph Smith picks up a ring and uses it to illustrate his point that anything with a beginning must have an end, so creation ex nihilo is an absurdity if we think we are going to live forever. I wholeheartedly agree with Joseph on this. But it looks like we were created (our bodies as we know them) from "stuff" that didn't exist before about 14 billion years ago. We had a beginning, and it looks like we will have an end if our matter is all we are. This would have seemed like a problem to me, in the past, but now it actually offers hope of solving some problems for me. But that's getting ahead of Ms. Levin's story arc.
Don't get me wrong, I don't believe that math and nature respond to democracy. Just because very clever people have rejected the role of the infinite, their collective opinions, however weighty, won't persuade mother nature to alter her ways. Nature is never wrong. Still, I don't believe in the physically infinite.
Where in the hierarchy of infinity would an infinite universe lie? An infinite universe can host an infinite amount of stuff and an infinite number of events. An infinite number of planets. An infinite number of people on those planets. Surely there must be another planet so very nearly like the earth as to be indistinguishable, in fact an infinite number of them, each with a variety of inhabitants, an infinite number of which must be infinitely close to this set of inhabitants. Another you, another me. Or there'd be another you out there with a slightly different life and a different set of siblings, parents, offspring. This is hard to believe. Is it arrogance or logic that makes me believe this is wrong? There's just one me, one you. The universe cannot be infinite.
Of course, my faith in nature and it's laws is deeper than my need for uniqueness. If I truly believed there was no way for the laws of physics to be consistent with a finite universe, I might be swayed. But there are ways, simple ways, for the laws of physics to be consistent with a finite universe. p. 14
There's the first problem fixed. I seem stuck on this idea that for my life to have the kind of meaning I want, I need to be unique, and it looks like that isn't a problem if the universe is finite. Arrogance? Probably of some kind, but maybe physics will prove my arrogance justified. At least my prejudices don't obviously violate physical laws. But being unique only solves problem with the universe I want to give meaning to my life. Janna brings up the second a few pages later:
There is an unresolvable philosophical debate that rears its ugly head on the impossibility of free will in a life dominated by determinism. The distilled and simplified argument goes something like this: if every atom in our bodies merely follows a mechanical trajectory precisely determined by the laws of physics then we have no volition. Our choices are predetermined and we merely play out the inevitable effect of all those earlier causes.
A deterministic universe is like a movie where the end is already recorded. We don't know the ending, so we have the impression that it's unfolding in real time and a sense of spontaneity, but the end is already written, already determined. Maybe nature has restricted our perception in this way to protect us from the completely bleak state of affairs of knowing the ending, but it's an illusion all the same.
People used to try to hijack quantum mechanics and its inherent mystery to cast a cloud around determinism, in the hopes that free will could survive modern physics. But that never worked very well. Since when does random chance equal free will? The only salvation for volition is a soul and faith and you're not allowed to ask me about that. p. 21
You are allowed to ask me about faith and souls, but that's not our topic, here. What's notable to me is that Janna also thinks the debate about free will is unresolvable. I've heard people talk about free will and determinism, and I've corrected a number of misconceptions I've had. I've spent several weeks (or months) browsing and mulling over articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy about compatibilism, incompatibilism, free will, and the like. I've tried (and partly succeeded) to make sense of all of the logical formalisms, and it really looks to me like the only way to ultimately answer the question of free will is to make a few unprovable assumptions and go from there. That isn't to say that I think all possible sets of assumptions are useful or true. Some sets of assumptions clearly contradict observable data, so the possibilities aren't endless. But among the various possible assumptions, one seems to dominate modern philosophy--determinism.

I currently believe in some type of deterministically constrained (probabilistic) randomness, because it seems to me that that is what we live with. Most objects move deterministically according to Newton's laws even down to atomic motions, but some small part of reality (double meaning intended) really is fundamentally random. I don't have any idea where free will comes into play. I've read and listened to accounts of lots of psychology that makes it pretty clear we aren't as free to choose as we typically assume--probably a lot less free than we usually think. I know all this, and accept it at some level. I think we should use this knowledge to improve our lives. But in saying that I hang on to some notion of original agency (I made a choice, and I could have done otherwise--really, not just theoretically). The problem with an infinite universe is, I can't see any way for me to hang on to the sense of agency I want. I'm not sure even faith and a soul can save my agency. Here's the problem--

How can I believe in my own unique agency if I'm not unique? Our universe appears to be made of the same few particles interacting with the same few forces everywhere. So if it is infinite, the mechanical motions of these particles are going to reproduce me making every possible choice available to me infinitely many times. It is going to happen. Even without invoking the Many Worlds Hypothesis that I don't really understand, I, or some being indistinguishable from me, am going to make every "choice" available to me. I don't see how that is really choosing--at least not in any sense that I'm willing to call free will. Maybe free will is just a (molecular and biological) computer program in my body taking in the various inputs and deciding what output is best for me as best it can. Maybe that is the only definition that makes sense. But maybe, if the universe is finite and I am unique, there is still hope for my soul.

. . . long enough for today. This looks like a multi part review, after all.