Wednesday, December 31, 2014


I recently did some of the tests on They ask you a number of questions to get at how much you care about certain foundational moral values: Harm, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity. On the "Moral Foundations Questionnaire" I came out very close to the average among political liberals for caring about not causing harm, for valuing fairness, and for not believing authority has inherent value. I was in between the conservative and liberal averages on valuing loyalty, and I seem to really dislike things I find disgusting--even though I don't very actively seek to constrain society (or my friends) to my particular standard of purity on the things asked about in the questions. These numbers were fairly predictable to me, except for how much I seem to value purity (really more a weak stomach when it comes to things I find disgusting). But there was a second, shorter questionnaire that just asked you outright to rate how much you care about different moral values relative to other people. To judge by my self-reporting on "What is your moral decision type?, one would imagine that I care less about moral values than the average person--let alone people with truly strong moral sensitivities. However, I don't think people who know me would evaluate me as a weakly moral, apathetic, or middle of the road person. So what's going on?

It's a simple case of awareness of personal bias. I'm not imagining, here, that I can correct for my personal bias, but in answering the "moral decision type" questions, knowing that somebody has to be average and that few people are at the extremes, I tried to think of the group of people I really know and regularly associate with. In most cases, I figured my moral sensibilities were average or just barely one side of average. Looking at the aggregate results, most people don't feel that way. Once again, most people rate themselves as significantly above or below average, depending on the trait and whether they feel above or below is admirable or not. Consequently, my self evaluation placed me as much more "average" than the average self-evaluation, and closer to my values from the "Moral Foundations Questionnaire" than the average self-evaluation. But I didn't get all that close.

Another test I did was the "Implicit Happiness" test. I rated my life as fairly satisfying, and as having met many of my hopes and aspirations. This placed me noticeably above the average self-evaluation for life satisfaction, but I know that I feel sad and depressed quite a lot. After taking the Implicit Happiness test, it showed me as noticeably below average on personal happiness. Again, I wasn't surprised. My unhappiness is in the way my brain and body work, not in an unfulfilling life. Maybe I'll be able to modify the brain chemistry with time and tools like meditation, but I haven't succeeded yet.

I tell these stories just as a personal reminder of how poor we are at statistical evaluations. Sometimes we get it about right, sometimes we are way off, and sometimes we aren't asking the right questions. That brings me to my most recent difficulty with evaluations. I've started writing letters of recommendation for students. It is clear to me that average recommendations don't get people into programs, even if an average applicant (the poor applicants have typically been weeded or self-selected out) is amply deserving of entrance, and likely to do very well. I also want to save room at the top for recommending the occasional, truly exceptional student. So I get these questionnaires, and they ask me to rank students in the top 5%, next 10%, next 20%, etc. on various attributes. It's a terrible method, but there may not be a better one. Top X% among what group? All students at my school? All biology majors? Biology majors that are likely to apply for the program? All human beings? So my emotions tell me, this student is a bit above average for my classes. He or she is determined, consistent, conscientious, and will make a good doctor, pharmacist, dentist, or whatever if he or she receives the proper training. I have no doubt I would prefer my student in these positions over some professionals I have met in the same field, or at least not less. So I inflate the numbers a little. I sit here wishing all of us recommenders had better developed statistical intuition, because I feel like I'm bending the truth, but the reality is, I'm making what I know to be an approximately accurate adjustment for the poor statistical intuition of the majority of recommenders. I'm not claiming more than I can justify. I'm not sending unprepared students places they don't belong, but I am using statistical intuition to ignore statistics and acknowledge the human biases of recommenders and evaluators. If my student has the same GPA and other quantifiables as another, I'm not going to doom his or her application by giving an above average rating when I can feel OK about an excellent. I won't call him "outstanding" or her "top of the class" if they aren't, but I won't hold back on honest praise.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Richness of the Strait and Narrow

My last post was supposed to be a one paragraph introduction to this idea: The exaltation of the Gods depends on allowing us--Gods in embryo--to travel as many paths to Godhood as possible.

This conclusion follows closely the belief that Gods evolved. Evolutionary success depends on maximizing reproductive rates. If the universe is as complex as required for Gods to be loving, faithful, trusting, creative beings, then it is unlikely that there is a single, optimal path to godhood. Just as there isn't a single way to become a healthy, productive adult, a single path to godhood is absurd. Again, I'm not denying some commonalities, but such commonalities will be limited to the bare essentials of productive and healthy godhood. Here's why.

There are, as of yet, undiscovered ways for Gods to increase their reproductive rates. Gods are never going to escape from an evolving universe, especially since they are in part driving that evolution. This means that, even if some Gods were able to figure out the single, optimal way to create more Gods at a particular point in time, the universe will change and new solutions to the problem of reproduction will become more effective. Without changing to match the universe, the Gods will lose ground in the reproductive race. So to maximize reproductive potential, Gods must explore as much of the reproductive possibility space as they can. This means empowering individuals to take different paths. Thus, preparing us for that future where we each must boldly take the best path we can find, without anyone having been there before to tell us how it will turn out, requires teaching us that confidence as soon as possible.

This means our Mormon God is in the business of doing only enough to keep humanity headed in the right direction while allowing the maximum amount of variation and freedom. As a loving God He's got a plan to pick up the broken pieces along the way, but He can't prevent even some intensely awful, temporary evil without losing reproductive fitness. So in one more way, atonement does not require making us the same, but bringing us to unity in a society of ever increasing diversity.

This raises the question, how can we have a society without any manner of "-ites" with the amount of diversity required in a successful community of Gods? One answer might be, we must cease defining different as other. We have to own variety.

So here is the sequence of questions for us Mormons to debate:
  1. Did Gods evolve? I say yes. If you say no, what kind of universe do you believe in? Is it really consistent with other tenets of Mormonism you believe in?
  2. Is the universe (or multiverse, or sum of what was, is, and will be) complex or simple relative to the knowledge of the Gods? Again, I say yes. If you doubt this supremely complex universe, do your other beliefs about God really support a belief in a simple universe?
  3. Does diversity contribute to the evolutionary fitness of the Gods? Yes, too. This seems to me unavoidable if you answer yes to the first two, but maybe it isn't. I could be missing something.
Go ahead and think about these for as long as you need. There are other answers out there, but if you are with me to here, there is no way around the need to become one in diversity. While diversity is not simply a good for its own sake--most variations either have no bearing on godhood or lead away from it--I think we have a long way to go in embracing the varieties of goodness that God likely recognizes as paths to exaltation. My suspicion is that the "strait and narrow" is not the "same and narrow-minded", but is as rich as all human goodness.

The Strait and Narrow Path to Godhood

I have imagined for myself a universe where Nature rules, but Gods have evolved with such understanding, power, and unity that they shape nature, fostering generations of new Gods and inviting all that is to join their great song of creation. Out of chaos arose Great Ones who call forth order of unimaginable complexity and beauty. It is a beautiful picture, to me, with one little problem--we can only glimpse a tiny piece of this grandeur. Maybe we are already Gods, like my three little boys are already humans, but we clearly fall short of comprehending, or even seeing, the vast expanses of knowledge that are likely so commonplace to our parents that they hardly even notice the details anymore. We may be co-participants in creation with God, but mostly unconsciously simply because we are growing up. The things we consciously create are like making our spaceships and castles out of Lego blocks. Such observations beg the question, if we are so immature, what does our path to Godhood look like? In creating an image for myself of a God who evolved from chaos (although I would argue this is the God Joseph Smith came to understand, if only in part, later in his life. After all, the Theory of Evolution wouldn't be presented for another two decades), am I throwing away the scriptures that teach us that strait is the way and narrow is the gate that leads to eternal life, and few there be that enter? Let's explore the question together. I'll start, and you help me flesh it out.

A couple of things worth remembering. We are in a universe (or multiverse, or cosmos, or reality) so vast and varied that Gods can be infinite and eternal and still not comprehend the scope of it. I could be wrong on this, but the other options are either deterministic, guarantee our extinction, or make God a being wholly other, taking away humanity's full kinship with deity. Complete determinism is uninteresting, our extinction is fatalistic, and I reject (as do most Mormon prophets) a separation from God in type. So if you are with me on these three points, I invite you to accept these limited and possibly infinite Gods or work with me until you understand that these really are the Gods of Mormonism. At this point we can ask, what does it take to become one of (or part of?) these Gods?

I answered this question in part, previously. We must become radically compassionate. There can be no will left among us to destroy one another. We must get to the point where every one of us is seeking to ennoble all the Gods to the extent of our abilities. There is a glimpse of this order in Doctrine and Covenants 76, where even those in the telestial glory eventually submit and becomes servants of God. Doing what? Bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of humanity, presumably.

We must become creators. Without seeking to bring forth additional Gods, we may not cease to be (I'm not sure about this), but we will cease to be numerically significant in the cosmos. And I'm not sure beings who lack the desire to create could achieve eternal life. Life is not a static state. It is a continually adjusting, dynamic near-equilibrium. This is true of all life we know and of the universe that sustains it. We can imagine entirely different sets of laws, but it is difficult to imagine laws responsible for dynamic and eternal beings like our Gods are not subject to and sustained by laws at least analogous to our laws of thermodynamics.

We must have faith. We must have faith in what we can become, but we must also have faith in the rest of humanity. We can't achieve Godhood alone. As has been repeatedly taught in Mormonism, we cannot be saved by ourselves. We need our families. We need our ancestors. We need our communities. Gods trust one another not to destroy each other. They arrive at that trust through trials, but it is still something that they must give. In a cosmos founded on agency, we can only know the future of our fellow agents on trust. We must trust their yet unmade decisions, and we must even empower those decisions. We must give each other the power to create, and with it the power to destroy. We must be leaders and enablers, not managers and enforcers.

Thus far Evolution lays out quite a strict path. Just look at your own life, setting aside other people's choices, and ask how easy it is to be as compassionate, creative, trusting, and empowering as is required for Godhood? If this isn't a strait way, I'd be hard pressed to find one harder. But how many paths can arrive at this goal? We've seen time and again that Evolution often provides multiple, independent solutions to the same problem. How could this path be compatible with the requirements of LDS priesthood ordinances for salvation? This is where I suspect many Latter-day Saints will stick at these evolved Gods (if they've managed to get past the sticking point in my second paragraph). This is either a hard question or an easy question, and I'm not sure which. I'll venture some thoughts without many answers.

The path I've laid out matches well with the great commandments--love God and love your neighbor as yourself. It even provides evolutionary reasons for these being the greatest commandments. It matches well with the admonition that not all who say Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of God. It provides evolutionary motivation for the requirements of community and why salvation must be communal. It explains why Christ had to Atone for all humanity, and why each of us must fully partake of this at-one-ment, in a way that is practical and natural and not simply an abstract notion of justice. But it doesn't explain why someone needs to be dunked under water by another who pronounces some claim to divine authority. In fact, at first glance it may make sacred ordinances like baptism appear to be the silly and pretentious acts implied by my last words. Where does that leave me? It leaves me wondering.

I have experienced the power of priesthood ordinances. I believe my life is richer and I am a better person because of them. I think it's easy to argue for the value of ritual and covenant. They have great power to strengthen individuals and communities. As tools for bringing about great good or great harm they are unmatched in the history of humanity. I have found them to do much good in the LDS church as expressed by the lives of members who strive to keep them.

I long ago accepted that God sees more than I. Maybe God sees a reason that this set of particular LDS ordinances, performed in approximately a certain way (minor variation is allowed), by a certain set of priests, is essential. I can accept this based on my personal experiences with God. It could be necessary. I can't give a reason why, though. I can share other people's testimonies. I can cite scripture. I can even share my blessed experiences with priesthood power. I can intellectually assent to the requirement because of the LDS doctrine that all who desire--past, present, and future--may receive these ordinances. But I can't give a reason. I can say I trust God to have a reason for the mysteries, but I will not compel another to act on that trust. So evolution leaves me a universalist. Any solution that makes you into a God-like being--loving, creative, faithful, empowering, atoning--is sufficient. It is likely there are numberless solutions to this problem. Think about how each life is different, even among faithful LDSs, and we say of course. But there must be some things in common among the exalted. Evolution doesn't explain how one particular set of ordinances can be among those, at least not at this level of exploration.

So do I throw away the prophetic claims of essential ordinances and just take them as valuable but non-essential, ritual acts? Do I say, it's fine for the community to have this myth, but it's only in their imaginations? By now we know that I don't go to the other black and white extreme of rejecting the real power of ordinances and priesthood, but that is a predictable position some would take from my evolutionary view of Gods. For now, I can defend the value of ritual and covenant on scholarly grounds. I can trust my personal experience of priesthood ordinances and how they connect me to something mystical--something greater. Evolution does tell me that the path is strait and the gate is narrow, and it's likely that many won't make it in. Evolution even confirms the greatest requirements for entering into that gate. But the numbers of ways to walk the path are as varied as the people who follow it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Elder Packer and Me

Elder Packer probably wouldn't be too surprised to learn that I have a relationship with him, despite our never having met. It's the price of being a public figure, I suppose. I know we are related, somehow, through my mom's mom, who was a Packer, and I remember being told that when I was young. I'm not going to try to find any references to describe my relationship with Elder Packer, so I might get some facts wrong, but I feel like writing about our history together. The influence he has had on my life is a very complex thing, for me. Here's what I can remember.

I remember Elder Packer teaching that we could turn our thoughts from bad things by humming a hymn. I memorized a lot of hymns as I tried to stop masturbating. I've since learned that this is a pretty bad way to change compulsive behaviors, and can even make it so that hymns will trigger those compulsive behaviors. Thankfully, for me, the hymns have enough other meanings in my life that they don't trigger my compulsions. I love singing and thinking about the hymns Elder Packer inspired me to memorize. It's a blessing in my life to sing and worship in that way both publicly and privately.

I remember reading Elder Packer's words saying why evolution is a false theory. I remember reading them, and resonating with his testimony that he knew God was our creator because he felt the beauty of that truth. I feel the beauty of that truth, too. But I also can taste the goodness of the theory of evolution. I remember Elder Packer's words explaining how we can taste salt and know it is real without having words or reasons to prove the reality of that taste. I gained a trust for my experiences with the Holy Ghost that led me to do good. My life has been richer because of that. I also was opened up to the idea that there are true things that can't be proven scientifically but can nonetheless be experienced and be true and real. This is an idea that further study has only reinforced. There are limits to both logic and experiment that prevent them from fully capturing our lived experiences.

But the door was also opened to see how hard it is to ask God the right questions and understand and apply the answers correctly. You see, Elder Packer received a testimony that God was our creator, but he never asked for a testimony regarding the theory of evolution. Consequently, he followed a faulty chain of logic to the conclusion of evolution's falsehood. Yet he held the belief with great surety. So at the same time Elder Packer gave me a window into a spiritual way of obtaining knowledge, he showed me the pitfalls that lie on that road. He also showed me that a person can change. From his talks in the 1970's where his knowledge was sure that evolution was false, that God disapproved of it, and that it was destroying faith, to his more recent, brief statements which simply say he does not believe in it.

I learned another thing as a result of Elder Packer's teachings on having worthy thoughts and receiving revelation. I was almost never worthy, by the standards I imagined Elder Packer held, to receive revelation for a period of many years. Yet I discovered that God was willing to speak to me at times, anyway. So Elder Packer began my journey to a new understanding of worthiness, to the point that now I ask the question if God cares more about worthiness when He gives revelation, or if He cares more about willingness. None of us are worthy, if perfection and sinlessness are required. But perhaps all of us are worthy of revelation, simply by virtue of being God's children. I can't imagine not talking to my child simply because he did something wrong--even willfully. Instead, it makes much more sense to me that God speaks to us according to our willingness. Am I willing to listen? Am I willing to act once God has given me direction? Will I hear the answer? Will I follow?

As I've watched him over the years, I truly believe Elder Packer has answered those questions with a yes. He has shaped his life to listen and follow and act as best he can. He is willing. Does Elder Packer know how to ask the best questions? His views on evolution told me the answer was no, many years ago. Does he do OK? I think so. Do I like everything he does? That's a silly question. But Elder Packer has never claimed genius or perfection. He shared his blessing with us when I was a missionary. I was moved. He shares his poems and his woodcarvings in General Conference and church magazines. Is he a great poet? You can judge, but I haven't put them up on my walls. Is he a great woodcarver? His stuff looks nice, but I wouldn't put it in art museums. But he shares. He writes the poems. He carves. He shares his life with us. It's not every detail. It is his best self. But I find it quite brave to show your decidedly amateur self to the world and say, this is what I have to offer. It's my best, and I think it's valuable--even if I'm not a poet laureate. Especially if he's the introvert I've heard suggested.

I guess, all things told, that I love Elder Packer. I sometimes skip his talks as I work through General Conference, and I'll flatly state that he's got certain ideas wrong, but I feel kinship with him. I think we really must be related, and I'd hate to turn my back on family.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Defending the Family

Meridian Magazine ( is starting a column inviting scholarly discussion of significant cultural and moral topics. More explicitly:
Meridian EXPAND will be anxiously engaged in the good cause of defending core teachings of the Church concerning morality and the family, even though, indeed precisely because, these teachings are incompatible, not with critical thinking, but with an ideology that is increasingly ascendant among intellectuals, media elites and academics.
I hope that any such defense of the family will acknowledge and wrestle with various facts I encountered as I sought to give reasons for denying same sex couples the privilege of legal recognition of their marriages. If it does so, this is likely to be a valuable discussion.

The first took me the longest to accept, but has been acknowledged publicly by the LDS church:
  • Sexual orientation is not a choice ( While the genetic and environmental factors that determine sexual orientation are only partially understood, there is overwhelming evidence that it is nearly completely determined before a child is even born.
  • Children raised by same-sex couples are no more or less likely to be gay than those raised by different-sex couples.
Does my defense of family account for this fact, that God made these people this way?

The second set of facts has to do with the benefits and costs to society of same sex parents. I share the commonly held LDS view that the primary purpose for a society to recognize and support marriages is to provide stable environments for raising children as contributing members of society. My defense of family thus needs to account for the following measured facts:
Does my defense of family account for the observation that the world is as good or better for numbers of children than it would be if (or was when) their parents were not legally recognized as a family?

A third observation is that most people seeking civilly recognized same-sex marriage do not see themselves as undermining family, or as moral relativists:
  • Many of those seeking same-sex marriage are seeking the social commitment of marriage, not simply a set of legal benefits. They perceive themselves as advocates of the family, and for responsible, committed parenting.
Does my defense of family account for these proponents of same-sex marriage who view themselves as champions of families, desiring to raise children in the most loving and stable way they can?

I hope that these facts are given serious weight, and that discussion is not based principally upon arguments from authority and prophetic pronouncement. The ideologies of moral relativism and radical freedom have never had very great interest for me, as a biochemist. Opinion and authority play roles in shaping chemical theory, since even chemistry is a human enterprise, but on the whole opinion and authority are severely constrained by measurable fact. I have listed here a few of the readily discoverable, measured facts regarding same-sex marriage and family. I believe that these facts, and not frequently circular or unanswerable debates regarding the merits of various ideologies, will be at the very heart of any fruitful defense of marriage. Any defense that does not take these facts very seriously will fail to reach the hearts of many of the young, intellectually engaged Latter-day Saints whom Brother Hancock and Meridian Magazine are hoping to reach out to.

Now we wait for the fruits to be shown.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Time Is Real--Part IV

I reserved an entire post for the epilogue. Smolin saves his epilogue to argue the importance of recognizing the reality of time in all our moral philosophy. I love it. I'm sure that by wandering away from physics and cosmology, Smolin has left his area of expertise and is more open to question, but I like to think his training and inclination in careful, quantitative thought has prepared him to make some of these grand claims in well reasoned ways. I like to think it at least in part because so much of what he says resonates with me. So, with the rhetoric or science and reason, we try to steer our fellow humans toward the outcomes we desire in the depths of our souls. After saying, check out the book and read the epilogue, I will now refrain from typing in almost the whole thing. What I will do is give a thorough, inelegant summary.

Thinking in Time

Humanity thrives on the cusp of uncertainty, between opportunity and danger, not in an unchanging equilibrium. Surprise is opportunity for us, since we have learned to influence our environment in amazing ways. Our exponential success is from wanting more. "To be human is to imagine what is not, to seek beyond the limits, to test the constraints, to explore and rush and tumble across the intimidating boundaries of our known world." We have been changing the environment for at least 12,000 years, destroying species and each other. But the world is getting more peaceful, per capita. We are at a peak of dominance, but exponential growth is by definition unsustainable. We need to learn to steer the climate.
Climate Change
We need to talk not only about the bad consequences of inaction regarding climate change, but also the benefits that reversing it will give. Maybe humanity will survive the current global warming crisis just fine (or at least survive) without learning to modify the climate, but if we learn to modify it, then we can potentially save ourselves from the next, natural ice age.

We can't view the world as either a cost-benefit analysis or simply an issue of preservation. We must realize that technology is part of nature, not an encroachment on it. We must also realize that nature is not simply a commodity, but an integral part of our existence and our future. The distinction between natural and artificial must be blurred (if not eliminated) to solve humanity's existential crises.

We need to realize that harmony between the natural and artificial is the solution to current and future problems, and develop economic and social systems that are in harmony with nature. One real problem in overcoming the artificial/natural divide is thinking that time isn't real and timeless laws govern both our past and future. Smolin doesn't say it this way, exactly, but the Aristotelian picture of Christianity, with a timeless God and timeless laws and omni-this and that is not going to continue to benefit us going forward. We need to move to the late Joseph Smith and early Mormon version of an eternally progressing God who is also within nature if we want to make the next level of progress in human existence and evolution.
We need a new philosophy, one that anticipates the merging of the natural and the artificial by achieving a consilience of the natural and social sciences, in which human agency has a rightful place in nature. this is not relativism, in which anything we want to be true can be. To survive the challenge of climate change, it matters a great deal what is true. We must also reject both the modernist notion that truth and beauty are determined by formal criteria and the postmodern rebellion from that, according to which reality and ethics are mere social constructions. What is needed is relationalism, according to which the future is restricted by, but not determined by, the present, so that novelty and invention are possible. This will replace the false hope of transcendence to a timeless, absolute perfection with a genuinely hopeful view of an ever expanding realm for human agency, within a cosmos with an open future.
. . . a civilization whose scientists and philosophers teach that time is an illusion and the future is fixed is unlikely to summon the imaginative power to invent the communion of political organizations, technology, and natural processes--a communion essential if we are to thrive sustainably beyond this century.


Timeless economics theories are not only demonstrably problematic, they create a false intuition of how real world economic systems work and they suggest that some past theory of economics (particularly the efficient-market hypothesis) could be the solution for the best future economic system. Leaving out human agency and the essential fact that systems and laws evolve results in the demonstrably false idea that market forces will select the single best solution. In fact, there are multiple equilibrium solution to every free market scenario, and none of them are guaranteed to be the best.
How is it possible that influential economists have argued for decades from the premise of a single, unique equilibrium, when results in their own literature by prominent colleagues showed this to be incorrect? I believe the reason is the pull of the timeless over the time-bound. For if there is only a single stable equilibrium, the dynamics by which the market evolves over time is not of much interest. Whatever happens, the market will find the equilibrium, and if the market is perturbed, it will oscillate around that equilibrium and settle back down into it. You don't need to know anything else.
If there is a unique and stable equilibrium, there's not much scope for human agency (apart from each firm maximizing its profits and each consumer maximizing his pleasure) and the best thing to do is to leave the market alone to achieve that equilibrium. But if there are many possible equilibria, and none is completely stable, then human agency has to participate in and steer the dynamics by which one equilibrium is chosen out of many possibilities.
In thermodynamic terms, economic systems are path-dependent, not path-independent. In this regard, neoclassical economics is fatally flawed, because it treats systems as path-independent. "There's no way to know how many hedge funds are making money discovering arbitrage opportunities by measuring curvature--that is, path dependence that's not supposed to exist in neo-classical economics--but this is doubtless going on." (Hedge funds go by performance, not the supposed correctness of a theory, and they hire good mathematicians. Consequently, I believe Smolin's speculation.) Time is real in path-dependent market models. "To do real economics, without mythological elements, we need a theoretical framework in which time is real and the future is not specifiable in advance, even in principle. It is only in such a theoretical context that the full scope of our power to construct our future can make sense. Furthermore, to meld an economy and an ecology, we need to conceive of them in common terms--as open complex systems evolving in time, with path dependence and many equilibria, governed by feedback." Climate, biology, the cosmos, the biosphere, and ecology all observably work in this way, and our theories need to reflect it.
We need to create structures that will bring together our vast, specialized, but incoherent knowledge in order to move forward most effectively. At this point Smolin brings up a theme, for him. Science is an ethical community, not a method. Our ethical communities should be governed by two principles:
  1. When rational argument from public evidence suffices to decide a question, it must be considered to be so decided.
  2. When rational argument from public evidence does not suffice to decide a question, the community must encourage a diverse range of viewpoints and hypotheses consistent with a good-faith attempt to develop convincing public evidence.


Science will probably never be able to answer why anything exists at all, or the hard problem of consciousness, or why we experience now, but these things are real. Thus, accepting the reality of time is a key to understanding reality.

Thank you, Dr. Smolin, for sharing this journey with me. It's an exciting ride.

Time Is Real--Part III

More notes on Time Reborn by Lee Smolin. The remainder of the book is kind of a grab bag of possibilities. They all point toward the reality of time, but in a variety of sometimes questionable ways.

Chapter 13

Smolin asks, am I committing the same cosmological fallacy I warned against before in extending quantum mechanics and the free will theorem to the entire universe? Maybe. It requires a preferred version of motion and rest that we haven't believed in since Galileo, and includes hidden variables--namely all systems of a certain type mimic each other over vast distances and faster than the speed of light. So extending the Free Will Theorem to everything, while perhaps necessary to avoid something like the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics (which introduces vast numbers of unobservable universes), may involve a fallacy.

This was a confusing chapter. I'm still not sure I get it. I think he's saying, "I don't think I've committed the same fallacy I've accused everyone else of, but it's going to be a bit tricky to argue my way out of the corner on this."

Chapter 14

The hidden variables required to extend Quantum Mechanics (while remaining within our observable universe) may be that space is relational and higher dimensional than 3.

Chapter 15

Exact theories for this kind of space are several, varied, and incomplete, but that is at least hopeful for the reality of time. Space then emerges from relationships in time in several models. Ass the closest to working models require that time is universal and space is illusory. If relationships are real, turning on connections (making relationships) between particles allows faster than light communication (because lightspeed is emergent with space, not fundamental) so a being that could turn on non-local connections could act at immense distances instantly. (This would require a lot of energy in some of these theories.)

This chapter essentially proposes that the choices fundamental particles make are to mimic each other (and maybe to be in relationships with each other). That's all it takes for universes to eventually emerge. This gives form to my speculation that the entire universe chose to be. What it chose was to relate and mimic. The inevitable result was continually evolving, higher order structures. I'm not sure the precedence principle will ever be provable, but I honestly can't think of any two simpler choices that could be ascribed to particles than, "will I relate with another particle?" and "will I copy or be contrary to another particle?" And at first glance, choosing to not relate or choosing to be contrary will not result in any higher order structures with the power to evolve.

Chapter 16

Accepting time as real resolves a bunch of anomalies that result from believing time is emergent. The biggest one is all the ways in which we observe time to have a direction--and there are a bunch of them. We can't explain the arrow in the emergent time frameworks, since laws are the same backward and forward.
In the time-bound picture I propose, the universe is a process for breeding novel phenomena and states of organization, which will forever renew itself as it evolves to states of ever higher complexity and organization."
Smolin proposes the principle of precedence. Sufficiently similar objects in nature imitate each other (and the choices made by other sufficiently similar objects in the past). Stuff that chooses to copy similar stuff self-organizes into more complex structures. This view makes the kind of self-organizing universe we observe a natural outcome, while the time symmetric laws suggest our universe is highly improbable--depending on very finely tuned laws and very carefully chosen initial conditions, without any reason put forward to choose the particular set we have.

Chapter 17

Driven self-organization is natural in a time is real paradigm. In a Newtonian, time is transcendent/illusory, paradigm the most natural universe is a dead equilibrium. Smolin argues this based on thermodynamics and entropy. (It was familiar and boring, so while I like the conclusion, I forgot to take notes.)

Chapter 18

Infinite space with laws just like ours results in every variation infinitely many times. Smolin doesn't like it. I find it intellectually uninteresting, because it results in a form of strict determinism. It also creates the "measure problem" that Smolin thinks is unsolvable. Namely, how can you tell the difference between two completely identical universes that are bound to exist in this scenario? This scenario requires that indiscernably different objects are nonetheless different--despite its being impossible to tell them apart.
Instead, Smolin prefers that quantum mechanics shows our observable universe to be finite and unique. There are at least three scientific theory reasons to prefer a finite, unbounded universe to a spacially infinite universe. The list is a summary of some technically subtle arguments that I don't pretend to have a complete grasp of.
  • Only in sequential big bangs are any testable predictions about the universe made, whether it's branching or bouncing or both. "Simultaneous [and unconnected] pluralit[ies] of worlds . . . do not, and most likely cannot, make any real predictions."
  • "Those burdened by the metaphysical presupposition that the purpose of science is to discover timeless truths represented by timeless mathematical objects might think that eliminating time, and so making the universe akin to a mathematical object, is a route to a scientific cosmology. But it turns out to be the opposite. As Charles Sanders Pierce understood more than a century ago, laws must evolve to be explained.

Chapter 19

If laws evolve, what governs that evolution? Are there meta-laws that satisfy the criterion of sufficient reason? (i.e., we can explain "why these meta-laws and not others?") Cosmological natural selection pushes that question back at least as far as the first universe. The principle of precedence maybe pushes it back even farther.
I'm not hopeful that Smolin's to be completed technical book will succeed in solving what he calls the meta-law dilemma. I think believing it will may be succumbing to the fallacy he has railed against that there are transcendent laws. I suspect there will always be a real point at which some things just are, without explanation. However, I'm all for pushing as far as we can toward finding that point. I think any time we claim we've found it, we are likely wrong and limiting our own progress.
So one of the most important lessons that follow once we grasp the reality of time is that nature cannot be captured in any single logical or mathematical system. The universe simply is--or better yet, happens. It is unique. It happens once, as does each event--each unique event--that nature comprises. Why it is, why there is something rather than nothing, is probably not a question that has an answer--save that, perhaps, to exist is to be in relation to other things that exist and the universe is simply the set of all those relations. The universe itself has no relation to anything outside it. The question of why it exists rather than not is beyond the scope of the principle of sufficient reason.
I'll end this post with Smolin's summary table of the things we choose between as we decide whether time is real or an illusion.
Time is an illusion. Truth and reality are timeless.
Time is the most real aspect of our perception of the world. Everything that is true and real is such in a moment that is one of a succession of moments.
Space and geometry are real.
Space is emergent and approximate.
Laws of nature are timeless and inexplicable, apart from selection by the anthropic principle.
Laws of nature evolve in time and may be explained by their history.
The future is determined by the laws of physics acting on the initial conditions of the universe.
The future is not totally predictable, hence partly open.
The history of the universe is, in all its aspects, identical to some mathematical object.
Many regularities in nature can be modeled by mathematical theories. But not every property of nature has a mirror in mathematics.
The universe is spatially infinite. Probabilistic predictions are problematic, because they come down to taking the ratio of two infinite quantities.
The universe is spatially finite. Probabilities are ordinary relative frequencies.
The initial singularity is the beginning of time (when time is defined at all) and is inexplicable.
The Big Bang is actually a bounce which is to be explained by the history of the universe before it.
Our observable universe is one of an infinite collection of simultaneously existing but unobservable universes.
Our universe is a stage in a succession of eras of the universe. Fossils, or remnants, of previous eras may be observed in cosmological data.
Equilibrium is the natural state and inevitable fate of the universe.
Only small subsystems of our universe come to uniform equilibria; gravitationally bound systems evolve to heterogeneous structured configurations.
The observed complexity and order of the universe is a random accident due to a rare statistical fluctuation.
The universe naturally self-organizes to increasing levels of complexity, driven by gravitation.
Quantum mechanics is the final theory and the right interpretation is that there are an infinity of actually existing alternative histories.
Quantum mechanics is an approximation of an unknown cosmological theory.
I have a suspicion that some of these points create false dichotomies, starting about half way down the list, but I'm not sure. I know the positions on the left are popularly held by some prominent physicists and philosophers (with maybe the straw man of the Many Worlds Interpretation being the only alternative to the reality of time, and quantum mechanics being the final theory). Since I'm swayed by Smolin's philosophy, seeing as it lines up so well with my Mormon cosmology, I'm inclined to let it slide. Even if all 11 points aren't perfectly stated or argued, positing the reality of time matches the universe I see and feel much better than the paradoxes that have bothered me since I first studied modern physics. I'm excited to see where the world ends up on these points in the next 20 years.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Time Is Real--Part II

Continuing my summary and review of Lee Smolin's book, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. The most amazing part, for me, of this installment is that my Lee Smolin gives form to my vague idea that creation came to be through the agency of fundamental particles. The exact choice being made is the choice to imitate other similar particles. Enough of the teaser, on to the book.

Chapter 8

We currently have many theories (infinitely many) that account for the universe we have measured, so far, so there is no answer as to "why this universe?". Also, our laws come from repeated observation, but it is not possible for us to repeatedly observe the whole universe.
1. The assertion that a law applies on a cosmological scale implies a vast amount of information about predictions concerning nonexistent cases--that is, other universes. This suggests that something much weaker than a law might explain the universe. We don't need an explanation so extravagant that it makes predictions about an infinite number of cases that never actually happen. An explanation that accounts only for what actually happens in our single universe would suffice.
2. The usual kind of law cannot explain why the solution that describes our universe is the one we experience. [There are infinitely many solutions to our current set of laws of physics. Why do we see our particular universe?]
3. The law cannot account for itself. It offers no rationale for why it, rather than some other law, holds.
So our current theories are poor candidates for complete cosmological theories because they explain what happens in universes we can't observe, and don't give sufficient reason for why we observe the one we do.

Chapter 9

The notion of an effective theory represents a maturing of the profession of elementary-particle theory. Our young, romantic selves dreamed we had the fundamental laws of nature in our hands. After working with the Standard Model for several decades, we are now simultaneously more confident that it's correct within the limited domain in which it has been tested and less confident of its extendability outside that domain. Isn't this a lot like real life? As we grow older, we gain confidence about what we really know and simultaneously find it easier to admit ignorance about what we don't.
This may seem disappointing. Physics is supposed to be about discovering the fundamental laws of nature. An effective theory is by definition not that. If you have too naive a view of science, you might think that a theory could not both agree with all experiments yet carried out and be considered at best only an approximation to the truth. The concept of an effective theory is important, because it expresses this subtle distinction.
It also exemplifies how we understand progress in elementary-particle physics. It tells us that physics is a process of constructing better and better approximate theories. . . .
The notion of an effective theory implies that progress in physics entails revolutions that completelychange the conceptual basis of our understanding of nature while preserving the successes of earlier theories. . . .
The fact is that every theory we have so far used in physics has been an effective theory. It is sobering to realize that part of the cost of their success was the realization that they are approximations.
We still may harbor the ambition to invent a fundamental theory that describes nature without approximation. Both logic and history tell us this is impossible [unless the theory encompasses the whole universe at once].
And that might not even do it.
Is Mormonism maturing?

Chapter 10

Four conditions that any theory that encompasses the entire universe at once must minimally meet:
  • Must contain all previous knowledge about nature, but as approximations.
  • Must make specific, testable predictions from doable experiments.
  • Should give a reason for "Why these laws?" and not others
  • Should answer "Why these initial conditions" and not others
Here is where Smolin distinguishes his universe/multiverse from other multiverse models (like the MWI, or Brane models). Smolin's universes must be causally connected, even if it is nearly unobservably so through black holes. So the multiverse is really a big, branching universe.

Since laws are necessarily relational, laws must evolve as relationships evolve. Big Bangs past and future must be connected. The reason our Big Bang was the way it was is because of its connection to a previous universe, and we can theoretically learn something about the previous universe.

To the four minimal requirements, Smolin adds a few more:
  • It will posit neither symmetries nor conservation laws.
  • It should be causally and explanatorily closed. Nothing outside the universe should be required to explain anything inside the universe.
  • It should satisfy the principle of sufficient reason, the principle of no unreciprocated action, and the principle of the identity of the indiscernibles.
  • Its physical variables should describe evolving relationships between dynamical entities. There should be no fixed-background structures, including fixed laws of nature. Hence the laws of nature evolve, which implies that time is real.

Chapter 11

Smolin summarizes the principles of cosmological natural selection.
Applying natural selection to a system to explain its complexity requires the following:
  •  A space for parameters that vary among a population. . .
  • A mechanism of reproduction. . .
  • Variation. . .
  • Differences in fitness. . .
  • Typicality. . . [the assumption that our own universe is typical]
The power of natural selection as a methodology is such that strong conclusions can be drawn from these minimal assumptions.
I loved this last line, since it's what I've been asserting with my exploration of the nature of God. As Smolin says about cosmological natural selection, I can say about the evolution of Gods.
. . . all that need be claimed is that our universe has only a relative fitness advantage over universes differing by small changes in the parameters. This is a very weak condition. We needn't assume that the parameters of our universe are the largest possible; there very well might be other parameter choices leading to an even more fertile universe. All the scenario predicts is that they can't be reached by making a small change from the present values.
Why doesn't God fix everything? This is already a relatively fertile universe, and He can't make more fertile universes by making drastic changes. He's stuck with it as much as we are.

Back to Smolin. The anthropic principle is just a way to end the conversation. The universe is as it is because it must be for us to be here asking these questions. With no other universes to test, we can't know if this is true. If something isn't required for our existence, we have no way to explain its having a particular property.
The fact that you can adjust unobservable features of your scenario to enable you to pick one that fits your hypothesis better does not constitute evidence for that scenario.
This is why I am attracted to the God of Mormonism that is within Nature, and not interested in Gods that are outside of or over Nature. Those Gods have adjustable parameters that can never be tested by any imaginable experiment. While I believe there are unprovable truths, I am not interested in latching on to a particular statement of what those are and basing my life decisions on it--inside or outside of Mormonism.

I did wonder at this point if some of the problems Smolin attributes to ideas he criticizes don't still apply to the first universe implied by the reality of time. I don't think so, but can't formulate it clearly. How was the first universe selected? Perhaps by picking some very basic initial conditions these problems can be minimized. For example, the stuff of the universe is eternal and without beginning or end. Discrete portions of the stuff have sufficient will to choose to mimic and associate with like particles or not mimic like particles. Still working on this, but I'm jumping ahead.

Chapter 12

Maybe natural law acts on precedent. If a system is similar enough, past precedent is followed. If a system is truly novel, then the outcome is unpredictable.
If nature is like this, then the future is genuinely open. We would still have the benefit of reliable laws in cases with ample precedent, but without the stranglehold of determinism.
It is fair to say that classical mechanics precludes the existence of genuine novelty. . .
. . . entanglement can produce genuinely novel properties.
So I was right about the problems quantum mechanics propose for determinism, but not as clear on the why as Smolin explains. Thank you Dr. Smolin.

The "principle of precedence acts in nature to ensure that the future resembles the past. This principle is sufficient to uphold determinism where it's needed but implies that nature, when faced with new properties, can evolve new laws to apply to them." [Big, relatively unique, systems, like people, are more likely to express new properties than simpler systems, but not very often. So human behavior will be mostly predictable, but not entirely.]

". . . the idea that choices atoms make are truly free (i.e., uncaused) fails to satisfy the demand for sufficient reason--for an answer to every question we might ask of nature." That's the cliff-hanger with which Smolin ends the chapter. The view he favors fails one of his tests. Next chapter he tries to say why that's ok, and I like his answer.

Enough for this post. We'll do a Part III.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

If you don't believe in a loving creator, you believe . . .

My explorations of the last few years have resulted in the following conclusions regarding God. More specifically, a being or beings within nature that are able to create universes. I've written a fair amount justifying my assumptions and beliefs. Now I want to turn it on its head and ask the atheist, who thinks it important to do away with belief in God, to prove beyond reasonable doubt any of a few very specific beliefs. If you think creators do not exist or are extremely unlikely, then you must believe at least one of the following things:

  1. Humanity will eventually go extinct.
  2. It is impossible in all of reality that any being would ever evolve with the power and knowledge to create or simulate universes.
  3. The laws of nature are such that beings like us are likely to come into existence all over the place.
  4. All of existence is finite and too small for creators to evolve within.
  5. Everything is predetermined--completely.
  6. Nothing is really predictable.
While it is possible to believe in a creator and believe some of the things on this list, it is not possible to reject everything on this list without the probability for creators approaching 1.

If you reject these six beliefs, or are willing to accept that their rejection is reasonable, and accept the possibility of creators (even for the sake of argument), but maintain that these creators are not radically compassionate, are not involved with their creation, or are irrelevant to our lives, then you believe at least one thing on this list:
  1. The resources available to creators are effectively scarce.
  2. Cooperation among creators will not maximize creation at a significantly greater rate than lack of cooperation or competition (or nature acting without creators).
  3. It is impossible for creators to interact with their creation.
  4. Making more creators won't result in faster rates of creation.
  5. Making more creators is as easy or easier to do with minimal intervention/interaction as with a more hands on approach.
  6. The laws of nature and their consequences are few and simple.
If you reject these six beliefs, then the logical consequence is the existence of loving, involved creators who are intent on making us into independent creators.

It is possible to believe in other Gods with other traits. I know many people define God in ways that this reasoning does not apply to. But for those who would remove the possibility of any kind of God, and replace creators with laws of physics and evolution, you're stuck with something on these lists. I won't deny the possibility that certain elements of these lists could be true, but I can point you toward reasonable, scientific reasons for rejecting each of them (and respected scholars in the relevant fields who support those reasons. Just ask). So before belittling the intelligence or education of a believer, take a minute to realize that we might have thought pretty hard about our beliefs. And even if we haven't, there may be some pretty good, rational reasons our gut tells us your arguments against God are incomplete. So let's all get past the black and white, either or, right or wrong, smart or dumb, good or evil, educated or uninformed, and foster the discussions where we can make some real progress in understanding.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Voices in Faulkner's Head

Hiatt and Hilton (1990), Deseret Language and Linguistic Society Symposium, "Can Authors Alter Their Wordprints? Faulkner's Narrators in As I Lay Dying", pp. 52-60.

The papers we've examined so far about Book of Mormon Stylometry all arrive at at least this conclusion: styles of multiple, unidentified authors are included in the Book of Mormon. An unanswered question is, just how unusual is this? Are there examples of single authors who have created distinct wordprints for different stories or different narrators within a single work? We've seen how skilled authors failed to do so in imitating Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle. We've also seen how unskilled authors succeeded under special conditions, but the Book of Mormon clearly matches the conditions of the Austen and Doyle imitators much better than the "adversarial authorship" conditions of Greenstadt's studies. Showing his willingness to be thorough and to risk his conclusions being weakened, Hilton analyzed As I Lay Dying, a work in which Faulkner narrated the text in the voices of 15 different characters. The question was, did Faulkner succeed in creating statistically different voices?

The answer to this question is yes. Most of the 15 narrators didn't say enough to be analyzed, but three did. Of course, the others could be analyzed by less exacting methods than using noncontextual word pairs, but Hilton wanted to use the most discriminating methodology he had found. You can read the details at the link provided, but here is a table summarizing the most important conclusions for us:
As a reminder, from previous examination of numerous texts from a variety of authors, Hilton found an empirical rule that if 7 or more word pairs differed in their frequencies (7 rejections) between two texts, then the texts were by different authors. If there were 1-6 rejections, then you couldn't say with >95% certainty, but most authors average 2-3 rejections between different samples of their writing. The texts used in this study were no different, for the most part. Faulkner's narrators (Darl, Tull, and Vardaman) and Faulkner's other novels (Pylon and Light in August) were written in styles very different from the control texts written by Samuel Clemens, Robert Heinlein, Samuel Johnson, and Harry Steinhauer. You can see this in the second column of the table. Every one of Faulkner's texts differs by 8.4 or more rejections. Faulkner--no matter what voice he was writing in--had a different style from all of the control authors. Each of the control authors' samples differed from other texts by the same author by 1-6 rejections, with an average for within author comparisons of 2.9 rejections.

Now I want to point out something you have to dig through the text a little to find. I've added it to the bottom of the table. Heinlein wrote a book where the chapters are split between two narrators. These two different characters used noncontextual word pairs in almost exactly the same way, and almost exactly the same way Heinlein always did. Clemens's also wrote a couple of works in the first person from two different perspectives--those of Adam and Eve. These two characters used noncontextual word pairs in the same way, and in the same way as others of Clemens's writings--even some from 3rd person perspectives. Clearly this is not a survey of all authors that ever attempted to write in different voices, but let's see how different Faulkner's attempts were from Heinlein and Clemens.

Looking at the first column, we have evidence that Faulkner could write with consistent styles. The samples from Pylon and Light in August averaged only a few rejections within the same text. Darl also narrated his two samples with fair consistency. Looking at the third column is where the real genius shows. Faulkner was able to write Tull and Vardaman so different from his other styles that he inflated the numbers in the entire last column. Pylon and Light in August may be similar to each other, but there is so much variability in Faulkner's wordprint that none of his sample texts match the average as closely as most authors. Tull and Vardaman appear to be completely different authors from Faulkner, although no one disputes their authorship.

What does this mean for the Book of Mormon? We have an example of an author, even if it is a rare example, who has changed his wordprint intentionally, consistently, and significantly at least twice in the same book. Hiatt and Hilton dug into the details of the differences and uncovered some interesting patterns. I could repeat them all, but I'll give one example and refer you to the paper for the full discussion:
Test 75 shows the percentage that "in the" occurs of all uses of "the." Vardaman consistently uses "in the" more (16.3%) than the other characters (6, 7.5, 5.7, and 7.4%). Vardaman's phrasing is influenced by his character: being a young boy, he observes and comments on things using language familiar to a young boy. He comments on his mother "in the box" and people and horses "in the river," and "in the water." Vardaman uses the prepositional "in" instead of mentioning where the object is and letting the reader remember. Faulkner apparently believed that a youngster's mind would work that way.
In creating characters, Faulkner created dialects for his characters. To quote from Hiatt and Hilton's conclusions:
Faulkner's ability to vary "non-contextual" word usage patterns seems to contradict a simple thesis of wordprinting. Yet, as we can see through our analysis of the Morton word pattern tests that were rejected, Faulkner was able to change his patterns using authorial techniques. Faulkner seems to have taken into account each narrator's socio-economic position, age, and education, as well as other intangibles like attitude and experience when creating these characters, at least as far as the within author measurements are concerned.

Therefore, although Faulkner broke the mold in creating these different narrators, his methods were discernible using this wordprinting technique.
It appears that a lot of careful thought, and probably a certain genius for language, goes into creating a character with truly different, subconscious word pattern usages. And in fact, this isn't what Faulkner did. Faulkner appears to have taken a handful of patterns most of us experience as subconscious and made them conscious. The remainder of his word pairs remain largely consistent from one text to another, even when he switches from 1st to 3rd person narration.

I guess that means the next job is to try to identify what tricks Joseph Smith used to change his noncontextual word pair ratios from Nephi to Alma to the Doctrine and Covenants to his personal writings. All I can say is, good luck. Otherwise, it's about time to accept the fact that different authors wrote different parts of the Book of Mormon, and none of them were 19th century candidates.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"Eternal" Gender

"Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose."
In 1995 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published this statement in "The Family: A Proclamation to the World." While this proclamation has not been canonized (when one prominent church leader called it a revelation in General Conference, he edited his address afterwards to call it a guideline) most Latter-day Saints view it as inspired. Others, many of whom I call friends, wish it would go away. It was created, at least in part, and has been used as a weapon against gender equality for LGBTQI individuals, and in less obvious ways against women. I have written at length about my ambivalent feelings towards this document, but even after a couple more years to mull over various issues, I still believe it is an inspired and inspiring document, and the reasons why center on the quote, above.

I understand (even if I don't feel) some of the reasons people give for rejecting eternal gender. What can mortal genitalia have to do with who I was before birth, or who I will become after? And what about all the people who feel like their genitalia don't match their transcendent self? And how can God have made it so that our genitalia determine socially arbitrary roles that we have assigned to groups of people? It is idiotic. I haven't captured all of the background or subtleties to these positions, and I'm not going to attempt to argue anyone out of them. I agree with most of them, but I think there may be an alternative view that has merit. This time, rather than asking the believer who is more in line with current church rhetoric on family and gender to set aside the rhetoric and examine the actual words of the document, I ask my friends who are inclined to reject "the Proclamation" to do the same. Let's look at the actual words. I think what we find is a document--original created to retrench our views as conservative, Protestant American--that puts radical Mormon ideas into a nearly official document for the first time in the history of the LDS church.

So let's take on the idea of "eternal" gender.

We don't know what "gender" means

We have no idea what eternal gender means. We know nothing about spirit bodies from before this life, and precious little about resurrected and glorified bodies, except that both apparently have manifestations that look like our earthly bodies to a great degree. If our premortal bodies had genitalia, we weren't using them for making babies. And we have no indication of the role of genitalia in the postmortal worlds other than a few speculations. So if gender is essential to our eternal identity, it must refer to something other than (or greater than) our mortal genitalia. I think it's absurd to claim that celestial sex, gestation, and birth is the means of making spirit children. It may be imaginable in some perverse, intellectual way, but there is no evidence for any method of creating spirit children, and I think the mortal way is extremely unlikely. 
Additionally, lets remember the definitions of eternal and endless we've been given in the Doctrine and Covenants. Certainly these are enduring terms, but they do not indicate unending or unchanging. Instead they indicate attributes of, or association with, Godhood. Gender as we know it now need not indicate gender as it was when we were intelligences, or unorganized intelligence. I personally don't believe we had gender before we were organized into some premortal, personal form. Certainly a molecule doesn't have gender, even if a cell arguably can. We must be very careful in imposing earthly, biological roles on what gender meant premortally, or what it will mean postmortally. Words are tricky things.

Our bodies are good, including their gender

I love how Mormon theology values our earthly bodies. The difference between us and Lucifer is that we chose to be embodied. Devils want our bodies. We sang for joy that we would come to earth and get bodies. God the Father has a body. Jesus was resurrected and still resides within His body. I personally have had a miserable time learning to appreciate my body, with the mixed messages we receive, but the vision is beautiful. The vision is that our bodies, while "fallen", are a step forward. We gained power by coming into this world. We will step into the eternities with our bodies, not shed them to arrive at a purer state. This implies that earthly gender is a beneficial addition to my identity, not a chance problem that needs to be undone. Gender serves real purposes in this life, and why shouldn't there be analogous distinctions in celestial bodies? Why should my body do exactly what your body does? Why should my brain work exactly like yours does? I claim to not understand what those distinctions will be, but homogenization of celestial bodies seems like a step backwards, not a step forwards.

Of course there are diseases that affect the physical expression of gender, and I trust that all such  problems will be fixed at the resurrection, but I caution anyone from applying this expectation to non-pathological gender identity.

Agency and gender identity

No one has ever claimed that we choose to be men or women. It has more recently been established that people don't choose to be gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered or other orientations. The LDS church has gone as far as to officially recognize this on We don't choose our gender, here, but choice was what the whole war in heaven was about. I'm not going to go so far as to say that we chose every detail of what would happen to us in this life, but if gender is an essential part of our eternal identity, how can it be consistent with the law of agency for God to impose a gender on any of us? Yes, I am speculating, but if gender is eternal, I can imagine no way for us to have distinct genders without our having chosen them. Any other way would be a violation of agency, and God will not do that. He cannot and continue to be God. Of course I speak from a position of privilege, as a heterosexual man, but maybe what needs to be eliminated is not gender from our theology, but my position of privilege.

Unintended gender elevation

Having briefly cautioned against imposing mortal understandings of gender on our extra-mortal identity, reminded us that our bodies are gifts and represent progress and empowerment, and argued that eternal gender represents a choice we made at some point, I arrive at some unexpected, and unintended, consequences of "the Proclamation". Many noticed, when it first came out, that "The Family" identified husband and wife as equal partners. While still favoring 1950s American gender roles, it made one of the most explicit mentions of this equality that we have anywhere in our official documents. Members noticed and embraced it, in a wide variety of ways. Many have used it to say, "look how equal we are in our inequality," but that is far from the only understanding among faithful Mormons. And in a way there is no going back. We have explicitly called wives equal, and opened the door for that equality being expressed in ways other than caring for children (that is only a primary and shared responsibility). I think our younger generations have a hard time reading that while keeping a 1950s perspective. In addition, "heavenly parents" are mentioned in this same official document. Heavenly Mother has received very little air time in Mormonism, but now she is an legitimate player in conservative Mormon conversation, even if we don't know what to say about her and the conversations are still awkward.

But beyond this incremental raising up of women, "the Proclamation" has opened the door for raising up the very people it was intended to keep in their place. By asserting that gender is essential to our eternal nature, and now recognizing that gender is not a choice in this life, "The Family" has created space to argue that some individuals are eternally gay. That this state formerly labeled as a "lifestyle" choice might really be one--but a choice approved of and embraced by God as He empowered these individuals to come into this life with their eternal gender intact. And maybe this is just the start of our understanding of gender. Maybe learning from our gay brothers and sisters is not simply a nice thing to do to make this world a better place, but maybe it's essential to our understanding of the eternities.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Just Following the Crowd

Sunday, October 12, 2014, I went for the third time to represent Mormons Building Bridges (MBB) in the Atlanta Pride Parade. The first year was an uplifting, eye-opening experience. Mine and my brother's families had a sign made and showed up to join the unknown person who had registered MBB. That person didn't show, but was at least partly responsible for getting us there. Many people along the way were surprised and grateful to see Mormons marching in support of their gay brothers and sisters. Several people watching and participating in the parade told us how they or someone they knew had felt rejected by the church, or even that they had left because the church wouldn't accept that loved one. One man told us how his partner had left the LDS church years before, but he knew his partner still cared about Mormonism and felt the loss, from time to time. He was so sincerely grateful to have someone publicly reaching out.

The second year, we had a couple additional people join us, but with some of our family members sitting out our numbers weren't much bigger. Still, we felt supported and hopeful.

This third year there were a few more people interested in joining us, but sickness, a death, and unknown reasons meant it was just me and my brother, again. We dragged along our little kids, and a couple of the older ones who understood the importance to me and my brother, and had another good year. But if this is just us following the crowd and jumping on the band-wagon of tolerance and support for gay rights, it's the loneliest band-wagon I've ever been on.

I am happy when gays find love and support in just being themselves. As my church has recognized, ". . . individuals do not choose to have such attractions. . . ." ( And, "With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters." I want to make this true where I live. Right now it's just nice words. So maybe it's time for me to put my shoulder to the wheel on this band-wagon the Church has endorsed, and publicly reach out with love to those three or four or five young people that are growing up in my ward. The ones who are just realizing, or will realize in the next ten years, that they are gay, or lesbian, or transgender, or queer, or some other thing that we only barely recognize exists in our church. Something that they didn't choose, but now have to live with. Somehow those few people need to know that I am their ally.

I don't know how to do it. While I feel Mormon to my core, what people see on the outside borders on barely active. Family and work demands make the kind of activity I used to rely on to let people see my commitment an impossibility. So I not only live on the fringe of my ward intellectually and doctrinally, but now physically, too. I sing with the choir, and I'm intensely sincere (about everything). Plus, there are many loving people in our ward, and we are pretty easy to think of as normal, so we aren't complete outsiders. But I no longer have a regular way to reach out. My calling doesn't involve teaching or speaking. Childcare means I hardly ever participate in classes. I have no natural interactions with the youth, and no intention of forcing issues on people who aren't interested in them. True Mormonism is my crusade, not gay rights, or gender rights, or any other single issue, so I don't want to push something just because I am obsessed with it.

Still, I have to come out of the closet in my home town. I have to let people see me more. How? We will see. I'll give it some time and take more baby steps, but I haven't moved much forward from two years ago. It is time.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Reason, Love, Life, and Choice

For my birthday in 2000, my father gave me one of his favorite books--the Collected Poems of Wendell Berry. I read it infrequently and slowly, but there is a lot of beauty in it. Here is an excerpt from his poem "The Design of a House", followed by one I wrote after coming home from my mission and remembering from before I left. It was a good, but emotional time. I share these now, on the occasion of my third son's birth.

The Design of a House

If reason was all, reason
would not exist--the will
to reason accounts for it;
it's not reason that chooses
to live; the seed doesn't swell
in its husk by reason, but loves
itself, obeys light which is
its own thought and agrues the leaf
in secret; love articulates
the choice of life in fact; life
chooses life because it is
alive; what lives didn't begin dead,
nor sun's fire commence in ember.

Love foresees a jointure
composing a house, a marriage
of contraries, compendium
of opposites in equilibrium.
This morning the sun
came up before the moon set;
shadows were stripped from the house
like burnt rags, the sky turning
blue behind the clear moon,
day and night moving to day.

Let severances be as dividing
budleaves around the flower
--woman and child enfolded, chosen.
It's a dying begun, not lightly,
the taking up of this love
whose legacy is its death.

I think I felt it. . .


I think I felt it then—
It stretched me every way
You can imagine when
It came, and as it lay
Within my breast, and filled
My mind with images
Of hope, and when it stilled
My heart with kindnesses.
Then it died as some would say.
I think it has just moved away
To some other place. And when
It will return we’ll hear again,
Overused, the phrase, “My how
You’ve grown."—I think I feel it now.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Time Is Real, Part I

Time is real. Some of you may be thinking, of course. What's your point? Others of you might be saying, no way. I've studied physics and philosophy, or I've studied theology, and time is just an illusion. It is literally only measured unto men, and there are definitely things that transcend time. As a Mormon, I'm going to add my voice to Lee Smolin's physicist voice, and say that to move forward most effectively we need to give up the idea of things outside of time. The laws of physics are laws inside of time, tied to relationships among matter and energy, and evolving as time progresses and new properties emerge. God is within time, and while we may not fully understand His power or knowledge, God only transcends our current existence in the way that humanity may eventually transcend itself. I know Smolin is a proclaimed atheist, but I am passionately drawn to his ideas, so it's time for a review of another of his books: Time Reborn.

What follows is a summary with some commentary. If my summary doesn't make sense, and you are interested, check the book out from the library. It is very approachable and easy to follow. He doesn't weigh the discussion down with difficult technical details, but he also isn't boring for someone familiar with the history and subject matter. I can also try to answer some questions in the comments.


Chapter 1

Properties that transcend time and space are attractive to us for explaining the universe, but will never be as productive as explanations limited to within the observable universe, because they can never be tested.

Chapter 2

Isaac Newton made math an amazingly powerful tool for unifying and describing the universe, but time went away in his conception. Newton posited absolute space and time through which everything moved. Relativity got rid of absolute space (but not transcendent time).

Chapter 3

Mathematics is not reality. It is an incomplete representation of reality, particularly because it is timeless. It doesn't include the experience of now. Smolin introduces some loaded language at this point, and possibly a false dichotomy. He calls the person who believes math is reality a mystic (I agree), and the person who views math as an incomplete representation a pragmatist (I agree again). However, I'm not sure either is truly free of mysticism. I suppose we will see how far Smolin gets with this distinction.

Chapter 4

Science by reduction. This is a great, non-technical explanation of how reductionism works and the assumptions it introduces. The idea is that everything can be described as isolated systems where we know the initial conditions and the rules that govern changes. Thus, the whole history (and future) of the universe could be theoretically known if we simply understood all the laws and the initial conditions (or conditions at any time) of the entire universe.

Chapter 5

Determinism is an immense claim. Every aspect of our great-great-grandchildren's future was determined and theoretically knowable back at the Big Bang. A favorite quote from this chapter is about Smolin's relationship with Einstein:
Later I discovered that there's very little in physics to match the conceptual clarity and elegance of Einstein's theories. . . . But because I began with Einstein, his work became my scientific standard and his theories of relativity became my touchstones, their principles as sacred as any text could be to one schooled in the skepticism of science. pp. 54-55
I do wonder about this quote, though. Is it really impossible for someone schooled in the skepticism of science to find things truly sacred? Or impossible for one who believes in the sacred to be correctly schooled in science? I don't believe it, and think Smolin limits himself by taking this stance, but that's not very relevant to the current chapter.

Chapter 6

Special and general relativity are deterministic and they make the present even less special than it was with Newton. We can't even agree on when now is, so time must not be fundamental. Plus, time had a beginning, while the laws of relativity somehow transcend that time, so time is just one more element of timeless spacetime.

Chapter 7

Quantum cosmology (in some forms) says everything is now. We just experience one (collection) of nows, but all of them are real and eternally present. Time is an illusion.


At this point Smolin shifts from showing how time was turned into an illusion to beginning his argument for why it is real. I give two quotes:
If science must tell a story that encompasses and explains everything we observe in nature, shouldn't that include our experience of the world as a flow of moments? Isn't the most basic fact about how experience is structured a part of nature that a fundamental theory of physics should incorporate?

Everything we experience, every thought, impression, action, intention, is part of a moment. The world is presented to us as a series of moments. We have no choice about this. No choice about which moment we inhabit now, no choice about whether to go forward or back in time. No choice to jump ahead. No choice about the rate of flow of the moments. In this way, time is completely unlike space. (p. 92)
In other words, science that doesn't recognize the reality of time is very likely an incomplete representation, rather than our perception of time being an illusion. At this point, Smolin lists the arguments that removed time from reality and that he now needs to address to reestablish the reality of time.
The nine arguments fall into three classes:  
Newtonian arguments (that is, arguments stemming from Newton's physics or Newton's paradigm for doing physics):
  • The freezing of motion by graphing records of past observations (Chapter 1)
  • The invention of the timeless configuration space (Chapter 2)
  • The Newtonian paradigm (Chapter 3)
  • The argument for determinism (Chapter 4-5)
  • Time-reversibility (Chapter 5)
Einsteinian arguments, stemming from the theories of special and general relativity:
  • The relativity of simultaneity (Chapter 6)
  • The block-universe picture of spacetime (Chapter 6)
  • The beginning of time in the Big Bang (Chapter 6)
Cosmological arguments, stemming from extending physics to the universe as a whole:
  • Quantum cosmology and the end of time (Chapter 7)
Now it's on to part II of the book--just as soon as I finish reading it.