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.