Thursday, December 14, 2017

Mormonism and Masturbation (Part 2)

In spite of these popular moral and medical views on sexuality and masturbation, which persisted well into the mid 1900’s, the LDS leaders embraced a progressively healthier view which focused more on self-mastery and cultivating the Godly desire of sexuality, versus the shame and fear-based medical and religious ideas of the time. Among the many beautiful doctrines the Restoration ushered into this new dispensation, the true nature of the Fall was revealed. This while christendom viewed the fall of Adam and Eve, the “original sin,” as a sexual betrayal of God's commandments. “As recounted in Mormon’s text, Adam and Eve were instructed from the very outset to “have seed.” Fulfillment of this divine command depended on the commission of a (nonsexual) transgression which brought with it both mortality and fertility…. The early Mormons view went far beyond a simple rejection of a devilish origin of sex. Like ‘knowledge of good and evil,’ reproductive sexuality itself was soon held to be an attribute of deity.9

However, there were a few early Leaders who warned in private meetings about the dangers of “self-abuse.” These comments were usually tied directly to serious abuses or individuals who expressed their opinions on the topic.

An example of condemning masturbation in connection with abuse, and one of the first times anything is recorded about masturbation, is from the personal diary of Apostle Rudger Clawson in 1902.  Church leaders discussed educating parents about the church leaders’ beliefs regarding masturbation.

At a meeting in the Temple with the Twelve, Joseph F. Smith was recorded as stating in 1902:
that the practice of masturbation was indulged in by many young people in the church schools. Pres. Smith remarked that this was a most damnable and pernicious practice, and the face of every apostle, president of a stake, and high councillor [sic] should be set as flint against it. The priesthood should be called together at the stake conferences and the brethren and parents should be instructed and warned in relation to this matter.’10

President Smith's admonition to warn, and the Leadership’s vocal increase might have been indicated in the the above quote, “many young people in the church schools…”. During this time and years previous there were abuses of leadership involving children and group masturbations. In one case a little more than a decade previous (1886), the polygamous leader of Salt Lake City’s Fourteenth Ward, Bishop Thomas Taylor “was excommunicated for masturbating with several young men in southern Utah” (O’Donovan, 1994, p.135). There might have been continuing issues with similar behavior, if not with adults, than with the students engaging in this behavior together. This type of behavior is definitely not in keeping within the beauty and direction the Lord has established. In this case, it is absolutely wi

“[Wednesday, 24 June 1903] Salt Lake City. Clear and mild. I spent the forenoon at the President’s office. At 2:30 p.m. attended a meeting of the general board of education of the church. During the meeting I called attention to the importance of the study of the science of life, which I thought was being neglected in our schools. It seemed to me, I said, that [more] of [the] young people should receive instruction in relation to love, courtship, and marriage, and should be warned against self-abuse and kindred evils. Many of the young people acquire the habit of self-abuse without knowing its baneful effect upon the health.”11

Elder Clawson’s wording is particularly interesting here, as it mirrors the medical guidance of his time. This is indicated by his emphasis on “the importance of the study of the science of life” and “its baneful effect upon the health.” What baneful health concerns would he have? “Insanity,” “homosexuality,” and mental/physical health. These ideas would persist well into the new century. These, among other documented comments, appear to be more medically informed than doctrinally established.

With exception to these few occasions, the Church as a whole cultivated sexuality in harmony with the restored knowledge. As time went on and the medical field gradually rejected the prior quackery, and published evidence-based sexual guides, the early Leadership embraced the medical field again. The healthy view of sexuality among the saints was obviously visible;  

“The late 1920s and most of the 1930s saw a more explicit ‘sex education’ in church lessons, to a degree not matched before or since. As one invited speaker explained to a general conference of the Relief Society, adults needed to realize that ‘you and I have been brought up in a generation where we just could not talk about sex. Not so our youngsters. They are talking and thinking about sex as frankly as anything else, and so far as I can discover, as wholesomely.’  Official church manuals endorsed secular books about sexuality and suggested that sexual interests be guided rather than inhibited. During this time masturbation did not always carry the same onus that it does in the popular Mormon literature of today. Rather than focusing on abstinence supervision as is practiced today with current church youth interviewing policies, lessons instead warned parents that they could create emotional problems in their adolescents by an ‘unintelligent’ over-response to their masturbation (Bush, 1993).”12

For all the criticism the Church and its Leadership gets for failing to address sexuality in a healthy way, the Leadership, at least in the beginning of the Restoration, were insightful and ahead of their time. This would become evident at the turn of the century when a few brave individuals in the medical field began to refute the established science.

Austrian physician Wilhelm Stekel confronted the medical field in the early 1900’s about the dangers of prescribing masturbation abstinence and the unsupported diseases associated with it. He later published his findings in his 1953 book “Auto-Erotism: A Psychiatric Study of Onanism and Neurosis,” informing the general reader of the medical misconception of sexuality. His keen insight and observations clearly identify the underlying problem:  

“Suicide represents merely the extreme consequence of abstinence. It is possible to construct a scale, approximately as follows: anxiety, neurosis, hypochondria, moodiness, depression, melancholia, suicide. From the day masturbation is given up life ceases to be worth while[sic] for these persons.

“The inexperienced inquirer may raise the question: why do these persons fail to find gratification upon the allerotic [focused on another] path? Why do they not seek their libido in normal sexual intercourse, or even in perverse acts with other persons? Precisely because masturbation is the only possible adequate form of gratification for them....”

I have personally observed this concept “adequate form of gratification,” as Stekel will point out. There is this emotional, moral, and spiritual conflict that individuals raised in a rigid moral system experience. Bottling up and resisting doesn’t always work, but they also know that acting out on another is viewed more seriously. Also, those who are avoiding masturbation are not sick, disturbed, or going insane as the doctors of the time where saying. A good individual who loves the Lord and desires to do right, still struggles. Many viewed the only “adequate” way to deal with this struggle was to masturbate. But when they stopped, in the hopes to end the “addiction,” it escalated:

“...We have seen that the neurosis breaks out as soon as the masturbation is given up and that the consequences of the abstinence are then regarded as the result of the habit….These cases demonstrate to our satisfaction that many persons are unable to live without masturbating and that they would rather renounce living altogether than try to get along without the customary gratification.

“...I only want to emphasize that the warnings by which parents attempt to scare children away from the practice of masturbation frequently have the opposite effect

“There are persons who have lost the courage to love, who have been inculcated by well-meaning but mischievous parents, and such persons are unable to experience pleasure without a sense of guilt.”13

It was these scientific findings that were taught within the church in the early 1900’s. For example in the official instruction manual for LDS, “Community health and hygiene; a study-course for adult-education” on page 138 the saints were taught;

“...the pernicious fallacy that insanity is the result of excessive masturbation. The facts do not support any such view, and if they did, the attempt to control self-abuse—injurious as it is—by capitalizing the child's fear of insanity, would still be morally reprehensible and mentally unhygienic.”14


What went Wrong?
The Depression, WWII and Kinsey.

The Leadership noticeably changed their approach to sexuality in the ‘30s-’40s which was culturally reinforced in the ‘50s-’60s.

In the 1942 April Conference, which was a time of great upheaval in the world with much uncertainty, the First Presidency, under the direction of President Heber J. Grant, issued a much needed message to the saints. The First presidency message filled almost 10 pages and addressed a spectrum of topics including Testimony and Parenting during a time of Medical and Doctor shortages (they were being shipped off to help in the war). This was unusually detailed counsel, but understand that for the decades they were in it wasn’t surprising. This counsel included; 

“...we urge all parents to guard with zealous care the health of their children. Feed them simple, good, wholesome food that will nourish and make them strong. See that they are warmly clad. Keep them from exposure. Have them avoid unnecessary crowds in close, poorly ventilated, overheated rooms and halls. See that they have plenty of rest and sleep. Avoid late hours…”

Additional topics included: “Welfare Work”; “False Political Isms”; “Hate Must Be Abolished”;  “Mission of the Church”; “Sending of Missionaries”; “Church and State”; “Church Membership and Army Service”; “God Is At The Helm”; “Righteous Suffer With Wicked” and a number of other topics addressing the needs and concerns of the time. However, it is the brief two paragraph statement on sexual purity in which the First Presidency boldly declared, “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean.This phrase was a pivotal change in how LDS addressed the topic of sexuality and desire. In its full context the message reads;


To the youth of the Church we repeat all the foregoing advice, but above all we plead with you to live clean, for the unclean life leads only to suffering, misery, and woe physically, — and spiritually it is the path to destruction. How glorious and near to the angels is youth that is
clean; this youth has joy unspeakable here and eternal happiness hereafter. Sexual purity is youth's most precious possession; it is the foundation of all righteousness. Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean.

Times approach when we shall need all the health, strength, and spiritual power we can get to bear the afflictions that will come upon us.”15

Not necessarily with the intent of defending the word choice, but in its full context the statement (although still a bold declaration), “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean” may feel a little less abrasive when you consider both the historical chaos and the First Presidency’s desire for the youth to experience “joy unspeakable here and eternal happiness hereafter.” Although this was a first presidency message, its wording and theme is very similar to President J. Reuben Clark’s Conference message a few years previous, wherein he spoke specifically about marital relationship issues of “promiscuous sexual relationships that ends in misery, disease, and shame…” In maybe a concern that parents were becoming neglectful in teaching the Law of Chastity, he reminds them to “teach the youth as the children of God, with spirits that are to live throughout eternity and tell them plainly and clearly that the laws of God, and of men also, demand that they live chaste…let us not make the mistake, any of us, of assuming that our children are beyond temptation and may not fall. This is a delusion and a snare that will bring us to the very depths.”

It would seem, from a historical reading, that parents were neglecting to teach healthy sexuality and its eternal significance during these stressful times.

He continues, “Please believe me when I say that chastity is worth more than life itself. This is the doctrine my parents taught me; it is truth. Better die chaste than live unchaste. The salvation of your very souls is concerned in this.”

If his parents did teach him this “doctrine,” it was not one that appears to be common in the culture of the early mormons of the time. It’s entirely possible this was a religious concept by his parents who were raised in the “New Dunkers” or Church of God before converting. From an early Mormon “doctrinal” teaching, it doesn’t appear to be present, at least not publically.

There is a fascinating warning Pres. Clark later gives in his talk. In what may well have been insights into behaviors we now recognize as narcissistic and maybe further evidence of the emotional/spiritual climate of the time, he warns of the emotionally manipulative behaviors of individuals who use “love” to convince others to lose themselves, abandon their values. He cautions,

“I say that whenever a man or woman, young or old, demands as the price of his friendship that you give up the righteous standards of your life, or any of them, that man's friendship is not worth the price he asks. You may not trust that friendship; he will cast it off as he does his worn-out coat. Friendship is not now, and never was, the offspring of debauchery or unrighteousness.

“I ask you young women to believe me further when I say that any young man who demands your chastity as the price of his love, is spiritually unclean, and is offering something that is not worth the purchase price; his love will turn to ashes under your touch; it will lead you to
misery and shame; and too often it will curse you with dread disease.”16

I share this quote not in an attempt to defend the word choice nor the use of fear as a motivator to follow God's commandment, but in light of President Clark’s conference message and the First Presidency message, it was a reminder to parents that they had neglected teaching youth to avoid those who don’t honor their values, and also an admonition to hold on to hope in a time of war and uncertainty. I believe this is important to understand and why the idea of “better dead, clean, than alive unclean” became a part of Mormon culture.

I don’t believe it is better to be dead than unclean, but whether or not he meant it literally, it eventually became a literal belief and “doctrine.” As such, a critical gospel thinking needs to reconcile the apparent contradictions it presents. The first is that the statement “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean” is ambiguous.  What does it really mean? What specifically, or at what point, is the First Presidency referring to as unclean? Are they also suggesting that purity can’t be obtained again through the Atonement? Are they referring to only sexual intercourse outside of marriage? What about thoughts, desires, feelings, impulses, lusts? “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean” seemed to negate the idea that the Atonement redeems.

Maybe this statement would make sense if what the First Presidency meant by “unclean” was in the act of completely denying the Atonement, the saving power of Christ. But even in this context, only those who have had a sure knowledge of Christ are capable of such a dire rejection. Those who “lose” their way from the church still have the fullness of the gospel available to them, through the infinite power of the Atonement. The Atonement also allows for those who have have lost their “purity” before marriage, to become pure again. It would seem the idea “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean” wasn’t so much a doctrine or absolute, but an emphasis on the need to be ever watchful.

In the following decades we see this concept morph into beliefs that are not supported by scriptural teachings, but merely logical assumptions at best, and at worst reverting to archaic medical warnings. Where previously the church’s stance on sexuality was in opposition to the 1920 medical findings that abstinence increased suicidal ideation (a stance which is further supported in current medical and emotional health), it had adopted the unsubstantiated ideas of self-harm and self-abuse. President Clark declared that those who engaged in masturbation were sinful and those, even in the medical and psychological field who taught it where like "the teachers who prostitute the sex urge."17

Why the change in approach at this point?

1953: This change and urgency might have been compounded from publications of Dr. Alfred Kinsey (the father of the sexual revolution) on male and female sexual behavior -- which sold like Harry Potter.

“President Ernest Wilkinson, alarmed at Alfred Kinsey’s reports on sexual behavior, appointed a faculty committee to determine if the school’s sex education provided a strong defense of chastity. When members of the sociology department learned that the committee had decided ‘who shall teach [sex education] and where,’ they registered ‘strenuous objection to administrative prurience in this regard.’ Wilkinson, however, knowing of ‘no more important need on our campus,’ pushed for a BYU-authored health textbook. One of the school’s faculty assigned to the project became skeptical that his treatment of sex could pass the scrutiny of both trustees and colleagues. Some university administrators agreed, and the project was abandoned. Instead, BYU officials arranged to have a national publisher remove objectionable material from a health text. When the publisher overlooked one offending page in 1967, BYU bookstore employees excised the page before placing the text on store shelves. Student reaction ranged from amusement to outrage. Studies undertaken since have found that many freshmen enter BYU misinformed about sex, and that student attitudes towards sex education  become more disapproving following enrollment in the university’s required health classes.”18

President Wilkinson’s concerns were valid and spiritually guided. Kinsey wasn’t simply providing scientific findings but actively stripping morality and human emotions out of the research. It's appropriate for science to approach research objectively, however Kinsey went above and beyond his role as a scientist. As much as he felt morality interfered with science and skewed what normal is, his disdain (a result of his father's abusive aversion methods) for a moral guideline highly influenced his approach, findings, and sample selections.

Scientifically and socially, his findings would be defined as the new “normal” and his influence was far spread. Kinsey would become known as the “father” of the Sexual Revolution; he would usher in the massive social and cultural upheaval of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. As much as we needed improved science of sexuality, it could have been done with significantly more respect and dignity. Furthermore, many in the science field were questioning his “scientific methods.”

Supporters of Kinsey have claimed that even though he may have been disturbed and engaged in immoral behavior with his clients, his fundamental conclusions and his data still remain accurate. This too proves blatantly false. According to Dr. Reisman:

“1. [Dr. Kinsey’s team] ‘forced’ subjects to give the desired answers to their sex questions, 2. Secretly trashed three quarters of their research data, and 3. Based their claims about normal males on a roughly 86 percent aberrant male population including 200 sexual psychopaths, 1,400 sex offenders and hundreds each of prisoners, male prostitutes, and promiscuous homosexuals. Moreover, so few normal women would talk to them that the Kinsey team labeled women who lived over a year with a man ‘married,’ reclassifying data on prostitutes and other unconventional women as “Susie Homemaker.”

As a zoologist and his rejection of morality, he viewed his subjects (including himself) as little more than “animals” and actively removed the human and emotional, let alone the spiritual element from sexuality. His debasing of the sexual experience wasn’t just a normalizing of sexual behavior but was an attack on a moral center. It is true the puritan era rejected scientific developments and forced a suppressive and “evil” ideology of sexuality; Kinsey on the other hand entirely rejected a human moral center. This rejection of morality did more harm in the study of sexuality than the puritan ideology. His lack of ethical center tainted and skewed his research; he engaged in unethical and illegal methods, including sampling children and condoning pedophilia. The disturbing and unethical details of Kinsey’s behavior, much of which would not be revealed for a few decades, don’t need to be included here. But suffice it to say, although the full details of Kinsey’s behaviors were not known at the time, the Leaders of the Church were justified in their concern for how he was influencing society and inevitably members in the faith. Kinsey was highly influential and convincing, removing ALL definitions of “right” and “wrong.” Moral guidance was needed. The Church’s response wasn’t unreasonable, like one can find in scripture, when a people become so indulgent the Lord will sometimes take a hard line, to refocus his followers. This example can be seen with the Children of Israel when the Law of Moses was established. However, like I will demonstrate with the sexual culture of our church, sometimes those laws and commandments grow into something it was never intended to become. 

In the following decades of the sexual revolution, you will see a similar response, rigidity and clarity from the Leaders. While there was a need for a strong and clear voice of morality, you will also see how this rigidity grew into the sexual shibboleths (Stephen Smoot provided an insightful writeup on shibboleths here) of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Instead of growing into a more healthy view of sexuality, tradition and cultural assumptions turned the moral guidelines into doctrinal absolutes.

Is it any wonder that the Leadership increased focus on sexual issues intensified with previously unseen rigidity? As such, and in the desire to save souls, preventing LDS moral decay with societal values, they attempted to reinforce the moral lines. Therefore, during this time the Brethren addressed masturbation as a gateway perversion that lead to nothing good. Although, not medically or religiously supported, masturbation seemed to become the new measure of sexual purity and a “preoccupation” that required a complete abstinence. President Kimball published “Be Ye Clean” which would later be included in his book “Faith Precedes a Miracle.” This became the first track that focused on the “reprehensible nature” of masturbation and thoughts of sex.19

General Conference has always served as a guidepost to current social issues. Therefore, in this decade, as in previous, increased attention was given the church as a whole regarding sexual issues. It makes absolute sense in context of the history. Society's increase of moral decay was met with an increased moral rigidity. Was it the best way? I can’t judge that. It's not my desire to judge their approach, but it is important to see these developments in the correct context to better understand the solution. Therefore, in this societal context, the conference messages, books, and articles more frequently identified behaviors associated with sins “next to murder.” It was at this time that there was a clear LDS cultural change in how sexual desire was taught. The idea that sexuality and desire were beautiful and to be mastered and cultivated in one's youth now became a message that thinking and acting on these desires were committing grievous sins; masturbation became a grievous sin.

1956: “Petting is indecent and sinful, and the person who attempts to pet with you is himself both indecent and sinful and is likewise lustful… Is that what you want? Will you not remember that in the category of crime, God says sex sin is next to murder?”20

1957: “To keep the Children of Israel from committing these sins, the Lord proceeds to name them and to prescribe penalties for their commission. I am going to name a few of them. First is incest. I am not enlarging on it. In the law incest included more than we now ascribe to it. It included marriage between people within prohibited relationships. The penalty for incest was death to both parties. Fornication, sometimes adultery and fornication are used interchangeably, but for most kinds of fornication the penalty was death. For adultery, it was death for both parties. For homosexuality, it was death to the male and the prescription or penalty for the female I do not know.”21

Four years later, Elder Bruce R. McConkie boldly and emphatically stated that masturbation was not only "condemned by divine edict," but was among the "chief means" the adversary is "leading souls to hell."22 He also solidified the teachings of President Clark with the rebuke of medical, psychiatric, and mental health workers who were teaching that masturbation is "not an evil", and stated the “guilt and shame” experienced by individuals was a result of disobedience. In a return to archaic medical beliefs he said they were keeping saints from being clean and experiencing the blessings of the gospel which would lead to "mental and spiritual peace" that helps one overcome mental disorders of masturbation.

“An individual may go to a psychiatrist for treatment because of a serious guilt complex and consequent mental disorder arising out of some form of sex immorality—masturbation, for instance. It is not uncommon for some psychiatrists in such situations to persuade the patient that masturbation itself is not an evil; that his trouble arises from the false teachings of the Church that such a practice is unclean; and that, therefore, by discarding the teaching of the Church, the guilt complex will cease and mental stability return. In this way iniquity is condoned, and many people are kept from complying with the law whereby they could become clean and spotless before the Lord—in the process of which they would gain the mental and spiritual peace that overcomes mental disorders.”23

The Leadership, specifically Elder McConkie, did have a valid doctrinal concern in that psychotherapists prior to 1970 predominately held to Freudian anti-religious ideas, “trouble arises from the false teachings of the Church.” In the psychodynamic models of the time, they were not equipped to address the various faith practices, rituals, and beliefs. But it would have been poor and unethical therapy to clinically assert one's culture is “false.” I do not support any therapeutic approach that persuades patients that their spiritual beliefs are “false teachings.”


It is the responsibility of the practitioner to provide healthy mental/physical solutions that are both within good science and within the individual's faith rituals. As such, I completely agree with Elder McConkie in that it was improper for psychologists were to be so blatantly rejecting of one's faith and culture. Even in those cases where one's faith and culture might be in conflict with current medical standards. To blatantly dismiss the culture of that individual could create additional mental health concerns. However, I see this as a separate issue. Elder McConkie refuted the validity of the scientific intervention while tying it to the treatment method. This would be similar to condemning doctors for prescribing medications because they may be addictive.  

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mormonism and Masturbation (Part 1)

When I started the 95 Theses series (which I still plan to complete), one of the main push-backs I received was against my comments on masturbation. To be clear, I do see masturbation as a violation of the law of chastity. But, I also recognize that I am not a priesthood leader and I am not a therapist, so I thought it might be helpful to have a therapist who is also an active, believing, Mormon offer some commentary on the issue. My friend Daniel Burgess, who has a masters degree in counseling psychology, has offered to help, and I will be post his comments in a four part series. Hope that you all enjoy what he has to say, and feel free to comment as usual:

The following are selections from my forthcoming book on LDS sexuality. This has been a very difficult post to write; not because of the subject matter, anyone who follows me knows how comfortable I am with discussing this topic, but how to concisely address such a deeply rooted topic as masturbation. It feels impossible to be concise without missing some necessary details without which the topic would be overly simplified. As such, I am going to address the topic of Masturbation within the LDS faith as outlined below:

Background - It Happened Again
Context is Important: A Brief History of Masturbation Beliefs within the LDS Church
Cultivating Versus Condemning
What went Wrong?
A New Culture is Born: “Doctrine and Addiction” and returning to the 1700’s
Purity, Modesty, and Moral Ambiguity
Solution: Real Self-Mastery Cultivating Sexuality

Background - It Happened Again
It happened again. Within the same week, on two different occasions, a young man and then a young woman sat in my office and said the same thing, almost word for word. “I need help. I’ve seen the Bishop and I am doing everything he says, but I can’t stop. I need something more.” This is a frequent occurrence. Fortunately, with these two individuals they had the insight to recognize the dilemma to their struggle before assuming it has something to do with their faith. They both believed in the Lord Jesus Christ with all their heart and soul. They were taking all the right steps to conquering their undesired behavior but it wasn’t stopping the behavior.

Unfortunately, many youth (and adults) are so ashamed that they can’t stop engaging in pornography and masturbation that they quietly stop trying. Or they see their inability to stop as a reflection on their faith, or rather, their lack of faith. Lack of faith couldn’t be further from the truth. Let's take for example the case of Kathryn Kirk -- a mid-singles woman who struggled with pornography and masturbation since she was in her late teens.

From early on Kathryn did all the right things, she identified the problem, spoke with her Bishop and embraced his counsel. She fasted, prayed, and was obedient to promptings given her by the spirit and leadership. Her struggle would come and go with varying intensity, but like many others, she again found herself in the Bishop's office working through the same struggle she had been experiencing for years. Nonetheless, with her Bishop’s encouragement and authorization, she participated fully in church responsibilities and callings, including serving weekly in the temple. However, in spite of her profound faith, obedience, and service, the struggle would repeat -- sometimes worse than in previous occurrences.

Now, in her early thirties she is feeling the years of struggle weighing on her and wondering if her faith was ever real. She did everything right, she followed every piece of counsel, blessing and priesthood instruction, and now hope was wearing thin of ever overcoming this struggle. Before giving up she wanted to try one last time, as a final reassurance to herself that she did everything she could before calling it quits. She recognized doing more of the same wasn’t working and decided to include a therapist in her recovery process.

In July of 2014, she found me in a listing of LDS counselors and reached out. I remember getting the call on a Saturday afternoon and hearing her bravely explain her situation in raw honesty. She was much like the two youth I previously mentioned. She was out of options -- and other than doing more of the same, she didn’t know what else to do. Not only that, but her leadership didn’t know what else to offer her other than to pray, study, and have “more faith,.” But she was doing all of those things with no success in stopping the undesired behavior. Kathryn was and continues to be a brave, insightful, and full of faith daughter of God. After introducing a more effective approach, her hope was rekindled and it wasn’t more than a couple months later that there was significant progress and a glow about her, a change in her entire countenance. Now, over three years later, she has not returned to the previous struggle she battled with for so many years.

There is hope! There is more that can be done. More that leadership and parents can offer. But it will require a huge paradigm shift. Although there are more effective approaches to mastering this behavior, the biggest hindrance is the shame and taboo around the subject of sexuality, desire, and passions. Our current approach is fear-based and in general misinformed as a result of that same fear. As such, before we can proceed to the effective tools, a change in thinking has to occur. You see, Kathryn, like every other individual that comes into my office, usually doesn’t have a problem with faith. It’s that their faith is informed by and motivated out of fear.

A young man quietly sat across from me in the therapeutic office. As he searched for the right words to express his shame and embarrassment, eventually he found the courage to vulnerably express his frustration.

My Bishop recommended I come and see you. I need help, more than just “stop doing it.”

He was the first to articulate the limitations of parents and leaders alike in teaching and training our youth in regards to sexual desire and impulses.

He continued to elaborate that his Bishop had been absolutely loving and supportive, but that praying more, reading the scriptures more, and trying harder didn’t work when addressing sexual impulses. Another young man reported of his attempts of “praying his erections and desires away.” This began with 5-minute prayers, but rapidly turned into 90-minutes of pleading in tears to God to “remove his temptations and desires.” His natural biological experience of growing into adolescence through his pubescent years and experiencing sexual desire had quickly become a source of pain and rejection of himself. When prayer wasn’t working to eliminate these feelings, his faith began to wane and he began to struggle. Doubting himself and then God, he began to wonder if he had faith and if God even existed.

In all the above cases the solution was simple, effective, and most importantly, sustainable. No ARP, 12-Step programs, or required routine Bishop visits. While I say the solution was simple, I do not dismiss the emotional struggle that had accompanied their challenges; sometimes the emotional healing will take a little longer. It’s the physical interventions that are so simple; successful even after just a few visits.  Interestingly, even in the simplicity and effectiveness of the solution, some become frustrated that they didn’t know or weren't taught the concepts years ago. Just recently, I found myself in the office of a bishop. After sharing the solution with him, he was brought to tears as he shared how this finally felt like he had something tangible to give to his many struggling members. He then continued by expressing a mixture of joy and frustration as to how obvious the solution was, but the current cultural paradigm had prevented him from even thinking of the solution.

I don’t want to tease you with the solution, but every time I’ve begun with the solution I’ve had to address the context anyway. If you want to see the solution first, be my guest, skip down and read it. The following is not intended to be an exhaustive history, as I will provide greater detail in my upcoming book. It is just a sampling of the few individuals and events that are significant to the purpose of this post.

Context is Important: A Brief History of Masturbation Beliefs within the LDS Church
"Some persons have supposed that our natural affections were the results of a fallen and corrupt nature, and that they are 'carnal, sensual, and devilish,' and therefore ought to be resisted, subdued, or overcome as so many evils which prevent our perfection, or progress in the spiritual life...Such persons have mistaken the source and fountain of happiness altogether." --Elder Parley P. Pratt  Essential Parley P. Pratt Ch 10, p.124a

In reading through the goggles of presentism, this quote is unimpressive and obvious, but in historical context; it’s revolutionary, progressive, and controversial. Dr. Mark Kim Malan, in “Historical Development of New Masturbation Attitudes in Mormon Culture: Silence, Secular Conformity, Counterrevolution, and Emerging Reform,” asserts that the LDS view on sexuality, specifically masturbation in the ‘60’s was the first time “the moral views of popular church culture were now at odds with modern medical science.” pg 97 But Elder Pratt’s quote would suggest it wasn’t the first time.

As Mormon medical historian Lester Bush notes: “The procreative process is so central to Mormonism’s cosmic view that at one time or another developments in every issue here addressed have been measured in terms of their impact on...LDS thought... on sexuality and sex education, birth control, abortion, sterilization, infertility, homosexuality, and sex change surgery [masturbation, eugenics, reproductive technologies, birth defects, and “ensoulment” of the fetus are also treated].  As with nearly all other LDS teachings, those related to birth and sexuality can be understood only in the context of a considerable historical legacy…”.1 As such, exploring the historical “legacy” of masturbation is critical to informing how we view it culturally and “doctrinally” within the LDS faith today.

The medical, scientific, and religious knowledge of masturbation in the 1800’s (and culturally within the LDS faith today), are deeply rooted in quackery. Masturbation is often described as “self-abuse,” which was a term coined and popularized in a British pamphlet, “Onania; or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution.” “Onania” or “Onanism” refers to Onan in the Old Testament Genesis 38:9-10. It was a predominant belief at the time (and is still held by many today) that “Onan’s sin” and punishment of death was a result of him masturbating. Therefore, individuals who masturbated were committing the sin of Onan. However, as Ben Spackman points out in a nuanced reading of the scripture, he suggests that the sin of Onan wasn’t masturbating, but “Onan’s actions vis-à-vis Tamar were particularly heinous in Israelite eyes: 'By frustrating the purpose of the levirate institution, Onan has placed his sexual relationship with his sister-in-law in the category of incest—a capital offense.'[21] Thus the death of Onan at the hand of the Lord.

“Onania” was published under an anonymous author in the early 1700s, later identified as John Marten: “an imposing, cheating quack, and an ignorant pretender, and that his Letters, Stories of Cures, pretended Medical Secrets, etc”(pg 112). John Marten’s sensational quackery, not unlike pseudo-science today, fed on the worst fears of the reader while providing a miracle cure which could be purchased at enormous cost. Although not unique to the topic of sexuality, the modern day “sex addiction” intervention programs mirror Marten’s model of capitalizing on an illness they invented. Such programs like Fight the New Drug (FTND), Sons of Helaman, and In-patient sex treatments, can cost easily $30,000 dollars a month and with little or no statistical evidence of success to justify the treatment, other than unconfirmed “testimonials.” You’d think at such a cost, and with the best resources and treatment available, there would be at the very least a high level of transparency into its success-failure rate.

Ironically, Marten detailed these illnesses and treatments with voyeuristic testimonials. Marten’s persuasiveness and fear-laced pamphlet told readers that masturbation would lead to essentially every illness and life-threatening disease, ranging from the common headache to rheumatism, short-sightedness, bowel disorders, and gonorrhea. If left unrestrained, the habit would inevitably lead to a lonely and agonizing death. (Sound familiar?) His only avoidance to equating masturbation and its resulting emissions to murder is because, “what is wafted might prove a Child; if it were, all Nocturnal Pollutions, which No-body can prevent, would be so many Murders; but, because the Seed is wafted in a sinful Manner, it is a Crime which God hath punished with Death.”2 At least he acknowledged there were biological exceptions, although not logically consistent, and recognizing there are some things one has no control over.

The wide acceptance of this pamphlet would later infiltrate reputable science and medical practitioners who would expand on Marten’s quackery. In the mid 1700’, well-respected Swiss doctor Samuel Tissot would latch onto this hysteria and validate it with his credentials. Tissot’s recognition and influence reached American medical practitioners, making masturbation an official health hazard. Tissot further argued that ANY orgasm, whether induced by masturbation or marital sex, was medically dangerous. This belief persists today among those who still believe that sex should only be engaged in for the purpose of conceiving children.

For Tissot, the very worst kind of sexual activity was the solitary orgasm since it could be indulged in so conveniently and at such a tender age that excess was inevitable and the resulting supposed nerve damage irreparable. Let me again interject, there is a persistent paradigm today, among even the most “sex positive” LDS, who believe that masturbation only leads to pornagraphic, indulgent, erotic, and selfish thoughts. This idea is also rooted in early quackery. Although the correlation does occur, I believe it's because we are predisposed to believe it will occur. I’ll address this specifically in the solution section. 

Tissot medically advanced the ideas associated in the dangers of wasted semen to include weakness, cloudiness of ideas, madness, decay of bodily powers, pains in the head, rheumatic pains, aching numbness, pimples, blisters, itching, impotence, premature ejaculation, gonorrhea, priapism, tumors, and hemorrhoids. His association of masturbation with weakness and an almost endless list of symptoms were particularly frightening to his readers that led to hysteria and initiated popular new belief that came to be known as “masturbatory insanity.” One medical solution was circumcision. It was believed that exposing the head of the penis would eventually deaden its sensitivity, preventing arousal. “In the 1890s, it became a popular technique to prevent, or cure, masturbatory insanity.”3 For women; and get this irony, you know what the solution was for female hysteria (which was believed to be in the uterus floating around in the body)? Orgasm, which could only be performed by a medical doctor. There is some evidence that the vibrator was invented to aid the practitioner in this “cure” because it was taxing on the doctor to routinely perform this treatment, but was apparently safer for the practitioner to perform than patients self-stimulating for fear of increasing the risk of insanity or death. 

Ergo, the use of the phrase “self-abuse” is a medically archaic belief that orgasms led to illness and even death. By the 1830’s religionists were embracing, popularizing, and capitalizing on what they believed to be the harmful effects of masturbation. Sylvester Graham gave public lectures about Tissot’s findings and expounded on those beliefs when he published “A Lecture to Young Men on Chastity,” wherein he warned about the scourge of masturbation and the perilous nature of excessive sexuality.

He agreed with Tissot’s claim that the loss of semen was a major cause of mental, physical, and societal ills:

“...semen may be called the essential oil of animal liquors…. [It] contributes to the support of the nerves…. [Semen] imparts to the body, peculiar sprightliness, vivacity, muscular strength, and general vigor and energy…;—that it causes the beard, hair, and nails to grow—gives depth of tone, and masculine scope and power to the voice—and manliness and dignity to the countenance and person; and energy, and ardor, and noble daring to the mind.

“...enfeebles the body more than the loss of 20 times the same quantity of blood…. [H]ence the frequent and excessive loss of it, cannot fail to produce the most extreme debility, and disorder, and wretchedness of both body and mind.”4

Graham, like Tissot with Marten took the concept further, asserting that sex induced orgasms were equally dangerous:

“...rapidly exhausts the vital properties of the tissues, and impairs the functional powers of the organs: and consequently, that it, in a greater degree than any other cause, deteriorates all the vital processes of nutrition, from beginning to end; and therefore, more injuriously affects the character and condition of all the fluids and solids of the body.”5

In 1877, Dr. Kellogg published “Plain facts for old and young: embracing the natural history and hygiene of organic life.” Stating his beliefs and medical solutions to the “heinous sin” of masturbation, he said:

“If illicit commerce of the sexes is a heinous sin, self-pollution, or masturbation, is a crime doubly abominable. As a sin against nature [again current ideas of what constitutes a sin against nature rooted in archaic science], it has no parallel except in sodomy (see Gen. 19:5; Judges 19:22). It is the most dangerous of all sexual abuses because the most extensively practiced. The vice consists in an excitement of the genital organs produced otherwise than in the natural way. It is known by the terms, self-pollution, self-abuse, masturbation, onanism, manustupration, voluntary pollution, and solitary or secret vice. The vice is the more extensive because there are almost no bounds to its indulgence. Its frequent repetition fastens it upon the victim with a fascination almost irresistible. It may be begun in earliest infancy and may continue through life.”6

But it was Kellogg whose solutions to preventing masturbation were sadistic and mutilating, including sewing the foreskin of the penis closed and using metal constraints to prevent erections (to be used if his intentionally bland cereal -- created for the purpose of preventing arousal -- didn’t work). Although these devices didn’t become universally used, it wasn’t rejected and is evidence of the fear associated with the practice of masturbation. This was the sexual climate during the time period of the restoration of the church.

What Kellogg did would become known as Aversion Therapy. This “aversion” type treatment, although not mutilating, was used in one form or another for another century. "Steps in Overcoming Masturbation” by Mark E. Petersen is an example of aversion therapy approaches. Essentially, it's a “method in which a person is conditioned to dislike a certain stimulus due to its repeated pairing with an unpleasant stimulus.” Aversion Therapy not only doesn’t work but the process of this type of therapy (also known as reparative therapy or conversion therapy) And as an American Psychological Association Task Force noted, conversion therapy can lead to “loss of sexual feeling, depression, suicidality, and anxiety.”7 .

I can NOT emphasize this enough. The anxiety, stress and sexual confusion that is associated with any type of aversion treatment is damaging and unhealthy. The damaging results are the same whether it be “...think[ing] of having to bathe in a tub of worms, and eat several of them as you do the act,” to prevent masturbating or using fear/pain in any way to avoid the behavior. Even the use of fearing that if you masturbate, you’ll have to tell the bishop again, is an unhealthy practice. Some aversion techniques use pacts with friends, that they have to pay money to them if they engage in the behavior. These are all varieties of fear and pain to avert from what should be a beautiful, natural, and God-given desire. Even the teaching that masturbating is addictive and will lead to impotence, cancer… whatever FTND’s flavor of fear is for the month, is driven by fear and pain and often done under the pretense of “informing.”

There are very real consequences that are long lasting and often unseen for decades from aversion treatments; usually later identified in marital relationships. Many attempt to convince me that, “it will be worked out in marriage when it's condoned by the Lord to explore sexuality.” That is both naive and dangerous thinking. I believe there is significant sexual dysfunction in LDS couples. What further complicates this dysfunction is that our culture views a lot of it as “normal” and even healthy. These issues will be addressed in my upcoming book and possibly in a separate post, but for the purpose of this post, there is sufficient evidence that Aversion Therapy approaches have lasting and damaging consequences.

As for the leaders who used these approaches, please don’t misunderstand me; I am not criticizing Elder Petersen or other leadership. I believe our leaders were doing the best they could in the context of what they understood. Especially in the ‘70’s, even though there was evidence that it wasn’t effective, it was still commonly used in drug treatment. But again, I address these topics in great detail in my book. Back to the historical context.

To further demonstrate the widely accepted sexual views of the time:

In 1850, an editorial in the New Orleans Medical & Surgical Journal inveighs against self-abuse: “Neither plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor a crowd of similar evils, have resulted more disastrously for humanity than the habit of masturbation: it is the destroying element of civilized society.”

And finally, the issue with polygamy might have had more to do with the secular view of disease than religiosity itself (I am not an expert on polygamy). It could be argued too that the religionist and medical practitioners of the time were one in the same. Nonetheless, the climate of fear and rejection of polygamy appear to be inline with the belief that increased sexual activity (more orgasms) caused and spread illness and disease of all sorts. This was at least one of the arguments made by Dr. Robert Bartholow, an army surgeon who published a paper on the “physical deterioration” of the Mormons despite the “excellent climate of Utah:

“...He attributed this to the practice of polygamy, which subjected them to debilitating diseases and produced genetically poor offspring. He stated that this religious practice had made ‘Mormon people a congress of lunatics.’ In his paper, entitled The Physiological Aspects of Mormonism, he described the typical Mormon as "lean and weak of body, depraved[sic] of mind (with). . . the cadaverous face, the sensual countenance, the ill-developed chest, the long feeble legs, and weak muscular system: typical of a hyperactive sex life. He attributed a rapidly diminishing population to lack of male virility and a high infant death rate. The number of defective children born in the community increased each year as well. Only new converts brought in from Europe and Canada prevented the complete and rapid disappearance of Mormonism.”8


As you’d expect, it was much to the surprise of those making these claims, to see the members when they arrived in Utah.  They found no ill-developed youth. They were in fact met with a thriving population of healthy and happy Mormons. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Daniel C. Peterson and the Book of Abraham

One of the books I am currently reading is An Introduction to the Book of Abraham by Egyptologist John Gee. It is, so far at least, a fascinating and thoughtful read and I recommend the book to everyone. As Gee mentions in the opening pages, there is more to life than papyri, so the book is to the crisp and to the point, and can be read in its entirety in a few days.

In addition to this, FairMormon just released a talk by Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic Studies at Brigham Young University, discussing the Book of Abraham. While Peterson is not an Egyptologist like Gee, his background in Middle Eastern studies make him qualified to speak about the subject. As always, Dan manages to be insightful and humorous at the same time.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Friday Traditio: Laura Harris Hales

One of the main problems Mormons and non-Mormons have with the Prophet Joseph Smith was his practice or polygamy. (Yes Denver Snuffer and Rock Waterman, he did practice polygamy.) However, most of the research that has been done on this subject has been by men; women have rarely ever spoken out on this subject.


This weeks traditio has Laura Harris Hales, host of LDS Perspectives Podcast and co-author of Joseph Smith's Polygamy: Toward a Better Understandingtalking about the polygamy issue at the 2015 Fairmormon conference. As always, Laura leads with faith and understanding. Hope you all enjoy her talk.



Sunday, December 3, 2017

Response to My Ninety-Five Theses (Part 2)

Image result for ordain women25) Women’s garments should be sleeveless, or at least without that little bunch under the armpit, which is unnecessary and uncomfortable.

Not being a woman myself, I am not really sure what she is talking about. However, garments come in many varieties, and there is no reason in principle that this type of garment could not be made available.

26) This one may be controversial, but get rid of the one-piece garments.  Just… no.

This is not controversial, just a matter of taste. I doubt many people wear these types of garments, I do not recall seeing them during the several times I have purchased garments.

27) Stop the worship/emphasis on The Family™.  If you’re going to talk about defending the family, you’d better be talking about all families, not just the ones with cis-gendered, heterosexual parents who are married and who have 3+ children born in the covenant.  Families, as a social unit of primary support and love, are worth defending.  “The Family™” is code for being homophobic and it’s antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.

The family is central to the plan on salvation; you cannot be exalted by yourself. So, the Church cannot stop emphasizing the family. That is not homophobic, which is hatred of homosexuals. Just because an organization disagrees with a certain type of lifestyle does not mean that therefore they hate the individuals who practice that kind of lifestyle. (Though I admit that the Church should be more welcoming of homosexuals, bi-sexuals, and transgender individuals). Having said that, homosexual couples are as capable of raising good families as are heterosexual couples, and I have personally wish the recent policy on forbidding children was not a thing. But, it is a policy and not a doctrine so hopefully it will change one day.

28) Relatedly, we have turned church leaders into idols that we worship.  Stop making a false equivalence between fallible humans who are called to positions of leadership/authority and Jesus.  They are not Jesus.  We worship Jesus, not them.  We are supposed to obey God and Jesus, not church leaders.  We have moved the center of our worship onto human beings who make mistakes and who see through a glass, darkly, and it belongs on God and Christ.  Full stop.

The only beings Latter-day Saints should worship are the Father and the Son, not priesthood leaders. And again, this is more of a cultural thing than a doctrinal thing. The Prophet Joseph Smith made it clear that a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such, so there is no reason for Latter-day Saints to lionize their leaders. They are ordinary people with problems and shortcomings like the rest of us. However, we should sustain and respect our leaders, and if we see problems it would be more useful to discuss it with them than to rant about it elsewhere. (To be clear, I do not think Liz is ranting.)

29) Women are not necks who turn heads.  We are people with our own necks and heads.  So are men.  We should work together in a collaborative and equal fashion.

I think what Liz is saying here (I may be wrong) is that women are equal to men. I agree, and we should value the input and opinions of women more than we currently do. We are making some strides in that regard, but there is still a long way to go.

30) Ordain women.

As most of my readers know, I am conservative both theologically and politically. Having said that, I see it as metaphysically possible for women to be ordained. There is no scripture or revelation that states it is impossible. However, Ordain Women probably made this much more difficult by making bad arguments in favor of ordination (such as comparing their position to blacks pre-1978.) So, I would be surprised to see this happen in my lifetime.

31) Change the temple language so that women are covenanting with God, not through their husbands.

Women are already covenant with the God, not their husbands. They only agree to listen to their husbands counsel if he is being Christlike. So, there is no need to change the wording.

32) Stop carpeting the walls.  Why do so many buildings have carpet running up the walls?  That carpet is itchy and scratchy and makes it very difficult for toddlers to walk against the walls, because it’s not pleasant to touch or hold on to.

My guess is because carpet is easier to take care of than hardwood floors, which have to be polished regularly.

33) I am all in favor of having ward members help clean the building, but if we could get professionals in to make sure that the bathrooms and kitchens are properly cleaned and sanitized every so often, that’d be great.

As a former janitor at the Church Office Building, this is certainly a possibility. But professional cleaners cost money, so you might want to give a little extra tithing if you want this type of change.

34) Please make the women’s session for women, and have it be either 12+ or 18+.  I feel like having the 8-12 year-olds really infantilizes the whole thing.  They’re children, and that’s ok. They don’t need to be there.

Considering the change for priesthood and women to meet annually rather than bi-annually, this is a legitimate possibility.

35) Let’s hear from more women in General Conference.  This would hopefully naturally happen should we ordain women (see Thesis 30) but black men have been ordained for almost 40 years and we still rarely hear from them. So, relatedly…

This is happening already, as more women are speaking in conference and offering prayers.

36) … make a concerted effort to have more diversity in leadership, and in talks during General Conference.  We should value the experiences of all people in this church from all demographic groups

Callings have to come by inspiration, not to appease a certain groups interest. Even if it did happen, it won't change things because the Church refuses to talk about the priesthood policy, and I frankly doubt a black leader would be allowed to without being censored, because that would look very ugly from a public relations standpoint.

37) Either pad the pews, or make church shorter.  Some of us have tailbones that haven’t fully healed from multiplying and replenishing the earth, if you catch my drift, and have a hard time sitting on hard surfaces for that long.

The idea of making church shorter was talked about in the previous post, so I won't rehash what I said about it. But that is a concern about people sitting so long in those conditions, so that would be a good practical reform.

38) Engage more with community groups and civic outreach.

I thought we already had too many meetings Liz? That's several more hours a week you are adding to a full schedule. And the Church already encourages members to be active in their community.

39) Do more interfaith service work.  I want to see more Mormons starting soup kitchens and doing anti-poverty work.

Amen

40) I may be biased, but every ward should call a Ward Social Worker to help both the Bishop and Relief Society connect people with resources in the broader community.

This is a great idea, but this person would need thick skin and training before a calling could be issued. Social work is not for the faint of heart.

41) More security for missionaries, especially those serving in high-crime communities, and especially women.  I know way too many women who have been sexually assaulted on their missions because they were asked to be places that were unsafe and known for being hostile to women.

I don't disagree, but what is the solution? Arming missionaries? Seems very risky. A better move may be that missionaries cannot proselyte in high-crime areas after dark, regardless of sex.

42) Increase the budgets for congregations outside the US.  Wards in Mexico shouldn’t be receiving less money-per-person than wards in the US.

I agree, they should be receiving more since they need more help.

43) Fund fewer shopping malls.

Here we go with the City Creek Mall again. It seems to have brought many jobs to the area and is thriving, so it was a good investment. Could it have gone to something else? Sure, but then Liz would find something else to complain about. Until we find out the Church is funding illegal and immoral projects (which they are not), lets give them a break. They spend plenty of money on humanitarian aid and other noble causes.

44) Make the mother’s lounge more than an afterthought when planning buildings.  Nursing mothers deserve more space than the broom closet, separate spaces to change diapers (without stinking up the whole mother’s lounge), and comfortable chairs.

This varies by building, some buildings have all those things in the mothers lounge.

45) Put changing tables in all of the men’s restrooms.  Women aren’t the only people who change diapers.

Ok.

46) More global hymns.  Less songs about Zion in the mountains and more songs celebrating the cultural diversity of the church membership.

You might want to talk to Isaiah about the mountain thing. Different varieties of music is fine, but remember that meetings need to be reverent and you are not at Church to be entertained.

47) Take the Star-Spangled Banner out of the hymnbook.  Also My Country ‘Tis of Thee and America the Beautiful.  And God Save the King (even though it’s been a Queen since forever).  It’s fine to be patriotic, but having those songs in the hymnbook smacks of nationalism and colonialism in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Then don't sing them Liz. No one is forcing you too. Stop being offended over nothing.

48) Have a Gospel Essentials 2.0 Sunday School class.  Basically it would be a Sunday School class discussing the basic tenets of the gospel, but in a much deeper philosophical/theological way than in the normal class geared towards investigators.

On this Liz and I are in complete agreement. But this is a long-shot. The textbook would have to go through correlation, and there are not many philosophy/theology sympathizers there, so I would not hold my breath. Perhaps using Terryl Givens' Wrestling the Angel and Feeding the Flock would be a good start.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Friday Traditio: Jerry Fodor

Image result for jerry fodorOn November 29, 2017 philosopher and cognitive scientist Jerry A. Fodor passed away. He was 82, and was professor emeritus of philosophy at Rutgers. Prior to his death, he studied under Hilary Putnam (one of my idols) at Princeton, and wrote many influential books on the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. While I did not often agree with Fodor on many things (such as his belief that folk pyschology was a true theory), I loved Fodor's writing style, clarity, and bluntness. It is always refreshing to see a philosopher not mince words, and Fodor was a great exemplar of that. He will be greatly missed.

Here he discussed many important issues relating to the philosophy of mind. Enjoy.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Does reductionism eliminate the mind and consciousness?

Image result for quineBefore I start this post, I draw attention to the fact that I have changed my blog name from Realism with a Human Face to Word and Object. I chose this title to honor my second favorite philosopher, Willard Van Orman Quine, who wrote a book by the same title. This book and other books and essays by Quine have had a profound effect on me as a philosopher and as a person, so I thought it proper to honor him with this small token of appreciation. More on Quine later this week as an interview by him will be this weeks traditio.

Earlier today my friend Daniel C. Peterson wrote a post titled The disappearance of mind on his blog, wherein he said the following:
The insistence of some militantly reductionist adherents of naturalism, that “mind” is merely a more or less illusory product of purely chemical/physical processes, that consciousness and free will are hallucinations, seems to me transparently self-refuting.  Why should I pay any more attention to the neurochemical events in an atheist’s brain than to his digestive process?  What significance would they have?  And, anyway, what, given such preconceptions, would it mean for “me” to “pay attention” to such things?  What on earth could it possibly mean to declare that the neurochemical events occurring at one GPS location are “about” the neurochemical events occurring at any other?
There are a few problems with this statement. First, it is not clear what Dan means by "reductionism" and "naturalism" since these describe a variety of positions in philosophy rather than one single position. But, based on conversations I have had with him on these matters in the past, I am assuming he means (and he can correct me if I am wrong) eliminative materialism, functionalism, and behaviorism (though there are few if any behaviorists anymore). Since I am both an eliminativist and a functionalist, I will clarify and defend both views in this post.

First on eliminativism. This position is a minority one in the philosophy of mind and its most prominent defenders are Daniel C. Dennett and Patricia and Paul Churchland. The position asserts that folk psychology (or common sense) is flawed and that modern science (especially neuroscience) will show us better ways to understand the brain and the mind. So, what is it that eliminativism eliminates? That depends on the individual. For Dennett, it eliminates qualia (the first person point of view) and for the Churchlands, it eliminates thoughts and beliefs.

But wait, the critics say. That is self-refuting! I am aware of my own perspective and my own consciousness! As Descartes says in the Meditations, I am as aware of these things as much as I could be aware of anything else! This point of reasoning shows how eliminativism is misunderstood in the philosophical world. It is not asserting that beliefs, qualia and thoughts do not exist. Rather, that what we believe about them are flawed and need to be redefined in light of modern science.

Take the geocentric view of the solar system, for example. From before Aristotle and until Copernicus and Galileo, it seemed that it was just obvious that the Sun and everything else in the cosmos revolved around the Earth; after all that is how it appears to the naked eye. However, modern science has shown that common sense notion to be very flawed. Similarly, the eliminativist is asserting that dualism and other metaphysical reasonings about the mind are flawed and need to be overturned in light of what the neuroscientific image shows us. In truth, eliminativism is neither radical nor a position; rather it is a posture towards certain questions and is a by-product of scientific realism (the view that science shows us how the universe really is.)

So, to be clear, eliminativism does not say that belief, consciousness, and thoughts do not exist. Rather, it states that they exist, but they are not what you think they are. These concepts need to be re-configured to fit the scientific image.

Functionalism is the view (and there are many different kinds of functionalism) that mental states are reducible to mental states. In layman terms, it means that the brain is a functional thing and what it produces (consciousness, thought, etc) can be reproduced in other non-brain systems; this is the view that shows that artificial intelligence is indeed very possible.

Dan's position seems to be similar to that of philosophers Frank Jackson and Thomas Nagel. Nagel asserts in his essay What's it like to be a bat? that even if we understood all the physiology of a bat, we would still not know what that bat's qualia is, or what it is like for the bat to be a bat. There is something beyond physiology that accounts for these things, so materialism must be wrong. Nagel recommends in his book, Mind and Cosmosthat we depart from modern science and return to a Neo-Aristotelian teleological view of the world, saying that if we did so we would be able to account for consciousness.

I see no reason to return to the past to understand the workings of the universe; the naturalistic picture seems just fine to me. I find it interesting that people like Nagel want to return to the past for this issue but have no problem with modern science in areas such as astronomy and medicine. Only in this area do they say the scientific method doesn't work. This is not an argument, but is special pleading.

Do not mistake me as saying that science can answer all questions because I do not believe that it can. The scientific method deals with things that are verifiable and falsifiable. Science depends on induction, logic, and mathematics, so it alone is not the arbiter of knowledge. However, it is the best method we have for discovering how the natural world works. We (and our minds and consciousness) are part of the physical world, so we should use the scientific method to understand the workings of the mind.

I will say this in defense of Dan's view. It is possible that when science is completed (and that day may never come) that we will still not have figured out how consciousness works. But we need to let scientists and philosophers do there job and then see if there is something we cannot account for naturalistically. But we should not start with the presumption that it can't be. If the universe can be accounted for naturalistically, then there is no reason to think that the mind cannot be.