Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Traditio: Donald J. Trump

For those who do not know, President Donald J. Trump addressed the United Nations for the first time this week. Among the things he discussed was North Korea, calling North Korea premier Kim Jong-un "Rocket Man", and saying that if North Korea attacked the United States he might have no choice but to completely destroy North Korea. While I do agree with the sentiment that if North Korea attacks the United States, the latter will have no choice but to counter-strike. It was inappropriate for the president to express ideas of violence to a community dedicated to peace. It is not wrong for a president to look out for his country's best interest, but the United Nations is about looking beyond yourself and thinking about the world-wide community.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mormonism and Humanism

My last article received a lot of comments on Facebook, and a recurring theme of the comments was that it is not coherent to be both a Mormon and a humanist. I plan to show why a person can be both, and perhaps, more importantly, that they should be both.

A good place to start would be in defining what is meant by the term humanism. A working definition would be that humans have intrinsic moral value by virtue of their being human. So, humanists see humans as important by nature and see their flourishing as an essential component of morality.

The idea of humanism was first developed in the Renaissance. However, in our modern era, most people who identify as humanists are secular humanists and say that a person can have moral worth and value even though they reject the existence of a God.

Since many early humanists were Roman Catholic, it is simply false to claim that humanism and religion are incompatible ideas. As far as Mormonism is concerned, Mormons take the humanistic ideal to an extreme, stating that not only do humans have intrinsic worth, but that divinity itself involves being human rather than being abstract, as in classical theism. Mormonism requires humanism, and it was no mistake that Mormon theologian, Sterling McMurrin, points this out in his book, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, when he states:
It is perhaps not entirely inaccurate to describe Mormonism as a kind of naturalistic, humanistic, theism. (The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion pg.3)
Mormonism and humanism have the same end goal: human flourishing and human happiness. Not only are they compatible ideas, they are complementary ideas.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Calm Down John

Yesterday, Mormon Stories Podcast host and psychologist, John Dehlin, said the following on Facebook:
To critics of the work I/we do with Mormon Stories Podcast and the Open Stories Foundation:
You can disagree with me. You can question my effectiveness. I love and welcome those types of discussions.
Two things that aren't negotiable between us are:
1) My worth.
2) My motives.
You are not welcome to discuss those things with me. And I will do my best to extend you the same courtesy.
John Dehlin, Mormon Stories Podcast Host

I have criticized John Dehlin several times on this blog, and one of the recurring themes of those posts is that John is very good at attacking straw-men, but takes little to no interest in refuting arguments that scholars give, instead choosing to call his opponents apologists (which he is for the other side as I explain here.)

I have not, and neither have many of John's prominent critics (Stephen Smoot, Robert Boylan, Daniel C. Peterson, etc) criticized John's worth as a person, and his motives are irrelevant. As a Latter-day Saint and a humanist, I believe that all people (which includes John and other people with whom I disagree) have moral worth and significance by virtue of their being human; John certainly fits that category. That does not mean that I cannot question John's arguments (or lack thereof) or his hasty generalizations of Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice.

As for John's motives, those are known only to him and are not for me to judge. He has, contrary to popular belief, done some good in the world and he should be applauded for that. Overall, I agree with John's statement, but the problem is that it is a red herring since John's critics are not attacking what he is claiming they are; they are attacking his rhetoric and specious arguments.

John, you have worth and your motives are known only to you. I give you my word that I will not criticize what you deem off limits, though I would caution you to do the same to Latter-day Saint scholars and apologists.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Review of "Philosophy of Mind (A Beginner's Guide)

As I say in all reviews of a book by an author of whom I am a fan, I admit that I am a fan of Edward Feser. Feser is perhaps one of the best living writers in the field of philosophy, and his writing is so clear and refreshing that even if you do not agree with his conclusions, your thinking on the subject will be more lucid and you will wish that you could write the way that Feser does.

The philosophy of mind is perhaps one of the most interesting areas of philosophy; it is also one of the most difficult because it entails having a considerable understanding of the fields of epistemology (theory of knowledge), metaphysics (study of the nature of reality), philosophy of science, neuroscience, and physics (as you can tell, that is a lot of ground to cover). Luckily, Feser's book is so clear, with well-defined terms, that even if you have little to no experience with those disciplines, you will still like and understand his book.

At the outset, Feser points out that materialism (the view that the world and things in it can be explained in scientific terms) is the dominant view in philosophy generally and in the philosophy of mind, and that there are good reasons and arguments for thinking this is the case. However, materialism is relatively new in the philosophy of mind (starting at around the early 20th century) and most philosophers, even with materialistic or naturalistic conceptions of the world, have thought of the mind in non-materialistic terms (Karl Popper, Bertrand Russell, C.D. Broad, etc). So, Feser points out the arguments for materialism and those against it but tries to be neutral about which way he leans (though it is relatively clear he favors the non-materialist versions of the mind).

The book is broken down into eight categories: Perception, Dualism, Materialism, Qualia, Consciousness, Thought, Intentionality, and Persons. Since explaining all of the different positions expressed in the book would alleviate anyone from reading the book itself, allow me to focus on two of the areas that Feser mentions: dualism and materialism.

For those unfamiliar with philosophy, dualism is the position that there are two different types of things in the world: physical things (such as atoms, quarks, persons, etc.) and mental things (such as thoughts, desires, etc.). These two things are not reducible to each other. Similar to comparing apples and oranges, they are fundamentally different types of things. This view is usually attributed to Rene Descartes, but it goes back at least to Plato and his theory of forms. There are different types of dualism as well, such as substance dualism (which is formulated by Descartes, stating that the mind and body are separate substances), property dualism (which states that mind and body are connected but have different properties and functions; John Searle is an advocate of this view), and hylomorphism (a view similar to property dualism, but not as clear; this is Feser's view). Fundamentally, dualism rests on a sort of common sense that since it seems that the mind and body are different things (the mind is a thinking thing whereas the body is an extended, acting thing), that they must in fact be different things. The main problem with dualism (which Feser admits but does not solve), is that it seems impossible for non-material things to interact with material things. This is known as the interaction problem. The problem has not been solved in the hundreds of years since Descartes, and it seems that this is a good reason to move away from any sort of dualism.

Materialism, like dualism, has different forms such as behaviorism (that mental states are reducible to behavior), functionalism (which is that mental states should be understood in terms of functional roles; this is the view I endorse) and identity theory (the mind is the same as the brain). The reason materialism is superior to dualism is not because materialism has answered all the questions (nearly all materialists would admit that there are many unresolved questions), but because in principle we see how the problems can be solved through the medium of natural science. Dualism faces problems that are in principle irresolvable, and Occam's razor will lead us to a materialist view of the mind rather than a non-materialist view of the mind.

These are just two of the issues that Feser deals with in the book, but the best thing about the book (besides from Feser's writing) is that he is fair to all sides. When he makes the arguments for materialistic views of the mind, he does so in a way that materialists will think that he is supportive of their position. When he switches and talks about non-materialist approaches, materialists in turn will think, "You know, maybe there is something to this after all."

As mentioned before, the philosophy of mind is a challenging field, but I can think of no better place to start than with Edward Feser's Philosophy of Mind (A Beginner's Guide). A truly wonderful book.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday Traditio: Hilary Putnam

One of the most fascinating areas of philosophy is the philosophy of science. While this will strike scientists such as Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson as being impossible, the modern scientific method was invented by philosophers (Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes), and many famous scientists have noted that philosophy has a role to play in science (Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, etc). In recent years, the philosophy of science has become one of the most interesting sub-disciplines within the field, and most philosophers of science understand the science as well as the scientists do.

But what exactly is the philosophy of science? Hilary Putnam, one of my philosophical idols, explains in this interview with Bryan Magee.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review of "The Book of Mormon: A Biography"

After reading Terryl Givens' masterpiece, By the Hand of MormonI thought to myself "What would this book look like if written by a non Latter-day Saint?" Not that Givens' work was not objective, but critics could still point to his being a believer in the book as clouding his judgement. Luckily, my friend directed me to The Book of Mormon: A Biography by Paul C. Gutjahr, who is not a Latter-day Saint, but gives a fair-handed review of what the Book of Mormon is, how it has been used in the past, and what it could mean in the future.

Any book about the Book of Mormon cannot fail to be an introduction to Mormonism in general, since the book is the keystone of the Mormon religion, according to the religion's founder, Joseph Smith, Jr. Gutjahr begins the book with the story of how Smith allegedly got the Golden Plates that contained the Book of Mormon text from the Angel Moroni, then talks about the details (as much as are available) of how the book was translated; by means of a seer stone. He then evaluates those who were involved with the translation, especially Emma Hale Smith and the 3 witnesses, pointing out that while all of them were angry or disaffected from Joseph Smith, Jr., none of them lost their testimony of the authenticity of the book.

As I mentioned in the opening that Gutjahr is fair-minded, he also recounts various theories of the Book of Mormon's origin that have been offered by critics, such as Dan Vogel. He does however state that many of the theories are not very strong, but more may be available in the future.

Next, he moves to how the Book of Mormon was not often mentioned in sermons in the early days of the Church; the primary text used was the Bible. In fact, Joseph Smith never gave a sermon from the Book of Mormon (which I find shocking). The book was however used (and still is) as the primary missionary evangelizing tool. But, early on this was seen as a modern miracle; the text of the Book of Mormon itself was not as important to the early saints as was the book's coming forth.

The subject of the book's historicity is also broached, but Gutjahr is not as even in this regard as he is with other subjects. He points out that most outside the Church do not see the Book of Mormon as historical (which is not surprising since they would have to join the Church if they did), but gives only passing reference to the arguments in favor of the book being historical, though he does mention John Sorenson's and Hugh Nibley's contributions to the field.

The book ends with how the Book of Mormon has been used in media, from the pictures made by Arnold Frieberg to the The Book of Mormon musical by South Park creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. He concludes with stating that the Book of Mormon, regardless of what one thinks of its origins, doctrine, or historicity is an important American book of scripture and will continue to be looked at carefully as time goes on.

I have several criticisms of the book. First, since the book calls itself a biography, more attention should be payed to the doctrines of the book; they only are referenced in passing. Second, Gutjahr paints Mormon apologists as amateurs when in fact they are first-rate scholars (especially Nibley and Sorenson). Finally, as mentioned before, not enough attention is given to why one could hold the belief that the Book of Mormon is historical; the book mostly ignores that view or seems to think one can only believe the Book of Mormon is historical through mental gymnastics.

Overall, this is a good introduction to the history of the Book of Mormon, and I recommend it to both Mormon and non-Mormon; the former so they can know what an outside scholar who is not an anti-Mormon thinks of the book, and the latter so that even if one does not see the Book of Mormon as useful, you will find there is value in the book whether one joins the LDS Church or not.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday Traditio: Sue Klebold

It has been over 17 years since the Columbine High School Massacre. On that day, April 20, 1999, seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School armed with bombs and multiple types of firearms, killing 12 students and 1 teacher before killing themselves. Sadly, the killing did not end there. Since Columbine, multiple school shooters (including the shooters at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook) have cited the two as inspiration; the Virginia Tech shooter in particular referred to the two as martyrs.

The parents of the gunman have been silent during this time, but Sue Klebold recently released a book about her son titled A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. In this weeks traditio, she recounts her memories of Dylan, things that she missed, and things she wished she had done differently. Be warned: I am a very stoic person and got very emotional watching this.