Saturday, April 29, 2017

Come on John

While browsing Twitter yesterday for updates on the 2017 NFL Draft, I came across a tweet by Mormon Stories founder, John Dehlin, where he said the following: "If plates weren't needed by Joseph Smith to translate, then why did Nephi need to kill Laban?" You can find the tweet itself here.

What never ceases to amaze me about John Dehlin is that when he asks questions, they are of the level of a person who has heard things for the first time, but he acts as though he is the one who made the actual discovery. And besides, we know that John is not really interested in getting the question answered or even in asking questions; he just makes statements to provoke his legions of followers into thinking they were justified in leaving the Church. That, or he wants myself and fellow bloggers and theologians, Robert Boylan and Stephen Smoot, to make fun of him and correct him (which Smoot did via Twitter and Boylan did via blog.

But assuming that there may have been an honest seeker who saw Dehlin's tweet and thought the question was meaningful, let's play along. Dehlin seems to think that Nephi and the Prophet Joseph Smith were in the same situation, and they were not. I will allow Nephi to explain his own situation because he does so beautifully:

7 Nevertheless I went forth, and as I came near unto the house of Laban I beheld a man, and he had fallen to the earth before me, for he was drunken with wine.

8 And when I came to him I found that it was Laban.

9 And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.

10 And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.

11 And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property.

12 And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me again: Slay him, for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands;

13 Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.

14 And now, when I, Nephi, had heard these words, I remembered the words of the Lord which he spake unto me in the wilderness, saying that: Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise.

15 Yea, and I also thought that they could not keep the commandments of the Lord according to the law of Moses, save they should have the law.

16 And I also knew that the law was engraven upon the plates of brass.

17 And again, I knew that the Lord had delivered Laban into my hands for this cause—that I might obtain the records according to his commandments.

18 Therefore I did obey the voice of the Spirit, and took Laban by the hair of the head, and I smote off his head with his own sword. (1 Nephi 4:7-18)
First, as the opening verses state, Nephi was very hesitant to kill Laban, even though Laban had recently nearly killed his older brother and stolen his father's property. ( 1 Nephi 3:11-26) This shows us that while Nephi had suffered much from Laban, he still respected Laban's humanity and was very hesitant to kill him, showing us that Nephi was not primarily motivated by revenge.

But to Dehlin's point, notice that Nephi needed the plates of brass in order for future generations to have the law, and furthermore so they would have a visual reminder of their homeland and ancestry. A third reason, though this is not stated, is that the plates would be a means to teaching future generations to read and write, which would not have been possible in the New World. Thus, there were sufficient reasons for Nephi and his family to have the plates of brass.

As for the Prophet, none of these issues applied. The people of his time had both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, so they knew the law of Moses and about Christ already. They were a literate people as well, and they needed no reminders of their homelands because many people in Joseph Smith's time were 2nd or 3rd generation Americans who knew where their families had come from. All Joseph Smith needed was to provide people with the text of the Book of Mormon and the Spirit would do the rest (Moroni 10:3-5).

Dehlin also seems to point out that the plates were not used themselves during translation, which is true so far as we know. We do not know entirely how the Book of Mormon was translated, but it seems clear from some third person accounts that the plates were not used in translation. This would be important if Joseph Smith were a linguist and was translating one language into another, but he was not; he was a prophet using divine means to portray a divine message. The word translation is the main problem here because when we see or hear that word we think of the process of the linguist. But, due to poverty of the English language, the word will have to do for now.

John, come on. You are better than this....

Friday, April 28, 2017

Friday traditio: A.J. Ayer

Earlier this week I was speaking with my friend and fellow philosopher Sondra Charbadze (if you don't know how to say that last name don't worry, neither do I) about the relationship between philosophy and science. The conversation started off because as I have come to think about my own philosophical commitments, I am a mix between logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, and pragmatism. I had made the comment to her that science should be our metaphysics because as Quine points out in Two Dogmas of Empiricism science is able to show us how the world and universe works and because it is tentative it is able to be changed when new data arrives. She responded that science does not accurately portray our experience of the world. I am not sure what that means, but at any rate it struck me as an interesting insight.

As mentioned before, logical positivism is a school of thought has had profound impact on me as a philosopher, in particular the views that were expressed by A.J. Ayer in his book Language, Truth & Logic, which is one of my favorite books of philosophy. In particular, the doctrines of verificationism and emotovism as Ayer enunciated them in the book are ones that I accept and find very important to doing philosophy carefully and clearly. One must reverence the natural sciences and evolve their philosophy alongside it if the philosophy is to be meaningful because philosophy is the handmaiden of science.

In this interview Ayer sits down with Bryan Magee and discusses the central doctrines of logical positivism, and where the defects in the theory were. He also at the end defends what he still thought was useful and true of the movement as a whole.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of "God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens"

The important questions of whether or not God exists, whether or not morality is connected to the divine, and whether or not God (if he/she/it exists) is a personal being are very old questions. The Platonic Socrates in the dialogue Euthyphro poses the question of morality and the gods to the titular character, Epicurus declared that while gods existed they did not interfere with the affairs of humankind, and Aristotle gave several arguments in Metaphysics for what he called an "unmoved mover" and "first cause", which he identified with the gods.

However, in our modern age the so called "New Atheists" (a misleading appellation, there is nothing new about them) appear to have definitively answered these age old questions and assert that science is the pathway to answering this and all meaningful questions because science is the only thing that counts as evidence. This position, known as scientism, is of course itself not supported by science or experience, but the New Atheists seem to have missed the memo.

In his short book God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, theologian John F. Haught takes on the primary New Atheist writers and shows that they are neither new nor atheistic in a philosophical sense. His first critique of them is that they do not take on the arguments for God's existence or the proper definition of faith; rather they attack caricatures and straw-men and never seem to show that they have ever read a book of theology or philosophy of religion. The New Atheists would argue that the average religious person has probably not read Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, Karl Barth, Blake Ostler, or Paul Tillich, and they likely would be right (which should make the average religious person feel intellectually lazy and have the desire to repent). However, the principle of charity demands that when trying to falsify a claim you attack the argument at its strongest rather than at its weakest point. But then, it is likely the New Atheists have not taken a course in logic either.

Two of the best points that Haught makes in his book are about whether or not belief in God is a scientific hypothesis and also whether we can be good without God. On the first question, he reminds readers that science is useful (but limited) in finding out about the material universe that we reside in, but God is a transcendent being (in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense) so we cannot use the scientific method to verify or falsify the proposition that God exists. Also, Haught talks abut the fact that meaning is not monistic as Richard Dawkins wants to imply, meaning that not all meaning is reducible to scientific inquiry. Rather, meaning can be pluralistic as Haught shows here:
This assumption [scientific naturalism] overlooks the fact that multiple layers of understanding or explanation can exist. Almost everything in our experience, after all, admits of a plurality of levels of explanation in which various accounts do not compete with one another. For example, one explanation of the page you are reading is that a printing press has stamped ink onto white paper. Another is that the author intends to put certain idea across. Still another explanation is that a publisher asked the author to write a critical response to the new atheism. Notice that these three layers all explain the page you are reading, but they are not competing with or contradicting one another. It makes no sense to argue, for example, that the page you are reading can be explained by the printing press rather than by the author's intention to write something. Nor does it make sense to say that this page exists because of the publishers request rather than because the author wants to record some ideas. The distinct levels are noncompetitive and mutually compatible. (God and the New Atheism, pg. 85)
Close quote. To simplify Haught's eloquence, religion and science are not in competition with each other because they are different ways of looking at things. Take for example the existence of humans. A scientific way of looking at this question is that humans exist because they evolved from simpler forms of life through natural selection and random mutation. A religious way of looking at the same question is that God created humans for the purpose of coming to know him and become like him. Both answers are explaining the same phenomena, and both are compatible.

Also, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens seem to think that people believe in God because he is the ultimate explanation of why anything at all exists. While it is true that this is an argument for God's existence, this is not why people worship God. A God who is merely a mechanic is not worthy of worship; notice Aristotle says nothing about worshiping God in Metaphysics.

The last point I want to make is about God and morality. For some reason, both New Atheists and some theists believe that the scriptures primary purpose is to teach us morality (something neither the Torah, New Testament, Book of Mormon, or Quran say), and since there are instances of murder, adultery, genocide, rape, and other moral atrocities, the scriptures cannot be the foundation of morality. In response to this, Haught makes the following points. First, it is a misuse of the text to try to learn something book that the book is not trying to teach. The scriptures are primarily about God's dealings with ancient people, not teaching ethics. Also, while the scriptures are not the foundation of morality, the New Atheists have not provided an adequate explanation of moral realism, which they all seem to espouse. Dawkins appeals to biology, but that is to rush from facts to values, something David Hume cautioned against. Harris, appeals to moral intuition, but he forgets A.J. Ayer's objection to moral intuitionism by stating that different cultures have different intuitions, so morality cannot be objective. In short, the New Atheist's have torn down the foundations of traditional morality (or so they think), but they have not given an adequate replacement.

Whether one is a theist, atheist, or agnostic, one should read carefully Haught's book.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday Traditio: Stephen H. Webb

As many of my readers know, I have maintained and still maintain that Mormons are not Christians; rather they are a separate religion who uses a shared vocabulary. I plan to talk about this in a book with my friend Robert Boylan, who is perhaps Mormonism's best unheard of theologian and writer.

However, I do maintain that Mormons have much to learn from Christians, particularly the Ante-Nicene Fathers and and also Christian philosophers and theologians such as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and others. Also, Christians have much that they can learn from us.

A person who shared this view was the late Stephen H. Webb, a Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian who wrote books such as Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints, Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation, and Jesus Christ, Eternal God:Heavenly Flesh and the Metaphysics of Matter. He also authored the influential article Mormonism Obsessed with Christ. Per friends of Webb, I also know that he was taking the missionary discussions and it was probable that he might have converted before his untimely death.

In this weeks traditio, I invite my readers to listen to Webb as he discusses some central themes of Mormon Christianity at BYU. 


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review of "Every Man's Battle"

Having read Every Young Man's Battle as a teenager and again as a young adult, I had seen the book Every Man's Battle mentioned and had planned to read it after I married since I knew that it was addressed to married men. Since I thought the likelihood that I would get married was quite low (at age 25 I had never had a girlfriend), I thought I would never get the book. Luckily, I found the love of my life and married her on February 11, 2017. However, as mentioned in Every Young Man's Battle, just because you get married does not mean that the bad habits you developed before your nuptials will suddenly vanish (I add my own testimony that this is true). In order to be the husband that God has called you to be, you will have to make some real and perhaps drastic changes.

The main praise I have of this book is its talk about how we as men get visual satisfaction from our eyes, which at first glance doesn't seem that interesting since we know that many men enjoy pornography, which is based on visual stimulation. However, I did not think that this eye stimulation also came from just looking at women you pass by in your day-to-day life. I noticed that I often looked at women who walked by lustfully, which is easy to do considering that I am a college student and am on a college campus five days a week. However, this does not give me the right to scope out other women lustfully; the only woman I am permitted by scripture to think about in a sexual manner is my wife. So, how do we as married men avoid this problem?

The authors point out a method that I have found useful as I have tried it over the last few days: Bouncing your eyes. The method is simply that when you encounter attractive women or pictures of them, you look at something else immediately since you have no right to look at women in lustful manner. This not to say you cannot talk to attractive women other than your wife, but you need to maintain eye contact and not allow your eyes to wander. I have found it useful also when thoughts enter my mind to twist my wedding band, which changes the focus of my thoughts and reminds me of the person that I have committed myself to.

Like I said in my review for the former book, the authors tend to go overboard at times. At one point, Fred (one of the authors) mentions that you cannot even be attracted to other women if you are married (yes, he really said that). This is nonsense and dangerous. In life you will meet other women who are attractive, just as your wife will meet other attractive men. It is simply a brute fact that attraction is something that occurs which you have little if any causal control over. While you can control your lusts, you cannot control your attractions. I mention this because the authors can get a little out there at times, and this can cloud their important message.

I recommend this book to every married man, with the caution that he is a Christian of some sort. It will help put you on the road to being the man your wife envisioned when she married you.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Friday Traditio: William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ronald Reagan

If you are a political junkie as I am, you have probably noticed that it is nearly impossible to find commentators and interviewers (particularly in the main stream) who know what they are talking about, yet alone those who ask substantive questions of those they interview. It is often infuriating to me to watch hosts such as Bill O'Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity and others not only not behave in a way unbecoming of journalists, but also not showing proper respect for their guests. Constantly there is interruptions, insults, and bickering and hardly ever any noteworthy conversation. 

I thought in today's traditio we could go back in time a little to when things were different. William F. Buckley was a conservative after my own heart, founder of the National Review, possessor of a magnificent voice and outstanding vocabulary, as well as perhaps the best interviewer I have ever seen. His show Firing Line was a masterpiece for many years, and Buckley was always a gracious host who never interrupted his guest (whether he agreed with them or not) and allowed them time to fully articulate their respective views. 

In this interview,  Buckley interviews Ronald Reagan, who at the time was the former governor of California and a candidate for the Republican nomination for the United States presidency. I hope you all enjoy listening to these two great men.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Answering Letter to a CES Director # 5

Often in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we take art to be our doctrine, meaning that we often think that what we see in the paintings in the hallways of our chapels and temples are exactly how the events portrayed took place. However, we would do well to remember that art can be deceptive, which is one reason why Plato in Republic wanted to banish all artisans from his ideal city. Art is an interpretation of someone's idea or ideal, but it may not match with what historical data has to say about a particular event.

Jesus in Gethsemane

Take the above picture of Jesus for example. If you were to convert this into a historical model of what actually happened, then you would assume that Jesus was white, knelt at a tree, and wore white robes the night of his passion. If you compare that with the Gospel of Mark (the first of the Gospels written and perhaps the most historically reliable) you will find no mention of Jesus' color of skin, that Jesus did not kneel (rather he fell on the ground), and there is no mention of the coloring of his garments (Mark 14: 32-36). In short, we should get our historical ideas about what happens from historical texts rather than from pictures. Historical records are about how events took place, art is about beauty according to philosopher Roger Scruton.

All this leads to the next point made by Jeremy Runnells in Letter to a CES Director. Runnells states:
Unlike the story I've been taught in Sunday School, Priesthood, General Conferences, Seminary, EFY, Ensigns, Church history tour, Missionary Training Center, and BYU...Joseph Smith used a rock in a hat for translating the Book of Mormon.   
 In other words, he used the same "Ouija Board" that he used in his days treasure hunting where he would put in a rock – or a peep stone – in his hat and put his face in the hat to tell his customers the location of buried treasure.  He used the exact same method while the gold plates were covered or put in another room or buried in the woods during translating the Book of Mormon.  These facts are not only confirmed in Rough Stone Rolling (p. 71-72), by FairMormon here and here, by Neal A. Maxwell Institute (FARMS), but also in an obscure 1992 talk given by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  Update: The Church’s December 2013 essay admits this.
 Why is the Church not being honest and transparent to its members about how Joseph Smith really translated the Book of Mormon?  How am I supposed to be okay with this deception? (Letter to a CES Director pg. 20-21) (Runnells also shows several pictures the Church portrays of how the Prophet translated the Book of Mormon)
First, Runnells is committing the logical fallacy of a hasty generalization, assuming that his experience in the Church is equivalent to all members' experience. What is more likely is that Runnells, like many but not all young adult members, was not interested in these historical matters until his adulthood, and then re-interpreted his experience as having been deceived. I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2009 (about 4 years before the CES Letter was written), and I knew prior to baptism that the Prophet Joseph Smith had used his seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon.

Further, the Journal of Discourses, as well as the testimony of David Whitmer and others, show that the early Saints were also aware of the Prophets use of the stone. This is not new information, it is readily available. It may be true that Runnells' instructors and family did not tell him about these matters, but it is false to state that the Church is hiding it when you can learn about these matters in books that are available at the Church's bookstore, Deseret Book. So, Runnells statement that the Church and its leaders are deceiving people is patently false.

 As far as Runnells' calling seer stones "Ouija Boards", he is guilty of the logical fallacy of equivocation, which is using two different terms and assuming that they have the same meaning. Ouija Boards are not translation devices, rather they are boards with numbers and letters printed on them that can supposedly receive messages from the devil or deceased spirits. No one has ever reported that they used such a  device to translate a book.

Picture of an Ouija Board
Seer stones, which the Prophet used to translate the Book of Mormon, are mentioned in Biblical times in connection with the breastplate that the High Priest wore, and it was used from time to time to receive messages from God; a good example would be when David asked the High Priest to use it to know what to do (1 Samuel 30:7-8). So, the idea of receiving inspiration through material objects is ancient rather than modern.

Perhaps part of the problem is not so much with the process itself, but the word "translate". When we hear that word in our every day vernacular, we think of a person trained in two or more languages taking a text in one language and transmitting it into another. This was not so with the Prophet. According to Emma, he could hardly dictate a coherent letter, so to think he could translate a dead language is simply preposterous. He needed assistance, great assistance in fact, to accomplish the task the Lord had given him. So, taking a process that was familiar to him, the Lord allowed him to use a stone that he had used for other purposes in order to translate the record.

Further reading: Book of Mormon Translation, Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard L. Anderson, Joseph Smith's Seer Stones by Michael Hubbard MacKay & Nicholas J. Frederick

Friday, April 7, 2017

Friday Traditio- Steven Pinker

According to a recent Gallup poll, more than 40 percent of Americans believe in a form of creationism, the belief that God created life in its present form a short time ago (ranging from 6,000 to 10,000 years) without using evolutionary means. It should be stated that this form of creationism is different from the form advocated by the Intelligent Design movement, who accept most of the standard science on this issue but see the mechanism of natural selection acting upon random mutation as inadequate to explain all of the complexity of life. If these people were included in with the creationists, the number could be well over 50 percent of the population.

While you may think that these sorts of things are insignificant, think again. These attitudes go far beyond just evolution; what these people are ultimately saying is that scientists don't know what they are talking about, and this skepticism surfaces in other scientific areas, such as anthropocentric climate change. While scientists believe the debate is over on this issue, many Americans remain skeptical, enough so that they elected a man to be president who has called climate change a "Chinese hoax." Let that settle in.

This weeks traditio deals with Charles Darwin's ideas in light of modern science. Steven Pinker, who is interviewed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, is a cognitive scientist and evolutionary psychologist. Pinker is one of my personal heroes, a very clear thinker and polymath, as well fascinating to watch. Enjoy.