Saturday, December 28, 2002

My wife has left me to go to California and I am left a lone man in Salt Lake City -- not quite the Garden of Eden -- and thus have the urge to blog in my lonliness.

I would be interested in hearing the Literary Critic's theory of the Book of Mormon's discussion of race as being self-deconstructive. It has always struck me that the Book of Mormon seems to set up certain racial expectations -- white Nephites good; dark Lamanites bad -- that it then systematically frustrates and undermines. The Nephites are wicked. The Lamanites are more righteous. The ebb and flow of righteousness do not seem to follow from race at all. The whole notion of race becomes fluid with dark people becoming white and vice versa. Admittedly, the fluidity can be read to reinforce some link between race and righteousness, but it is strange in that it makes race, which is generally thought to be morally irrelevant because of its immutability, into a mutable characteristic. In short, while the Book of Mormon has been used in the past to justify various forms of racism, it seems that such justifications rest on a fairly shallow reading. Interestingly, if the research of Noel Reynolds is to be trusted serious study of the Book of Mormon prior to the late 1970s and 1980s was virtually non-existent. Thus, the study of the Book of Mormon is correlated not with the rise of racist Mormon theologies but with their decline.

Anyway, I would be interested in a racial, deconstructivist, Book of Mormon manifesto from the Literary Critic.

Monday, December 23, 2002

I reread the Literary Critic's post of December 6 , which I quite enjoyed. As requested, I read it with the question of necessity in mind. I offer the following thoughts in no particular order:

1. I am not entirely persuaded by your dismissal of Aquinas's response to relativism. Your claim is that the argument is sophistic one-upsmanship that has no real “cash value” because it doesn't prove enough to prevent a pluralistic and relativistic metaphysics, etc. etc. There is some force to this argument in that it seems initially correct to say that accepting the reality of truth doesn't seem to place a lot of constraints on the form that truth takes. However, I think there is a bit more substance to the notion of truth inherent in the “sophistic” argument against relativism. It seems to reject the idea that the assertion of a contradiction is true. Coherence is require, contradictions must be reconciled, etc. This it seems could create constraining on a thorough going relativism.

2. What is the “cash value” of talking about cosmic cultural criticism? First, there is the claim that a perfunctory acknowledgment of “truth” is not such a big deal because we still get to be relativists in practice. This is immediately followed by the claim that cosmic manners are so powerful that even God is bound by them. In effect, the Literary Critic seems to be saying that we have a truth, but it is really pretty relativist in practice; and, we have a relativism, but it is really pretty absolutist in practice. I appreciate the play of ideas and paradox, but I fear that at the end of the day I have a plodding lawyer's brain. How do we reconcile the contradiction?

3. The Literary Critic seems to solve the problem of relation by reference to some idea of rhetoric. I tis is the force of their rhetoric that binds eternal intelligences together. I am curious as to whether there is some particular theory of rhetoric behind this. Aristotle and other classical theorists of rhetoric thought that it was made powerful by truth. Mormons tend to talk about the Spirit accompanying powerful speech, which seems like a metaphysical appeal, ire. there is some actual being – spirit fluid anyone? - that makes rhetoric powerful. Joseph spoke about how the truth “tastes good.” This is an intriguing metaphor, but reducing rhetoric to taste and desire seems problematic. Some are persuaded to live righteous and holy lives. Some are persuaded to build gulags and concentration camps. It is just a matter of taste. You get the picture. Another suggestive image is found in the Book of Mormon, which talks about being enticed to follow good and enticed to follow evil. I actually like the way this imagery combines the desire underlying Joseph's statement and Aristotle's connection of truth and rhetoric. However, other than the intriguing language, I am not sure what to make of it.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Men and brethren,

I've been reading The End of Science by John Horgan in which he interviews the top minds in all fields of science, even Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend, and asks them what they think the limits of science are. His thesis is that science has made its most important discoveries and that the rest will be filling in the details (interestingly he uses Harold Bloom's idea of anxiety of influence applied to scientists). The exponential growth of science will grind to a halt, and though there will still be important inventions and technologies of applied science and engineering, pure truth-seeking is nearly over. His clearest example is modern physics: only at the subatomic level and cosmological level is new physics being done. Particle physics requires billion dollar budgets to smash atoms in accelerators, and cosmological theories cannot be empirically tested. Any attempt at a unified field theory would be equally untestable, and therefore not scientific (such as superstrings), they become a very complicated mathematical mythology. In other words physics has solved the immediately accessible problems, and cannot progress further due to 1) social limitations, namely lack of infinite funding, 2) methodoligical limitations, namely the inability to empirically test theories at the universe or subatomic level, and 3) theoretical limitations, namely the inability of anyone to conceive or understand extremely complicated mathematical models and theories with ten dimensional superstrings. Perhaps our brains simply did not evolve to handle that kind of understanding. In fact it is remarkable that they can create math and that mathematical models can correspond to reality at all.

So with physics, also with chemistry, evolutionary biology and so forth. I remember hearing faculty at BYU talking about the future of chemistry now that its problems are all solved. It boils down to becoming a service science making tools for material science and biology. Part of what is interesting in the book is the amazing philosophical naivete of many of these brilliant scientists, who cannot understand that their pet theories of everything are not science and not empirically testable and therefore mere 'wishful thinking.' There are also a few radical new approaches that I think I'll look into more. There may be some room for subjectivity in quantum mechanics, and there are biologists such as Lynn Margulis who have put forth animistic and holistic philosophies of biology. But as usual there are the Francis Cricks working on a reductionist understanding of conciousness or Dawkins with his militant mechanistic Darwinism.

I wonder about the truth behind the vitalism controversy. Chemists will say that vitalism (which they will define as the old misguided belief that some kind of life force animates living beings) was disproved in 1828 with the chemical synthesis of urea. The idea being that living beings do not have a distinct mysterious chemistry but are made up of compounds than can be synthesized from non-organic sources. While this may disprove earlier theories about the chemistry of living systems, how does it really relate to vitalism? Biologists will tell you that molecular biology disproves vitalism since we can understand the molecules involved in controlling the heredity and life cycle of cells. These processes can be explained at a fundamental physical and chemical level, therefore no voodoo 'life force' is required. This 'disproof' is also unsatisfactory--scientists cannot synthesize a living cell from the components, so how do they know if a soul is required or not? Sure, the chemistry and biology is necessary; sure it can be understood mechanically, but that does not show that it is sufficient! I like the metaphor of Sheldrake of the TV--a man with no knowledge of electomagnetic radiation or electronics takes apart a TV bit by bit to find out how it works. If he takes out the picture tube or certain transistors he will find that it stops working. If he is clever and has lots of time he may have a good idea how the electronics make a TV, but will never know that it is the invisible TV signal that drives the whole thing. If scientists must assume (key word here is assume) that there are no souls or supernatural forces, how can they conclude from there studies that there are no supernatural forces? It's infuriating.

No science book is complete without reference to the problem of evil and also to the terrible track record of religion in causing military conflict. I think the latter likely came from the early moderns who upheld rationality and science since they were tired of marching up and down the continent killing everyone in the thirty years war. But think of the millions killed in the 20th century without any religious cause! In fact science helped make the killing more efficient. It seems to me the problem is totalitarianism and intolerance and certainty in absolute truth (such as displayed by scientists) that leads to violence and destruction--this certainty can either be religious or 'modern.' This is what I see Holmes took from his experience in the civil war and what prompted the generation after the war to emphasize pragmatism. Now for the problem of evil: it has never really caused me great angst. Maybe I am an insensitive person and am not sufficiently affected by the evil and suffering around me. I've seen it stated this way: 1) God is omniscient and omnipotent. 2) God is Good. 3) Evil exists: these three statements necessarily imply a contradiction. I'm not sure that they do, unless you take proposition 1 to mean that God created a completely determined universe ex nihilo, which I find frightening. Does it slight God's omnipotence to allow us to be free agents and choose for ourselves? And what if we choose evil? I guess most scientists really are deterministic at heart and so make the above reading of 1. Thoughts? Is my thinking a result of my shallow personality and does the problem of evil keep you up at night?

One of the physicists Freeman Dyson, talks about a theologian named Charles Hartshorne who believed the Socinian heresy that God grows and learns as humans do; He is not a mode of being but of becoming. There would never be an end to his evolution and learning. God is omniscient in the sense that he knows all that there is to know now (and let me interject that he relates to everything immediately) but that there will be more to learn and relate to later. This is fascinating. I think it may relate to process theology. Please tell me what you know about these ideas, they're new to me; does it limit God's omniscience and omnipotence too much? Is this concept of God too weak? Will Elder McConkie track me down and X me in the spirit world?

Lastly, if individuals, intelligences or what have you are the ontological basis of everything (I dare not say universe, maybe pluriverse?) then what is the value of the systems or models that we set up as theology or science? This question has been raised in the blog as of late and elsewhere also. First I think the key is to keep a sense of the distance between the models and reality. Equation of the two leads to intolerance, violence and death as above. My interpretation of scripture is not Absolute Truth, nor was Joseph Smith's. The ten commandments are not absolutely true; Nephi's killing Laban is placed right at the beginning of the book to demand obedience to God not to law (very frightening, eh Lawyer boy?). Physical law is not Absolute Truth, even if it agrees to the 8th decimal place; scientists who think otherwise should be forced to read Hume and ponder the limits of induction. We do not have direct access to Absolute Truth; this does not mean that we need to fall into a relativistic, nihilistic funk however. I think we can still say that Joseph's readings are better than mine, and that the correlation between HIV and AIDS is sufficient to stop it through drugs and education, not through seeking intercourse with virgins. Theological models are constrained by our relation to the divine, and by texts and prophets within our tradition. Empirical science is constrained by our experiences with physical reality. Having models is crucial to the human experience, without them we would simply be overwhelmed. They are out there, and need to be identified and ordered according to their merits. [it seems pragmatism is all I have to offer]. Our received models may have some problems, which we should try and identify and correct. Ours will not be the final absolute truth and model of reality, but it should be insightful and useful for mormons now. For me that is part of the importance of the metaphysical elders.

Peace out,
A BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE: FARMS has just published a collection of essays in honor of Truman Madsen entitled Revelation, Reason, and Faith in which Richard Bushman has an essay entitled "The Theology of Councils." It might be something worth looking at in light of the Literary Critic's post on friendship.
Another maxim for the day:

"To read without writing is to sleep."
--Saint Jerome

I am certain that he was talking about blogging...