Thursday, April 17, 2003

Cartoon from Punch, 5 June 1880. Brown (a mild agnostic, in reply to Smith, a rabid Evolutionist, who has been asserting the doctrines of his school with unnecessary violence): "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian."

I've recently read a chapter in John H. Brooke's _Science and Religion_ on evolutionary theory and religious belief. Brooke is a historian of science at Oxford and in this book picks apart the idea that religion and science have always and are inevitably in conflict. He argues that historically it is too simple to say they are either essentially in conflict or in harmony. A turning point from the supernatural dualism of the early moderns to the hard-core materialism we currently enjoy is the Darwinian theory of natural selection effecting organic evolution. Darwin's theories were very quickly accepted by the scientific establishment in England and put to all kinds of uses for various social agendas, including what we usually think of as social darwinism a la Andrew Carnegie--a conservative justification of 'survival of the fittest,' but also by various more liberal or even socialist groups. In France Darwin received a very cold welcome and was not accepted by scientists there until ~1900 (for political reasons) but in Germany was immediately welcomed by scholars and the public alike. There it was publicized by Haeckel, who 'cherished a vision in which Christian churches would not be so much empty as taken over by like-minded monists who would refurbish them with symbols of nature and science… In due course Haeckel would be elected anti-pope by the apostles of free thought.'

I sent you all the article in Nature not long ago in which the architecture of the British natural history museum was compared with French Gothic cathedrals. It is amazing the extent to which these late 19th century positivists were establishing an alternate religious tradition. 'The vocabulary of its exponents does indeed suggest that scientific naturalism could take on the mantle of a religion in which human values were corroborated, if not positively derivable, from the facts of biology.' How is that for a normative fallacy! T. H. Huxley campaigned for greater social prestige for the scientific professional and the exclusion of the clerical amateur (who were a large percentage of the community of scientists at the time, supported by church funds) in what he called the 'church scientific.' Francis Galton wrote that pursuit of science is 'uncongenial to the priestly character' and he wanted to exclude clerics from education. 'As a member of the scientific priesthood, Galton had his alternative religion, which he called practical darwinism.'

It is also fascinating to watch how powerful forces on both sides quickly made it impossible to hold middle ground. Several examples of theistic evolution were forthcoming by liberal theologians, but the rhetoric of the Catholic church and people like Huxley eventually made this position untenable as it was attacked politically from both sides. Across the Atlantic, William James is shattered by Darwin's new theory. He records that he awakens day after day with a feeling of horrible dread. ' It seemed as if the foundations of morality had collapsed and the freedom of the will fallen victim to scientific determinism.' By 1870 he decided that "My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will."

Before I talk about James and Peirce I'd like to interject some thoughts on faith and experiment that I've been mulling over for some time without resolution. I have long been unhappy with the definition of faith found in Heb. 11:1 'faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' It is too often read as 'faith is a belief for which there is no evidence.' In my religious life I have seen plenty of evidence for spiritual things. I prefer the Ether 12:6 version, where I receive a witness after the trial of my faith. Or John 7:17 'If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.' I suppose Alma 32 is relevant also, though if you follow Alma's terminology once you have received a witness then you are acting on knowledge and no longer by faith. Perhaps faith then is an attitude of trust and willingness to 'experiment on the word.' There are more types of faith than just religious of course, and I maintain that the faith in another person is very much the same as faith in God, and the type of faith I require to run scientific experiments or not doubt the results I've previously obtained is similar to the faith required for 'religious experimentation' and maintaining a testmony. For me--and the Book of Mormon prophets--remembering is essential to a testimony, since I so soon forget my spiritual experiences, and conversely forget that I am indeed not 'mighty.' And I think faith is required to trust even your own memory.

Now as missionaries we tend to present the gospel as proposition X, which you can know if you test it out by doing A, B, and C. This looks a lot like experimental science, and raises the question is faith merely the willingness to experiment? Is mormonism falsifiable? What sort of result would lead you to say, "nope, this must just be wrong?" I would say that there just isn't one. If for example you tell an investigator to read and pray about the Book of Mormon and he doesn't have any spiritual experience, you would not toss the whole thing out (and he may not either) but would try and suggest what he might be doing wrong. So I don't think mormonism is falsifiable, and suggest that in an society dominated by scientism we present it as 'experimental' since that is the underlying epistemological framework we work in.

That being said, I think falsifiability is a useful criterion for critiquing science--the best theories present bold new insights that can be tested empirically. But it is not a criterion for truth, indeed the proposition : "All truths are valid only if falsifiable" cannot satisfy its own demands and Sir Karl Popper thereby goes "POOF." The relationship of theory and evidence in science is very tricky business and it is very hard to falsify paradigms (in the broad-based theory sense of the word, or the word-view sense of the word) as Kuhn has showed. Perhaps science cannot meet these criteria either, so we shouldn't let mormonism's failure there bother us too much.

Faith as a willingness to experiment is made problematic also by the requirement for well-controlled experiments. As pointed out by my friend Jeff (a chemist and materialist who nevertheless wants to believe in freedom and ethical action), I may be willing to experiment on the Word of Wisdom by abstaining from hot tea, I am not willing to do the negative control and drink tea to compare the effects. So, says he, I cannot claim an experimental basis of faith. I agree that this aspect is different from science, perhaps because in ethics and behavior there are some controls that cannot be done. When studying physical processes they are acceptable, but not in ethics (like killing Elizabeta with an axe in Crime and Punishment). Perhaps we can say that faith is trust and a willingness to act on that trust, though the actions differ in some ways from scientific empirical experimentation. Eventually it becomes a question of epistemology--how truths are learned and known, but that is a subject for another day.

Let us return to the pragmatists. I was struck reading Brooke today as he quotes C. S. Peirce fundamental tenet of pragmatism 'Beliefs were not to be understood as mental entities but as habits of action.' And again, "James argued that the supreme good lay in adjustment to that 'force greater than ourselves' which was assumed in the religious confessions. In _Varieties of Religious Experience_ (1902) he insisted that the essence of religion did not consist in theological reasoning but in the promise of richer and more satisfying lives consequent upon the assurance that this unseen force was aligned on one's side when fighting moral battles. A belief that was luminous, reasonable, and morally supportive could be 'verified' if it did have consequences for one's life. Belief in God, if accompanied by action on the basis of that belief, went a long way toward making the belief "true." To explain how religious beliefs may have arisen was emphatically not to explain them away. They had consequences by which they could be corroborated, as did scientific hypotheses in their contexts" (Brook p 318). Indeed James argued that in a Darwinian universe it was the religious who were best fitted for survival: "Every sort of energy and endurance, of courage and capacity for handling life's evils, is set free in those who have religious faith. For this reason the strenuous type of character will on the battlefield of human history always outwear the easy-going type, and religion will drive irreligion to the wall." (Brooke p 320).
The mormon religion celebrates bodies. While it is true that our mortal bodies are subject to suffering, pain, and death, they are also a constant source of joy. Without them how could we experience the wonders of the corporeal world: the sounds of Bach choral music, the wonderous color red (sorry Lawyer) of my living room wall, the pleasure of basking in the sun on a beach in Rio, the awe of holding your firstborn son in your arms. [perhaps it is significant that it is the Historian who is unimpressed by bodies, not having experienced firsthand the miracle of birth]. We believe that God pronounced his creation 'very good' and that one of the main purposes in coming here was to gain a fleshly body and with it experience matter. Do not forget the story of the spirits and the swine in the new testament. Whether it is pain or pleasure, it is the experience which we can still celebrate. This experience is required for us to eventually gain a perfected body--which is also flesh and bone, to be related to in exactly the same form as our current one. But simply because it is prior to the eternal one does not make our current body 'subordinate' as the Historian calls it. One does not buy a Ferrari for a first car when turning 16, nor should one complain that the Pinto had a few dings in it. The experience is exhilarating.

The Historian asserts that there is nothing uniquely 'me' about the body I currently possess. After all, the individual atoms will be replaced over time. Our essence is not our current physicality. I would respond that yes our essence is not the current physicality only--for we are a fusion of the spiritual and the physical, the unity of them. You are both, not just one or the other. Our bodies take in both matter and energy; they are complicated systems of homeostasis. It is the physical and biological system not the individual atoms that I consider me. Though the atoms come and go, the overall system is remarkably good at cohering. And when it ceases homeostasis we call that death. My body is uniquely me because it is the biological system with which my spirit has become integrated. I can distinguish it from rocks, trees, and the Lawyer. No one else has my body, though after my death the atoms may be recycled for another purpose.

The talk of essences baffles me. It assumes an ontology of stasis, that I am essentially today what I was in the pre-existence. I find this absurd. While I am not a strict genetic determinist, it seems clear to me that the genes in my body have some effect on my mind's operation, my personality, even my spirituality. Down's syndrome would absolutely affect a spiritual life. Am I to suppose that a Down's child was essentially that way in the pre-existence? If I had schizophrenia or chronic depression I could take pharmaceuticals that cure those rather 'spiritual' diseases. My point is that our bodies and spirits are so intimately connected, so welded together, that they cannot be distinguished. I can assert that my spirit existed before this body was created, and it had free will and self-awareness. But now I am a wholly new being, with both a spiritual and physical character. I can in no way be reduced to the proto-me that was simply a material spirit. My environment, genetics, and experience, in short my mortal life, has created a Scientist that does not reduce to the pre-existent Scientist in any meaningful way. Although the spirit continues after death, it would be subject to the devil if not resurrected--because it is missing part of what has becomes "me". Element is eternal, and spirit and matter separated cannot receive a fulness of joy. That fulness, that unity is what I celebrate! You can keep your platonic dualism and your hairshirt--no thanks.

Is God essentially spiritual or corporeal? The incarnation reveals a Jesus that was fully human and fully divine. It was so important for Him to have a body and get the kind of experiential knowledge only available through mortality, that He descended below all things though He was the greatest of all. It was through that divine nature and mortal body that Christ was able to work the atonement. Those who despise the mortal body would do well to remember the central facts of Christianity regarding the incarnation. It flies in the face of the platonic emphasis on the eternal 'soul' to the discrediting of the body. And let me remind you of the mormon emphasis on the body as a tool for salvation through ordinances (esp. for the dead). We also have the Lawyer's theology of sex. Together these show that our bodies are necessary, even essential for our relation to God and others. In short, though John uses the word 'logos' and writes in Greek we should beware reading Plato into our concept of the soul and body lest we abandon some wonderful aspects of mormonism.


Wednesday, April 16, 2003

"AND I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I AM LOOKING FOR...": The Scientist's post is interesting, but it does make me think of U2. The Clerk poses the question of why bodies are cool and argues that they can't be easily justified with postmodern triumphalism about locatedness. The Scientist offers us another potential cause for celebration: a solution to the pesky mind-body problem. Cartesian dualism, he points out, leaves us with skepticism in the face of the divide between world and mind, unless we take seriously Rene's recourse to the ontological argument and let God's mind and ours solve the problem. However, I take it that our Scientist doesn't find this palatable because he doesn't take either ex nhilio creation or the ontological argument all that seriously. To all of this I respond, "Yes, but what about the pituitary gland!?!" I am unclear why the Scientist doesn't like Kant. I know he is German and writes impenaterable prose, but I kind of think that the synthetic a priori is pretty cool (another technical term). I fully appreciate the Scientists's criticisms of godless, mechanistic materialism. I am on board. What I really don't get, however, is how hermeticism and animism are supposed to solve the epistemological quandry.

It seems that the Scientist is saying, "If I say that spirits are material and all matter is animate, then it turns out that everything is thinking and the mind-body problem goes poof!" The problem is that I don't see how saying that the rocks are alive solves the problem. For all I know, the reason that the rocks seldom -- if ever -- talk to me is that they are sitting around in a Cartesian funk, meditating on the problem of how they know that human beings really exist and wrestling with solutions to solipcism ("How do I know I am not the only rock in the universe?"). Likewise, saying that our spirits are material doesn't seem to solve the problem either. Spirit is hardly the same thing as consciousness, and it seems that the idea of a material spirit simply complicates things: now I have the problem of the mind in the ghost in the machine. It may be that animism and panpsychism gets us around some nasty problems of determinism and that in turn may help us out of the epistemic funk. However, we still have the problem of the mind-body problem. Now there may be good solutions to this, but it seems that the discussion flows through Kant and involes reading lots of even more obscure German (and perhaps even French!) philosophers like Husserl, Hiedeggar, and the like. I confess to exhaustion in the face of sorting out problems of intentionality, phenomenology, Dasien, and the rest. That is why I started studying Anglo-American legal and political theory and went to law school to study consideration, estoppell, and assumpsit. It seems that to really solve the epistemic problem you have to explode the idea of consciousness. I don't really know how one does that, since despite struggling through some Hiedeggar, I can't help but thinking that I am in fact conscious. Regardless, I don't see how saying that rocks think and that my soul is stuff gives me a coherent way of disposing of the idea of consciousness. Of course, this is in no way meant per se as a criticism of seer stones, animism, spirit fluid, or the Adam-God theory.

I still suspect that the coolness of bodies has something to do with sex. I am not talking here simply about the brute fact of intercourse, although I do think that is an important part of it. I think that there is something peculiar about our current, fleshy relatedness that is really cool. Thus, I don't see it as accidental that our salvation in this fleshy estate is tied up with sealings and eternal marriage. This builds on the Scientist's point about ordinances, but it would require that we work things out a bit better than Potter did in his Dialogue essay. (Random Note: Why do I find the association of Dennis Potter with J.K. Rowling so amusing? -- I need more sleep!) I think that we are here to get bodies and I don't mean just our own bodies. This also carries the implication that in order to fully work out why bodies are cool we will need some kind of theology of gender. I don't have any of this done yet -- I do have Fed Courts to study for -- but it seems that the answer will lie as much in working out the philosophical and theological importance of sexuality as in solving particular epistemic problems.

Final point: I think that the Clerk is really cool and interesting. I hope that he continues to post!
HISTORICAL PROGRESS: I am glad to see that at least the Historian is coming around to seeing the Platonism as being insidious. This is progress. We may be able to save him from the flesh pots of Athens (or perhaps Alexandria?) yet! It seems that there are two strands to his screed that can be seperated out. One is that our physical bodies are not so cool because they are transitory, decay, and are not made of the same matter. The second critique goes to the idea of matter itself being cool. I see this in laments about how bodies are "located" and the presumed extra coolness that would come from being unlocated. Note, however, that if we had resurrected bodies they would still be located and material, even if they didn't decay, etc. Unless, of course, our Historian is actually a closet heretic and when he speaks of "the good body to come" he is really talking about our future existence as pure form. Ick!

As the Clerk very perceptively points out, postmodernism sees the niftiness (a technical philosophical term) of bodies being their particularity and locatedness, and this is something that Mormon theology gives us without having earthly bodies. However, this particular kind of niftiness it seems is tied to materialism (of some sort). I appreicated the Historian's skepticism that buzz words and labels -- "postmodern", "hermetic", etc. -- operate as arguments, but it seems to me that their is something to the idea of particularity. To the extent that we think about salvation socially as consisting of "good company" -- to use Joseph's phrase -- we need some way of breaking out of stasis and unviversality. Otherwise "all things must be compounded in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life, neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught" (2 Ne. 2:11-12).

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

So what is so great about the body anyway? Ah yes, it is 'postmodern,' it is 'hermetic'. But it isn't exaclty these things either... In fact, our body isn't really 'ours' at all. This body is the dust of the earth. There is nothing uniquely "me" about the material that consititutes my body at present. In fact, 7 years for now that material will be entirely replaced. The essence of me is not my present physicality, is it? This is the corruptible body, which I take all of our sacred texts to subordinate in importance. The resurrection provides us with a new body that doesn't suck. Part of being mortal is having a terrible body. Our bodies are weak, sickly, fallible, located, old-getting, etc. The body that we get in the resurrection doesn't seem to follow any of the rules that our present bodies follow. They can appear anywhere, move through walls, not be subject to corruption, etc. Exactly what is the same between the body that we have now and the body that we have then? It seems that the only thing that is the same about them is that our spirit (material or material-esque) happens to occupy both of them.

And thus we see, Platonism is insidiously intertwined with Mormonism. The entire notion of the unembodied spirit, the pre-existent form, and the eternal soul are are critical to the LDS plan of salvation and the Platonic myth of the soul. Why celebrate the materially constituted body? Why celebrate the matter of this world? I reserve my praises for the good body to come...
Happy birthday to the Lawyer and to the name-to-be-determined Baby Litcrit!

Monday, April 14, 2003

Musings on materialism:

The Clerk has raised one of my favorite questions: Why is it that we currently possess a flesh and blood body? It seems that our theology values bodies of the fleshly material sort, ascribing one to God and Christ (or rather two--one to each!), and insisting that those who followed Lucifer will be forever damned in their progression. Bodies are a principle of power. I am intrigued by the assertion of Jacob in 2 Nephi 9:8-9 that if there were no resurrection of the flesh our spirits would be subject to the devil and become like him.

Bodies are an instrument of redemption and salvation. We harbor a strange belief that ordinances must be done by fleshly bodies, even if the person has laid their mortal body down and passed on--this is essential to temple work. We spoke recently about the metaphysical necessity of ordinances (see Dennis Potter, Dialogue article), not just for a psychological effect or a symbol or even a covenant, but something necessary about the matter of our bodies immersed in water. I want to say that bodies are a key concept therefore for our understanding of priesthood (meaning the order of heaven, and power of God).

So what do we know about bodies and matter? D&C 131:7-8 'There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes. We cannot see it, but when our bodies are purified, we shall see that it is all matter." Also from The Words of Joseph Smith, "Anything created cannot be eternal, and earth, water etc - all these had their existence in an elementary state from Eternity." D&C 93:33-34 : "For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; and when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy."

Here are a few clues: spirit is material, though finer than the corporeal reality we know, and is eternal as are the elements. The talk of separation seems to mirror that of the first and second deaths: separation from the body and from God. I agree with Blake Ostler in The Attributes of God that divinity is relating immediately (without mediation) to others. Separation from the body robs us of the relation to the corporeal matter and its associated intelligence(s) which is damning in the same sense as is separation from God.

The notion of 'intelligence' is key to the discussion as well, but very difficult to pin down in the latter revelations of the Prophet. Sometimes he seems to mean simply a communication of knowledge to the mind (as in 'pure intelligence' flowing into the mind by the Spirit) but other times as in D&C 93:29 intelligence seems to mean the uncreated essence of man. It seems that there are two viable options here: man has some uncreated essence which is then given a spirit body and identity (and gender?) by God, or the intelligence is already embodied in some form and indeed intelligence / mind is a property of matter. I and Orson Pratt prefer the latter, though I do not intend to pursue it to pan-theism. BH Roberts makes the case for an eternal personality, with individual will, self-consciousness etc even before spirit birth. A good discussion of the options and their histories can be found in Ostler's "Idea of pre-existence in the development of mormon thought" in Dialogue Spring 1982 p59. The issue seems difficult to resolve based on Joseph's words, and I think a thorough study of animism in the hermetic tradition (and alchemy) may shed some light on what the possibilities are. Mormon materialism seems very foreign to modern society, it does not fit philosophical materialism (see Max Nolan Dialogue Winter 1989 p62) or post-enlightenment ideas of the natural world in science.

So I propose that we have bodies in order to relate to the corporeal world and its intelligences. There is a gradation of intelligences, and a gradation of matter--we as God's children need to make them one with us in a first step to making everything and everyone divinely present and immediate. In D&C 121 we read that the priesthood through love can make our 'dominion … without compulsory means … flow unto thee forever.' Perhaps this consensus of the spectrum of matter is necessary for further progression in organizing worlds etc. I admit that this can be read as imperialistic and even dualist but I do not believe that it must be so. I do not see how our bodies necessarily are superior to spirit bodies in helping us relate to others of God's children, though I am open to the idea. But relating to the physical world is key. We mormons love the physical world--we say the earth will be 'resurrected' and receive paradisiacal glory (and be a Urim and Thummim!! After all the earth has a soul. And Joseph received all sorts of spiritual communications from a seer stone, like the Book of Mormon for example. Love your local rock, it may be trying to tell you something!).

Apart from hermeticism, I think another valuable path of investigation is recent philosophers of science/theology such as David Griffin who want to 're-enchant' science and really see natural law as the habits of the intelligences of the universe. They set out from pragmatism and process philosophy to rebuild the philosophy of science. More on this later. But I will say that after staying up nights wondering how I can know the physical universe and have certainty in natural law, I only see a few options: 1) God (who is mind) created the natural world and as I have a mind patterned after His, I can know the natural world with certainty. It works for midevalists, but if you don't believe in ex nihilo creation, it starts to loose its savor. 2) Kant: namely that what I call natural law (based on space, time, and causality) is not a property of ultimate reality itself but of my mind; I impose order on phenomena. This seems the only way to save epistemology for the atheist scientist. 3) Strict materialism and the denial of mind (as only emergent brain states) denies everything I find important (I LOVE THE QUALIA!) so for the moment I will reject it out of hand, or 4) the animistic path I outlined above: matter and spirit are always linked, always combining, and their habits of organization determine natural law. While there are therefore no absolute natural laws, we do have some access to them. This is very much a work in progress and I am indebted much already to the Elders and their comments and inspirations. As I look back I have failed to address the Clerk's comments and questions, which I will have to do another time. I only promised musings, not answers.

Materially yours,