Wednesday, December 31, 2003

GENEALOGY VS. HISTORY - I've noticed that people discussing scriptures often confuse what one might choose to call the genealogy of the text with the history of the text. By genealogy I mean those events that led to the text being produced. I've noticed a distinctive trend among both Mormons and "foes" alike that assumes that the text ought to be taken on its own terms. In one sense I obviously must agree with this. Its meaning is found within the text. Yet in an other important sense, it seems to ignore the role of context in interpreting any text. If we view the "point" of the production of the text as the place where history and genealogy meet, it seems odd to place one above the other.

Lest I be taken as advocating something too abstract and philosophical, let me provide a practical application of this principle. Consider the narrative of Noah as related in the scriptures. Some see this as problematic due to the evidence against a universal flood of the sort most imagine described within the text. Yet in making this judgment, they implicitly assume that the text must be taken as it is. They can't allow for say the position of William Hamblin who has argued for a more local flood. In this case there was a real figure who was Noah who was commanded to build a barge much like the Jaredite barge. Perhaps a hurricane, massive flood or other event devastated the region (North Carolina according to some accounts of Joseph Smith). Now in this case the genealogy of the text is somewhat different from what the history of the text gives us. Its history is the later editing and redactions leading to Genesis, more than a thousand years after the time of Moses. (An other way to look at this is to say that our Genesis has its genealogy in these earlier lost texts) The narratives are told and retold again, slowly transforming themselves into the text we have now.

Why do I bring this up? I think that the repression of the very question of genealogy entails a kind of hidden inerrancy that I find problematic. It implies a static view of scripture that seems quite at odd with what Joseph Smith or other prophets have taught. Further it requires that the meaning of the text is purely found within the descriptions given within that text. It ignores the fact that what is in the text includes the feature of being about something outside the text. By castrating from the text the very question of its genealogy people remove the very question reality from the text. Put simply they remove a text's ability to reference things. This nominalizing tendency is alive and well among both foe and friend alike of the scriptures. To judge the text purely by the text is to fall in the trap of assuming an inerrancy and a determinate history to the text that denies its very nature. A nature in which an author wrote about things.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Ostler's view arises out of process philosophy, starting with Whitehead but more particularly developed by Hartshorne who was himself highly influenced by Peirce. The differences between these two thinkers are illuminating and often raise interesting issues. The overall framework of process theology I am more leery of, if only because of the implicit equating of God with the ouisa of the Trinitarian theology. It seems quite difficult to reconcile with Mormon theology. Since process theology (along with the philosophical tendencies of both Peirce and Whitehead) adopts a basically neoPlatonic outlook, the problem of the difference between the One as the source and perhaps "sum" of all reality and an individual God is rather important.

Peirce, perhaps anticipating in certain ways Buber and even Levinas, speaks of an "It" and then "thou - I" relationship. The "thou" is an "it" where "I" am also found. This is important for Ostler's view, as well as the writings of various recent Mormon theologians. (Although rarely put to print unfortunately) Peirce, however, must be seen in the context of a general neoPlatonism. Perhaps a neoPlatonism quite different from those of Emerson and especially Schilling in Germany (which culminated in both Hegel and Nietzsche as two opposed reactions).

How does this relate to DNA? Well, I bring up Peirce since DNA can best be seen as a kind of semiotic reality constituting life itself. (Once again Peirce was ahead of science) Yet mutations and other errors in DNA are also a manifestation of Peirce's fundamental doctrine of fallibilism. Many have noted a certain similarity between DNA and the logoi of late Hellenism. They provide a telos, but not a telos with a clear path. The logic of the semiotic "word" in biology is "teleonomy." Just as a perfect "form" is, in its temporal manifestation in the word, never a pure manifestation, so to do we find this with our system of DNA codes. The "individual" is this holistic manifesting of multiple logoi within the material world.

This conception, of course, begs the question of whether DNA is the only logoi at work. It we view the manifestation of DNA, especially in the development of the brain, as a complex interplay of the signs of DNA with the signs brought into the system from its environment, we can see that even in a purely sectarian view things are quite complex. (Consider, for example, the logoi of lead molecules on the developing semiotic network that characterizes a young child) If we recognize these environmental logoi that dramatically affect the manifestation of our sign carriers (the DNA of cells), then perhaps haven't we provided room for other logoi, perhaps of a more spiritual kind?

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Biology and God:

In his 1790 Critique of Judgment, Kant defined what he considered to be the essential properties of an organism (and was one of the first to use this idea with this new term): "an organized natural product is one in which every part is reciprocally both end and means... in such a natural product as this, every part is thought as owing its presence to the agency of all the remaining parts, and also as existing for the sake of the others and the whole... the part must be an organ producing the other parts--each consequently reciprocally producing the others." Such a system Kant calls 'self-organized.'

As I discussed in my previous long-winded post about the concept of "genes," the reason we cannot ascribe to genes ultimate causality is that they are part of the dynamic process of self-organization in living things. They owe their existence to the cytoplasmic elements that make and repair them and then decide which genes should be expressed where. They are necessary but only part of the whole. Now the idea of the gene as causal has been very successful in research programs, for designing experiments, and getting funding (and biotech!). But the idea may have outlived its usefulness in biology.

But wait, you say, I know that if I insert this gene into corn it will be resistant to pesticides that I can then use to kill other weeds and insects. The only difference is the inserted gene so I know it must be responsible for the observed effect. Yes, this is true, but it is an efficient causation at a very low level, and if we are too shortsighted in believing we understand all the causes then we can be in big trouble. Scientists always think they know more than they do and so science ends up often causing more problems than it solves. I think that Kant's emphasis on the whole, on the interconnectedness of the system, can serve as a critique of such short sighted science.

And as I alluded to before, I think that there are some interesting analogies and parallels that can be drawn to Mormonism. Kant's quote above strikes me as similar to the process view of the Godhead espoused by Blake Ostler in his book on the attributes of God. For Ostler, divinity is an emergent property of a group of individuals in a "godhood" relationship, that is, where all involved relate to one another (and the universe) immediately (without mediation), and are of one will, mind, and heart. God the Father is an individual who is part of such a Godhood with Christ and the Holy Ghost, and ultimately our goal is to be part of the same. Such an emergent divinity has similarities in my view to a super or macro-organism where each individual is both end and means, each adding to the other and dependent on the other.

This may be a useful link and analogy, or it may not, but what I think would be interesting is to find resources in Mormonism to address questions in biology and philosophy of biology, and even bioethics. My friend Devyn Smith recently published an article in Dialogue about "mormonism and the new biology" which asked many questions about how our religion would deal with the implications of new research in biology, primarily ethical questions, but unfortunately gave little in the way of direction as to how these questions might be addressed.