Monday, September 14, 2009

Science and Reason are the Default and Final Arbiters of Truth

This is a fairly provocative title, I realize, but the more I think about these matters, this is a conclusion I keep coming to, regardless of what topic I explore.

It has become well-established in the modern world that if someone wants to understand how a given phenomenon works, he or she will implement the scientific method: develop an hypothesis, design an experimental protocol and collect data to test that hypothesis, and on that basis accept or reject that hypothesis. The idea of simply praying about it in order to find the truth does not enter into most people’s minds. Prayer is rather seen as a means of getting ‘spiritual’ truths, which are supposed to be ‘beyond’ the reach of Science.

Stephen J. Gould articulated the concept of ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (NOMA), which gives Science and Religion their respective provinces of inquiry, but along with many others, I reject that as a false and in fact not useful approach. Many or most religions make claims that impinge on the physical world that are eminently testable using the tools of Science. This is one of the primary themes of Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis, which I enthusiastically recommend.

What I wish to demonstrate here is that despite the declaration of most religious institutions, that Revelation ‘trumps’ Science, the facts of the matter reveal quite the opposite, even when applied to the teachings they claim to have been received by revelation directly from God.

The scriptures of most religions are excellent examples of information claimed to have come directly from God, are therefore seen as true, reliable and authoritative, and which should form the foundation for one’s life. If we look at a few examples, and simply take them as written, we would believe that:

• The world was created in 7 days
• The first woman, Eve, was created using a rib taken from the first man, Adam
• Slavery is an acceptable form of human conduct
• The Sun stood still for almost a day during one of Joshua’s battles
• One is justified committing Genocide or murder if commanded by ‘God’
• There was a flood which covered the entire earth, with all surviving life, human and otherwise, coming from those on Noah’s ark

If we include scriptures unique to the Mormon Church, we would believe that:

• All of the North and South American Indians (and possibly Polynesian peoples as well) are descended from Book of Mormon peoples, and are therefore of Middle Eastern origin
• Certain papyri acquired by Joseph Smith contained Egyptian hieroglyphics, written in the hand of Abraham, describing events from Abraham's life, and which Joseph translated giving us the scriptural Book of Abraham

Even in today’s world, you can find people who do accept all of these things as being completely true and factual, but I would guess that for the most part, the majority of even the most religiously inclined people see these things as being more allegorical, mythical, or else not completely true in a literal sense. (I provide details on the Book of Mormon claim below, and will address the Book of Abraham in a future blog post.)

My question is - What is the basis for the decision to consider certain scriptural passages as simple literal truth, and others to be figurative and non-literal?

The answer is that the discoveries of science, along with the progression of human civilization guided by reason, serve as the final arbiters of Truth, and not Inspiration, Revelation, or other individual, subjective experiences. The truthfulness of these passages of scripture is rejected either on the basis of indisputable physical evidence, or because social progress has moved well past those examples of ignorance, superstition, barbarity and primitive conduct.

Thus, even scripture is understood not on the basis of what it actually says, but on the basis of the knowledge and progress achieved through non-religious channels.

So, if we can’t implicitly rely on any of the sacred texts themselves for truth, then how are we to determine what is or isn’t true?

Those of a religious mindset, and this definitely includes the leadership of the Mormon Church, claim that the truth can be known through inspiration or revelation. This goes by various names, including the witness of the Spirit, a Testimony, etc. The following examples demonstrate that this approach is also invalid.

One classic case concerns the Catholic Church’s teachings about the Earth being the center of the Universe. They read it in the Bible, they felt the Spirit confirming its truth, and on this basis, they proclaimed it as God’s Truth and persecuted anybody who claimed otherwise. Galileo, through the use of the scientific method, discovered for himself that this was false, and that the Earth rotated around the Sun.

It took several hundred years, but the real truth finally prevailed, and the Catholic Church acknowledged that Galileo was correct. And the key point here is that it was not a ‘Revelation’ to the Pope that drove this change - it was the recognition that Science was unquestionably correct.

Returning to one of the examples used above, for 170+ years, the General Leadership of the Church, sustained by its members as Prophets, Seers and Revelators, have borne their testimonies that the North and South American Indians were descendants of Book of Mormon peoples, calling them all Lamanites (after one of the main groups of people in that book).

Archaeological research over the years, and more recently, DNA studies, have proven this to be false, beyond any reasonable doubt. In this context, the Church quietly changed the wording of the Introduction to the Book of Mormon, from saying that the Lamanites were the “principle” ancestors of modern day Indian people, to their being “among” their ancestors. No announcement was made to the Church, no acknowledgment of a fairly major shift in teaching.

Again, the crucial point here is that this change wasn’t driven by a “Revelation” to the Prophet - it was simply a response to what had unquestionably been proven to be true by Science. This is a clear example that despite their claims that Revelation is superior to Science, when push comes to shove, they have had to acknowledge that in fact, Science trumps Revelation.

Now Church apologists might jump in here and state either that previous Church leaders didn’t “exactly” say they were all Lamanites, or find occasional statements from some Leaders that might be more consistent with current scientific thinking, or even that those Prophets were ‘speaking as men’ in those particular matters.

But, whatever value those claims do or don’t have, they do not change the crucial underlying fact that the apologists themselves are still relying on Science and Reason to interpret and make sense of previous Church teachings. If Science and Reason are to be the final arbiters of truth in the end anyway, and be the basis for deciding which previous Church teachings are true or not, then what is the need for those ‘Revelations’ to begin with?

And yet, despite all of this, they still teach the members to listen to and obey their Leaders’ teachings, as if it came directly from God’s own mouth (see D&C 1:38), never acknowledging that so much of the previous teachings of Church Leaders was either incorrect, or has been substantially changed.

Approaching this from a slightly different angle, I am unable to identify a single instance where actual, empirical ‘truth’ or knowledge has been produced by religious or spiritual experience. Yes, there have been religious individuals who have produced great discoveries, or even religious institutions in the past that have fostered inquiry, but I am not aware of any real knowledge produced by spiritual experience in and of itself. And even more than this, whatever truth claims are made by virtue of those experiences still depend on Science and Reason to validate them. So, it is therefore Science and Reason, not revelation or inspiration, that actually do the ‘heavy lifting’ in identifying truth.

I am also intrigued by investigators such as V.S. Ramachandran, Richard Davidson, Andrew Newberg, Norman Doidge and many others, who are on the forefront of utilizing the tools of science, especially fMRI, to begin to unravel the mysteries associated with consciousness and what is going on inside the brain while people are in the midst of what they call spiritual experiences.

As I have suggested elsewhere, I am inclined to think that the patient and persistent use of the Scientific Method will allow humanity to unravel the mysteries behind questions that have previously only been in the realm of religion and philosophy.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Faith, Belief, Facts & Hope

I monitor and occasionally participate in a number of LDS-related online forums, and frequently the topic comes up of what people believe once they have concluded that the unique foundation and teachings of the Mormon Church are not true. Some retain basic Christian beliefs, some become overt Atheists, others refer to themselves as Agnostic, with many others taking a wide variety of approaches as well. This is the general subject matter I wish to explore in this blog entry.

I guess it would be appropriate to provide a working definition for these terms. I understand “Belief” as being an idea somebody affirms as being true, without being completely grounded in evidence, and which needs to be differentiated from a “Fact” which is completely based on evidence, and can be demonstrated to be true to anybody willing to look. I can ‘believe’ that there is life on other worlds in the universe, but I can factually demonstrate that life is present on earth.

Faith is quite similar to Belief, and some see no distinction whatsoever. From a practical standpoint, I find it useful to see Faith as a more emphatic form of Belief, which often acts as the ‘core’ of somebody’s worldview - how they understand themselves, and their place in the world.

Hope is fairly straightforward - something an individual wants to be true, irrespective of any evidence for or against that claim. I think many people confuse their hopes and beliefs, which leads to all kinds of problems and difficulties.

A very crucial factor here is the strictness with which any individual holds their Faith or Beliefs. Some have a completely dogmatic rigidity, typical of “Fundamentalist” type religions, where their underlying Faith and Beliefs, are beyond question or doubt. Others are more tentative in their approach, and are willing to re-examine their Faith and Beliefs in light of additional information or Facts. You can find this same spectrum of approaches in any belief system, religious, atheistic, or otherwise.

With that somewhat lengthy introduction, let me address how I now approach these matters:

The only thing at all that I can honestly say I have “Faith” in is the ability of Science (which by my definition includes logic, rational thought and the use of the Scientific Method) to distinguish truth from falsity. I’ll be working on a blog entry on this specific topic, but as far as I can see, Science is the default and final arbiter of truth.

Now I am not dogmatic in this Faith - if somebody can demonstrate another legitimate way of identifying truth, then I’d love to include this in my thinking. But at this point in time, this is the central core of my understanding of myself and the world.

Regarding the frequent elements of religious belief systems:

Do I believe in “God”?
Obviously, the answer is heavily influenced by one’s definition of “God” but I’ll use that term to refer to the traditional Jewish-Islamic-Christian personal God. That is, a being who is not just the Creator of everything, but is also intimately involved in His creation, in an ongoing basis, actively intervening, answering prayers, etc., as He sees fit. He is usually spoken of as being Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnibenvolent.

I do not believe in such a God, as I find no credible evidence for His existence. I also find unresolveable paradoxes as I compare these attributes with the world as I experience it. There are many books on these topics, but I find these two to be among the best:

God: The Failed Hypothesis - Victor Stenger
God’s Problem - Bart Ehrman

Again, I am not dogmatic in this belief (or lack of belief). If evidence comes forward that contradicts this ‘working hypothesis’ I’ll gladly reconsider. But at this point, I agree with LaPlace, who when he was asked by Napoleon why he didn’t mention God in his landmark description of the universe said:
“Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Do I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?
I am unaware of any credible evidence that would support that hypothesis. I have no more basis for believing in his divinity, than in the godhood of Zeus, Buddha, Krishna, etc.

As an aside here, I am curious about those in the Post- or Ex- Mormon communities who maintain their belief in Christ. For many of them, they have realized that getting a good feeling when reading the Book of Mormon has no bearing on whether that book is a legitimate ancient document. But it seems to me, they are basing their belief in Christ on similar feelings when they read the Bible. It seems inconsistent to me, and something I would be interested in exploring with them.

Do I believe in Life After Death?
I do not, again because I find no credible evidence for its existence. I am intrigued by, and have read much, about “Near-death Experiences” but along with many others, find that there is nothing in these experiences that justifies the conclusion that one’s consciousness survives the death of one’s brain.

There has been an interesting study on this subject, in a Coronary Catheterization Laboratory, where a computer laptop is placed high in the lab where patients have the potential of having ‘out of body’ experiences. If they truly left their bodies, and looked down from the ceiling, then the display of this laptop would be clearly visible, and they would be able to report Facts about it that nobody else in the room would know. So far, the results have been negative. But if there should be a positive report, that would be tremendously exciting, and would open up wonderful new areas of research.

All that said, I hope that there is life after death. I can see that as being wonderful. But in the absence of any credible evidence for that belief, I will live my life on the assumption that this is all there is. If I turn out to be mistaken, then that’s great.

But there are moral principles I do believe in, for which supportive evidence can be found:

• I believe in loving and being kind to my fellow-beings, both human and non-human.
• I believe in doing no harm, and avoiding violence whenever possible.
• I believe in the importance of families, and raising children to be loving, curious, and tolerant.
• I believe in hard work, and sacrifice for the sake of others.
• I believe that one of humanity’s highest goals is the relentless search for truth.

Certainly, this is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it demonstrates that one can live a worthwhile life, and be an asset to one’s community, while not holding the conventional beliefs of that community.

Finally, I hope that there is some ultimate meaning and purpose to our existence, even a ‘transcendant’ dimension we have not as yet discovered. If there is, I suspect it will have little in common with the teachings of current or past religious institutions (just as our current understanding of the universe is quite different from ancient guesses). And if it’s real, it will ultimately be discovered and verified through the patient, open-minded and persistent use of Science in the pursuit of truth.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Blind Obedience and Infallibility in the Mormon Church

The Church denies teaching blind obedience to its members, and also denies that its Prophets are infallible.  Consider the following quotes:
Concerning the question of blind obedience. Not a man in this Church, since the Prophet Joseph Smith down to the present day, has ever asked any man to do as he was told blindly. - Joseph F. Smith, Sept. 3, 1892 (as quoted on the FAIR LDS website)
But I told them that a prophet was only a prophet when acting as such. - Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, edited by B.H. Roberts
This sounds all well and good, but then consider these quotes:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. - Wilford Woodruff, Official Declaration 1, Verse 14
When the prophet speaks the debate is over. -  N. Eldon Tanner, First Presidency Message, Ensign August, 1979
How is a member supposed to respond to counsel received from Church leaders?  Quoting further on from that same statement by Joseph F. Smith:
If we give you counsel, we do not ask you to obey that counsel without you know that it is right to do so. But how shall we know that it is right? By getting the Spirit of God in our hearts, by which our minds may be opened and enlightened, that we may know the doctrine for ourselves, and be able to divide truth from error, light from darkness and good from evil. - Joseph F. Smith, Sept. 3, 1892 (as quoted on the FAIR LDS website) 
Yes, the members are taught to study and pray in order to receive their own witness concerning any counsel that is given to them by the leaders of the Church, but let's consider how this actually works.  Let's say someone attends an official Church conference, and is given some particular teaching, or asked to sustain an action or practice.  He or she then proceeds to study and pray about it, in order to receive their own witness or confirmation.  Fine so far.  But what happens if that person comes to a different conclusion?  What if they become convinced that the teaching or practice in question is not true?

If they then share this with Church leaders, inevitably the validity of that person's spiritual experience is denied. Either they are getting their answer from the wrong source, are being deceived, haven't prayed sincerely or long enough, have some sin in their life that is clouding their judgment, etc. If the only acceptable answer is the one already identified by the Church leadership, how is this any different from blind obedience?

As a simple example: years back, prior to 1978, when I examined the Church's teachings and practices regarding Blacks and the Priesthood, I came to the conclusion that this was a mistaken policy, and was not of God.  If I were to voice this conclusion, I would be identified as an apostate, as speaking against the Lord's Anointed, and would be subject to Church disciplinary action.  If I persisted in maintaining my position, I would likely be excommunicated.

And yet, I would eventually have been proven correct.  Ironically, if someone today would take the position that the Church's original teachings and practices on this matter were in fact correct, they would similarly be subject to Church discipline.  In this way, the Church effectively does teach blind obedience, regardless of any statements to the contrary it might make.  Members are expected to obey their leaders, regardless of their personal thoughts or feelings.  For all practical purposes, this is blind obedience.

An extension of this is even more worrisome, and very reminiscent of the defense used by German soldiers at Nuremberg ('we were only following orders'):
My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray. - Pres. Heber J. Grant to Marion G. Romney, as quoted by Pres. Ezra Taft Benson, October, 1960 General Conference
This problem is often humorously summarized as follows:

The Catholic Church teaches Papal Infallibility, but the Catholics don't believe it, while the Mormon Church denies the Infallibility of their Prophets, but nobody in the Chuch believes it.

The primary message of the Church here is to obey your leaders, even if you think they're wrong. I find this both frightening and unacceptable.